Tuesday, January 31, 2017

How important are ideas, at the end of the day?

I linked recently a post in Marginal Revolution showing how to keep some well-known measures of technological progress in different fields evolving at roughly the same pace as in past decades (or decreasing slowly, instead of catastrophically collapsing and bringing civilization as we know it to a technical standstill) it seemed like it was necessary to double the amount of people working in R+D in those fields. The very same MR pointed a couple days ago to another study, by the redoubtable Dietrich Vollrath Diminishing returns in idea generation, but not to worry! that came to the soothing conclusion that we shouldn’t (literally) panic yet, even if indeed the meta-productivity of ideas (i.e. the productivity of those authoring the bits of information that, when applied to manufacturing and distribution processes in turn increase the productivity of every other sector of the economy) is undeniably diminishing and at historically low levels(but hey, remember Brynjolfsson and Friedman and Bill Gates! These are times of unparalleled creativity! Of never-before-witnessed ingenuity and invention! My question for all the techno-optimists still stands, if the ever accelerating technology is ushering an age of exponential improvements in everybody’s lives, how come more and more people are realizing they live today, and will most likely live ‘til their last days, worse than their parents? Latest evidence this article from the normally upbeat Spanish newspaper “el pais”: Young 'uns living worse than their parents at their age of various youngsters reflecting on reaching the age of their parents when they were born, and realizing they have much, much less wealth, security, and hope than they had…)

However, when you look into Vollrath’s argument, I don’t find that many actual reasons to bridle my later instincts towards despondency and despair. Yup, even if it takes more and more people to come up with productivity-enhancing ideas, thanks to demographic grow and increased economic throughput that in turn allow populous societies (China, India, Vietnam, Bangladesh) to send a higher percentage of their youngsters to university-level education, those more and more people are indeed forthcoming. Or are they? Not so much in the case of China, if we are to believe this paper from Wu and Zheng for the China Policy Institute: China higher education expansion challenges. Not surprisingly, enrollment in China’s universities is decelerating:
Why, when the country is crowing richer and its culture has always valued education as a means of social advancement? Well, basically there are less and less kids to draw from:

So even if a higher percentage of them could still make it to college (and, according to Wu and Zheng that means shouldering a higher percentage of the education’s cost, as the state can not afford to foot the entirety of the bill, even when the youth still enrolling in the increasing number of  universities comes from the much poorer rural interior, and the institutions they join offer on average a lower quality education), that may not be enough to maintain (let alone increase) the total graduation rate, as the pool from which that percentage draws is consistently diminishing.

I couldn’t find similar figures for India, but I would be surprised if it presented a significantly different picture. Yep, India’s population growth is not yet as low as China’s (thanks to almost three decades of single child policy), but it is also clearly trending downwards, and already very close to diving below replacement level. Also, they start from a baseline position where educational attainment is massively less valued for a significant majority of the population, so they may never catch up to Chinese levels. Bottom line: do not count on millions upon millions of educated Chinese and Indian whiz kids replenishing the dwindling number of Western engineers and researchers and thus keeping our innovation engines firing on all cylinders. In a couple generations the total number of professionals able to keep pushing the discovery of new drugs, the squeezing of more transistors in the same number of square millimeters, or the further increase of yields in our food crops will not just stop growing, but may actually start decreasing.

And then I guess that, according to Vollrath, will be the time to actually start panicking…

But I was not originally concerned by that particular kind of ideas when I started writing my post. How many transistors you can pack in a printed circuit, or how many molecules you can change in a chemical compound so it has exactly the same effect in the human organism but allows its marketer to extend the patent and keep on profiting handsomely from it won’t really make any noticeable difference in how people work and live. They are so inconsequential as to barely need to concern us here. I’m thinking in bigger game, the great ideas that configure how people think in their day to day lives. What they dream of. What they legitimately expect and hope for. Do you want an example of BIG idea that can have momentous consequences, dwarfing those of keeping Moore’s law apparently going on for six additional months? Take a look at this recent article by Evan Osnos in the “New Yorker”: Doomsday prep for the super rich. Not that I’m surprised, in this same blog I’ve stated that total civilizational collapse is a scenario with non-negligible probabilities, and I’ve recommended my readers to prepare for it (learn martial arts and how to shoot, keep a working gun and enough ammo close by, It didn’t occur to me that a bike would come in handy to escape through clogged roads, but I happen to own three, so I have that well covered).

What caught my eye was the figure Osnos quotes about how many of the richest between the rich (the hedge fund managers, “Silicon Valley billionaires”, pop stars…) have already  invested heavily in a safe getaway and emergency means of scape (not just a private plane and a runway, but space also for the pilot’s family): more than 50%!!!! And those are the super-rational, super-intelligent guys (well, may be with the exception of the pop stars) that command the heights of our society and that our dominant mode of reasoning tell us we should respect and yield to. What, in Toynbeean terms would be the ruling (dominating) elite of our crumbling system. That seem to lean mostly towards the opinion that  things are likely enough to go South without much warning as to spend a non-negligible amount of their fortunes in repurposed cold-war missile silos refurbished for the occasion or vast properties in New Zealand.

Besides that collective vote for disengagement from what, resorting again to Toynbee’s terminology, can only be called the proletariat (those to be left behind killing each other for the final scraps of the collapsed system) it seems very futile and very inconsequential, indeed, to worry about the latest features of the iPhone 7, or the fact that Uber is allowed to operate in Paris. The achievements of scientists and engineers, of physicians and physicists are spare change compared with the kind of seismic changes in the direction of society that can be enacted by someone like Napoleon, Hitler or Stalin. And I will argue that for a Napoleon, a Hitler or a Stalin to be able to grasp the collective imagination and craft a discourse that resonates with the masses and energizes them and moves them into action (frenzied as it may seem at times, such actions, judged irrational from the vantage point of our current rationality, were the pinnacle of reasonableness from the perspective of theirs) there needs to be an intellectual first that creates the intellectual groundwork for the messianic (sometimes demonic) figure to work upon. Before Napoleon, Hitler or Stalin (or FDR or Mao or Pol Pot or Adenauer or Churchill or Saddam) there was a Hume, a Smith, a Freud, a Marx, a Hassan al-Banna that both captured and shaped the “spirit of the times”, that read something in the collective mood that his contemporaries didn’t perceive and gave it a recognizable shape, altering forever what their fellow men deemed not just possible, but desirable and rational to do.

When I was defending my dissertation, weaved precisely around the way in which the dominant reason prevalent in the West explained how a bunch of somewhat dysfunctional social groups that in the XVIII century seemed to be only good at massacring themselves ended up dominating the world, and imposing their belief system on the whole face of the planet (the very same dominant reason that evolved and refined itself for maximum productivity of material goods, thus ability to field large and technologically superior armies, the happiness of their citizens be damned), one of the most poignant questions afterwards came from the most distinguished philosopher of the tribunal: Miguel García Baró). He protested the way I was laying the blame for most of society’s ills (the deadening materialism, the imposed competitiveness that forces us to see other people as means, and never as needs in themselves, the rampant egoism and selfishness we seem to instill in every new generation, even the environmental degradation, a product of our instrumental approach to nature) on thinkers and philosophers, while according to him most of those figures had opposed such transformations, and tried (unsuccessfully) to prevent them, warning their countrymen of the dire consequences if they didn’t oppose what they perceived as the wrong turn History (with capital H) had taken or may take (and did indeed take, but not, according to MGB, because people heeded the sages’ advice, but because they foolishly ignored it).

I humbly confess I’m not sure I mustered all the necessary rhetorical devices to answer the wise professor, so his very valid protestation went mostly unanswered. But to atone for such weakness in my defense I’ve been thinking intensely about the relative role of the intellectuals (and not in the abstract, but each and any of the main figures of the European and the Anglo-Saxon tradition, between 1650 to our days) in the shaping and amelioration (or, rather, as we will see, the worsening) of their societies, and I have to report back that I ended very much reaffirmed in my initial argument: they are the main culprits, and the most marked contributors to why things are nowadays as they are. I already had distinguished two kinds of thinkers: the “justificators” (Newton, Leibniz, Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Smith, Hegel, Weber, Comte, Heidegger, Wittgenstein) and the “Critics” (Spinoza, Kant, Nietzsche, Marx). Both are equally responsible of the current state, more than the scientists (and we have had, in the natural sciences, peerless thinkers that have revolutionized our understanding of the world almost as much as Newton… almost) like Clerk Maxwell, Bohr, Schrödinger and Einstein. More than the artists that have shaken to the core our understanding of what means to be human, and the potential limits of the human experience (which, again, have taken millennia of artistic expression and put ‘em on their feet, opening landscapes of possibility in the realm of emotion, sensation and feeling that were entirely unknown for our forebears). And, of course, more than the politicians that have started wars and revolutions only when the peoples under their sway had already been primed to follow their lead by a widely shared conception of how a human life was supposed to be lived.

So I think we can agree ideas have consequences, and there are some big ideas that can have vast, telluric, stratospheric, tsunami-like consequences. The question, then, for every enterprising, able-bodied (or rather, able-minded) adult is how to contribute positively to the formation of the “right” ideas, those that may enable and facilitate our exhausted civilization to evolve in the direction of better opportunities for everybody, better chances for human flourishing for the majority of human beings, and not only for the tiny minority holed up in a missile silo watching a dystopian apocalypse unfold.

But of course, and I’m sure you already saw this one coming, that would be the subject for another post! 

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