By Arnold Kling
David Brooks summarizes some recent articles complaining about stagnation in scientific innovation.
The time traveler would be vibrating with excitement. She’d want to know what other technological marvels had been invented in the past 41 years. She’d ask about space colonies on Mars, flying cars, superfast nuclear-powered airplanes, artificial organs. She’d want to know how doctors ended up curing cancer and senility.
I think we tend to under-estimate the achievements of computer technology because they become so widely available so quickly. Going to the moon seems amazing, because almost nobody participated in that. Using Google Maps seems pedestrian, because all your friends can do it.
Along more optimistic lines, Walter Russell Mead writes,
W. Brian Arthur, in a report for McKinsey, writes that we are witnessing enormous fundamental changes to the global economy: “in fact”, he writes, “it may well be the biggest change ever in the economy.” This change is due to what Arthur calls “the second economy” or a “digital economy” that exists alongside the physical economy. It goes beyond the changes the media is fond of discussing
Forty years ago, people who expected a cure for cancer did not understand cancer very well. If you read The Emperor of All Maladies, you will appreciate the complexity of it. The goal of curing cancer has receded, ironically, because we have made great scientific strides.
One could argue that the social payoff from space travel just hasn’t been there. The trip to the moon was not epoch-making because the moon had very little going for it. If Christopher Columbus had discovered a continent with the ecology of the moon, that discovery would not have been an epoch-making event.
Faster airplanes? As it is, I spend more time at the airport than I do on the plane. More important, with a laptop and Wi-Fi you no longer have to count travel as “down time.”
The great scientific project these days is coming from the Department of Energy. In Steven Chu’s mind, he is a superhero saving the planet. In my mind, he is something unprintable.
Spare me the great scientific projects coming from Washington. No, they have not all been failures. But perhaps wealthy individuals, if they were not having their wealth confiscated to be spent by politicians, would do as well or better at directing their money toward ultimately useful science.
If it takes hold, the practical impact of the scientific stagnation hypothesis will be to serve as an excuse to enhance the power and resources of politicians. If so, then scientific stagnation will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand, Ray Kurzweil says that government regulators are like stones in a river with respect to technology. The river keeps moving, in spite of the stones.