Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Is a Decadent America a Technologically Stagnant America?

 

Has America been technologically stagnant for a half-century? That’s apparently one of the main arguments found in New York Times columnist and AEI visiting fellow Ross Douthat’s upcoming book, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success.

Now, I haven’t read this book. But it was just reviewed by entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who quotes the following passage, I assume accurately: “Over the last two generations,” Douthat writes, “the only truly radical change has taken place in the devices we use for communication and entertainment, so that a single one of the nineteenth century’s great inventions [running water] still looms larger in our every­day existence than most of what we think of as technological breakthroughs nowadays.”

So the Robert Gordon thesis, as well as Thiel’s Twitter vs. Flying Cars argument. And this stagnation is a result of, well, “decadence,” I suppose. Now since I have not read the book, I will keep my analysis general.

First, any big theories about American technological stagnation, as reflected in our measured productivity numbers, need to acknowledge that it’s not just an American thing. The slowdown has occurred in dozens of countries, and every advanced economy is churning out white papers on the problem. And some of that research points to non–sociological explanations. For instance, more American output now occurs in low–productivity service sectors such as health care. That said, I am worried America has become a less future–oriented society. It will be interesting to see how Douthat’s analysis syncs with that view.

Second, don’t forget the obvious. Science is hard. Tech progress is hard. Progress isn’t natural. And good ideas are getting harder to find. As such, we need to devote more resources to finding them. And we have to make barriers to progress stay low.

Third, don’t confuse tech progress with productivity gains. Maybe our tech future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed, to (maybe) modify William Gibson. We may have a diffusion problem rather than an innovation problem. It takes time to harness new technologies, whether it’s the electric motor or artificial intelligence. Progress is lumpy. And maybe we are missing how the latest IT advances are already working their way through the economy in the 2000s. It’s too early to assume giving humanity easy access to all human knowledge through a small pane of glass in its pockets is no biggie, or that CRISPR genetic editing is no biggie.

Anyway, I greatly look forward to reading this book.

Published in Culture, Economics
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  1. MichaelKennedy Coolidge

    Peter Thiel has a good review of it at First Things.

    https://www.firstthings.com/article/2020/03/back-to-the-future?fbclid=IwAR0WDQx6M6CKcfCzvS66YUoxuLZzfBlVmzSSy59Yc7m0GG5jnIMmXj-SmlQ

    His video with Peter Robinson is OK but he is not a good speaker.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXG2F0a6I28&list=PLq8BgDugd2oyqmYx6RdVlJfQeAdhJkhc3

    He thinks Silicon Valley is “deranged.” I tend to think that very intelligent people often focus on a narrow subject and are pretty ignorant on much else. The absent minded professor used to be a figure of fun. Now, they try to run the world from that narrow view of things.

     

    • #1
    • February 12, 2020, at 2:29 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  2. DonG (skeptic) Coolidge

    I think the big companies have slacked off on basic research. Big companies seem to put their money into thwarting competition through regulation. But, America is really good at investing speculative capital at new ideas. Silicon valley is good at bringing ideas to scaled market. I worry more about other countries. Other than Israel, is any country innovating out there? Germany, Japan, France, The Netherlands, and even Norway used to innovate. Maybe it is decadence. Maybe it is businesses and universities going all woke and focusing research on grievance studies and climate hoaxes. Maybe even posing the question is a problem is a sexist construct!

    • #2
    • February 12, 2020, at 2:32 PM PST
    • Like
  3. JoelB Member

    Talk about Washington “investing” more does not sound like a good idea to me. The nineteenth century was a time like no other in history. It is not necessarily to be expected that such major advances will be made on so many fronts continuously.

    • #3
    • February 12, 2020, at 3:36 PM PST
    • Like
  4. Michael Minnott Member
    Michael Minnott Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I read Thiel’s review and I think both he and Douthat are being unfair. It’s a little too fashionable to blame Baby Boomers for everything (FYI – I’m a Gen Xer). I also think they are too dismissive regarding the matter of “low hanging fruit”. The reason passenger aircraft still fly at high-subsonic speed is economic; it is an order of magnitude more expensive to build and operate a supersonic aircraft. We already have flying cars, they’re called helicopters. Most of us could probably afford one of the smaller models, however for urban and suburban (where most people live) transportation they’re just not practical. Maybe we should have foregone the interstates and built more civil airports back in the 1950s to accommodate a more difuse population, but that’s not what happened.

    Any big leaps are going to require a revolution in energy; modular nuclear, LIFTR, fusion, etc. That’s what will really make exploration of our solar system practical and economically viable. We cannot just “make” that happen. It’s going to require a “eureka” moment, which is more a matter of fate.

    • #4
    • February 12, 2020, at 4:02 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  5. MISTER BITCOIN Member

    the cost of sequencing the human genome was $1,000,000 in 2007.

    by 2014, the cost plummetted to $1,000.

    Illumina next generation sequencing

     

    • #5
    • February 12, 2020, at 5:04 PM PST
    • Like
  6. MISTER BITCOIN Member

    MichaelKennedy (View Comment):

    Peter Thiel has a good review of it at First Things.

    https://www.firstthings.com/article/2020/03/back-to-the-future?fbclid=IwAR0WDQx6M6CKcfCzvS66YUoxuLZzfBlVmzSSy59Yc7m0GG5jnIMmXj-SmlQ

    His video with Peter Robinson is OK but he is not a good speaker.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXG2F0a6I28&list=PLq8BgDugd2oyqmYx6RdVlJfQeAdhJkhc3

    He thinks Silicon Valley is “deranged.” I tend to think that very intelligent people often focus on a narrow subject and are pretty ignorant on much else. The absent minded professor used to be a figure of fun. Now, they try to run the world from that narrow view of things.

     

    “I tend to think that very intelligent people often focus on a narrow subject and are pretty ignorant on much else”

    Can doctors/MD’s be included in this group? I’m half kidding

     

     

    • #6
    • February 12, 2020, at 5:04 PM PST
    • Like
  7. MichaelKennedy Coolidge

    DonG (skeptic) (View Comment):

    I think the big companies have slacked off on basic research. Big companies seem to put their money into thwarting competition through regulation. But, America is really good at investing speculative capital at new ideas. Silicon valley is good at bringing ideas to scaled market. I worry more about other countries. Other than Israel, is any country innovating out there? Germany, Japan, France, The Netherlands, and even Norway used to innovate. Maybe it is decadence. Maybe it is businesses and universities going all woke and focusing research on grievance studies and climate hoaxes. Maybe even posing the question is a problem is a sexist construct!

    Think of Xerox PARC. The big company was the one that told them to get back to fixing copiers. They all left and Xerox barely survived. Where are those people now ? Of course they were white men and we don’t need them. Purdue has a new Dean of “Engineering Education” and it is as bad as you imagine.

    • #7
    • February 12, 2020, at 5:29 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  8. MichaelKennedy Coolidge

    Michael Minnott (View Comment):

    I read Thiel’s review and I think both he and Douthat are being unfair. It’s a little too fashionable to blame Baby Boomers for everything (FYI – I’m a Gen Xer). I also think they are too dismissive regarding the matter of “low hanging fruit”. The reason passenger aircraft still fly at high-subsonic speed is economic; it is an order of magnitude more expensive to build and operate a supersonic aircraft. We already have flying cars, they’re called helicopters. Most of us could probably afford one of the smaller models, however for urban and suburban (where most people live) transportation they’re just not practical. Maybe we should have foregone the interstates and built more civil airports back in the 1950s to accommodate a more difuse population, but that’s not what happened.

    Any big leaps are going to require a revolution in energy; modular nuclear, LIFTR, fusion, etc. That’s what will really make exploration of our solar system practical and economically viable. We cannot just “make” that happen. It’s going to require a “eureka” moment, which is more a matter of fate.

    Yes but the 737 MAX was designed for global warming considerations. The high bypass engines created less “CO2” but they were larger in diameter and would not fit under the wing and the wing would have to be redesigned for the longer gear. So, they compromised and we got another collapsing bridge.

    • #8
    • February 12, 2020, at 5:32 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  9. OccupantCDN Coolidge

    I also have not read the book, but I do believe that innovation has stagnated. Your 3 points:

    1 Productivity. In the early waves of the internet development, the largest most valuable innovators where focused on productivity, Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, Lotus, etc… The most recent lists of internet companies like Facebook, Instagram, etc seem to be mostly distractions from productivity. The American technology industry has lost its focus on productivity, and is looking to profit from distraction and entertainment.

    2 Science is hard, if you’re not careful you could find yourself on a branch of technology that no longer has headroom for improvement. For Intel this is the second time they’ve found themselves riding a product line that has beached and will not be competitive again for years. I think the electronics fields maybe reaching the limits of silicone, and that it maybe time to jump to other semiconductors – or maybe even to graphine.

    3 Impacts of innovations have been greatly increasing. I know from my own work in a data center that the number of clients who run individual servers has declined to near zero. Most servers are now virtualized. A server is no longer a hardware platform that supports an operating system and a task orientated software suite (like an email server or a database server) but now is just a data container.

    A data container – holds everything required for the virtual server to run – from the Operating system, Apps and configuration files. These containers are then run on a large server system – sometimes dozens of these virtual servers can run on a single physical computer. And should that computer fail for any reason – the container is simply moved to another machine where it will continue to run with only a few seconds of down time.

    • #9
    • February 12, 2020, at 5:35 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  10. MichaelKennedy Coolidge

    MISTER BITCOIN (View Comment):

    the cost of sequencing the human genome was $1,000,000 in 2007.

    by 2014, the cost plummetted to $1,000.

    Illumina next generation sequencing

     

    Remember that Craig Venter did it with private funding to patent genes. The Human Genome Project was planned for a 10 year life cycle. Venter did it in two. No Nobel Prize because his firm did the DNA on the blue dress.

    • #10
    • February 12, 2020, at 5:35 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  11. MichaelKennedy Coolidge

    MISTER BITCOIN (View Comment):

    MichaelKennedy (View Comment):

    Peter Thiel has a good review of it at First Things.

    https://www.firstthings.com/article/2020/03/back-to-the-future?fbclid=IwAR0WDQx6M6CKcfCzvS66YUoxuLZzfBlVmzSSy59Yc7m0GG5jnIMmXj-SmlQ

    His video with Peter Robinson is OK but he is not a good speaker.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXG2F0a6I28&list=PLq8BgDugd2oyqmYx6RdVlJfQeAdhJkhc3

    He thinks Silicon Valley is “deranged.” I tend to think that very intelligent people often focus on a narrow subject and are pretty ignorant on much else. The absent minded professor used to be a figure of fun. Now, they try to run the world from that narrow view of things.

     

    “I tend to think that very intelligent people often focus on a narrow subject and are pretty ignorant on much else”

    Can doctors/MD’s be included in this group? I’m half kidding

    Oh, I think so but doctors generally have more experience with people. We spend a lot of time trying to understand what is happening with them. I was an engineer before medical school and taught medical students for 15 years. For about 10 of those years, I had a group of engineer medical students. USC medical school has a program for engineers, which even includes a PhD program. One of my most brilliant students in this group was an Indian-American girl who was gorgeous. She made a considerable effort to appear a typical “Valley Girl” mentality. It was interesting and I wondered if it was cultural. She told me her parents, both American born, had met through an Indian dating site. Her mother chose her father because he submitted a color photo of himself.

     

     

    • #11
    • February 12, 2020, at 6:26 PM PST
    • 1 like
  12. DonG (skeptic) Coolidge

    OccupantCDN (View Comment):

    I think the electronics fields maybe reaching the limits of silicone, and that it maybe time to jump to other semiconductors – or maybe even to graphine.

    The real gains are happening on the backend, where the network does the processing. Your phone doesn’t need to search all the worlds databases, it just needs to pass the request to a network and display the answer. Silicon has a few decades of life left.

    3 Impacts of innovations have been greatly increasing. I know from my own work in a data center that the number of clients who run individual servers has declined to near zero. Most servers are now virtualized. A server is no longer a hardware platform that supports an operating system and a task orientated software suite (like an email server or a database server) but now is just a data container.

    Back in day, mainframes did the same. what comes around goes around.

    • #12
    • February 12, 2020, at 7:14 PM PST
    • Like
  13. OmegaPaladin Moderator

    We have a number of reasons for technology stagnation.

    The most fundamental of these is the hippy movement generally. When you preach that technology is bad, expect less technology. We could build nuclear plants all over the country that are even safer and more efficient that our current plants. We currently make getting a power plant approved a massive headache, just like how any project requires massive amounts of environmental impact statement red tape. I could do a solid risk assessment to the environment with a lot less paper. Hell, I the actual statements have more of an environmental impact than the project itself.

    I also think trendy causes are monopolizing our time. We spend how much on dealing with gender delusions? Most of focus on Climate Change is driven by virtue signalling and not actual plans that will prevent the problem, even by their own standards.

    • #13
    • February 12, 2020, at 11:07 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  14. Joseph Eagar Member
    Joseph Eagar Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Oh come on Jim, I expected better from you. There’s quite a lot of knowledge you can’t find on the internet, as anyone who has worked or studied on the bleeding edge of any scientific or engineering field can tell you. It’s not just a signal to noise problem; there’s a lot of knowledge that simply isn’t available. A good engineering library can easily have more practical knowledge then the internet does, usually written in much clearer language.

    • #14
    • February 13, 2020, at 4:29 AM PST
    • Like
  15. Old Bathos Moderator

    Commentators, analysts, and academics are not usually (hell, never) the source of tech innovation. The people who argued in great detail (to great applause among the literati) that we had reached Peak Oil, fatal overpopulation etc always seem to assume that what they cannot see from Olympian perspective does not exist. Predictions about the end of productivity and innovation should be taken with a large grain of salt.

    The fundamental economic and social revolution that we call capitalism required a break from the political and social controls of an old system of guilds, aristocratic control, and rigid societal ordering but more significantly from the mindset that old order imposed. That revolution was all about innovation.

    Modern society is far more complex but like all social orders, it tries to perpetuate itself and resist serious change. even the concept of innovation is now hardening into an image of guys in white coats in a company lab making something their employers can patent. We work is highly bureaucratized jobs, our news media speaks in tired formulas and our universities just prepare people for an even less free society that we are now. Technology has temporarily stuck us in a system that wants to stifle us while claiming it seeks only progress.

    Innovation in how we use what we already have now and how we organize ourselves to make use of newly expanding wealth and the speed and efficiency of how we use and share information will change us enough to free us cognitively to do invent and build what comes next. And nobody (not even people with tenure and/or best-sellers) will see what’s coming.

    • #15
    • February 13, 2020, at 6:19 AM PST
    • 1 like
  16. MichaelKennedy Coolidge

    OmegaPaladin (View Comment):
    Most of focus on Climate Change is driven by virtue signalling and not actual plans that will prevent the problem, even by their own standards.

    There are also big companies making lots of money from this scam.

    • #16
    • February 13, 2020, at 6:48 AM PST
    • 1 like
  17. MISTER BITCOIN Member

    MichaelKennedy (View Comment):

    MISTER BITCOIN (View Comment):

    the cost of sequencing the human genome was $1,000,000 in 2007.

    by 2014, the cost plummetted to $1,000.

    Illumina next generation sequencing

     

    Remember that Craig Venter did it with private funding to patent genes. The Human Genome Project was planned for a 10 year life cycle. Venter did it in two. No Nobel Prize because his firm did the DNA on the blue dress.

     

    Myriad?

     

    • #17
    • February 28, 2020, at 10:20 PM PST
    • Like
  18. MISTER BITCOIN Member

    MichaelKennedy (View Comment):

    MISTER BITCOIN (View Comment):

    the cost of sequencing the human genome was $1,000,000 in 2007.

    by 2014, the cost plummetted to $1,000.

    Illumina next generation sequencing

     

    Remember that Craig Venter did it with private funding to patent genes. The Human Genome Project was planned for a 10 year life cycle. Venter did it in two. No Nobel Prize because his firm did the DNA on the blue dress.

    wow, i had no idea about the blue dress

     

    • #18
    • February 28, 2020, at 10:22 PM PST
    • Like