Can you measure GDP if ownership is over?

SeongJoon Cho | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The steady advance of technology is making ownership of assets less attractive and economic growth ever harder to measure.

"Teenagers don't really want to own anything," Christian Lanng, chief executive of business-to-business software company Tradeshift, said at the Credit Suisse Asian Investment Conference last week.

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"American teenagers don't want cars. It's not on their top-10 list of things they want when they turn 18 for the first time in 30 years," he said, citing conversations with a car company. "Why own a car when I have an Uber app and I can get a car in three minutes? It's a very silly thing to own," he added, noting that most cars spend about 94 percent of their time parked.

How to measure?

But doing away with materialism and an ownership model isn't just tough for automakers -- there's no added value for the sale of a manufactured good to measure for gross domestic product (GDP) or worker productivity.


Lanng, whose company competes with software giant SAP, doesn't think that's really a problem.

"I don't think there hasn't been a productivity increase, I just think measuring productivity only in economic output is wrong," he said.

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"GDP doesn't take into account free stuff," he added. "If you look at the amount of valuable free stuff that helps us do things better that the world has now that it didn't five years ago, that's completely not measured by any GDP because we're looking at end-point sales."

A six and two threes?

To be sure, some are sticking with the traditional measures, seeing reason to believe the "new economy" isn't really all that different from the old one.

"Global productivity overall, not just productivity in PCs, which is going up, but global productivity overall is going down and has been going down for many years," said Michael Strobaek, global chief investment officer at Credit Suisse.

"Think of the innovations that we've seen since the 1960s, compared to the 19th century," he said, citing electricity, cars and airplanes. "The only really new thing that we're all overwhelmed with in terms of technology, of course, in the last 20 years has been computers and the internet. That is compared to what happened to 50 years before is not a very big thing."

Indeed, the productivity jump from the introduction of the landline telephone allowing instant fixed-point communication, compared with waiting several days to weeks for the post office to deliver mail, is likely much larger than the productivity increase from switching from fixed-line technology to reaching someone anywhere with a mobile phone -- especially given the number of calls that begin, "where are you?"

—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1