BEE-LINE TO THE FUTURE: The End of Progress

Robert Bee
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Neal Stephenson, the famed SF author of mammoth novels, has just published an intriguing essay “Innovation Starvation” in the World Policy Journal (http://www.worldpolicy.org/journal/fall2011/innovation-starvation). Stephenson worries that we can no longer build big things in this society: the space program has dwindled in significance, and we still have not solved the energy problems that plagued the country since the 70s. Overspecialization in the sciences and engineering has made it difficult to achieve large goals.

Stephenson feels that science fiction is swept up in this decline in big ideas: “Speaking broadly, the techno-optimism of the Golden Age of SF has given way to fiction written in a generally darker, more skeptical and ambiguous tone.” Stephenson is working on an anthology of techno-optimistic visions, a throwback to the Golden Age, and an attempt to bring back overarching vision to SF.

Stephenson is concerned that the modern world currently has an anti-technology bias:
“Believing we have all the technology we’ll ever need, we seek to draw attention to its destructive side effects. This seems foolish now that we find ourselves saddled with technologies like Japan’s ramshackle 1960’s-vintage reactors at Fukushima when we have the possibility of clean nuclear fusion on the horizon. The imperative to develop new technologies and implement them on a heroic scale no longer seems like the childish preoccupation of a few nerds with slide rules.”

The Internet also limits innovation:
“Most people who work in corporations or academia have witnessed something like the following: A number of engineers are sitting together in a room, bouncing ideas off each other. Out of the discussion emerges a new concept that seems promising. Then some laptop-wielding person in the corner, having performed a quick Google search, announces that this “new” idea is, in fact, an old one—or at least vaguely similar—and has already been tried. Either it failed, or it succeeded. If it failed, then no manager who wants to keep his or her job will approve spending money trying to revive it. If it succeeded, then it’s patented and entry to the market is presumed to be unattainable, since the first people who thought of it will have “first-mover advantage” and will have created “barriers to entry.” The number of seemingly promising ideas that have been crushed in this way must number in the millions.”

“Today’s belief in ineluctable certainty is the true innovation-killer of our age.”

I find Stephenson’s last argument interesting because normally people assume that the Internet and easy access to information promotes and aids innovation. His scenario seems plausible, but I have no idea if it’s true. In the future, it may be that innovation will tend to occur in small groups and companies rather than in large organizations, but that is not new: most of the successful technology companies like Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft started small, and took chances that the larger companies of the time avoided.

Stephenson’s concerns are part of a current meme. A number of writers have argued that innovation is currently stifled. Peter Thiel, the founding CEO of Paypal, recently published “The End of the Future” in National Review Online (http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/278758/end-future-peter-thiel?page=5).

“Modern Western civilization stands on the twin plinths of science and technology. Taken together, these two interrelated domains reassure us that the 19th-century story of never-ending progress remains intact. Without them, the arguments that we are undergoing cultural decay — ranging from the collapse of art and literature after 1945 to the soft totalitarianism of political correctness in media and academia to the sordid worlds of reality television and popular entertainment — would gather far more force. Liberals often assert that science and technology remain essentially healthy; conservatives sometimes counter that these are false utopias; but the two sides of the culture wars silently agree that the accelerating development and application of the natural sciences continues apace.”

One of the strengths of Thiel’s analysis is that he recognizes that America’s current problems are partly cultural: brainless popular entertainment, and “the soft totalitarianism of political correctness.” In addition, the Great Recession has resulted in slow economic growth and sluggish progress in science and technology. We need more economic growth just to pay for social security, Medicare, and our massive, unproductive welfare state; we also need vigorous economic growth to create high paying jobs so Americans can continue to enjoy a high standard of living.

The majority of Thiel’s essay tries to determine if a technology slowdown has occurred in the West. He feels it has because of the sluggish growth in incomes. Productivity, innovation, and technology drive economic growth, and all these important markers are in decline. Thiel is a successful entrepreneur, a job description that generally requires optimism, but his essay is largely pessimistic, as he claims “it is not easy to find a path back to the future.”

Paul Allen in “The Singularity Isn’t Near” (http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/guest/27206/) criticizes Ray Kurzweil and Vernor Vinge’s concepts of a singularity. He focuses on Kurzweil’s famous prediction that a singularity will occur around 2045. Kurzweil believes that science and technology advance not at a steady pace, but at an exponential pace, which will eventually result in technology advancing so quickly that the world will be transformed virtually overnight in ways that we cannot predict or understand. Kurzweil believes once a singularity occurs we can upload our consciousness into a computer and live forever. Allen counters Kurzweil’s arguments by pointing out that the exponential advance of science and technology is not a physical law; Kurzweil simply extrapolates from past trends. One problem with Kurweil’s scenario is that even if computer hardware advances, software may advance more sluggishly. It may prove to be extremely difficult to create software that can duplicate human cognition. Allen feels that a “complexity brake” will prevent any singularity in the near future.

“The amazing intricacy of human cognition should serve as a caution to those who claim the singularity is close. Without having a scientifically deep understanding of cognition, we can't create the software that could spark the singularity. Rather than the ever-accelerating advancement predicted by Kurzweil, we believe that progress toward this understanding is fundamentally slowed by the complexity brake. Our ability to achieve this understanding, via either the AI or the neuroscience approaches, is itself a human cognitive act, arising from the unpredictable nature of human ingenuity and discovery. Progress here is deeply affected by the ways in which our brains absorb and process new information, and by the creativity of researchers in dreaming up new theories. It is also governed by the ways that we socially organize research work in these fields, and disseminate the knowledge that results.”

I wonder how much of this pessimistic meme derives from the poor economy? Carter claimed in the late 70s that America was suffering from a malaise. Recently, we have sunk into another period of doubt and depression.

The malaise contrasts sharply with the extreme confidence of just a few years ago. It was not that long ago that the dominant theme in SF was the singularity, and society was experiencing a tech-fueled economic boom.

The singularity folk are still around. A movie was made about Ray Kurzweil recently, Transcendental Man, but pessimism is the current direction of society and SF.

The Occupy Wallstreet people are indicative of this pessimistic mindset. They are not trying to come up with ways to move society forward or grow the economy; they are trying to come up with new ways to divide a limited pie. The American people have always opposed redistribution schemes because they believe the economy will grow, and make America a place where many people can succeed. If we surrender to pessimism and redistribution schemes, we will certainly decline as a civilization.

A lot of the questions raised here are unanswerable at the moment. Although malaise is an understandable reaction to poor economic growth, we don’t know for sure that innovation has slowed down. Apple was created by a couple of obscure young men in a garage during a recession. There may be out of work engineers or software designers creating innovative products that we haven’t heard about yet. They may even be creating something brilliant because the recession put them out of work, or because they can’t find a standard job during a weak economy.
Stephenson is partly concerned about large government funded projects such as energy programs or NASA. I do think those types of programs are going to struggle to get funding. We are facing an enormous, debilitating budget deficit throughout the Western World. A trillion dollar program to send a space ship to Mars is unlikely to get funded; however, that doesn’t necessarily bring the exploration of space to an end. Private companies are starting to step into the gap left by NASA, and NASA can make enormous scientific progress by sending relatively inexpensive robotic probes throughout the solar system (although NASA’s robotic probes don’t have the romantic appeal of sending astronauts to Mars).

What do our Republibot readers think? Has technology and innovation come to a shuddering halt? Our will a strong economic recovery (when we get one) dispel this malaise?

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