Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Progress and Predictions

This popular article on Aeon points out something that we've argued repeatedly: that so-called "progress" is slowing down, not speeding up. That is, we're taking our fancier digital toys as a synedoche for all of technology, which is wrong:
The notion that our 21st-century world is one of accelerating advances is so dominant that it seems churlish to challenge it. Almost every week we read about ‘new hopes’ for cancer sufferers, developments in the lab that might lead to new cures, talk of a new era of space tourism and super-jets that can fly round the world in a few hours. Yet a moment’s thought tells us that this vision of unparalleled innovation can’t be right, that many of these breathless reports of progress are in fact mere hype, speculation – even fantasy.

Yet there once was an age when speculation matched reality. It spluttered to a halt more than 40 years ago. Most of what has happened since has been merely incremental improvements upon what came before. That true age of innovation – I’ll call it the Golden Quarter – ran from approximately 1945 to 1971. Just about everything that defines the modern world either came about, or had its seeds sown, during this time. The Pill. Electronics. Computers and the birth of the internet. Nuclear power. Television. Antibiotics. Space travel. Civil rights.

There is more. Feminism. Teenagers. The Green Revolution in agriculture. Decolonisation. Popular music. Mass aviation. The birth of the gay rights movement. Cheap, reliable and safe automobiles. High-speed trains. We put a man on the Moon, sent a probe to Mars, beat smallpox and discovered the double-spiral key of life. The Golden Quarter was a unique period of less than a single human generation, a time when innovation appeared to be running on a mix of dragster fuel and dilithium crystals.

Today, progress is defined almost entirely by consumer-driven, often banal improvements in information technology. The US economist Tyler Cowen, in his essay The Great Stagnation (2011), argues that, in the US at least, a technological plateau has been reached. Sure, our phones are great, but that’s not the same as being able to fly across the Atlantic in eight hours or eliminating smallpox. As the US technologist Peter Thiel once put it: ‘We wanted flying cars, we got 140 characters.’

But surely progress today is real? Well, take a look around. Look up and the airliners you see are basically updated versions of the ones flying in the 1960s...In 1971, a regular airliner took eight hours to fly from London to New York; it still does. And in 1971, there was one airliner that could do the trip in three hours. Now, Concorde is dead. Our cars are faster, safer and use less fuel than they did in 1971, but there has been no paradigm shift...We still drive steel cars powered by burning petroleum spirit or, worse, diesel. There has been no new materials revolution since the Golden Quarter’s advances in plastics, semi-conductors, new alloys and composite materials.

And yes, we are living longer, but this has disappointingly little to do with any recent breakthroughs. Since 1970, the US Federal Government has spent more than $100 billion in what President Richard Nixon dubbed the ‘War on Cancer’....Despite these billions of investment, this war has been a spectacular failure. In the US, the death rates for all kinds of cancer dropped by only 5 per cent in the period 1950-2005, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Even if you strip out confounding variables such as age (more people are living long enough to get cancer) and better diagnosis, the blunt fact is that, with most kinds of cancer, your chances in 2014 are not much better than they were in 1974. In many cases, your treatment will be pretty much the same.

Why has progress stopped? Why, for that matter, did it start when it did, in the dying embers of the Second World War?
Why has human progress ground to a halt? (Aeon)

The reasons: 1.)  Research spurred by the Cold War: "One explanation is that the Golden Age was the simple result of economic growth and technological spinoffs from the Second World War....Conflict spurs innovation.. But someone has to pay for everything. The economic boom came to an end in the 1970s with the collapse of the 1944 Bretton Woods trading agreements and the oil shocks. So did the great age of innovation."

The second, a natural technological plateau: 2.) "In The Great Stagnation, [Tyler] Cowen argues that progress ground to a halt because the ‘low-hanging fruit’ had been plucked off...But history suggests that this explanation is fanciful. During periods of technological and scientific expansion, it has often seemed that a plateau has been reached, only for a new discovery to shatter old paradigms completely..."

The third, extreme wealth inequality: 3.) "Capitalism was once the great engine of progress. It was capitalism in the 18th and 19th centuries that built roads and railways, steam engines and telegraphs (another golden era). Capital drove the industrial revolution. Now, wealth is concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite. A report by Credit Suisse this October found that the richest 1 per cent of humans own half the world’s assets. That has consequences..."
"Half a century ago, makers of telephones, TVs and cars prospered by building products that their buyers knew (or at least believed) would last for many years. No one sells a smartphone on that basis today; the new ideal is to render your own products obsolete as fast as possible. Thus the purpose of the iPhone 6 is not to be better than the iPhone 5, but to make aspirational people buy a new iPhone (and feel better for doing so). In a very unequal society, aspiration becomes a powerful force. This is new, and the paradoxical result is that true innovation, as opposed to its marketing proxy, is stymied. In the 1960s, venture capital was willing to take risks, particularly in the emerging electronic technologies. Now it is more conservative, funding start-ups that offer incremental improvements on what has gone before."
4.) A defunding and demonization of collective governance and movement toward the "private sector" as the source of all innovation:
During the Golden Quarter, we saw a boom in public spending on research and innovation. The taxpayers of Europe, the US and elsewhere replaced the great 19th‑century venture capitalists. And so we find that nearly all the advances of this period came either from tax-funded universities or from popular movements. The first electronic computers came not from the labs of IBM but from the universities of Manchester and Pennsylvania. (Even the 19th-century analytical engine of Charles Babbage was directly funded by the British government.) The early internet came out of the University of California, not Bell or Xerox. Later on, the world wide web arose not from Apple or Microsoft but from CERN, a wholly public institution. In short, the great advances in medicine, materials, aviation and spaceflight were nearly all pump-primed by public investment. But since the 1970s, an assumption has been made that the private sector is the best place to innovate.
But in the end, the author concludes that our attitude to risk has become excessively timid; that is, we've just "lost our nerve:"
The time for a new drug candidate to gain approval in the US rose from less than eight years in the 1960s to nearly 13 years by the 1990s. Many promising new treatments now take 20 years or more to reach the market....thanks to a well-funded fear-mongering campaign by anti-GM fundamentalists, the world has not seen the benefits of...a variety of rice in which the grain, rather than the leaves, contain a large concentration of Vitamin A....In the energy sector...a series of mega-profile ‘disasters’, including Three Mile Island (which killed no one) and Chernobyl (which killed only dozens). ...caused a global hiatus into research that could, by now, have given us safe, cheap and low-carbon energy...Apollo almost certainly couldn’t happen today. That’s not because people aren’t interested in going to the Moon any more, but because the risk – calculated at a couple-of-per-cent chance of astronauts dying – would be unacceptable....Forty years ago a burgeoning media allowed dissent to flower. Today’s very different social media seems, despite democratic appearances, to be enforcing a climate of timidity and encouraging groupthink....
So apparently our lack of tolerance for "risk" has slowed progress to a world where "Alzheimer’s was treatable, where clean nuclear power had ended the threat of climate change, where the brilliance of genetics was used to bring the benefits of cheap and healthy food to the bottom billion, and where cancer really was on the back foot."

Yeah, right.

The author mentions thalidomide, Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl in the text, so he's not trying to deliberately obfuscate where technology has gone wrong (no mention, however, of Bhopal or Deepwater Horizon or Exxon Vadez or Lynchburg, or...). But in the end he invokes the "you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs..." rule, and says we're just overly cautious - "nothing ventured nothing gained!" That is, a few maimed victims, dead bodies and uninhabitable zones are a small price to pay for the net benefits of discovery for all of humanity (think of the victims as heroes).

Of course, the venturing is done by corporate America, as is the gaining, while the rest of us are the unwilling test subjects and left to deal with whatever might go wrong.

And although he decries regulatory agencies and protesters, aren't those things a result of democracy? Shouldn't that be a good thing? "How dare the rest of us have a say in the technology deployed around the world that we must all interact with," seems to be the subtext.Gee, we actually want our drugs to be safe. What's wrong with us? We're suspicious of nuclear power because of toxic waste and a few meltdowns. Such ninnies! Where are your guts, people?

People like the author look to China, where if you're standing in the way of "progress" such as a rail line, a corporate tower or a new mall, your land is taken, period. No messy legal recourse or anything like that. That's what we need for progress. Stupid individual rights just get in the way of capitalists dragging us all into the future and are incomparable with their definition of "progress" (as Peter Thiel has often pointed out). I'm reminded of this meme:

He conveniently forgets to mention that nuclear power has never even remotely paid for itself or been economically viable at all. That has nothing to do with risk, or a lack of appetite for it, it has more to do with subsidies. Shelving the Concorde had nothing to do with "risk." The riskiest thing you can do - by far the riskiest - is to drive a car. More people die doing that than in any other way in the world including wars and terrorist attacks, but we continue do it anyway. The space program seems to be cut down by a lack of money, not a fear of risk. A pilot recently died in Virgin's "space tourism for the one percent" program, so I don't think collectively we're not risking anything. And 90 percent of corn we eat is GM corn, which we have had no say in at all, so we're all dealing with the risk from that. Protesters haven't managed to stop the takeover of agriculture by Monsanto, despite increasing evidence that glyphosate and other pesticides are implicated in everything from obesity to autism to colony collapse disorder. In effect, we're risking every time we eat.

Can you blame us for being a little gun-shy for even more corporate-approved "progress?"

So I think his final idea is not only arrogant and elitist, but balderdash. I think he had it right earlier - low-hanging fruit, extreme inequality, a broken economic system. Financialization means making money from money, not from innovation, and it's choking off everything else. I would also add Peak Oil and diminishing returns to technology to that list.

The wealthy would prefer to loot through campaign donations, privatization, and funding libertarian think-tanks than creating new products. It is they - not us- who are averse to risk. They prefer the zero-sum game of turning everything we need into a revenue stream to actually risking things in the market, which might actually fail. Maybe the author should watch Zeitgeist to see what is really holding back progress.

Or maybe there's just another social shift like the ones mentioned in the article. But this one is skeptical of the benefits of "progress" Maybe we're sick of our tissues being full of flame retardant. Or not being able to drink our water. Maybe we just don't trust corporate America and it's incessant drive to cut corners, skirt regulations, and put profit over all other concerns. This has been demonstrated time and time again. Maybe we're sick of being guinea pigs and lab rats and being stuck with the bill on top of it.

People have been predicting unlimited progress for a long time. See this fascinating article from the BBC about a series of predictions made in1930 by a British politician named F.E. Smith: Strange predictions for the future from 1930 (BBC)
The eradication of this and other epidemic diseases was "fairly certain" by 2030, as was "the discovery of cures for such scourges as cancer". Death from old age could also be delayed, Smith thought. Scientists would create injections containing an unspecified substance bringing "rejuvenations", which would be used to prolong the average lifespan to as much as 150 years.
Smith acknowledged this would present "grave problems" from an "immense increase in population". He also foresaw extreme inter-generational inequality, wondering "how will youths of 20 be able to compete in the professions or business against vigorous men still in their prime at 120, with a century of experience on which to draw"?

Funny, I just recently hear Joe Rogan ask almost the exact same question on his show recently. Note, please, that he is asking it in 2014 not 1930. Maybe he'll be asking it in 2030 too.
Mechanisation would mean a "gradual contraction" of hours worked, Smith believed. By 2030 it was likely the "average week of the factory hand will consist of 16 or perhaps 24 hours", which no worker could possibly "grudge". But, with factories largely automated, work would provide little scope for self-fulfilment, becoming "supremely easy and supremely dull", consisting largely of supervising machines. It didn't occur to Smith, in an age before widespread use of computers, that the machines might become self-monitoring....Smith believed that, despite the shortening of hours, everyone would earn enough by 2030 to afford to play football, cricket or tennis in their spare time. But one of the big winners in this more leisure-rich world would be fox-hunting...
Good job up until that last part. Isn't it funny how everyone naturally assumed technological progress would mean we work less, in contraversion to all of human history?
By 2030 they would be expected to own only two outfits, one for leisure and the other for more formal occasions.
Well, there is a minimalist wardrobe if you like: Use a 'Minimalist Wardrobe' to simplify your life (Treehugger)
John Logie-Baird had demonstrated television in the late 1920s and Smith was excited by the idea. He said that by 2030 full "stereoscopic television in full natural colours" would be available in people's homes, with proper loudspeaker-quality sound.
I think this one''s a win. The benefits of this development are somewhat more disputable, however.
Smith, who had grown up before cars were invented, predicted they would be largely obsolete for all but the shortest journeys by 2030, with aeroplane ownership common. The creation of engines weighing only one ounce (28g) per unit of horsepower would allow lightweight, vertical take-off craft, capable of speeds of up to 400mph.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen - flying cars. Where's my flying car! Wrong on this count.
Smith also foresaw sub-three-hour transatlantic passenger flights becoming commonplace. Concorde, the supersonic plane co-developed by France and the UK, managed this but it has since been scrapped, meaning most passenger trips between New York and London or Paris take more than seven hours.
See above. Smith's command of energy is even more tenuous:
Smith predicted the increased use of cheap, clean energy from utilising the Earth's water supply. He seemed to base his ideas on an interpretation of Einsteinian physics, which said there was an equivalence between mass and energy. He outlined an eccentric use by scientists who managed to turn atoms in water into a viable source...But Smith was more ambivalent about what we now call renewable sources of energy. Wind was useful and universal, but tidal power more unevenly distributed. There was another concern. "By utilising tidal energy to any large extent, we should diminish the speed of the earth's rotation," said Smith. If tidal energy was overused, a "48-hour day is a possibility in the far future", he added.
Ah, yes, the "water-based" energy economy. Nice try. File this with the car that runs on water (no hydrogen doesn't count) And so far, tidal energy hasn't slowed down the earth's rotation (snicker).
The tank had only been around since WW1 and Smith was full of excitement about possibilities for development. They could become "entirely unmanned" within a century, he said. "The commanders of tank forces will be carried in the air above their commands," he said, "and thus will be able to watch the course of operations and control their progress by wireless telephony." Or this could happen in a "distant control room", possibly underground. Birkenhead said this would make war "more humane".
Sounds a lot like drones, doesn't it? Remote-control push-button war does seem to be coming true. Win.
Given the improvements to transport, especially flight, the Sahara would become "a new playground for all Europe". A canal would be cut from the Mediterranean, ensuring "a new inland sea must surely be created. Its shores, now barren, would rival Florida for fertile charm"
The real technical innovation here was a lot simpler - air conditioning. Dubai, anyone? Partial win.
Television would make it feasible to revive the direct democracy of ancient Greek city-states, with the whole population, rather than elected representatives, able to vote on issues. Political leaders would make their case direct to the public. Communication speed would allow votes to be concluded within 20 minutes....Smith thought it unlikely the party system would survive in this climate and felt that by 2030 people would be more content with the idea of "rule of experts".
Direct voting is a dream of Internet boosters. As to direct-appeals to the public, well, that happens, but probably not in the way he intended :\
Smith, in common with many theorists of the 19th Century and early 20th Century, predicted a greater use of eugenics - the practice of attempting to "improve" the human race through control of reproduction. He claimed a clever young man would "consider his fiancee's hereditary complexion before proposing marriage". In return, "the young woman of that day will refuse him because he has inherited a gene from his father which will predispose their children to quarrelsomeness".
Well, "designer babies" are coming for the rich. And associative mating is rife, although it's more based on income than genetics.
Synthetic food, produced in laboratories, would overtake conventional agriculture "in civilised lands" to feed the expanding population with ease, Smith said. "From one 'parent' steak of choice tenderness, it will be possible to grow as large and juicy a steak as can be desired."...But farming the land would survive as a "rich man's hobby". Someone born in the 21st Century may, "in his wealthy rejuvenation, boast that the bread he eats is made from wheat which grows in his own fields".
No comment. Sadly, Smith did not live long enough to see all his predictions come true: "
Smith himself died at the age of 58, his body worn out by years of excessive drinking and smoking."
And his friend Winston Churchill was no stranger to making strange predictions of his own.


  1. Techno Utopians will be blaming anyone and everyone they can to the bitter end; progress is both a religion and a right. You may want to consider a different example for a meme than the pyramids and slavery one given that the archaeological evidence has made it quite clear for some time that they were built by well paid and cared for Egyptian worker/citizens. The slave thing is a biblical myth.

    1. That's true, but I think the sentiment is accurate. It's a very common belief of many, particularly those on the apex of society and their spokespeople, that rapid progress can only be achieved if we accept throwing a certain segment of humanity under the bus, be they workers or slaves. And they use our supposed "achievements" to justify this. You see this all the time when people point to China as an example of an ideal society where the rich and the government can do whatever they want without pesky restricions that oligarchs in Western countries have to deal with (property rights, environmental regulations, and so forth)

      Libertarians seem particularly enamored of this approach, and the irony of libertarians holding up a communist government as an ideal is delicious. In their calculus, lots of poor people with no rights is simply the grist for the mill of human progress. Keep in mind, the ancestors of those pyramid workmen hauling stone and eating porridge were once hunter-gatherers in one of he lushest places on earth

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