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Do we live in a time of accelerating progress, or one of slowdown and diminishing returns?  I used to think the former, for years have thought the latter.  It seems to boil down to whether you pay attention to computers or to everything else, like speed or energy use or the general conditions of life.

Krugman reviews a book arguing most of the big transformation happened between 1870 and 1940.

For support, I add Tom Murph's old post, comparing 1885 to 1950 to 2015.

And finally, a 2013 article talking particularly about America's great slowdown.  It invokes both the 1700s first industrial revolution and the late 1800s second revolution, saying the second happened to pick up right as the first tapered off, so by sheer luck we had an extended run of rapid growth.

Edit: I'd note this isn't a claim that there'll never big transformation. True AI could well be big, though not necessarily positive for most of us. Advanced biotech could be cool. But they're also distant. I'm not seeing anything analogous to electrification of the home, people moving off the farm and then out of the factories, etc. LED lights are neat, but they just lower electricity bills a bit, they're nothing as radical as going from candles and oil to the electric bulb. See the comment count unavailable DW comments at http://mindstalk.dreamwidth.org/437656.html#comments


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 25th, 2016 10:14 pm (UTC)
I've heard the slowdown arguments and am unconvinced. In addition to living at a time when the developing world is developing faster than ever before and global poverty is in actual retreat (which was distinctly untrue in either 1885 or 1950), we also seem to be in the first stages of something that I expect to be at least as significant as the industrial revolution (at least in the developed world, and perhaps everywhere) - increasing automation of non-factory work. If any of the predictions I've seen are correct in 20 years, the entire structure of employment will be notably different, at least for service and low level office work (IOW, the jobs most people in most of the developed world do). Also, we're starting to see the impact of big data on everything from advertising to medicine, to government (for I presume both better and worse).

Finally, one of the major changes has been purely social, but has been driven by tech (cable tv started it, and the internet gave it an enormous boost) - the fragmentation of the US (and presumably much of the rest of the world) into somewhat isolated increasingly non-regional subcultures. In the late 19th century, we had lots of regional subcultures. The era of radio and (especially) pre-cable tv unified the US culturally - there were still major regional distinctions, but many of the minor regional distinctions either vanished or became less important, and there was a layer of shared culture on top of that, in a way there hadn't been before. Now, that shared culture still exists (along with the large scale regional differences), but there's a new subcultural layer on top of that driven by specialty entertainment and social networking.
Jan. 25th, 2016 10:47 pm (UTC)
"the developing world is developing faster than ever before and global poverty is in actual retreat"

That's not tech frontier progress, that's catch-up. It's a big deal for the people experiencing it, of course, but it's not the proto-Singularity "tech improving exponentially faster and faster". It would be happening even if we weren't inventing anything new whatsoever.

Big Data has its uses but also its flaws and limits. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/21a6e7d8-b479-11e3-a09a-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2xlNF6IjV
(Also, data helps only so much with chaotic systems.)

Social changes are social changes; different category from "exponential progress."

I still say that a cutting edge household of 1940 doesn't look that different from a cutting edge household of 2015, while it did from a household of 1865. 1940 and 2015 cutting edge are probably closer together in per capita energy use, too.
Jan. 26th, 2016 12:43 am (UTC)
I expect houses to look mostly the same until someone cracks home robotics with something more significant than Roombas & toys. However, we are looking at a major transformation of work with the same level of impact as industrial automation had in the 70s & 80s. Given that the cut-off of all of these slow-down theories is around WWII, I think what I'm seeing with them is an unwillingness to look behind the scenes. Here's an excellent article about what I'm talking about. This infrastructure was entirely different in the 1950s & 60s. Automation (and outsourcing) vastly decreased factory work in the US and it destroyed high-wage factory work. An increasing amount of factory work is moving back to the US, but it's even more automated, and those jobs are never coming back.

Daily life may look superficially like it did in 1970s, but how all that is maintained has changed vastly, in large part due to improved tech. This is going to start becoming more obvious to the US middle class when automation of white collar jobs starts having more of an impact, and that's starting to happen now.
Jan. 25th, 2016 11:28 pm (UTC)
whether you pay attention to computers or to everything else

Aren't computers becoming involved in everything else?

If there is a transition to some kind of universal basic income dole, we may see a transformative cognitive surplus emerge. I don't think it will necessarily mean that people will use their leisure time for art and science and mighty works of engineering, but I expect that it will be loaded with conditions like keeping your kids in school, and working to earn a HS diploma yourself. This will hugely grow the pool of people with the secondary education and independent means to pursue university-level achievement.
Jan. 25th, 2016 11:59 pm (UTC)
"Aren't computers becoming involved in everything else?"

Yes, to some effect, but it's bounded. Putting lots of computers in your car does not mean it starts doubling in speed or fuel efficiency every two years. Moore's Law is not taking over the whole world.

The claim isn't that progress has come to a complete stop, it's that progress has slowed down, rather than continuing linearly, let alone getting ever faster.
Jan. 26th, 2016 05:38 am (UTC)
I know what you mean, but let's consider how ubiquitous computing and cognitive surplus allows optimization of everything. This may only push car performance and fuel efficiency a bit further toward the end of their S-curves, but trip-planning, precise operation, modular construction, dynamic reconfiguration, JIT mfg, JIT disribution, JIT delivery et cetera may end up chopping down the time to accomplish errands by halves instead...THE TWO FACES OF TOMORROW's premise, only without the lack of attention to side effects.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )


Damien Sullivan

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