Myths of technological progress
I’ve been doing some writing for Taki’s magazine. Most of this writing will be irrelevant or annoying to people who are interested in Science, Technology and Finance. Taki is an old school conservative who is mostly interested in social and political issues. The article I wrote for him does have social and political implications, which is presumably why he was kind enough to publish it.
I think this particular article is also quite germane to this blog, as it’s about the disturbing slow down in the rate of technological progress we’ve experienced in my lifetime. I realize this is going to be controversial, and it may seem insane since you’re reading about it on my personal little network broadcast system, but it is an important subject worthy of your consideration. Technological progress isn’t what it used to be. Oh sure, the direction is remains generally positive (though not always), but the rate of new innovations and human power over nature seems to have slowed considerably. I don’t think I have any simple answers as to why this is so, but I want people to think and talk about it. As far as I know, there are no voices anywhere in the blogosphere or any other popular media which are saying this, excepting perhaps Charles Murray. Someone has to start the conversation, and that someone apparently has to be me. Sure, you could dismiss this idea as depressive rantings caused by economic apocalypse, but I actually have had this idea in mind since 2003 or so, when I was procrastinating writing up my Ph.D. thesis in the LBL library. I spent a week or so reading the yearly journal, “Advances in computers” -a wonderful experience that was probably more valuable than writing my thesis up. It was also humbling in that there have been very few recent advances in computers which aren’t simply advances in lithography.
If you’re a scientist or technologist, obviously this should be an interesting subject for you. If you’re a financial type: this should be even more interesting for you, as economic progress is ultimately fueled by technology and improvements in human power. I consider it the most important subject of our time. Why aren’t we doing better?
I’m impressed and humbled by the caliber of people who have read and commented on my blog, so I hope some of you take the time to read and think about this short piece, and maybe leave me some useful comments for or against my thesis. Because I directed the article at a popular audience, I skipped over a lot of technical details. Obviously computers have made possible innovations like Supply Chain and Operations Research type things, which are a form of progress, but not a revolutionary one: things aren’t really much different. Keeping less product on shelves isn’t really progress to my mind. Inventing, say, double entry book keeping: that made stuff incredibly different from how things worked before. Inventing trains and trucks to move product around: that’s real progress too. Blogs are … well, they’re a sort of democratization of technology: very positive, but not exactly progress. Some wise-acre I spoke to had the nerve to use Twitter or other social networking websites as an example of “progress.” If you are tempted to do so, I would assert that you don’t know what the word “progress” means. Anyhow, here is the article:
Edit add: a friend subsequently told me about this guy, who has some similar thoughts on the subject, though he is talking about the “singularity” specifically. Particularly useful is a
PDF timeline charting progress in his and his grandmother’s lifetimes.
Edit Add again:
This article (Thanks John!) examines some reasons why people can make very rapid progress, and why we aren’t so much right now. It also advocates for the use of rapid prototyping tools in research problems: something I’ve dedicated a good fraction of the last two years of my life to:
A friend recommended “Towards the Year 2018″ by the Foreign policy association. I reviewed it on Amazon, and reproduce my comments below:
Hilarious view of our decline in technological progress
I recently wrote a magazine article on how the last 50 years of progress haven’t been particularly spectacular. A friend who has actually been around for the last 50 years and involved in the development of new technologies in that period of time recommended I read this book for a view into how people were thinking in 1968. I guess it’s easy to laugh at predictions of the future, and there is a whole lot of hindsight bias in this sort of thing, but this book is too funny to pass up a good natured chuckle at the whole thing.
This book gets an astounding amount of stuff right: they knew that communications technology would improve a lot more than it had. They knew that cheap international flights would change immigration and nationality forever. They knew that people would become more “open about their feelings” -though they had no idea that this would be largely a bad thing. They knew that nations might attack each other without identifying themselves -though they didn’t quite grasp the concept of non-state actors doing the same thing. They knew the United States (which was probably at around self sufficiency at that point) would be out of oil by 2018. They knew microelectronics would improve tremendously. They knew nuclear proliferation would be an important international issue in the future. They also seemed to realize that Fusion and Solar power required huge technical breakthroughs to become practical sources of energy. Finally, they contradicted the widespread idea that overpopulation would cause mass starvation at some point. They were correct: this still hasn’t happened.
Here are some bold predictions which did not come true. One of the authors postulated amazing breakthroughs in physics that never occurred: energy storage mechanisms making possible “disintegrator guns,” anti-gravity technology, they thought robots might fight bloodless wars. I don’t know why this guy thought this kind of insanity might happen (and he did hedge by saying he saw no way these things might happen, but he seemed to think they would anyway). Presumably too much television. Others postulated hypersonic air travel. The picture phone was a fun one; while it was certainly possible by the date they estimated, I guess they underestimated human nature. The chapter on weather and climate control is hilarious. They did worry darkly that adding too much CO2 to the atmosphere might have some effect -but they seemed more interested in actually engineering climate and weather in those days. Now a days, such talk seems like total madness. They also worried about a lot of other climate issues which it seems all get rolled into “global warming” now a days -that sort of speculation gives one pause. Have we eliminated these things? Is carbon dioxide more important than dust bowls and ice ages? I don’t even know how to know this, but it bothers me that they asked such questions in 1968, and everything dealing with climate now a days is deeply politicized. I guess they were right about the idea of weather becoming political, if not the ultimate way it happened. Self repairing machines? Um, no; we don’t have this yet. Nor are we likely to any time soon. The population estimates were ultimately very high. As for widespread exploration and exploitation of under seas resources: this never happened either. We pretty much abandoned the deep oceans in the 1950s, with the abandonment of Bathyscaphe technology. Human beings haven’t been back to the ultimate deeps since then.
I guess it’s wrong of me to lump all the predictions together, as they were made by different sets of experts per chapter, but since they’re all in the same book, I leave it up to the reader to sort the sheep from the goats. This book is really a remarkable document of how huge the technological changes were in the period from 1918 to 1968; they merely assumed the rate of change would remain unchanged. Well, as it happened, progress slowed down rather a lot. “