Economics, recent, Science / Tech

What’s Happening to Technological Progress?

Barely a day goes by that we are not confronted with another warning of impending catastrophe. If it’s not another global financial crisis, a nuclear war or Global Warming, the next pandemic is surely going to get us and destroy all we know and hold dear. Until recently, one standard response to such fears was to express belief in the ever-increasing power of technology to get us out of any number of tight spots.

Cover of Imagination, September 1952

Will technological progress keep us going, helping us cope with the challenges that our over-complex societies seem to generate as a side effect? I’m not so sure anymore. Some of those ageing science fiction fans of the baby boomer generation are getting antsy: We were promised robots, as Shorvon Bhattacharya wrote a few years back. Where are those robots now?

We’re blinded by incremental progress in electronic gadgets of marginal utility—new smartphones, larger monitors, and more powerful computers. Yet we drive vehicles with internal combustion engines, our electricity is mostly generated in thermal power plants fueled by coal, we are far from curing solid cancers, and we are slowly losing the race against multi-resistant bacteria. The average Sci-Fi writer of the 50s, 60s and 70s would be very, very disappointed with the world of 2018. There is no colony on the moon, we don’t have fusion power, and there are no laser guns or sonic disruptors. No robots anywhere. We can’t even cure the common cold.

Leaving the opera in the year 2000, a hand-coloured lithograph by Albert Robida (late 19th century)

It is painfully obvious that technological progress between, say, 1968 and now, can’t compare to the periods between 1818 and 1868; 1868 and 1918; or 1918 to 1968. This will very likely be recognized by the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing in 2019, when lots of people will start to wonder why it is that, 50 years after the greatest triumph of the Apollo programme, we don’t even have the capacity to repeat the technological feats of the late ’60s.

A particularly depressing aspect of this downturn in research productivity was recently analysed by Patrick Collison and Michael Nielsen in the pages of The Atlantic. They show that, despite an enormous increase in research activity over the last 50 years, there has been a marked decrease in return on investment, We are getting less bang for our buck. Major innovation is becoming increasingly scarce in the natural sciences, and most Nobel Prizes in the Sciences are handed out for research that was done decades ago.

Something fundamental seems to have gone wrong. In fact, several issues are combining to slow down research and development. My argument is that the research enterprise is in serious trouble.

*   *   *

At its core, all civilization is about problem-solving. The more successful a society is at that, the more stable is it likely to be. When faced with new problems, we use methods that worked in the past. Traditionally, our problems were solved by creating new structures: committees, commissions of inquiry, new rules, laws and regulations and centralization. So why is it that we now commonly seem to make problems worse whenever that approach is used?

In my neck of the woods, the New South Wales public health system is a good example of a complex system beset by multiple problems. A decade ago a report called the Garland Report was released demonstrating the utter futility of the red-tape approach to problem-solving. This means we are investing in ways that generated positive returns in the past, but are now useless; or if not useless, potentially harmful. Every year we spend more money on managers rather than on doctors or nurses, and even those doctors and nurses spend more and more time with non-productive tasks such as filling in paperwork. We now need seven or eight signatures to authorize advertising for a part-time admin assistant. Research governance has become a nightmare, and compliance costs are increasing steadily. This puts young colleagues off academic careers and has forced my unit to outsource research to Houston, San Francisco, Pretoria, Santiago de Chile, Prague and Las Palmas.

Investment in complexity that produces negative returns is a sure sign of a complex system that is ‘brittle,’ or, likely to fail catastrophically, as explained by Crawford Holling, one of the founders of the academic discipline of ‘social ecology’.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, there are clearly a number of societal factors that reinforce the effects of excessive complexity, and it is difficult to not see them as bound up with other shifts in cultural and moral norms. Western societies have become increasingly ‘feminine,’ with women achieving a much greater share of control over institutions and cultural activities. There have been trade-offs incurred from this process, naturally. The last 200 years have seen a shift from what moral sociologists have described as the ‘honour’ or warrior culture pre-dating the 19th-century—to the ‘dignity’ culture of the 20th-century—to the emergence of a ‘victimhood’ culture in the 21st. 

Part of this shift includes the increasing aversion to risk. This risk aversion is sometimes crudely described as the ‘Nanny State,’ but at its core, it is defined by increasing regulation of all aspects of life, both public and private. Regulation, on principle, is about protecting the weak from the strong and the reduction of risk in general—the risk of drowning in a backyard pool, of poisoning from household chemicals, or the risk of dying in a crash due to faulty car components. Clearly, many of these incremental steps are positive advancements. And we’ve been making progress in this regard throughout the existence of our civilization. Yet increasing risk aversion also comes at a cost.

In Thinking-Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman provides an explanation of this fundamental property of the human mind. Risk aversion is the aversion to trading any kind of risk for some other advantage. It is strong in most people, and possibly more so amongst women than in men. Of course, there have always been unusual individuals that approach risk rather than avoid it. People low in risk aversion drove the industrial revolution and have driven technological progress in general. Modern medicine is what it is today because researchers in the past took risks, sometimes for themselves, and usually for their patients, and sometimes without telling them. If we were to apply today’s rules to the biomedical breakthroughs of the last 200 years, many of them would be considered unethical and illegal. We may condemn this history from our modern perspective, but that’s how we got to where we are today.

If current rules and regulations had been in existence in the 1900s and the first half of the 20th century we would not have airplanes, air conditioning, antibiotics, automobiles, chlorine, the measles and smallpox vaccines, cardiac catheters, open heart surgery, radio, refrigeration and X-rays.  The universal principle of risk aversion in the past hampered only individuals, and if only one individual in a million was immune (that is, if one in a million did not share this risk aversion) that was enough for progress to occur. Now, this risk aversion is firmly entrenched in legislation all over the world, and it is throttling innovation, leading to actions that Kahneman describes as “detrimental to the wealth of individuals, to the soundness of policy, and to the welfare of society.” The bottom line is that risk aversion is fundamentally bad for productivity, and especially for research and development.

At the same time that risk aversion is increasing, discrimination on the basis of ethnicity or gender also seems to become more and more acceptable in Western societies. Harvard is fighting a court case brought by Asian students accusing the Ivy League University of systematic discrimination on the basis of race. Melbourne University recently advertised for a Professor of Mathematics, stating that the School would “only consider applications from suitably qualified female candidates.” A senior physicist presenting empirical data on the hypothesis that female academics now tend to be appointed to senior positions with lower publication and citation counts—suggesting systemic anti-male discrimination—was recently suspended from his job at CERN in Switzerland. Clearly, discriminating against individuals for any reason other than their work capabilities is bad for productivity–in business as well as the research enterprise.

Thirdly, the innovation incubators of our world, the universities and their counterparts in business, are increasingly subject to a societal climate that is hostile to free speech, viewpoint diversity and open inquiry. Karl Popper, the foremost philosopher of science, once stated that “the growth of knowledge depends entirely upon disagreement,” yet disagreement with a growing number of orthodoxies is becoming increasingly dangerous. The reaction to Professor Alessandro Strumia’s talk at CERN is an example of how the presentation of arcane empirical data can result in what is colloquially known as a ‘shit storm’. James Damore’s firing from Google is another example. Clearly, it is easy to mortally offend people by reporting bibliometric research today—something I would have considered absurdly, ludicrously unlikely in the past.

In fact, this trend is now most certainly affecting scholarly activity internationally. In his essay ‘The Institutionalisation of Social Justice’ Uri Harris recently described several cases of activists affecting the publication or continued availability of research papers. Research that upsets feminist, LGBTIQ or ‘Black Lives Matter’ activists is high-risk for academics: witness the backlash to Theodore Hill’s paper on the “Greater Male Variability Hypothesis,” what happened to Lisa Littman’s research on Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria, or Bruce Gilley’s publication on colonialism. It doesn’t matter how obscure the journal, and how technical the paper–self-appointed guardians of morality feel entitled to suppress opinions or research findings they do not agree with. In 2018, social media can actually influence what we can do in our operating theatres. We end up doing medicine that’s increasingly ‘Facebook-based’ rather than evidence-based.

The end result of all these mutually reinforcing trends is a very substantial ongoing reduction in research productivity: less and less bang for more and more buck. And this comes at the very worst possible time for the continuing development of our civilization.

Tyler Cowen, an American economist, has examined technological progress as the main driver of economic growth and identified the increasing scarcity of true innovation as the main cause of ‘the Great Stagnation,’ the slowing of economic growth in developed countries since the early ’70s. He claims that we have picked the ‘low-hanging apples’ of the industrial revolution, and the catch-up growth of developing countries will slow soon enough as well, once they’ve picked all those low-hanging apples such as universal education, mass transportation, and gender equality. Cowen argues that we may have to get used to a prolonged period of slow growth; a time when the cake is simply not growing as much as it did in the past. That fundamental insight explains a lot about what’s been happening in Western societies over the last generation, including increasing conflict over the distribution of income. God only knows what will happen to our societies once people realize that the future may be rather poorer than the past trajectory of our civilization would lead us to expect. In fact, we’re probably seeing the effects of this shift already—identity politics may simply be a manifestation of increasingly aggressive conflict over resource distribution.

The societal factors affecting the research enterprise are becoming ever more damaging at the worst possible time, at a time when we have to reach higher and higher to pluck those apples still remaining on Tyler Cowen’s Tree of Technology. We need more, not less research and development, because our societies have become so complex, so brittle, and increasingly unlikely to be able to weather sudden changes in their conditions. Collapse is becoming more and more likely, as Tim Homer-Dixon has documented in The Upside of Down. Whatever it is: global warming, a pandemic, nuclear war, a computer virus or the next global financial crisis—we need less regulation, not more, and less complex, decentralized systems to weather the coming storm. We also need less discrimination—not more. We need more free speech, not activists and activist media telling us what is an acceptable point of view, and what’s sexist, racist, transphobic, imperialist, misogynistic, fatphobic, ableist, or whatever the latest linguistic abomination may be.

At the very worst possible time in the existence of this civilization, at a time when we’re running out of low-hanging apples to pick, we’re drowning ourselves in red tape and a new authoritarian orthodoxy. That’s very bad news, not just for the research enterprise, but for all of humanity.


Hans Peter Dietz is Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Sydney, Australia.


  1. Saw file says

    I have seen this, throughout the past 30yrs, in my industry.
    I continually show/explain all this to my daughter.
    She gets it, and she is only 13yoa.
    She argues w her teachers. My little ‘brownie hero’.

  2. Peter Rowe says

    A very interesting piece thank you. I certainly think that what is lacking today is courage and bravery ( but I lack those qualities too). The consequence of the development of social media has been that one risks everything now in speaking out; one’s career, reputation, and even one’s freedom. The internet, which promised and initially delivered so much increased productivity and innovation , is now stifling the aptitude for taking risks which we used to hold dear. The depressing part is that I see no easy solution; the genie is out and it refuses to go back.

    • Saw file says

      I somewhat agree.
      When the fax came in, we were amazed.
      Sending a drawing.
      Now the internet has overloaded mid-management, and made upper-management way to top heavy.
      The workers do the actual work.
      Something has to give.

    • bumble bee says

      Visions of what the future could possible hold were just that visions. There was nothing about those future possibilities that were even remotely possible, and now the author is trying to use science fiction to complain why were are not there.

      If we were all to take a moment and dream of the future, or recall movies, books, that brought that future to life, there is one aspect that is missing. Unless it was a dystopian future, all technology was free of the current construct we are now face with. We never imagined that the future technology would be plagued with data mining, with manipulation through advertising or content designed to push a specific agenda. Then the onslaught of porn, sexualization, bullying, trolling, snuff films. Then there is the social media aspect which has turned mindless twits into a new category of influencers. Where everything today has become nothing but a lie for self aggrandizing our puny lives.

      The author calls for more research and more freedoms to help embark on those ventures. Well those ideas need money and one of the limiting factors to research is funds. I see as well that the author does not mention the impact unfettered research would have on the environment. Research is no longer about a pencil and paper with a slide ruler, but is based on chemicals, energy, equipment, animals, byproducts, contamination, all the things the environment does not want or need.

      If the world would think and plan better about the direction we are going and what is considered a common good rather than unfettered development society would be better off. Now, research is big business, and the name of the game is money and fame, not about common good/need. We have that bozo who thinks he does head transplants, no one has taken him up on his offer, then the robot sex dolls found in new robotic brothels, chimeras which are an ethical monstrosity. When humanity can grow up, when humanity is not ruled by greed, fame, baser instincts, the need to control others, violence then technology can take off. Right now, there are too many infantile, immoral, greed and fame hungry troglodytes bent on controlling everyone to allow a tech boom.

      • Andrew Wright says

        Ah yes, if only we had more planners. Here’s a scary question; to whom do we give the reins. Who becomes the planner, who the planned? ‘What is ‘good’ in the scenario? I know what is good, but do you? Maybe you should leave the planning to me then.

      • Erle S Bowman says

        Welcome to the human race. I can only hope that people like you will be better able to handle your response to it in the future and to not encourage those so inclinded to view the world in a so horribly negative light.

      • Stephanie says

        “If the world would think and plan better about the direction we are going and what is considered a common good rather than unfettered development society would be better off.”

        That is what regulations and redistributive policies do, and they are negatively correlated with growth. Unfettered development is what produced much of the lifestyle you enjoy.

        Humanity does need less “greed.” People should stop expecting free money/health care/tuition, because that greed results in funds stolen from the people who produce innovation.

        Greed is wanting something you didn’t earn, not building something people want and are willing to pay you for.

    • Erle S Bowman says

      “our electricity is mostly generated in thermal power plants fueled by coal,”… Enough said….. Next?

  3. Peter from Oz says

    I agree with the fact that political ideology is stunting the ability to take risks. But I do think that this has not the economic impact that Cowen predicts. Innovation may be slowing in technology, but innovation still continues elsewhere in ways that add value to the economy. The cake is still growing. The thing about mankind is that when one avenue of innovation is thwarted humans will go out and find another. And whilst an innovator may not set out to change things that may be the result of the innovation.

    • Craig WIllms says

      @Peter from Oz

      Great comment. I too want to be optimistic in this sea of gloom. My guess is that the innovation/discovery that will thrust mankind into a new period of growth has probably already been made – it takes time for these things to make an impact.

      There is a concept defined by Amara’s law: we tend to overestimate the impact of a new technology in the short run, but we underestimate it in the long run. For instance we had all the components for the electrical infrastructure by the 1880’s but it wasn’t until 1920s when we saw electricity use become widespread. Same is true for the automobile. The transistor was conceptualized in the 1940s and became ubiquitous by the late 1970’s. The components of the Internet were born in the 60’s and 70’s but really didn’t change the world until the early 2000’s. There seems to be a natural lag of 30 to 40 years for a development to fundamentally change the status quo.

      I think graphene, which was developed in 2002 or so may well be that next driver of massive change. It’s a material that is far stronger than steel at a strength to weight ratio that will quite possibly transform the world by the 2030’s or 40s. It also has phenomenal electrical properties. Keep an eye on graphene.

      • Kencathedrus says

        @Craig Williams: I worry though that the technologies of today will be used to propagate the tyrannies of tomorrow.

        One example that the author mentions is the dwindling of innovation and new ideas from educational institutions. Nothing new is coming out of universities. As information and knowledge become diffused among the ‘masses’ via the internet, colleges (particularly humanities departments) are fast becoming pointless. As with any major institution that faces imminent obsolescence, it’s doing all it can to hold on to the reins of power. This is why we’re seeing this shift from free-thinking to idealogical thinking in college campuses.

        Now that Christianity is no longer in vogue, professors have become the new priest class, deciding what is virtue, what is taboo, and even going so far as to create the Original Sin of ‘white privilege’, which, unlike Christianity is a sin for which there can be no forgiveness. Speaking out against them results in social castigation in the form of accusations of bigotry, loss of job or business, or even arrest in some extreme cases. Much like the corrupt church officials of the pre-Reformation era, university professors like to think that they are the champions of the poor and oppressed while never once questioning the huge amount of debt students accrue by attending their useless classes.

        To sum up, technology is actually aiding all this. Ideas that were once bizarre and outlandish are now rapidly entering the mainstream, because we spend most of our time at home and at work sitting behind a computer. My father once said long ago that ‘we were becoming seduced by technology’. For some reason it stuck with me and, while thinking about that recently, it made me recall this quote from the Bible:

        Deuteronomy 4:16
        that you do not act corruptly and make an idol for yourselves of any form or shape, whether in the likeness of a male or female,

        I sometimes wonder if the Old Testament didn’t have point or two about human nature and how it can be used against us.

        • Craig WIllms says

          It’s hard not to succumb to despair, I get it. Internally I am an optimist, but talk to anyone who knows me and that won’t be mentioned as a attribute of mine.

          Specifically to your last point I have been personally buoyed by Jordan Peterson’s affect on the younger generation of men. He expounds on the wisdom and virtue in regards to the significance of the early biblical stories and specifically in the search for meaning. No matter what anyone thinks of Peterson as a whole for this alone I commend him, he brings it with passion and logic.

          In a nutshell: Aim for the highest virtue and pick up your cross and carry it up hill. Open your eyes, tell the truth and bear the burden of your responsibilities. (technology is just a tool – for good or ill)

          • Stephanie says

            It seems inevitable that universities would cease producing anything of value. Instead of funds being tethered to results, they depend on regurgitating the right buzzwords for government bureaucrats. I’m shocked by how much money is spent on research compared to what is actually produced. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition (read: administration), salaries, and lab time for a lowly graduate student to produce 1-3 published papers, usually quickly forgotten. No attempt to apply it to industry, because of endemic disdain for the private sector and selection for small-picture thinkers through the ubiquitous selection tool of GPA.

            Jordan Peterson is onto something monumental with an alternative to university undergraduate education. An alternative to graduate education is the next logical step. We need a system that incentivizes productivity and applicability to society.

      • The issue may be that basic scientific research is underfunded these days, relative to R&D with a prospect of near term commercialization.

        The big risks, which have led to the most profound breakthroughs, have historically been taken by government and academic institutions who had no need to answer to impatient shareholders. But these too are now subject to commercial imperatives, partnerships with industry etc.

        Scientists meanwhile are afflicted by risk aversion of a different type: the need for career enhancing publications and citations. Spending time tinkering on a project that has a high risk of failure is rarely an option for any but the most securely tenured

        But we must be prepared to tolerate, even reward failure if we are to encourage risk taking and progress.

  4. Fantastic albeit depressing article, thank you. (But I think you mean risk ‘aversion’ not risk ‘adversity’).

  5. Professor Dietz, as a retired economic policy adviser (including to bodies chaired by the PMs of the UK and Australia), I share your views. Here’s an extract from something I’m drafting: “This is the crux of the matter: we can’t have evidence-based discussions and develop sensible and rational policies because it is not about climate, it is about group identity. Great swathes of Western society have jumped on the warming bandwagon, it gives them purpose and identity and anyone challenging their orthodoxy is a threat and must be vigorously opposed, abused and invalidated – but with groupthink, not with science or rational consideration of which policies might be best for the overall well-being of society.” The other string to my bow since 1972 is Vipassana meditation, a technique for observing without reaction reality as it manifests in one’s own mind and body, which tends to reduce the focus on self, on reacting with carving or aversion, and being more oriented to help others. But that is not widespread enough to make a huge difference.

    • Hans Peter Dietz says

      There is a lot more to say about the degeneration of science under the influence of political zealotry.

    • Hans Peter Dietz says

      Dear Mr Nakatomi,

      your style is quite offensive. It is also rather discriminatory against prostitutes.

      You do actually believe in, say, Polar Bears dying out, or Pacific Islands drowning? For a review article see:

      Duvat, V. K. E. (2018). A global assessment of atoll island planform changes over the past decades.
      Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, e557. doi:10.1002/wcc.557

      As a teacher of mine once said: Scientists gets things wrong all the time, but sooner or later it all comes out in the wash.

    • E. Olson says

      NP – the evidence is striking that global warming is a giant hoax (see links for how temperature records are manipulated to show warming), but even if you continue to believe we are still going to boil, all the proposed solutions to global warming fit exactly with the theme of this very interesting article.

      We are supposed to give up all those “dirty” carbon based fuels, and we can’t use nuclear energy because it is too dangerous, and bio-fuels won’t work because they require carbon sourced fertilizers to get sufficient yields and since we are all supposed to give up eating meat there won’t be any natural sources of fertilizer. Thus we are to power our modern world with the same sources of power used by the Roman Empire – wind, solar, and animal muscle. Not only would this slow scientific and economic progress as the article documents, it would throw us in high speed reverse, which is bad news for social justice warriors, because when times get tough and everyone is wondering where their next meal will come from, nobody will give a crap about women’s or LGBLT rights, racial equality, or free college, day care, and health care.

  6. Andrea says

    Fascinating article that underscores my opinion that the the automatic clothes folder just isn’t the advance in civilization we’re looking for.

    In all seriousness, the trends the Dr. emphasizes are not only true, but alarming. Let’s see what happens to our medical advances in the United States when Medicare for all is passed.

  7. Fickle Pickle says

    Yes life as a boys own adventure!

    Once a new technology enters a culture it takes over every aspect of human culture. All social structures automatically become organized around the new technologies values.

    The scientific establishment has been organized in league with the highest levels of concentrated political, economic, and propagandistic power in the world today.
    Science , or more correctly scientism is simply the primary method of knowing and “official knowledge” in modern societies, and its rule is established in no less an authoritarian manner than was the case with any religious or philosophical principle that ruled societies in the past,

    The objectifying method of science has now become the dominant style of existence, a mood or strategy of relating to the world and to other human beings. Scientism has become a world-view, a presumption about the World-Process itself. It has become a religion, although a false and destructive one. Modern societies are Cults of this now dominant religion.

    Science or scientism is the “religion” of the left brain

    The scientific, rationalist intellectual, and technological core-culture of our social order is the secret “esoteric” “Mother Church” of the left-brained congregation of ordinary people.

    It is through the pervasive influence of this exclusively left-brained “esoteric” or most highly developed core of our verbal culture that the holistic,intuitive, psychic, or right-brained communion with the conditions and the Indivisible Reality of our world has all but been eliminated.

    Modern scientists do not introduce into human time another process that would permit human beings to advance on the scale of evolution. On the contrary they are providing us with highly sophisticated information that gives us powers over the elemental life with which it is possible for us to destroy ourselves, because we have not developed the evolutionary capacity to make use of this information in a more civilized and benign way.

    The more sophisticated the information or the technical powers we acquire, the more we have to mature in the culture of love, and freedom, or true psycho-physical maturity. Scientists are not (and can not) offer such a Wisdom-Culture, based on a higher evolutionary level of human functioning. But without such a Wisdom=Culture, human beings cannot advance, no matter how comprehensive and sophisticated their information.

  8. Andrew Shepherd says

    When I drive to a new place, I have a computer that gives me directions. I spoke to it to get it to start navigating, and it speaks to me back, and it knows where I am because it’s talking to some other computers which are flying around IN SPACE.

    It contains more transistors than existed in the world in 1968, and I carry it around in my pocket.

    I don’t think the sci-fi writers of the 60’s would be too disappointed.

    • Nakatomi Plaza says

      Wow. A map. Yea, they’d be blown away by a fucking map. Fifty years of progress for a really cool map while you drive around in your ICE car on crowded freeways reading our retarded president’s tweets and texting emojis because actual words are just too hard for us now.

      The sci-fi writers of the 60’s would laugh their asses off at how easily amused, lazy, and stupid we’ve become.

      • Harland says

        Trump Derangement Syndrome at Nakatomi Plaza, cleanup in aisle 5.

        • emanations & penumbras says

          Yes, indeed. I understand there’s a lot of vacant retail space available at Nakatomi Plaza, and that the property is being foreclosed upon for non-payment of back taxes.

          You know, Nakatomi, I’m guessing I’m a lot older than you. When I saw James Bond in Goldfinger in 1964 I was knocked out (as any twelve-year old boy would be) by his cool car and “map” that guided him to Ft. Knox just in time to defuse the bomb scheduled to go off and render the entire US gold supply radioactive. I would have never believed back then that I would have such a device in my car forty years later for the trivial price of $99. It takes a little bit of humility to appreciate such things.

      • Craig WIllms says

        @Nakatomi Plaza

        Why? Because we’re not buzzing around in flying cars? Or populating the galaxy with faster than light spaceships? Sci-fi writers, God love ’em, help inspire us, but the don’t discover or invent anything beyond concepts, otherwise they’d be scientists.

        When a sci-fi writer is faced with a technical or physics problem poof they make something up. The real world doesn’t work like that. If anyone is easily amused it’s you.

        • Peter from Oz says

          Yes Sci Fi writers can always change the polarity

        • DeplorableDude says

          @Craig WIllms Exactly. I guess the author and Nakatomi don’t realize their vaunted 60s sci-fi authors were making stuff up and getting paid by the word. Granted some of it is interesting and I am huge fan of Sci-fi, especially the 50 pulp authors but it was entertainment, not prophesy.

    • E. Olson says

      AS – you raise a very interesting point, but I’m not sure you realize it. Your navigation system is impressive technology, but it doesn’t represent the same quantum leap in utility as going from no maps to paper maps of reasonable accuracy, detail, and price that occurred in the late 19th / early 20th century. On the other hand, it takes some reasonable skill, sense of direction, and intelligence to read a paper map correctly, which is a skill that is being lost due to GPS navigation systems that tell us exactly where we are and give us detailed instructions about how to get where we desire to go – in other words this impressive new technology is actually making humans more stupid, which doesn’t portend well for future technological or economic developments.

      • Stephanie says

        E Olsen: Calculators produced a similar argument, that it would prevent people from learning arithmetic.

        I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that we export such functions to technology. Considering the finite mental capacity we are all limited by, it seems preferable to me that we focus our mental energy on more complex tasks.

        Technology itself isn’t making us stupid, it’s our own decision to not properly utilize the time and energy saved by exporting functions to technology that is dumbing us down.

        I don’t blame the user. JBP has remarked that there is a real hunger for long-format discussions, which can fill in people’s “found time.” Properly packaged educational materials haven’t been developed to meet this need yet. Once they are, I predict people will be voluntarily absorbing the equivalent of an undergraduate degree every year just by listening during their morning commutes.

    • Alan Gore says

      As William Gibson once put it, the future is unevenly distributed. Information technology has rocketed ahead of all the other technologies because the pitchfork-wavers can’t touch it. A nuclear plant, on the other hand, is a big fixed sitting duck for their armies of know-nothing lawyers.

    • Shane Sweeney says

      This is why the anchor of the article is flawed. If the author chose another example of the damage that groupthink and excessive meta-organization is causing then the piece would stand as it is your refutation is spot on.

    • Stephanie says

      Something I noticed about the new Star Trek is that they had to substantially increase the technology beyond what it was supposed to be at that point in the timeline. Our perception of what that century is going to be like exceeds what sci-fi writers projected.

      Of course since the writers of that show don’t have insight on Gene Roddenberry’s level, much of the technology they use on the show exists already (touch screens, holograms). I think the most significant prediction will end up being that physics and biology (particularly consciousness) are connected on a profound level, that we could one day utilize.

  9. Saw file says

    @noodle Plaza
    Why would you expect more than you don’t expect?
    You’re ‘Projection 1.01′
    Give it a rest, or join’troll central’.
    Best wishes, dear. 🙂

  10. ga gamba says

    Yet we drive vehicles with internal combustion engines, our electricity is mostly generated in thermal power plants fueled by coal,

    I think this needs to be more closely scrutinised. It’s true for China and India.

    Natural gas was the largest source—about 32%—of U.S. electricity generation in 2017. Natural gas is used in steam turbines and gas turbines to generate electricity.

    Coal was the second-largest energy source for U.S. electricity generation in 2017—about 30%. Nearly all coal-fired power plants use steam turbines. A few coal-fired power plants convert coal to a gas for use in a gas turbine to generate electricity. (Source:

    Wind, solar and biomass now supply more than a fifth of the electricity generated in the EU, at 20.9%, up from less than 10% in 2010. This is a few tenths of a percent more than coal (20.6%) and also more than gas (19.7%). . . . While renewables rise and coal falls precipitously, one relatively constant feature of the EU’s power sector has been nuclear. In 2017, it was once again the single-largest source of electricity, generating 25.6% of the bloc’s power. (Source:

    For ICE vehicles, they will be with us for a while largely due to their build quality. People expect to keep them for many years. In the US the average age of a vehicle is 11.8 years, and in the EU it’s 11 years. No one wants to spend $30k+ and then be told it’s time to scrap them, which is what’s happening in Germany presently. Japan defies the developed world with 8.5 years. This is due to a strict motor vehicle inspection regime and controls on the grey markets. It’s also very difficult to import a used vehicle in Japan.

    China’s market is so tightly controlled that for every three vehicles licenced to operate in the road, there are 1000 applicants.

    But as prices of EVs keep dropping, ranges extended, and charging stations become ever more accessible, more and more consumers will transition.

    So, what happens to still running used ICE vehicles? They are exported to Africa.

    This will very likely be recognized by the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing in 2019, when lots of people will start to wonder why it is that, 50 years after the greatest triumph of the Apollo programme, we don’t even have the capacity to repeat the technological feats of the late ’60s.

    We certainly have the technology to do so as well as put men on Mars. Heck, we could even colonise the moon. But countries don’t have the will to spend the money to make it happen.

    I think Dr Deitz makes the mistake made by many others: they look for startling, gee-whiz innovations and products. When they happen, such as the smart phone, they rapidly become so commonplace people don’t appreciate what an amazing tool they have in their hands. Sure, these monumental improvements happen from time to time, but most progress happens incrementally. A thousand different things consistently improved 1% again and again adds up.

    All in all, the essay is marred by poor research. His final two paragraphs are the important ones, and they should have been the foundation of a longer essay to this end. Being a medical professional, he could have dug into the new rules advancing intersectionalism and the DIE agenda in medical school and hospitals, for example in the US and likely occurring elsewhere.

    • Saw file says

      @gg…thx again. I will think about this more.

      Th sci-fi reference threw me off.
      We are now surrounded by’robots'(sci-fi whise).

      • ga gamba says

        Some of the first industrial robots were deployed to attend to hazardous work, such as painting vehicles. No human can weld as precisely as a robot, which makes all those kilometres of pipes at refineries, chemical plants, and nuclear power facilities safer. And robots have their applications in work such as bomb disposal. Airline and vehicle travel are both safer than ever before due to onboard computers that monitor and adjust so many more things than a human could ever do. The thing is either a lot robots and computers follow a script programmed by humans or are remotely controlled. Now we see autonomous vehicles emerging, but at present it’s safer for them to operate on motorways rather than city streets that are much more dynamic. Over time this will improve. The reason we don’t have the robots attending to our daily needs envisioned by sci-fi writers is because we are much less scripted and predictable. Yes, eventually they will be able to mimic us in most if not all ways. Frankly, I’m more satisfied with robots dealing with the things I mentioned than making me a martini and drawing my bath. Having a class of robot servants strikes me as a mis-prioritisation, so fretting that we don’t have them now and seeing this as failure of technology kind of misses the big picture.

        • Saw file says

          I should have been clearer in my response.
          Yes, we are surrounded by ‘robots’. My daily work is directly affected by them.
          I was mearly pondering the older sci-fi imaginings of what the writers envisioned robots to be.

    • Joanna L. says

      Thank you for taking the time to write these clarifications. I was thinking the same thing.

  11. ga gamba says

    Oh, Christ. I thought Nakatomi might have something interesting to say, but nope.

    It’s the same old complaint day after day, article after article.

    And still s/he persists. The same old Nakatomi bullshit crying about an essay crying about government and totalitarian whatever.

    Enough with the endless solo masturbation act, please?

  12. Stewie Griffith says

    The benefit of living in a society with a sing dominant cultural focus allows that society to more easily make the sort of united sacrifices in the present for unknown benefits in the future. To make a sacrifice for common purpose and benefit, requires a high degree of trust to exist within that society.

    Instead the West has traded that consensus that more homogeneous societies can deliver, for the supposed benefits of ‘diversity’ and the fractured Multicultural non-consensus that it delivers.

    Without the trust, without a common culture and values, each community and emerging parallel society within our nations, instead demands their needs be attended to before any white mans vanity project. There is no willingness by the new emigre, ensconced in their own communities to contribute more than they believe they will get back. Indeed there are good economic cases to be made that many of these communities will actually be forever burdens on the host societies, as the perpetuation of their cultural values also results in the perpetuation of productivity inhibiting behaviours.

    The destruction of the Wests vision is a direct result of the pursuit of policies like Multiculturalism and diversity. It has re-pointed a societies vision of being greater than we are, of building society, to one that instead is purely focused on incorporation of existing cultures and the inevitable consumption that it results in. Vision is far to speculative for a Merchant economy.

  13. Andrew Worth says

    Humanity is richer than it has been at any time in the past with the poorest countries today having life expectancies that would have been the envy of the richest countries of 100 years ago, so I take issue with the authors claim that:
    “. . . And this comes at the very worst possible time for the continuing development of our civilization.” In fact if you’re going to have more rules and regulations that impede technological development and the resulting increases in wealth when your society is at its richest is, I would have thought the best time to have that problem.

    Having said all that, I’m not in favor of the stifling of innovation that we too often see today, but I think it’s an inevitable product of the greater wealth of today; if your society is fat and happy it’s people are going to be more resistant to the risk of changing things, if you want to see a revolution or a yearning for change go to a country in which people are really, really unhappy.

  14. Joanna L. says

    While I think you make a good point about be and diversity protocols potentially harming our ability to make research progress I think you have missed quite a few positives in the modern world and maybe you haven’t considered what the ‘end goal’ might be – mainly that progress comes with purpose. We won’t invent new technologies unless they are necessary and even though people talk about impending doom, it’s a lot of fearmongering that isn’t taken seriously. We are starting to take climate change seriously and technological advancements are happening so I don’t understand what your issue is there. That it’s not happening fast enough? Ultimately nobody has a crystal ball so we can’t foresee what technology would serve us best in a crisis whatever that crisis may be.

    Science fiction writers might have dreamed there would be androids by now but actually with the ubiquitous smart phones we kind of ARE androids – it just doesn’t involve a bionic arm. The truth is that nobody wants a bionic arm… there are certain aspects of being human that we don’t want to give up like being cuddly and mortal. Is there a point to your life if you can live forever? It’s a question worth asking.

    Furthermore we have robots in almost every conceivable area of modern life but maybe you haven’t noticed because it doesn’t look like the ones from iRobot. When your sat nav tells you to turn left in 200m it’s a robot. When you go to the self checkout at the supermarket it’s a robot. When you go to certain pharmacies a robot goes through the stock and retrieves the correct medication for the pharmacist to hand to you. Robots scan your post in the mail sorting office. You get the picture. Robots are just automation and jobs are getting increasingly automated. Some people think this automation is a bad thing because people will lose their jobs. Some people say maybe they are jobs nobody likes doing anyway and this will just free up more of the population to do research and innovation. Either way, robots are very much a part of your life even if you haven’t noticed it.

    I also don’t agree that the last 50 years don’t compete with the progress made in the 50 years before that. We’ve managed to halve extreme poverty in the last 30 years alone. We’ve pretty much eradicated hunger and starvation (apart from war torn nations). We’ve all but eliminated a host of viral diseases like polio and now even HIV/AIDS doesn’t have to spell death for anyone who contracts it because we have medicine to mitigate the effects. If you’re looking at overall improvement to humanity we have changed a lot in the last 50 years even if I can’t shoot lasers out of my eyes yet.

    • Peter Kriens says

      What you say is all true, and basically Steven Pinker’s point. However, if we tried to put a person at the moon again it would very likely take longer than the 8 years it took in the sixties. In the seventies you could commercially fly in about 3 1/2 hours from London to New York and less than 2 hour military in an SR-71 Blackbird. In 1930 it took about 2 years to build the Empire State building, the new WTC in New York took 16 years.
      Yes, I agree with you an Pinker but we also seem to have lost something along the way?

      • Joanna Lisowiec says

        I haven’t actually read any of Pinker’s books though they have been on my list.

        You make some good arguments though and ask a good question about whether we have lost something along the way.

        The other day I was discussing the fact that despite having so many resources at our fingertips like libraries, the internet etc., most of us tend to spend our free time consuming some form of entertainment. Instead of trying to grasp concepts that we don’t understand or we opt to watch television. Maybe its just my contemporaries but I think compared to the average person 100 years ago, we are inundated in luxury so much so that it’s not considered luxury anymore and indulgence is the norm. Free time is free time though so what about how seriously we take our jobs? In a lot of cases we are held back from overhauling and improving the cogs of the machine by bureaucracy but also there aren’t that many people at the cutting edge of research.

        Copernicus didn’t even have a telescope when he first presented the heliocentric model of the universe but at the same time – he didn’t have to do his own laundry, cook his own food or sit at a desk doing admin from 9-5. Similarly a lot of the technological, scientific, philosophical etc. advancements of the past were made by a fortunate few who were born into relative wealth and had education and funds etc. so they could focus on being curious and tinkering.

        Now education is more widespread but I would argue that the quality of our education is worse. Most people also have other aspects of life to contend with like doing laundry. I’m not suggesting we should go back to a class system but I’m not an egalitarian and my woe is that socialist policies seem to bring everyone down to the lowest common denominator. Rather than diverting funds and resources to supporting brilliant minds to achieve the highest heights, we are too focused on equality of outcome. Presumably because the cure to cancer will only be useful if it was discovered by a team of scientists representing every oppressed minority we can conceive of.

        Technological advancement come from either research institutions or enterprise. To some extent those are hindered by bureaucracy and the diversity delusion although free market enterprises less so.

        Maybe once China begins to overtake the west in technological advancement and wealth people will start to wake up to the fact that diversity and the precautionary principle need to be hastily swept under the carpet.

        • Peter from Oz says

          Kingsley Amis got it right when he said of the growth in the number of universities in Britain: More means less.

      • ga gamba says

        In the seventies you could commercially fly in about 3 1/2 hours from London to New York

        Yes, you could do so because all those sonic booms were mostly over the Atlantic. Boeing and two other US manufacturers built a supersonic passenger jet airliner (SST) to compete with Concorde. In tests in 1964 by the Air Force with an SST near Oklahoma City, the flight path had a maximum width of 16 miles, but it still resulted in 9,594 complaints of damage to buildings, 4,629 formal damage claims, and 229 claims for a total of $12,845.32, mostly for broken glass and cracked plaster.

        People as varied as brain surgeons and pregnant women complaint that it affected their work and caused miscarriages. The environmentalists jumped on the bandwagon making all kinds of claims. Once they’re involved you’ll spend the rest of your life in court and completing impact surveys.

        … we also seem to have lost something along the way?

        Yes, we’ve allowed the can-do people to be replaced by the mustn’t-do people. Long ago we celebrated swashbucklers and adventurers, now it’s an endless barrage of stories of people overcoming something trivial like gendered lavatories or incapacitated by self-diagnosed PTSD and other trauma.

        We’ve become wimps.

        • E. Olson says

          GG – in other words: hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, and weak men create hard times.

          • a bee ee? says

            Strong men create good times, good times create feminist replacement, and the world goes to hell from there.

        • Lydia says

          The lawyers and bureaucrats were the “mustn’t do people” for us all through the 80’s- 90’s.

          • Peter from Oz says

            Lawyers are often in the forefront of innovation. They assist people with new ideas to get those ideas to market. They also find ways to make the law fit a new paradigm.

    • E. Olson says

      JL – you raise some important points, but nobody is saying we haven’t made progress in the last 50 years, its just that the rate of progress has slowed down dramatically from the previous 100 years. Most of the medical, science, agricultural, and infrastructure advances that dramatically increased lifespans and reduced hunger and malnutrition were developed between 1870 and 1970, and more recent progress has been relatively incremental, although still impressive in many ways.

      Yet the rapid pace of development between 1870 and 1970 have also created problems that we are trying to sort out today. For example, Western lifespans went from about 40 to 70, which greatly expanded the productive capacity and the payoff for investments in education (e.g. why spend 10 years in higher education if you are going to die 10 years after graduation?). Longer lifespans also created the desire and need for pension/social security systems to ensure adequate living standards during retirement, which were easily paid for by rapid economic growth and relatively short retirement span (i.e. retire at 65 and die at 70).

      In contrast, since 1970 average lifespan has gone from 70 to 85, which is impressive but arguably not a net economic benefit because most people in that age bracket are not working and contributing to the economy. Furthermore, retirement age has not kept pace, so now society is expected to pay for a 20 year retirement and the very expensive medical care of more and more senior citizens. Now bring in slower economic growth due to aging populations, heavy government regulation, social engineering that favors “fairness” over competence, welfare systems that encourage sloth and “disability”, replacement of productive and cheap energy sources (i.e. carbon fuels) with expensive and inefficient energy sources (i.e. solar and wind), and all of a sudden lots of pensions systems and medical systems are in danger of going bankrupt.

      In other words, high economic growth can allow a lot of luxury items (such as pensions and social justice), but such luxury tends to slow economic growth and technology advancement, which means something has to give.

      • Joanna L. says

        You’ve made some really good points E. Olson. Especially about the fact that our ‘progress’ in the last couple of decades is due to prior advancements.

        Our advancements have been incremental but how much of this is because we have our hands tied and how much of this is simply due to the nature of what it is. For instance if we are speaking about discovering new elements on the periodic table, there is probably a finite number of elements. Once you’ve discovered them all you have to move onto something else and that could be elusive.

        I think in a lot of cases it becomes more about streamlining what is already an effective solution. For instance in medicine we can focus on being able to diagnose and prescribe more accurately thus eliminating superfluous costs, avoiding compounding medical problems and creating waste. It’s absolutely crazy that we are getting under our own feet in achieving this. Maybe we could invest less money in research involving critical theory and more into empirical studies that would actually help but what do I know, I’m just a white, CIS, heteronormative chick from the first world.

        • E. Olson says

          Thank you Joanna – and I can say the same about your points. You bring up one of the key points made by those who think we are likely to slow down in development, because some things can only be done/invented once such as find a new element, or electrify homes, or building a modern road network, etc., which means the follow-up are going to be incremental and likely lead to smaller economic gains.

          As for medicine, one of the big problems is that almost all innovation activity is directed at curing profitable diseases and illnesses, and almost none is directed at lowering costs. This emphasis in almost entirely due to the risk adverse culture that has come with our feminized society (as the author correctly discusses), because government and insurance focused medical care brought about to reduce the risk of financial ruin due to illness also means that someone else is paying for the patient’s medical care, and when someone else pays price sensitivity goes out the window. Then to reduce the risk of greedy drug companies flooding the market with dangerous medicines, we have created a huge and costly testing program that costs over $1 billion for each new drug that makes it to market, which means research effort is going to focus on the most profitable illnesses (i.e. illnesses common to people in rich countries where some other party pays the bills), because that is the only way to make a profit that can be used for further research. Finally, in order to avoid getting sued for malpractice, a doctor or hospital is not going to be interested in some cheaper treatment option that might be used as the basis of the lawsuit, especially if some other party is paying for the treatment. In other words, all the efforts to make getting sick risk free has totally distorted the health care market and taken away incentives to innovate on cheap AND effective treatments. The only exception to this rule are in areas where most patients pay their own bills and hence are price sensitive, which are things such as Lasik surgery, cosmetic surgery, and some dental areas, where quality has generally increased while costs have come way down, which is why we see fewer people wearing glasses and more people with straight noses and teeth.

          In other words, innovation in the medical area would skyrocket if some short-term risk was put back into the system (short-term because costs would drop dramatically in the longer-term).

          • Joanna L says

            There’s a lot of truths in what you say. There are going to be risks with everything and trying to avoid all possible risk is an impossible task. What remains is a case of weighing the risk against potential positive outcomes whilst also considering the possibility of unintended consequences. The only way we can do this by engaging our critical thinking and prioritising from what perspective we are going to approach anything. I think that’s where we can start looking to philosophy for answers. I really like Roger Scruton’s book ‘Green Philosophy’ because it’s the only book I’ve read on the environment which even begins to address these questions.

            Taking risks is important but so is thinking about consequences. I don’t like Facebook’s motto of ‘move fast and break things’. Once you’ve squeezed all the toothpaste out of the tube you may as well give up on putting it back in. To me this is what conservatism is all about. Rather than marching under a banner that says ‘Onward!’ it’s about saying ‘wait shouldn’t we think about this and discuss it a bit before we commit?’.

            I wonder how much of the risk aversion stunting our development is actually protecting objective things of consequence and how much of it is just protecting people’s feelings which are subjective.

  15. Heike says

    “Every year we spend more money on managers rather than on doctors or nurses, and even those doctors and nurses spend more and more time with non-productive tasks such as filling in paperwork. We now need seven or eight signatures to authorize advertising for a part-time admin assistant.”

    This isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. When an organization grows, so does the need of the people in charge to control the organization. Without this paperwork and these eight signatures, they wouldn’t feel in control. They’d feel like the inmates are running the asylum. For them to feel comfortable, the rest of us need to do these things. You understand it’s all for your own good.

    • Kencathedrus says

      @Heike: I spent some time working in the Netherlands. It’s a lovely place, but the work culture is exactly as you describe, particularly within public services. Human insight and experience has been completely replaced by procedures and robotic thinking. I think it has to do with the terrible Dutch education system which is more about attitude-forming rather than knowledge of subject-matter. It rewards correct-think over ambition and innovation, particularly among the children of its poorer citizens. There’s a Dutch saying: ‘Operatie geslaagd; patient overleden’. It means ‘operation successful; patient dead’. It refers to the Dutch habit of following processes even if they don’t work. I believe it’s a form of bureaucratic cowardice and a way for managers to scapegoat their underlings if something goes wrong.

  16. ralfy says

    Mining, manufacturing, and shipping for electronic gadgets and many manufactured goods and even processed food involve oil, especially given extensive supply chains and petrochemicals used for thousands of applications.

  17. This is by far the best article I have ever read on this site, honest and to the point as Aussie’s do.

    I’m also an Aussie.

    I was a little girl when the cold war was a real fear, girls and boys craved science lessons, we would sit around aged 7 or 8 planning how we could use what we knew to save ourselves, our families and friends. We did such a good job, we overcame our fear by the time we were 10, due to the science we had learnt, and the plans we had agreed upon.

    And then we learnt about the 1918, epidemic, we knew we had to respect antibiotics Science is good. Today kids are given a faulty threat, Man Made Global Warming, which does not pan out historically (which I will briefly outline in my PS)
    But even worse they don’t provide them the skills to figure out what to do.

    This has never been scientifically or historically proven. And the children are not provided with the education to deal with it, or dispute it.

    In my work in Australia I deal with children with very high IQs. I know one young white boy, who has been made to repeat kindergarten. He is completely literate, and numerative into the thousands, but he failed to show interest in in recycling rubbish or colouring in ?

    The western world is dead. We were promised so much and got so little, really if you were a time traveller and you came from 1800 to 1850, you would be amazed, if you came from from 1899- 1950, you would have been amazed, since 1950?

    If you came from 1950 to today ? What? Planes, cars and phones have changed? And culturally we are in decline in depravity.

    PS. 2000 years ago the Roman’s grew grapes in Britain?

    Greenland was Green 1000 yrs ago, hence it’s name. And Greenland was warm enough to sustain European medieval society for approx 600 years?

    • Andrew Worth says

      Greenland was Green 1000 yrs ago, and while they may have made wine in Britain it probably was any good, it was just a hell of a lot cheaper than the imported stuff.

      • Andrew Worth says

        Typo: Greenland WASN’T Green 1000 yrs ago, the Greenland icecap is over a million years old and has covered that island the entire time – apart from a few small coastal valleys in the south and south west.

    • ga gamba says

      The western world is dead.

      Go live in the third world for a year or two, return to the first world, and then make that claim.

      The western world is an amazing place. Things function well almost all the time. The blessing are so abundant and needs satisfied so quickly, and often with little exertion, that westerners are spoilt. The problem is that people have lost their confidence in the system due to the endless harping about what mostly are minor if not inconsequential problems.

      There needs to be a re-engagement with dynamism, ambition, and adventure.

  18. Aylwin says

    What merit the may be in this article, it is hidden by ridiculous catastrophising and generalising. To take one example. “If current rules and regulations had been in existence in the 1900s and the first half of the 20thcentury we would not have airplanes, air conditioning, antibiotics, automobiles, chlorine, the measles and smallpox vaccines, cardiac catheters, open heart surgery, radio, refrigeration and X-rays”. Utter BS. Just to pluck a few examples of ongoing development: so many cars that are developed to push back speeds and acceleration times to ludicrous rates; several commercial supersonic aircraft projects; an astonishing array of space and near space projects; several commercial flying car projects; endlessly fascinating new materials science; mesmerising genome based science and medicine research; AI and robotic medicine… This list really could go on and on. Some of this is frivolous (ludicrous car speeds), and to redirect such effort to more worthwhile activities requires more rules (regulation) not less (or at least different) to skew commercial incentives towards better ends.

    There may well be a slowing down of progress, based upon increasing complexity and harder to get at benefits. Your examples of radio and x-rays speak to this. Both of those are based upon the understanding of the electromagnetic spectrum. That spectrum has been used to the extent or current tech allows. There is no such step-change progress available that became available on usage of electromagnetic radiation.

  19. Michael Lardelli says

    Neither Prof. Dietz or any other commenter has yet mentioned Joseph Tainter’s “Collapse of Complex Societies” (i.e. due to increasing bureaucratic complexity). Look it up on Wikipedia. People have been thinking about these things for a LONG time.

    Of course, we live in a finite universe, so why should progress/discoveries/knowledge of the universe not be finite too? Of course it is! And so, of course, there will be diminishing returns from investment in scientific research. This is also a long term trend. See this article: . The process has not yet gone as far in biology as it has in physics and chemistry which is why the former is still quite vibrant. In a society that is founded on the idea of eternal human progress, this causes a good deal of cognitive dissonance.

    As to our inflating bureaucracy throttling research, I feel your pain Hans Peter! The most frustrating part is how new computer systems are introduced in order to “facilitate” the bureaucracy but all they end up doing is making things more difficult. If the systems actually work well (which they usually do not because they are too inflexible in the face of human variation) then they permit bureaucrats to introduce yet more regulation to counter any perceived problems du jour. So workload is not reduced and usually increases instead. Instead of spending tens of millions on computer systems which are too inflexible to ever work well, we should just employ people to do the administration with paper instead. It would often be cheaper in the long run.

    • hans peter dietz says

      One of the serious downsides of modern IT is that it empowers bureaucrats to micro- manage everything. It works like a turbocharger for the worst aspects of our societal governance structures.

      • ga gamba says

        That’s good point. For years the call was to empower by decentralising decision making and flattening hierarchies. However, when ‘errors’ occur, even something as minor as telling a person who wants to use a cafe’s bathroom he need to buy something first, then the organisation scrambles to cover itself by reimposing centralised rules. Even the military is succumbing to this. Where once company grade officers and NCOs were trained to think on their feet and take initiative, real-time communications with the rear echelon has decision making pushed back to superiors.

        There is an intolerance of anomalies, by they accidental or not, and a belief that these are representative of the organisation. They aren’t. You correct or punish those who err but you don’t extrapolate that incident to everyone else and hamstring them.

        • Good point about the military. If you dig up discussion about the differences between NATO and Warsaw Pact militaries from the 1980s, that’s brought up routinely. The WP forces, though larger, would be beaten by the smaller NATO forces through a combination of force multipliers (less but better tech) coupled with the innovation of individual leaders. WP forces were viewed as hamstrung to follow explicit order with little deviation. How, Generals and JAG must make each and every decision which has also rippled through to the genre of Military fiction (often consulted by “recent” prior service/active duty during the writing phases).

  20. chris says

    One thing missing in this essay, to explain stagnating prosperity, is the rising energy-cost-of-energy, the proportion of raw energy needed to be put into extraction. When sweet oil spurted from shallow Texan wells this was 1%. When you’re blowing up sour gassy shales miles underground it’s 10%. Same goes for metal ores. Since the economy is essentially raw energy extracted * efficiency of use, ECOE is like a big tax, rising year on year inexorably, exponentially. Sweep away , if you can, all the non-productive drags on growth, H&S, bureaucracy, etc, and you still have this one.
    I think it’s nuclear fusion and space colonies, or back to the Stone Age.

  21. Jerome Barry says

    The mid-20th century invention of the semiconductor chip enabled every step of progress since. Moore’s Law made computation devices more powerful with steady regularity. That feature of Moore’s Law is now at an end. We won’t necessarily revert to feudal primitivism, but our children and grandchildren won’t have better gadgets than we can procure today.

  22. Prof. Dietz sounds both depressed and depressing. The former is excusable, the latter less so.

    “The average Sci-Fi writer of the 50s, 60s and 70s would be very, very disappointed with the world of 2018.”
    I strongly disagree! Those Cold War SF writers wrote more dystopias than utopias, predicting endless disasters which nearly all never happenned. The very continued existence of humanity now would surprise and please many of those writers.

    The Human Progress website springs to mind as the most obvious antidote to such pessimism, but far be it from me to interfere with anyone’s God-given right to be miserable. It’s the redistribution of misery that I question.

    Prof. Dietz’s concrete and particular gripe shows up paragraph eight, and turns out to be Australian hospital red-tape. It sounds like he has a good point there. Nonetheless, the outsourcing suggests the situation is better outside Australia.

    The comments about risk aversion sound bizarre. The main point of nearly all the technical advances named is to REDUCE risk, so risk aversion is a vital and positive driver.

    Then Prof. Dietz turns to gender and other factors, citing some interesting articles, not least here on Quillette, but still not quite justifying his pessimism.

    Thanks to Prof. Dietz and all commenters.

  23. Wentworth Horton says

    It’s always good to see a Prof or other at elevation finally catch up to issues that we down in the parkade have been grappling with for decades. My job productivity has grown by about 400% in the past 30 years because of tech advancement yet the cost and delivery time on the final product has at least doubled. And it’s all just administrative fat. Same kind of numbers on a business I own. I recently repeated a semi-complex business transaction first done in 2004. Cost on that had risen 4000%. Virtually all of those delays and costs are founded on the various fears and ideological pogroms we see in headlines but in fact are just make work, cash grabs. I guess if that’s the work that is there, that’s the work you take. It’s a numbers game, people who actually do things are vastly outweighed by banks, insurance, multi-levels of bureaucracy, legions of fear crazed soccer moms and run amok Ideology. Sure, it could be argued that these entities have a purpose but on the condition of carte blanche power they’ve become parasitoids. They kill the host.

    • hans peter dietz says

      I agree. Our systems are being parasitised, and the host is seriously ill. It’s most obvious in the Armed Forces. The Israeli military historian Martin van Creveldt has written extensively on this in “Pussycats: Why the Rest Keeps Beating the West—and What Can Be Done about It”

  24. Alan Gore says

    Free speech is an important value in our culture and one that is worth the struggle to rescue from suppression by the social justice warriors, but the risk aversion point made in this article is a more important reason why the US and Europe are falling behind in science and technology.

    China, a country without free speech, is winning because of its phenomenal ability to Just F* Build It, whatever the project may be. The Democratic Party in the US just proclaimed a “Green New Deal” which included replacing domestic aviation with high speed rail. Meanwhile, the same people who drew this plan up had just spent the last ten years delaying and inflating the cost of the very first high speed line, in California. It was finally killed because of the increasing costs caused by delay, which is the SJWs’ basic strategy for killing any technology project they can get their greasy hands on. During that same period of time, China was able to ram through an entire nationwide network of high speed rail.

    • R Vidunas says

      This may look as a non-sequitur, but loose ends are relatable.

      According to Confusianism, the world is a dance of passive, provoking (& feminine) Yin and leading, generative (& masculine) Yang. The civilization today is out of balance: the Yin is too demanding, while the Yang is too emasculated. Especially in the West lately.

      Something unorthodox:

      On the other hand, China was tragicomically sluggish with adapting an industrial revolution for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, especially compared with Japan. Knowing it all can easily mean stagnation.

  25. Saw file says

    When robttz can consisting spell correct, maybe then they can reno your house?

  26. Farris says

    In the last 100 years how many great technological advancements have come from China or Russia? These countries tend to appropriate (steal) their advancements from the West. So is it surprising that as western economies become more command and control that technological innovation stagnates? Additionally, western societies have become overly litigious.

    I recall a story I once read about the space program. (Fading memory may have some of the details muddled but the essence of the story is correct:
    NASA scientist believe one of their rockets (the Gemini series I recall) was venting a gas but couldn’t prove it. Solution; they sent an engineer to the portion of the rocket they believed venting the gas and asked him to sniff.
    Can anyone imagine the number of OSHA violations alone this would be today?

    • gz@va says

      Not much came from Russia and China. Even from heavily financed defense areas in those countries came almost nothing. Because more government control means less innovation. That’s what the article is actually getting at. The more we accepting of the State taking care of us the less innovative we become.

  27. Where are the robots? Anyone can play around with robot toys. Kids learn how to make them and program them. And anyone can download open source software to experiment with artificial intelligence (i.e machine learning). I’ve studied neural networks and the math is very challenging. The results aren’t particularly impressive so I think the effort exceeds the rewards. My point is that anyone who wants to tinker with technology has a wealth of resources to do so.

  28. Boris says

    This essay is incoherent. First, there’s no real evidence given for its premise: that “It is painfully obvious that technological progress between, say, 1968 and now, can’t compare to the periods between 1818 and 1868; 1868 and 1918; or 1918 to 1968.” What evidence is given for this conclusion? That “we don’t even have the capacity” to return to the moon. But, of course we have the capacity. Why would we want to go back?

    But it gets worse. Let’s accept that innovation was higher between 1868 and 1918. Why? Professor Dietz fears that “discrimination on the basis of ethnicity or gender also seems to become more and more acceptable in Western societies.” Perhaps it has been a while since professor Dietz has studied history, but there was significantly more discrimination in academia in 1868 than today. Instead of being denied a promotion here and there, women and persons of color were denied entry to most universities. As for a call for increased deregulation, it is ironic that Dietz thinks it will solve a problem–global warming–that was exacerbated by too little regulation in the first place.

    All in all, this article is nonsensical. It seems that the supposed slowdown in innovation is just an excuse to shoehorn in complaints of “a new authoritarian orthodoxy” with little regard for an actual argument.

    • Farris says


      “It is painfully obvious that technological progress between, say, 1968 and now, can’t compare to the periods between 1818 and 1868; 1868 and 1918; or 1918 to 1968.” What evidence is given for this conclusion? “

      From 1903-1969 (a mere 66 years) mankind went from the first powered flight to landing a man on the moon. Can you honestly say mankind has made a similar quantum leap between 1953-2019?

      • Boris says

        Off the top of my head, we went from discovering the structure of DNA (1950s) to mapping the human genome (early 2000s) and now the beginning of gene editing.

        I do think there could be something to the “low-hanging fruit” idea, though. I’m just not convinced that innovation has been lower.

        • Farris says


          Nice come back. I’m not entirely convinced we are stagnation as we maybe entering a period of innovation revolution. Where the big advances come not in transportation and communications but rather the biomedical fields. This will be spurred by the baby boomer geriatrics.

          However I do agree with author’s point that command and control economies tend to stifle innovation.

      • Anonymous says

        Exactly ! I am so tired of “journalists” gushing about the “technology” of some dumb app for ordering pizza on Facebook – as if that were equivalent to a moonshot.

      • “Can you honestly say mankind has made a similar quantum leap between 1953-2019?”

        Computing would seem another obvious one. In the mid-50s the first commercial transistorised calculator cost about $100k (so the better part of a million today) and were as big as a few fridges. Today, _homeless people_ can afford ($30/month or so) to carry around incredibly powerful computers with high-def touch screens and hundreds of gigabytes of storage, connected to a global network providing basically instant access to the sum knowledge of humanity (and a lot of cat pictures).

    • rickoxo says

      Glad to see I’m not the only one thinking this emperor is butt-naked. I wrote a long rant at the end of comments saying why I thought this was about the worst piece I’ve read on Quillette. I didn’t even get into the reasons why they think progress slowed down, I couldn’t get past how completely blind that perspective is of progress, what’s happened and what’s actually happening now. 🙂

  29. Nicholas says

    I think people assume ‘software’ is one invention that was already invented, but instead it’s a new category of invention which is underappreciated. Academic research is bogged down because the institutions responsible for it have decided to reward publishing over actual progress (which is harder to measure).

  30. Tyler says

    In the book “Skin in the Game”, nassim taleb points out that paying for research might be part of the problem. The innovators of the past did research as a side gig, so the research they did cost them their free time and led to higher quality results.

  31. gz@va says

    I kind of believe that we now leave at a pinnacle of our civilization development, or may be even passed it 5 or 10 years ago. I was noticing it for awhile, wasn’t sure what the reasons are. Anyway, it’s kind of cool, if you think of it. The next cycle may happen 1000s of years from now.

  32. Matt Disen says

    I disagree somewhat. Technological advancement hasn’t been slowing down, but it has shifted. Think of how far vehicles for entertainment have come in the past 50 years. From color TV, to video games and the internet, to folding OLED, computer phones that can fit in your pocket. None of these things by themselves do much to increase the health and well-being of existing in the world, and in some cases they might even detract from it. But it is a significant transformation nonetheless.

  33. Nice article but how are we measuring this?

    Although we seem to be languishing according to some measures of technical or scientific innovation, global measures of poverty and standard of living start showing a meaningful uptick in the 70s and have greatly accelerated over the past two decades.

    Since the 70s, psychologists and economists have developed empirical models for measuring well-being, and empirical evidence for how people evaluate their well-being. And, these are influencing policy and education in many countries.

    So, I am not convinced about the complaint here in this article. Sure, certain classic sciences might have a lower ROI but that does not mean that knowledge is no longer driving progress. There’s more to this story.

    • Sand in my crack pipe says


      In the developed world real wage increases among the middle class have been flat since the 1970s. Happiness scores have been going up slightly for men and gone down for women. Also things like suicide have gone way up especially among middle aged men. Currently 10 percent of men between the ages of 18 and 54 are out of work and worse have given up even attempting to look for work. Health has also deteriorated among Americans with 70 percent of the country qualifying as either obese or overweight. Marriage rates have plummeted especially in the working class. Now 40 percent of children live with only one parent. So there are plenty of ways to measure areas where we are failing to make progress and places where we are actually reversing progress.

      • I think there is a strong case to b emade that happiness is at the very best loosely coupled to technological progress if not completely orthogonal to it.

        The reason that women’s happiness has declined in my opinion is modern feminism which sets unrealistic and unachievable expectations and also encourages disatisfaction and victimhood.

  34. Lydia says

    a constant focus on Identity politics, diversity and cultural climate stifles innovation and creativity. It’s that simple. Really. I don’t know why people can’t see it. I have watch the trajectory of this over 30 years as a corporate consultant. It’s so ingrained now I am not sure how it can be fixed. Instead of not caring what color or gender someone is because we are focused on innovation, that is all we seem to care about.

    • hans peter dietz says

      I reckon it’s not that hard to understand why people are so blind to the obvious. It’s happening all the time in Medicine where obstacles to innovation, both individual and systemic, have been a hobby of mine for 30 years. It’s called ‘conflict of interest’.

      People will deny that the earth is (approximately) round if their prestige/ income/ career depends on it.

      We’re seeing a particularly gross example of this in climate science. Once politicians have committed ideologically, the science is ‘settled’ and any kind of progress becomes near- impossible.

  35. Lightning Rose says

    Great article! I totally agree with you about risk aversion, and less bang for more buck. The Greatest Generation, never mind Teddy Roosevelt’s, would consider us pathetic. We should consider that our international adversaries do not suffer from this problem, but there I digress.

    One thing I think we must guard against is a syndrome I call “tech for tech’s sake.” A good example is how people are holding onto their old iPhones, because the new gee-whiz ones really don’t do much more for the money except for that gee-whiz factor. There is a reason electric cars comprise only 1% of vehicles sold in the US; they are unsuited practically for our weather and distances and are therefore undesirable. Do we really NEED “autonomous vehicles?” The WSJ articles try to sell us the idea that we do, yet the comments sections are overwhelmingly negative. That tech has yet to solve any problem that an Uber driver can’t cover. Flying taxis? 24/7 electronic “health” monitoring, tied to your insurance? Wanna be microchipped, really, to pay for a train ticket? And unless you’re a quadriplegic, do you REALLY need voice activation to flip light switches and change radio stations while you sweat via electronic muscle-group stimulation? The irony!

    I call a lot of this stuff Buck Rogers gadgets. They are toys for nerds, who’ll quickly be on to the next thing. I’d be very, very careful with my investment dollars for The Next Kewl Thing.

    • “Do we really NEED “autonomous vehicles?”
      Obviously it depends what you mean by need versus want but I would very much benefit from a truely autonomous vehicle.

      I would love to be able to rest or work while travelling by car and I would love to be able to drink and then be driven home.

      The issue is that the supposedly autonomous vehilces being developed do not even aim at true autonomy.

      • Lightning Rose says

        Hire a chauffeur. Or a taxi! I don’t see the need for computers to do this. OTOH, how much time is your car in motion vs. sitting unused? In the cities, there is a very cogent argument for ride-sharing on demand in lieu of car ownership and a million parking spaces. Still don’t see why a transition to ride-sharing must necessarily be electric or autonomous except someone wants to sell us their favorite “tech.”

        • “Hire a chauffeur. Or a taxi!”

          Have you consider hiring a musician, group or orchestra instead of listening to music on whatever device you use?

          Seriously a chaufffeur how much money do you have? Even a taxi is dubious given I live in the country but more to the point productivity is increased when we find ways to automate tasks so that people who do those tasks can do something else.

          The problem with autonomous vehicles is that they are not autonmous and therefore still need a human to be paying attention and therefore have no real benefit at all.

          • Stephanie says

            Actually autonomous vehicles would be far superior to taxis or Ubers. It would be much safer for women and other demographics endangered by the people who tend to drive people for a living (I’ve been subjected to two late-night anti-Semitic rants by taxi drivers).

            Allowing people to relax or work while traveling, and end truck driving as a profession, frees up countless human hours for more productive use. Not taking advantage of that technology is like disapproving of washing machines or dish washers. Why fight something so useful?

  36. Once Upon a Time says

    “If civilization had been left in female hands we would still be living in grass huts,” (with Nakatomi Plaza) Camille Paglia.

    Which reminds me: a male student was giving a presentation on how as a kid he wandered around without depending on something like an I-Phone or even a parent. In other words, he had recognized what the technology had done to his spirit of adventure.

    Fellow teacher in the audience, she says: That’s maturity.

    I didn’t dare say that this is, generally, FEMALE maturity. For men it’s the kiss of death.

  37. Kronosaurus says

    This is an ambitious argument but I think it fails. We have made incredible transformations in the last 50 years. We have gone from staring at little black and white boxes to having supercomputers in our pockets and being in instant connection with a vast network of peoples at all times. That’s a big deal.

    The problem we now face is one of social organization. We currently have the technological know-how to build a highly efficient, automated society. If we could start from scratch we could make every home a smart-home and have bullet trains between every city and so-on. The problem, as Hans points out, is one of red-tape and regulation. If a dictator could rule by decree and have 100% coercive powers they could construct a vastly more productive society based on our current technology. But obviously we don’t want that because it would mean sacrificing the individual to the hive.

    The main problem in science now is social in nature. If we could distribute wealth, figure out a way to keep population under control, and be comfortable with a small decrease in consumption, all without mowing down individuals in the name of the collective we could have a wonderful future even if climate changes and species go extinct. But we are no where near close to figuring out how to split that hair. This is a problem for the Social Sciences.

    • Lightning Rose says

      “If a dictator could rule by decree and have 100% coercive powers they could construct a vastly more productive society based on our current technology.”

      You just described China. Social credits, anyone? I give it 10 years to be here and a done deal.

    • hans peter dietz says

      You expect the social sciences to come to the help of suffering humanity? Pull the other one mate.

    • A dictator does not act for the “collective”, a dictator acts for himself.

      What you want is democracy – real democracy where the people are not at the mercy of their representatives’ whims, but can circumvent them when they cease being representative.

  38. behind you says

    Hopefully the striking lack of viewpoint diversity among Quillette commenters is not representative of the population of readers as a whole.

  39. Sylvain says

    I feel like the entire premise of the article “progress has slowed down” is but an unproven pretext for an ideological rant.

    The title should’ve made that more explicit.

    • “I feel like the entire premise of the article “progress has slowed down” is but an unproven pretext for an ideological rant.”

      Welcome to Quillette ?

  40. I think the article is a good summary of progress over the past half century. Most of the change has resulted as incremental developments from prior scientific and technological change. The move from B&W TV to mobile phones has been incremental, and not involving great leaps of creativity. The internet grew from plugging two unix boxes together. Almost immediately people started speculation about its potential – i.e. the web. HTML was a downsizing of more powerful text handling protocols.

    These have been interrelated with social change. Initially, a large proportion of men were employed in digging holes or other heavy manual labour. A large proportion of women in the workplace typed. Now much of the heavy work is done by tractors and fork-lifts, and almost everyone working indoors types for themselves. In the home, as my mother pointed out when I was a child, electrical devices from washing machines to stoves had dramatically reduced the heavy work there. Tasks such as hand washing clothes and chopping wood for chip heaters and stoves disappeared in my early childhood. Also worth noting is that up till then the women’s role involved more skill than digging holes. Many changes have contributed to the deskilling of housekeeping.

    All this involved a massive increase in workforce participation while reducing the need for human input. We’ve incrementally created work that didn’t exist before – some of it useful, but much of it counterproductive. It’s been a long time since I had a frank discussion with a GP. I won’t go into my thoughts on the expansion of the legal industry other than to suggest that condoning the practice of lawyers advertising was a big mistake.

    Shifting to the quality of research, a major problem, as has been mentioned, is the use of publication metrics for academic promotion. Much of the research done in universities is not only of little value, but performed under duress rather than genuine curiosity or inspiration. Back in the 90s an academic commented to me, knowing that I’d just completed a well-paying training contract in industry, that he would prefer to be paid commercial rates for his teaching and be left to spend the rest of his time as he wished. The time has come for that idea to be seriously considered, along with a thorough re-evaluation of the role and function of the university system. Like medicine, it has become bloated with bureaucracy.

    Why should students have to work with substandard lectures when the world’s best can be available on the web? The primary role for universities, and their web successors, should be tutoring and assessment.

    Solutions? A broad realisation of the nature of our predicament would be a good start. This article is a valuable step in that direction.

  41. Caligula says

    The bright spot in technology over the past fifty years has been electronics, along with applications of these electronics. Transportation has mostly been a bust; it’s not just that we don’t have flying cars or moon colonies, but that many everyday journeys actually take longer (door-to-door) now than they did fifty years ago.

    And that bright spot of electronics seems to be dimming, as Moore’s Law grinds toward a halt. No doubt improvements in applications of electronics will continue for some time, but, overall the astonishing rate of improvements of the last few decades seem unsustainable as semiconductor technologies appear to be (as all technologies must, eventually) running up against hard physical limits.

    Then again, the technologies of the late 19th century (commercial electricity and internal combustion, mostly but also germ theory) provided improvements to everyday life on a very broad scale. Even if it did take over fifty years to fully realize and implement them.

    The vast improvements in electronics have obviously been significant, but it’s hard to see their overall significance as equalling that of electricity plus internal combustion.

    There is, perhaps, still some hope that biotechnology will deliver some impressive applications, however.

    And perhaps some things just can’t be repeated. Thus, I’d argue that the difference between a world in which no one knew how to record sound and one with windup phonographs is larger than the difference between those phonographs and today’s mp3 players and streaming apps. For one is the difference between something and nothing, while the other is the difference between something and a better something.

  42. Debbie says

    “[W]hy it is that, 50 years after the greatest triumph of the Apollo programme, we don’t even have the capacity to repeat the technological feats of the late ’60s”?

    Oh, we could easily send a human back to the moon, but we have much less</i? tolerance for risk. Maybe technology shrunk our ballz, yo.

    • hans peter dietz says

      That’s what the ‘victimhood culture’ does. It shrinks all kinds of body parts 😉

  43. mitchellporter says

    “The average Sci-Fi writer of the 50s, 60s and 70s would be very, very disappointed with the world of 2018”

    Measured by this pop-culture barometer, there was indeed a change in the 1980s, but it was not a halt to technological progress, rather a shift in direction. The supreme statement of the 1980s sf ethos is found in Bruce Sterling’s “Preface to ‘Mirrorshades'”. Note the emphasis on small and intimate technologies, like the silicon chip and genetic engineering.

    You know, we have more reason than ever before to think that genuine rejuvenation of human beings is possible (e.g. Aubrey de Grey’s SENS research program) – with the implication of multi-century lifespans – or that superhuman AI might hatch from the machine-learning clouds of the big technology companies. The fluidity of the digital world, and the material fluidity it implies via 3D printing and customized DNA synthesis, actually defies human comprehension.

    I guess cynicism counsels that it’s possible that the world of 2060 will be very very disappointing to the average transhumanist of the 90s, 00s, and 10s, because the utopian hopes of transcendence will have been neglected in favor of other priorities. But it’s hard to see how it would not at least be replete with technologies and phenomena that barely exist now. There are too many novelties constantly brewing in the university and corporate labs of the world.

    Then there’s the argument that there will be a new dark age. Overpopulation will lead to energy and food shortages, there will be dustbowls on land and giant algal blooms at sea, and starving societies with hundreds of millions of people will use WMDs in the scramble for territory. Well, all that can happen and technology can keep progressing, in high-tech national enclaves with a Swiss or North Korean ethos, or among the military-industrial elites of the warring survivalist superpowers. It’s not a happy picture, but it’s also not a static one.

    I will not deny that this essay mentions many things that are true. But when have real innovators ever had it easy? Is it so strange that, even when we have whole bureaucracies meant to foster science and innovation, people with truly new and radical ideas may still have trouble getting a hearing? Our information society of credentialism, social media, and lifelong education and training is a new social structure with new kinds of problems and vices, but it can and does still invent things.

    • Foyle says

      Indeed. Interpreting the tech scene today as one lacking in pace of development is just not seeing beyond the surface. When we are really in the midst of colossal changes in a wide range of fields. Much driven by the advent of machine learning. Progress in AI in the last 8 years has been staggering – nearly 6 orders of magnitude speedup by some metrics, there are now deep learning systems with processing power equivalent to human brain (TPU 3.0 pod) just waiting the likely inevitable software development that will yield general intelligence. General Adversarial Networks are already demonstrating very brain-like evolution of conceptualisation frameworks.

      Robots will soon be capable of doing a vast range of currently human-only jobs, driving, gardening, cleaning, produce picking and labouring. They will begin to undercut the labour market in a lot of fields in the west in short order and massively increase productivity in many other professions. That will likely lead to on-shoring of a lot of jobs lost to 3rd world creating a huge new automated industrialisation of the west.

      House construction is likely to drop in cost by a factor of 2-5 with individualised factory automation of manufacturing off-site and IKEA like build processes on site (robots again).

      Photovoltaic power and battery tech has reached cost parity with other forms of electricity in sunny clime, needing only batteries to catch up, and will start to take over domestic electricity in many places once battery production is ramped up and their retail cost bought down. That’s the biggest revolution in power production in a century as electricity production moves away from large utilities and towards the home. Hydrogen from PV in sunny 3rd world countries can now undercut fossil fuels for price.

      We are within 5-10 years of commercial (tri-alpha and a few other startups, not ITER), and possibly also massively cheaper/safer modular fission power. Energy is going to get cheaper and non-carbonised.

      LED lighting is taking over – a massive but mostly un-noticed tech revolution.

      Electric cars are within 5-10 years of economic parity with internal combustion engines, another huge revolution after 100 years of I.C.Engine dominance. Batteries will likely improve by factor of 2-3x in performance for cost within 10 years as they become an industry worth 100’s of billions per year and payoff from R&D skyrockets.

      Fast cheap VTOL personal transport is going on sale starting this year (Blackfly 2019, but many many others soon) and may usher in the slow death of the city and tremendous social changes. Short range ~1hr commercial flight will go electric within 10-20 years.

      Access to space is likely to become possible for upper middle class in next 10 years in the same way an antipodean holiday flight was 40 years ago. With it space will inevitably become militarised by superpowers.

      A huge revolution in disease treatment and life extension appears to be about to happen over next 10-20 years enabled by startling tech breakthroughs in gene editing.

  44. Shane Sweeney says

    Wow, what a dogmatic response. I don’t agree with the technological primace of this article either but your response serves as an example of the part of the article I do see played out.

  45. hans peter dietz says

    Good on you for your optimism, mitchellporter. I can’t share it, having seen too many graphs in my world that look awfully asymptotic. Curves of diminishing returns.

  46. Ray Andrews says

    “Investment in complexity that produces negative returns”

    We can presume that the flourishing of bureaucracy and regulation is done with good intent and if only the bureaucrats could see that they’re doing more harm than good, they’d stop. But I suspect that bureaucrats love bureaucracy because all systems tend to expand and generating more regulations and controls and procedures also generates more bureaucrats, which is the real point of the thing.

  47. rickoxo says

    Sorry, but this has to be one of the dumbest articles ever published on Quillette and I can’t believe how many comments bought into the foolishness.

    If a brand new player tries tennis for the first time, they go from 0 skill to some moderate amount of skill in a small amount of time. The improvement is enormous. No ability to get a serve in to hitting a 60 mph serve, not knowing how to hold a racket to hitting forehands in the court, etc. etc. Play for a few more months, hard practice, you can get to an intermediate level, but the rate of improvement goes way down. Not because the brand new player isn’t trying or because of bureaucracy or practice inefficiency, but because they’re not starting from 0. If they get to be a top college player, maybe even top 500 in the world, moving from there to becoming a top 20 pro is unbelievably difficult and isn’t even possible for most people. Top college players hit serves in the 120’s. Some pros do no better than that. A few of the best pros do 10-20% better, but not even the greatest tennis players of all time double serve speeds, or triple forehand accuracy or quadruple anything. When any area of expertise, tennis or astro physics is well developed, unbelievable amounts of work and growth show up as tiny bits of improvement.

    This is one of the most basic ideas of life and science. I can’t believe people are comparing growth from the bottom 10th percentile to the 20th percentile as equivalent to moving from the 80th to the 90th. Notice how all of the examples of unbelievable growth are examples of things that mainly didn’t exist previously (combustion engine, tv, moon landing, etc.). But during all those periods of “amazing growth” look at farming and education. Were those areas revolutionized? Did we invent whole new plants, invent new animals to raise? Did teachers invent entirely new ways to teach? Just ten years ago, I was on a cattle ranch, riding horses, using a rope lasso to catch cattle where we tied them up, castrated them with a knife and sent them out to forage for grass on open range land. Cattle raising didn’t change hardly at all over those periods, farming scarcely improved, and teaching sure as hell didn’t get any better, but somehow that’s missed in the idiocy of the article.

    Your average high school student today taking an AP class knows more than the world’s greatest scientists back when this article says was the height of brilliant discovery. I have 9th graders I teach doing more calculus than almost any mathematician in the world in the 1800’s. In a few years of high school and college, average, basic students travel and surpass thousands of years of prior human knowledge. They can do that not because all humans are geniuses now, but because, in terms of total sum of knowledge, it’s a tiny amount and easy to manage. The discovery of it was a huge undertaking, the work of geniuses and an incredible benefit for civilization. But the amount of new and useful information and knowledge being generated today completely dwarfs all of those periods combined.

    There are many places to go once the idiocy of the article is dismissed, but the reality is, I think we should be hugely worried about how fast things are happening research wise in areas where there’s often limited or no supervision, few if any safeguards and huge amounts of money driving forward progress potentially without concern for consequences. I’m mainly thinking of genetic manipulation and alteration and artificial intelligence, but I’m sure there are other areas that are equally terrifying that I just know nothing about. It seems every day I read another article saying artificial intelligence is no biggy, Siri will just give you better movie recommendations and Google won’t get you lost.

    I’m not worried about killer robots, that’s not the problem. The problem is that within 15 years AI will be able to replace almost every type of mid-level manager position at every type of company in the US. That’s not to mention drivers, pilots, many factory workers, service workers along with all the other jobs lost because of other forms of automation/technological advancement. Maybe it will be 20, outside 25. Is that fast enough progress for folks? With the 50 million or so jobs that are lost, there won’t be 50 million new programming jobs, and, the trajectory will only get worse in terms of the number and types of jobs that AI will be able to replace. So we can worry about why the seismic retrofit for some bridge somewhere is bogged down in its third environmental impact report and worker safety evaluation and lament that we’re stagnant as a society, or we can actually look in the right places and see that we’re getting close to the edge of some cliffs and we’re going kind of fast and I’m not at sure that anyone’s driving or knows where they’re going …

  48. D.B. Cooper says

    @Hans Peter Dietz

    Dr. Dietz, you’re on the short list from here on out. That was an excellent article backed with a cogent argument. Nicely done.

    My first thought was to attribute this decline in tech. progress to a concept known as the last mile problem (LMP). If you’re unfamiliar with the LMP, it is a problem within supply chain management that has proved quite insoluble. Having said that, by the time I’d finished your article, I was persuaded, I may be wrong. Of course, two things can be true at once and this is almost certainly a multivariant problem.

    Lastly, to your point, the seems little doubt that our society (or Western civ. at large) has become more risk averse. You seemed to hint at (what is at least in your opinion) the cause of this risk aversion without explicitly committing to it. And while I may be overreading this, I can understand why one would be reticent to do so. The feminization of Western societies via the proliferation of women within the public/political domain has undoubtedly been a contributing factor – if not the main driver – of our increased aversion to risk. The question of “Why?” seems simple enough: it is in women’s nature to be more risk averse than their counterpart, and so, they will organize their environment (read Western society) accordingly. But the question of “How?” now that is a much more delicate question. If one were so inclined, one may notice the rise of women in these sectors (public/political), and the subsequent rise in risk aversed behavior (as well as public welfare programs) almost perfectly coincides with the rise of women’s suffrage. Finally, I would just like I would just like to note that there is a subtle but important difference between an ‘observation’ and a ‘value judgement’. I’m certainly not suggesting that women shouldn’t be allowed to vote, but what I am suggesting is that nothing happens in a vacuum. In the real, there are no perfect solutions, there are only trade-offs.

    • Ray Andrews says

      @D.B. Cooper

      Good Morning D.B, I see you still haven’t gone crazy, I’m teetering on the brink.

      Yes, of course part of the decline is the last mile problem, or even simply the law of diminishing returns, and part of it is the decline in the masculine culture of risk taking and social structures that reward that. Women don’t like risk so a feminized culture will be a ‘safe’ culture.

      But let me put in a plug for my semi-neo-commie-socialist view that a huge part of the problem is that we’ve lost the distinction between what I call real capitalism and what I call Goldman capitalism. Today money multiplies itself not via genuine investment and innovation but by hiring very clever boys in red suspenders to manipulate things. In my view that is so different a thing from what, say, Musk does, that we should not even give them the same label ‘capitalism’. Musk concentrates labor (capital) so as to produce innovation. What Goldman does is moneyism not capitalism. Why treat them the same? Musk produces rockets that can land on their tails. Goldman produces economic instability and bursting bubbles. In my commie utopia we tax the hell out of Goldman, but we reward Musk and if he gets stinking rich, he earned it.

    • sestamibi says

      So true, and actually measured by John Lott.

      As the pussification of America continues with women pushing men out of top leadership positions, we can expect this to accelerate and intensify. D.B., it would be useful to reference the most important precepts of contemporary feminism:

      * Life must be all bliss, all the time, and government must step in to make it so. Hence the focus on dignitary harm rather than material harm in cases of discrimination. Hence, “participation trophies”. Hence “The Oscar goes to . . . ” replacing “and the winner is . . . ” Hence purple pens for test and term paper correction because red is just too traumatizing.
      Hence, WalMart is accused of “discrimination” for placing black hair care products under lock and key because of theft issues. No one is keeping anyone from purchasing such products, but black feelings are hurt because of such a scheme. Similarly, Christian bakers who refuse to make wedding cakes for same-sex ceremonies are not discriminating against the BUYERS, but stating that they will not provide a specific product. Would anyone go to a kosher deli and order a ham and cheese sandwich?

      * The truth is whatever I believe it to be–and my truth is universal. Hence Anita Hill, Christine Blasey Ford, and whatever #MeToo scandal of the moment. Thus a man’s life can be ruined on the whim of any vicious cunt with an ax to grind. How long will it be until a violent pushback occurs?

      * No risk is worth it.

      At this rate, I can’t help but wonder how long it will be before white male suffrage is seriously called into question since men have been the source of all the world’s ills, and thereby need to be excluded from all decision-making

  49. Jackson Howard says

    The OP makes some good points with respect to red tape but misses the barn. Red tape is necessary in lots of cases, but what I see is the following : massive amount of self-inflicted red tape from internal corp/public service guideline from middle management, which has ballooned since the 70’s. Corporations with their internal politics are very good at producing bullshit jobs which are really good at generating internal red tape. Couple that with armies of lawyers and rampant NIMBYism and pork barrel politics, and you get a very dissipative system where everything is hampered and done ineffectively.

    However, that’s not the whole story. The big thing is that all the “easy” stuff has been done by the early XXth century. The quantum physics and early nuclear physics were done by 20-30 people. The time to go from cutting edge science to practical industry application is about a century. There are diminishing returns. Testing cutting edge hypothesis takes massive efforts. Galileo used a DIY telescope to see Jupiter moons, but “seeing” neutrinos or gravity waves are industrial scale efforts.

    Progress happened. Just not in a way people expected. People expect the same, but better. This is not what we got. This is why retrofuturism is so funny, it misses all the weird stuff.

    An other thing is that researchers are strongly incentivized to produce “marketable” research. That is good for small incremental improvements, but for breakthrough where you need researchers to be able to explore high risk / high reward stuff. Not much funding for that though, too risky. Imagine if Heisenberg funding was conditional to producing marketable results…

    Case in point with AI. For a long time there was no funding. Too risky. Not marketable and insufficient hardware after the failures from the 80’s. People now laugh at SIRI and Google assistant. How dumb they are, the errors they make and so on. AI went from the intelligence of a fly to one of a clever cat in two decades. In a not too distant future, it will displace most of the bullshit jobs that where created after the manufacturing automation. I remember that in yr2K, one senior faculty member referring to swarm intelligence robot experiments as “cute but useless”.

    Then there is the lack of big vision projects in the West beyond “growth” and a willingness from both the left (nuclear, GMO) and the right (Climate change and ecological constraints) to ignore any inconvenient science. That really does not help either.

  50. Right-wing neoliberal economics has been running the world for the better part of 40 years now, so

    * public assets have been mostly stripped
    * publicly-funded, independent science and industry is declining
    * industry – particularly financial industries – have been largely deregulated and unleashed
    * industry is becoming increasingly concentrated into a smaller number of larger organisations
    * monopolies and oligopolies are increasingly rampant and unchallenged
    * workers rights are under constant degredation and attack
    * welfare is under constant degredation and attack
    * job security is in steep decline
    * incomes are stagnant or dropping
    * hyper-individualism is widely advocated
    * social discord is increasing
    * democracy is starting to crack under sustained attack and corruption is becoming more and more blatant

    The first factors are important since most real innovation comes out of publicly funded institutions (private industry tends to be too risk averse to pursue genuinely revolutionary ideas).

    The next factors mean what innovation private industry is prepared to invest in is further stymied by increasingly larger, slower-moving and risk-driven oligopolies.
    (This is what is driving the explosion in middle-management, which is subsequently replicated into the public or psuedo-public sector as it is corporatised.)

    The penultimate factors means normal people are increasingly unable to buy new stuff and have to get by on what they already have.

    The final factors mean people are less inclined to work together, feel they have no way to effect change, and in reality do have less and less ability to effect change.

    On top of that, conservative politics and ideologies are ascendant, opposing change, progress and diversity of thought in principle, and trying to build a society based around hierarchy, class, authoritarianism and fear (yet more risk-aversion) rather than reason.

    It is hilarious – or it would be, if it weren’t so scary – that, given the above, anyone could keep a straight face while blaming our woes on women, political correctness and what little regulations remain.

    • just sayin says

      An eminently plausible reason real wages haven’t increased in the last 40 years or so is that after the “pool of labor”, broadly speaking, had increased by, say 30% or more, since the social revolution of the 60’s and 70’s with previously inhibited women going into the workspace, the oversupply, or shall we say increased supply, of labor will restrict the price labor can command as a matter of course. Didn’t say there are not women who are brilliant, or that there are not women who can contribute constructively to the economy. just sayin: Don’t expect wages to go up unless you are truly brilliant. Then add unregulated or poorly regulated immigration into the equation….oh well…Think about that, CS. Individualism fuels creativity. I don’t know how “hyperindividualism” differs from individualism. Hierarchy and class exist in any Human society. They are an ineradicable part of Human Nature and organize society and it’s productions. Competence drives results. Or even more comprehensively: Karma is everything. Be careful, but not rigid about what you do, and pay attention to your intentions. Nothing is unearned. Consciousness is eternal. Sure, I’m Buddhist with a Vedic emphasis, but so is about 1/5 of the world and I would submit that a lot of the remainder of the world would be also, if they let themselves think truly freely. And most of us, I would submit, ascribe strenuously to the idea of competence and achievement, as opposed to the caricature of Buddhists as people who like to spend an inordinate amount of time sitting on warm cushions.
      The first-world societies of (urbanized) Europe and and the (urbanized) Anglo world have been feminized considerably the last 50 years. It is neither all good or all bad. But the masculine habit of breaking rules in the pursuit of creating new territories whether they be figurative or literal, has taken a big hit as a result of – not the brilliant or creative or innovative women of society – but of the women of moderate ability who have been freed from plainly grueling domestic work resulting from the industrial revolution. DIdn’t say that was good or bad. Just sayin it can’t be hard for anyone with a clear head to draw straight line through all of that. And then, of course, they adventures untethered young men get into are often fatal. Good / Bad / or something in between?
      You Decide.

      • In countries where strong workers rights lasted longer, wage increases continued during the same era and process.

        Individualism is not forcing people to conform.
        Hyperindividualism is “I’ve got mine, f**k you” (ie: the Libertarian credo).

        Hierachy and class exist, but the right considers them inherent and essential social constructs based around birthright that should be used to unquestionably rule society, whereas the left sees them as useful tools for management and governance, and seeks to make them egalitarian and accessible, regardless of birthright. Modern “all in” democracy, is a product of the left, along with the foundations of our legal systems.

        The “feminisation” “argument” (ignoring its subjectivity, vagueness and sexism) carries little weight in a world where pretty much all power structures are dominated by men. Women may well have become more common in the workforce, but they remain rare in the places where decisions are made.

        Similarly does the idea that great ideas and people are being systemically suppressed because of “political correctness”. Nobody is complaining about the likes of Elon Musk. Those falling afoul of “political correctness” are nearly always trying to mask bigotry behind a figleaf of (usually psuedo-) science. The author’s suggestion we would not have aircraft, et al, invented in today’s world is absurd hyperbole.

        The society built in the aftermath of WW2, created on principles of public goods, common causes, community and egalitarianism – resulting in the greatest uplift in living standards in human history and widespread prosperity of the modern world – has been steadily disassembled by right-wing neoliberals since the ’70s, with the consequences we see today.

        • just sayin says

          I would submit, and speaking for myself and as a consequence of my 50+ years of life in this body, that the reasons men are predominantly found in places of top leadership and at the top of power structures the world over is that humans have an innate, instinctive apprehension of the fact that men are more prone to violence, are more aggressive, and are more likely to take high stakes risks in the service of (one would hope) a significantly greater good. Women are more likely (statistically speaking – in both cases – but still) to seek compromises and avoid conflict and showdowns, which latter quality can result in the intractability of complicated conflicts. O course the preexisting presence of men in leadership positions of other “tribes” creates a feedback loop in the nomination of leadership for one’s own tribe; and I’m not proscribing what the “correct” social structure should be going forward. I’m trying to state as plainly as I can why, after having given the matter a bit of thought, I think things are the ways they are.

          • At least we can agree the “feminisation” position is a load of garbage.

  51. Constantin says

    There is no question that top heavy management is stifling and ineffective. There is hardly anything new there. Dogmatic ideologies that took control of universities are a VERY BIG problem. A ruined education system is the way to bring progress to a halt. When coupled with a vigorous agenda of redistribution and increased centralization, our countries are slowly but surely going the path of the Soviet empire. If you want innovation, clean up your schools and universities of dogmatic zealots. It is easy, start by immediately firing those whose “papers” get a total of 10 citations of less. Starting with firing those never quoted at all, will already save you billions and get the worst of the cancer thrown to the curb. I did not like the structure of this article. It makes some good points but it started really weakly with a sci-fi longing that does not belong in an article intended to sound the alarm bout some serious social issues. There are plenty of robots around. For goodness sake, every second call you get is from a robot. That espresso machine on the counter is also a sophisticated automation. What is possibly missing is humanoid robots picking up the trash – and the only reason for this is that that that is the least efficient way to design a trash collecting robot. Once you overcome the juvenile concern about robots and the common cold (which all experts agree it is better left treated with rest and plenty of water), the question of risk aversion is brought up as a side effect of the “feminization” of science. I disagree on multiple fronts: 1) The author is conflating the presence of women in science with the truly destructive side effects of an ideology that uses and abuses women more than it helps them. There are plenty of female scientists worth their salt. The problem is not their sex. The problem is that crazy ideologues push women and minorities into positions they are not qualified for and incapable of the high performance needed to push science ahead. I see these people as victims of that ideology and of the idiots who count expecting a 50-50 distribution ratio in every human endeavor in direct contradiction to biological facts and normal interest distribution. I am glad that feminism brought about universal suffrage and acceptance. But what we are dealing with now is not a feminist plot but actual outlandish Marxian revanchist ideology, and forgive me for pointing out that, although adopted by many crazy women, it has been largely the product of beta males incapable of taking care of their own children. Yes there is a cancer in our universities and we have to deal with it urgently, lest we end up duplicating the failed soviet experiment. The last two paragraphs of this essay are the most relevant ones and the most on point as to what we need to do to revert to normality, and not only in science and innovation. I would like to add that most of us are continuously manifesting an appeasing mode towards this rabid ideologues and submit slowly but surely to their control in small but incremental steps. The real question is when will we finally say enough? Would it be before they build re-education camps and take complete control of government and all state institutions, or before, when it can still be done without bloodshed?

    • Bravo Constantin. 99%. Correct in all details.

      Notwithstanding that all commenters on this site are of a very high calibre, the best you good people could do was correctly recognise the symptoms of the disease. Constantin identified it correctly – Marxian cancer.

      I’m rather surprised no one else did. For those who may not be able to see the connections clearly, consider the time frame specified correctly by the article’s author, mid-sixties as the starting point as being an intense point in the cold-war when the CCCP was struggling to keep pace with the west. Then join the dots from there. Something had to be done to slow the rapid western technological advance. There were/are plenty of Marxist sympathisers in the west. All they had to be do was introduce the cancer and let the disease grow. And grow it has.

      Technological development slowed by regulation, litigation, diversions into social sciences, confusion, frustration, social divisions, internal class warfare, eco-obstruction, all of the Marxist tools for economic collapse.

      I recommend all to read Constantin’s powerful argument several times until it all sinks in and then don’t forget it. In particular this last sentence – “The real question is when will we finally say enough? Would it be before they build re-education camps and take complete control of government and all state institutions, or before, when it can still be done without bloodshed?”

      Well done Constantin. Thanks.

      The only place you lost 1 mark was due to structure. Please do try to use paragraphs. It makes it easier for dummies like me to read.

  52. Jezza says

    An interesting article accompanied by thought-provoking comments. Thank you everyone. My ponderment file grows ever fatter. (My ponderment file is a mental cache where I store things to ponder, when I can be bothered). All respondents evince some level of concern for the state of civilization as we know it, but I say, “Don’t worry. It’s out of your hands. You are all going to die.” There are eternal truths most people ignore. “This too shall pass” is a statement that may be applied to almost any condition – off-hand I cannot think of any condition to which it cannot be applied. The USA will fade away. Dinosaurs will die out (except for the amphibious ones). Feminists all will drown in their tears. God, whatever that may be, is the prime mover, and you are not God. So don’t get into a tizz about the human condition or the condition of the planet. That is not in your purvue. I suggest you eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow . . . .

    • Ray Andrews says


      Wisdom worthy of Marcus Aurelius. Have you read the Meditations?

  53. david of Kirkland says

    Is there a resolution? Will people ever decide to be high risk ever again now that we’ve spent a century trying to get rid of any? Stranger danger, school shooters, terrorists, me-too, maga-too, seem to indicate we are soft and tired and nothing like our ancestors when it came to adventure, strength, courage and risk taking.

  54. What social media did was give a voice and ability to band together, to the wrorst kinds of people. It promoted so much but also meant the bad ideas and the uneducated where now able to speak and think themselves educated. The fight then became between evidence based scholars and the “do your own research” Facebook experts.

    We all know how well it’s been going.

  55. Interesting Thing says

    We live in a time of stifling rules, and women dominate in the erstwhile creative institutions, and women are rule-bound to a fault. A rule based society promotes women, who’s conscientiousness gets them through school and exams (doing what they are told in other words) but has no place for the anarchy of young males, where creativity always lies. Don’t look to our corporations and institutions for creativity – look in basements, garages and sheds, where you will still find young men alone and in groups, oblivious to society, working away on something that interests them – and occasionally breaks out and sweeps through wider society.

  56. Peter says

    I agree with the article that the cancer of bureaucracy has spread too much. Also that the blind use of metric to evaluate research is a problem. And with a lot of other stuff as well.

    But statements as:

    “If current rules and regulations had been in existence in the 1900s and the first half of the 20th century we would not have airplanes, air conditioning, antibiotics, automobiles, chlorine, the measles and smallpox vaccines, cardiac catheters, open heart surgery, radio, refrigeration and X-rays. “

    This is simply not true. E.g., CT scans involve far more radiation exposure than old X-ray photos. So big risks are taken even today if they seem to be outweighed by the benefits. And many risky technologies turned out a big problem. Just think about pesticides containing arsenic. Their legacy is now, decades later, beginning to plague some agricultural regions in US.

    Regulation is often good. In the fifties, German government opted for deregulation of drugs to spur the growth. It resulted in the thalidomide disaster: thousands of babies born with deformities, many dying. Due to stricter regulation, USA was spared.

    I still shrug with horror at the memories of my early driving days 50 years ago. The roads were narrow and bad, my new car a death trap by today standards, overtaking an extremely high risk procedure due to inadequate power. I remember at least two incidents in which I escaped narrowly. I personally saw several bodies on the road. While the traffic was a fraction of what we are experiencing today, five times as many people died on the road in the same area in a year. And the tremendous progress in safety and a good increase in fuel efficiency were achieved even as the car companies were constantly whining that it was technically impossible, too costly etc.

    Time and again useful innovations come from unexpected venues. E.g., basic biogenetic research, that probably no private company would finance, in the end brings methods to sort out better enzymes for dishwasher detergents. Ga gamba provided more excellent examples. Anyone working in research knows that it is impossible to predict the results: you are not sure about success until everything has been checked. That is also the charm of research. So complaining that Science Fiction writers would be disappointed is really naïve.

  57. Having spent a career working on the very bleeding edge in research & development I have to respectfully disagree. Where are the robots you ask? Having successfully strapped a computer to a forklift the other year and made it dance on its own on the factory floor; I would say they are coming.

    You want to see real progress: Well here is my piece into the fray: The Big Bang Hypernova Hypothesis.

  58. rickoxo says

    People are still writing and reading here so I’ll give it one more try. To the author and all of the folks complaining that stultifying bureaucracy is killing innovation, do you really think there was no stultifying bureaucracy in the 1800’s? Government was nimble, responsive, open to new ideas and focused on creative problem solving? Was the church a creative force in society, open to new scientific ideas? Was society as a whole open to new ideas like ending slavery, women’s suffrage?

    The fact that slavery ended, women got the right to vote and Darwin wasn’t burned at the stake took huge effort, took years to accomplish and even once they happened, it’s still taking years to actually overcome the political, religious and social practices these represent.

    In general human beings are conservative, not in the modern political sense, but in the sense of not wanting to radically change what we have that’s working. Change, new ideas, revolution takes a lot of effort and includes the risk of ending badly. The status quo “costs” much less. Unless the status quo is disastrous, there’s a lot of momentum to keeping things the way they are.

    But this isn’t a new idea or a new problem. It’s been the case throughout all of history. Stultifying bureaucracy is a pretty apt description of much of history, with moments of radical change. Picking out a few isolated events and developments in the 1800’s and early 1900’s and thinking that they represent some huge change in the nature of human societies or that the government, church and culture had transformed into some forward thinking, creative, problem solving machine is totally wrong.

    Of course there are huge companies today that have endless red tape, inept research departments and waste resources getting simple work done. Do you really think that didn’t exist in the 1800’s or before? Like the 21st century invented bureaucracy and top heavy management? Feudalism? Caste system? The nobility?

    And just like at almost every time in history, there are some elements of society that are less hindered, more able to adapt and create and organize resources to discover new things, create new products and push society forward. If you can’t see that in the world today or you think the smart phone is just a simple toy that means nothing than you are seriously missing the boat as to what’s happening the world and with technology.

  59. Alicia Cannon says

    In physics and astrophysics, there is constant discrimination against both white males and creative researchers. The two are related: research success is deemed part of toxic masculinity. There is discrimination in admission to graduate programs, granting of postdoctoral fellowships, acquisition of research funding, access to the best research equipment, and of course, hiring for jobs. And, no one is allowed to talk about this reality.

  60. Yosef Robinson says

    “…we are far from curing solid cancers” – with the possible exception of testicular cancer, which has been made much more treatable and curable with the help of cisplatin-based chemotherapy starting in the 1970s.

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