Friday, December 12, 2014

About the decrease in the rate of technological progress

When I reviewed "The second machine age" I thought the idea of a decceleration in the rate of technological progress was a minority one, held by few people outside of Tyler Cowen, Robert Gordon and myself. But lately I'm finding more and more instances of scientists, engineers and science journalists piling on. Latest two are Of flying cars and the declining rate of profit, from the always thought-provoking Dave Graeber (although he has less to say about the rate of profit than the whimsy title suggests) and The Golden Quarter by Michael Hanlon. The alst one is specailly interesting, as it extends the landscape of stagnation to medicine, a field I'm not very familar with and where I couldn't be so sure there was not at least a simmer of progress (although I was well aware the average life expectancy was not progressing that much in most places -where nota ctually regressing, like in Russia), specially if you discount the effect of the society-wide decision to stop poisoning ourselves with tobacco smoke.

I have to thank a quite surprising source for both links: both were suggested by the guys at Repulsive right wing claptrap (not the real name, poor guys), which I read because you have to a) be familar with what the proverbial other side of the aisle thinks (not that I'm particularly "this" side of any aisle) and b) I'm of the opinion we should all force ourselves outside our little bubble and have a healthy daily dose of exposure to ideas as different from our own as possible. Regardless of why I read them, it surprised me that they are so consistently linking progressive sites, although it makes more sense on reflection (denunciation of progress, or of lack thereof, has always been a mainstay of conservative thinking).

It is also interesting to note the common diagnostic of both authors as to the root cause of the (quite abrupt, altough most popular opinion still doesn't seem to have caught up with it, as Brinjolfsson and MacAffee illustrate) loss of steam of the technological juggernaut set in motion in the XVIIIth Century: they both maintain that it is the current form of capitalism. Graeber insists more in how, when it has to choose between its own preservation and any possible improvement to make it more humane, or more inclusive, it has opted for the former (which, as far as analysis go, is afflicted from what I denounced in this post: Some problems with typical leftist critique of our current system, as "the system" is not really choosing anything at all, and what would make for a more interesting analysis is why some people with enough influence are making those decisions, and how those individual decisions are steering society in that direction). Hanlon focuses more on how the aversion to risk and the orientation towards short-term profit maximization (which in the realm of consumer products directs research energies towards thingies that are similar enough to what is already in the amrket with a closer enough obsolescence date), paired with misguided subsidies and academia (the almost universally despised peer reviewed publications also decried by Graeber) have derailed the march towards the possibilities dreamed of by our forefathers.

Which ties nicely with my concerns, which I started drafting in a series of old posts ("What should be done", in June and July 2014), about which of the defining features of modern day capitalism should be replaced, and which ones could be left if we wanted to build a better society. The betterment I had in mind then was the reduction of inequality, the ensurance of a minimum of maetrial well being and security for all and the possibility of leading fullfiling lifes, which require a certain freedom from all encompassing toil (specially in deadening jobs). But it seems that such a good society should very well be more open to innovation and neccessarily more conductive to the old idea of accelerated progress, as there are a number of problems with today's organization (resource depletion, demographic collapse, loss of biodiversity, climate change) that seem to require for their resolution of technological capabilities we still do not have, and that would never came too soon...

So time to get back to think on how we should change current society (the current "system", however much I'm getting to dislike the term), taking this into account now.

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