Monday, February 13, 2012

The Great Stagnation

Starting from here on The Next Big Future I read a few articles and looked at some videos. The book The Great Stagnation which seems to be at the root of all this makes the claim that technological advance is slowing because we’ve already grabbed the ‘low-hanging fruit’. Take for example the car. It is a huge step to go from not having a car to having one. The car was the big invention and everything since has just been innovation – no flying cars have arrived. In a speech he gives the author of the book cites many examples, like the average kitchen and how little it has changed since the 50s, but he then reluctantly admits that there have been some big advances in communication (Internet, mobile phones etc.).

Apparently, the low hanging fruit having been grabbed means that the average American is half as wealthy as he would have been had the advances been continuing at their previous rate.

Firstly, I don’t buy the distinction between invention and innovation since the car is just an innovation of the horse and cart and can be traced back to Shanks’ pony and the simple need to get from A to B. I sort of buy the ‘low hanging fruit’ argument but in the end that is really a value judgement. Is the invention of the car more important than the invention of the mobile phone? Is it more important than the accumulation of medical inventions/innovations that have extended our lives by decades? Is it more important than sequencing genomes at an increasing rate, biotech that makes it possible to make yeast that produces diesel or our growing nanotechnology? You see what I mean: a value judgement.

And, like many who have been discussing this book, I don’t agree that a slowing of technological advance is why people aren’t as wealthy as they could be. Firstly I don’t agree that technological advances are slowing. I would say that their effects are taking longer to reach us because of an increasingly hysterical anti-science meme that has spread in the West, with its resultant increase in restrictive legislation. Secondly I would say that the decrease in wealth relative to those advances is all due to increasingly parasitic governments and financial institutions sucking up that wealth – wealth that would have been used to develop those technological advances. Invent something astounding and you need big bucks to get it to market from under the leaden hand of government legislation. You don’t have big bucks of your own to spare because government and the financial institutions have stolen them. It’s an increasingly vicious circle.

This is why you see no technological singularity in The Departure – the parasitic state has killed innovation and invention. My only hope, in the real world, is that the financial collapse we are entering now will kill off some portion of the parasite infestation before the host dies. But even if that does happen, the host will still need time to recover its health, and the problem is that parasites grow faster than their hosts. 


IanRobert_60 said...

I agree that "things" are taking longer to get to market, but I think it is because there is a "market" to protect. Why would you release a new processor until you have milked the earlier tech?

Neal Asher said...

Yup, there is that, Ian. It's one of the problems with monopolies and vested interests. I'm always reminded of helicobacter pylori. The drug companies were making far too much money out of antacids and other similar stomach remedies to admit that most of these problems could be solved by an out-of-patent antibiotic.

Dan said...

What I think we're seeing here is not so much a failure of innovation and technology so much as a failure of how financial systems need to operate. What seems to be happening to human society is that we try out a range of ideas, and even go so far as to try out really spectacularly crap ideas, before settling on something that more or less works.

So, in the beginning we tried the hunter-gatherer lifestyle until population pressure (and likely the invention of beer) made settled agriculture seem better. In the medieval collectivist and feudal agricultural systems got tried (medieval three-field system, and Monastic farming systems) before these collapsed under demand and were superceded with owner-operator farming.

At this time innovation was low, but printing presses spread information and slowly killed the medieval guild information management system. The Industrial revolution then accelerated this process, and turned humans from rural farmers into industrial city dwellers. The early 20th Century saw political experimentation; the age of the Great Dictators, and the Great Communist Experiment.

That's over now, and we've settled on representative democracy as the least harmful political system. Now we're experimenting with money. Money used to be a relatively fixed-volume means of exchange; adulteration of silver coinage in Roman times was easily spotted and eventually collapsed that empire; nobody tried that one again.

Now we're trying out the fiat money experiment: how much can you silently inflate a currency before the proles cop wise and revolt? The Euro is just another facet of the Great Money Experiment: just how much chicanery, double-dealing and political manipulation can you get away with if you control the money system?

Things are slowly coming to a head here; Britain will eventually experience great, galloping inflation before it defaults on Government debt. Some time before this, the Eurozone will collapse, and once more we as a species will be wiser and know about yet another set of boundaries.

Neal Asher said...

Nicely put, Dan.

daniel ware said...

Ah but the advent of the digital age - mobile phone has changed the world and was unheralded, whereas industry regulates the pace odd dome innovations: semi-conductors, tvs etc. the true leaps will always come, and faster thanks to previous advanced. the one limiter is energy usage and if fusion finally gets going that will remove that obstacle.

jimbobalu said...

In a word, patents. Just look at the smartphone patent thicket. Everyone is suing making it alomost impossible to innovate, you know build on someone's work.

I'm curious, if I was to write some fan fiction based on your universe would you sue me? See what I mean?

When Apple can patent "Slide to Unlock" then patents no longer serve their intended purpose.

Patents should be reserved for groundbreaking, non-obvious inventions.

Sorry, had a typo in previous comment.

Alex Cull said...

At the end of the 19th century, the rise of the horseless carriage and the flying machine could have been predicted, but what couldn't have been foreseen is the exact way that new technologies and behaviours have combined to transform the world in unexpected ways.

What would future flying machines most likely have been, as conceived of in 1899; perhaps personal conveyances for the super-rich? Could a Victorian futurist have imagined today's world where jet airliners convey tomorrow's Valentine's Day flowers from nurseries in Kenya to Schiphol and then elsewhere across the globe, exploiting the combination of heavier than air flight, jet engine technology, advances in materials - metals, polymers, etc. - electronics, and also global systems of trade, banking and money transfer, as well as "just in time" production strategies? Probably not, in its precise form.

We can foresee some developments, based on what we already have - the fledgling internet, computers that are also communicators and personal assistants, the digitisation of just about everything, primitive genetic manipulation, and so forth. What we won't be able to foresee is the moment when some radical innovation materialises out of the blue and combines with one or more of the above to change society utterly, in ways that would be as bizarre and incomprehensible to us as Facebook or Twitter would be, perhaps, to the average Victorian. Some new thing that may sweep over today's governments and bureaucracies like a tsunami.

In short, I think we tend to foresee a continuation of present trends - we don't (or can't?) see the Black Swan before it arrives.

Neal Asher said...

Daniel, I wouldn't call the mobile phone unheralded, nor would I described home computing and the internet as such. Examples of all three can be picked out some quite old SF, and Captain Kirk was holding a version of the phones we now use. However, what was unheralded was the extent of their effect, and innovations like apps and like the social media.

jimbobalu, I would group the suing phenomenon, and the burgeoning population of lawyers that is its source, in with the parasites I mentioned in the original post. Incidentally, I wouldn't sue anyone for doing fan fiction. It would either be bad and irrelevant, or it would be good and I'd be disappointed that someone who could write it well can't come up with their own ideas. In fact I can't think of very much I'd sue someone for, because that would mean giving money to lawyers.

Alex, precisely as I wrote for Daniel above. It's not so much that some of these things are unforseen but that their effects are. Any SF writer could take a lesson from Niven with this with organ transplantation and teleport booths and his extrapolation of organleggers and flash-crowds. In fact, the latter bears some comparison with the riots exacerbated through the social media. And yes, there's always a black swan that could turn up. I'd laugh uproariously if it turned out to be cold fusion.

daniel ware said...

first-off apologies for the spelling - auto-correct is not great.

agreed neal, what i meant by 'unheralded' was more the rapid adoption by the masses in a very few years, as well as the subsequent social media impacts etc.