Grinding To A Halt

Anyone, who has decided to paint a room of their house, understands the difference between show work and no-show work. Show work is the stuff that has an immediate reward, like rolling on the first coat of paint. A few hours labor and you have something to show for yourself. On the other hand, no-show work is the preparation. It’s moving of furniture, laying down drop clothes, cleaning up trim work and edging the room. You start at dawn and by dusk it looks like you have done nothing but make a mess.

I first experienced this as a teenager working construction. One summer, I was put on a job of renovating an old brick house. My job, along with some other teens, was to first gut the place. In a week we had the place stripped to the bare walls, with a massive pile of rubble inside and one outside. By the following week, the rubble was gone and we were left with a bare building. By the end of the summer, the building looked the same, except for some repointed brick work, and other structural touch-ups.

Spending the bulk of the summer on a million little tasks that never seemed to amount to much was nowhere near as fun as gutting the place, but it was a great lesson. Progress is the million little tasks that accumulate into something big. It is not the big finish where things seem to happen quickly. Put another way, progress is the millions of snowflakes that accumulate on the mountain, not the avalanche that is set off by your yodeling. The no-show part of human progress can take generations, maybe centuries, while the fruits can be consumed in a decade.

The last thirty or so years, from the perspective of most people, has been an age of rapid progress. It is tempting to think that progress will not only continue at this rapid pace, but accelerate. In fact, what defines futurism and always has, is the belief that technological progress is accelerating and will do so into the future. After all, that why we have personal jet packs and flying cars, while our parents were on foot. Since even this rate of change is not enough to have us traversing the stars in a this century, the rate of change must advance quickly.

That is the most basic form of magical thinking. We want our wishes to come true so we imagine how they must come true. One of things you’ll always see with professional futurists is they are wildly optimistic about the future. They don’t imagine a humanity enslaved by sadistic robot overlords. They imagine a world where humans live in forever youth, perhaps mind-melded with artificial intelligence in order to transcend the physical realm. The future, according to futurist, is going to great, which is why they can’t wait to see it.

Given the age in which we live, it is tempting to think these guys are right, but look back through history and you see a different picture. Progress is fits and starts, often with dead ends and rollbacks. It’s not that current humans are smarter than the humans in those eras of technological stagnation. In fact, one of the big questions in evolutionary biology is something called the Sapient Paradox. On the one hand, humans had all the stuff to be modern humans, yet they went a very long time living much like pre-modern humans. Then all of a sudden, they started living like modern humans.

Not only does history tell us that these periods of great technological progress are rare, but science is telling us we may be headed for a stagnation. The technological revolution was built on the revolution in theoretical science that started in the late Middle Ages. Human understanding of the natural world, like astronomy, chemistry, physics, math, is what allowed for the practical application of these fields to give us cell phones and the internet. There’s pretty good evidence that the progress on the theoretical side has come to a halt and may have reached some sort of dead end.

This post by physicist Sabine Hossenfelder makes a good case that we have, at the very minimum, stalled in our quest to understand the universe. There has been no great leap forward for over two generations and not much of any forward progress in a generation, other than confirming some things worked out fifty years ago. When the foundations of technological progress have stalled, it is fair to assume that the showy part is about to run out of steam soon too. Look around and it is clear there’s not a lot of big improvements on the horizon.

The counter here is that genetics is where the action is and that’s certainly true, but progress here is at a snail’s pace as well. DNA was first isolated by the Swiss physician Friedrich Miescher in 1869. Almost a century later Crick and Watson discovered the double helix and founded what we now call molecular biology. Half a century on what we have to show for it is better corn. To think that we’re on the cusp of genetically enhanced humans assumes a degree of progress never seen in science and in direct contradiction to the deceleration we see in theoretical science.

That’s just the science end of things. Science, particularly theoretical and experimental science, requires abundance. The West got rich and then it got science. The West is old and in the worst financial condition since the fall of Rome. There are a few billion barbarians trying to get into the West in order to go on welfare. Even if that is an unfairly bleak picture, there’s no denying that we lack the will and wherewithal to fund something like the Manhattan Project or the Apollo missions.

The truth is, the future is probably going to be more of the same, or worse.

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That’s another paradox. Technology makes it possible to do amazing things (we _could _ be building Orion-type ships with massive payload capability and colonizing Mars right now) but it also makes us so damn comfortable and distracted that we never will take those sorts of risks (no Starbucks or pr0n on Mars). As for genetics, it appears that the “wet Von Neumann machine” model we have used as a starting point is wrong. It seems that genes compete among themselves within certain limits that we don’t understand. Which goes a long way towards explaining why one of my identical twin… Read more »

Drake
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Drake

Aren’t we at the point where the Space Elevator is just an engineering and financial challenge? We could build it – and assemble those orions in orbit if we had the will.

Anon
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Anon

“The truth is, the future is probably going to be more of the same, or worse.”

How do we know? We haven’t been there yet.

Piffle4Me
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Piffle4Me

No, but we’ve seen the past. If you apply the idea that there’s nothing new under the sun and history rhymes if not outright repeats, we’re due to hit a wall.

Anon
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Anon

That’s sort of what Congress was saying in what? 1841 when they wanted to save money by closing the US Patent office.

Piffle4Me
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Piffle4Me

Did I say close the patent office? No, I did not. Technology is probably going to march on. How much actual improvement in our lives that results in remains to be seen.

Karl Horst (Germany)
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Karl Horst (Germany)

The problem isn’t technical stagnation, its simple physics. Take air transportation for example. In less than one hundred years it developed from flying machines made of wood and cloth to supersonic public transportation*. In fact aircraft today are quieter and more fuel efficient than the aircraft they are replacing. Like computers, transportation has become more efficient, more affordable and more accessible to the average consumer. While this may not seem like a leap in technological advancement, consider that 75-years ago, the average middle class worker simply couldn’t afford air fare. Today, even a bus driver or hair dresser can fly… Read more »

Piffle4Me
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Piffle4Me

Excellent post. You knocked this one out of the park. There is no reason to think that we haven’t already haven’t come to a place where any new science advancements will be increasing difficult, time consuming, and expensive to achieve. In other words, diminishing returns in every area of human advancement. If you look at this in the domestic realm, you’ll see that while my grandmother’s house had substantial improvements over her grandmother’s house (indoor plumbing, AC, etc). There is no significant difference between my house and her house, right down to the refrigerator. Yes, my appliances, windows, etc are… Read more »

Severian
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The assumption that the future is going to be ever-more-technological seems to be a big mistake. Even absent more scientific breakthroughs, all these guys seem to assume that in the future, everyone will have his iWhatever in his pocket, constantly connected to a global internet, playing Pokemon go. But: what happens when a luxury good becomes commonplace? Do the Elites all say hey, that’s great that everyone in the Kinshasa slums is eating caviar, kumbayah? My guess would be that human labor power is going to become the next new big luxury good. We can’t call it slavery, of course,… Read more »

Karl Horst (Germany)
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Karl Horst (Germany)

@ Severian – As we have already experienced in our own life time, the need for human labor will continue to decline, as it has over the past 50-years, while production and efficiency will increase and costs will decline. Take food for example – food production requires 10th of the human labor it once did while production has increased to the point we throw away nearly 40% of what we produce. I would argue that time will become the next big luxury. Generally speaking the average person today can eat the same food, travel to the same places and use… Read more »

King George III
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King George III

A small point, but…not the same food; not the same places.

Severian
Guest

Sure, the NEED for human labor will decline. But I’m talking about status. When everyone has everything they need — when even the poorest of the poor are getting fat — then how do the Elites know they’re Elite? Time would be one measure, sure. But again, I’m predicting *excess* human labor as a luxury good. Sure, you could have a Roomba vacuum your house… but so can Billy Bob the trailer-dwelling hillbilly, so what’s the point? However, Billy Bob can’t hire huge cleaning crews to do it for him. Either way the house gets clean, but only one way… Read more »

Karl Horst (Germany)
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Karl Horst (Germany)

Ah, okay! So you see humans becoming the new status of wealth as an object – like a yacht or super car? Interesting idea. I am laughing to myself as I remember driving through some areas of the US and seeing these little “lawn jockeys” out in the front yards. I can only imagine what a real one would look like!

Severian
Guest

Yes. In places like India, that’s one of the ways they “employ” excess population — to buy a can of Coke in India, first you tell the doorman, who tells the floor guy, who tells the stockboy, who tells some other wallah to fetch it, who brings it to the counterman, whom you pay. I see our Elites doing the same thing. Chauffeurs, personal shoppers, “assistants,” whatever — so long as it’s conspicuous, and has some condescending justification, and can serve as markers in a status contest (“Oh, you’ve got a poetry major from Dartmouth cleaning your windows? Well, I… Read more »

Casius Lucius
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Casius Lucius

What color were these lawn jockeys?

CaptDMO
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CaptDMO

And yet, just ONE errant EMP (or some such)can change that WHOLE dependence on machines/ unoccupied human ratio.

alzaebo
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alzaebo

Roche and Delorme will recommend an investment in CCA, Corrections Corporation of America.
Prisons rent out labor at 19 cents per hour, state and now corporate demand is heavy.
Plus it’s a more stable sector than Sancho the Coyote or his friend, Mamud the Somali.

alzaebo
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alzaebo

Roche and Deloitte, the spellchecker demon is either crazy or illiterate.

Uncola
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Uncola

When considering the old cliché regarding Necessity as the Mother of Invention, perhaps it is simply a matter of who decides what is necessary. There are, most likely, many potential “breakthrough-compounding” innovations every year that are destroyed or held captive by sovereign governments and/or international corporate monoliths . This could explain why we now enjoy smart phones on our hips while internal combustion engines remain in our cars. If one properly installs their tin-foil headware and searches the net for “dead scientists”, they will find links like this one: http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/sociopolitica/sociopol_scientistkilling11.htm Paranoid? Maybe, but the non-fictional likes of Tony Soprano have… Read more »

Drake
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Drake

War (real wars, not little police actions) seem to get those innovations unlocked.

Member

As for endless progress, we must never forget we managed to lose the recipe for concrete after the fall of Rome. What is now the world’s most used construction material, gone from 500 and the 14th century. It took us 800 years to rediscover something hugely important, technically easy and which we take for granted.

We are more stupid than we think.

Wilbur Hassenfus
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Wilbur Hassenfus

It’s worse than that. Roman concrete wasn’t the junk we make overpasses out of now. It was much more durable. Modern concrete lasts for decades, not centuries. We’re finally figuring out how theirs differed.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_concrete

Karl Horst (Germany)
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Karl Horst (Germany)

Long after the Golden Gate bridge and the Danyang–Kunshan Grand Bridge have collapsed, the Pont du Gard will be remain standing for another thousand years and continue to function as a perfectly good bridge to cross the Gardon river.

LetsPlay
Member
LetsPlay

I don’t think we are just figuring anything out. With all our tech, all you have to do is analyze samples with the Mass Spec’s, Chromatographs, even microscopes, etc., and determine the composition and proportions for reverse engineering the stuff. What is really at play is the old, we need a formula that can be made quickly, cheaply and will self-destruct (planned obsolescence) so we can keep the money turning. Heck, if we build this stuff to last forever, we may put ourselves out of a job!! Don’t tell me that “it was recently discovered that ‘volcanic ash’ was the… Read more »

A.T. Tapman (Merica)
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A.T. Tapman (Merica)

Hi Wilbur, Roman concrete is not a mysterious product, we are well aware of its properties and composition. Roman concrete was not poured, it was dry-packed, which provides its outstanding water/cement ratio which leads to great durability. It was also faced with brick, marble, or rubble which prevents mechanical damage and limits damage from freeze/thaw cycles. Modern concrete CAN outperform Roman concrete if it is designed to do so. Silica fume, water reducing agents, and pozzolith can produce economical high performance concrete which the Romans could only dream of. The reputation of modern concrete has suffered due to the use… Read more »

Piffle4Me
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Piffle4Me

Thanks for the info. 🙂

El Polacko
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El Polacko

“…Science, particularly theoretical and experimental science, requires abundance. The West got rich and then it got science…” True dat… One of my daily reads is a blog calling itself “Pro-Commerce”, run by a SF Bay Area guy named Michael Phillips. He ran something a few days ago that was startling, at least to me, in its profound simplicity explaining why the Search For Extra Terrestrial Intelligence will be a dead end. What has brought about civilizations astounding advances in the last few hundred years is the advent of modern commerce, and the unique conditions that have brought it about. Here’s… Read more »

joe
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joe

To continue the house analogy: previous generations built the house/laid the foundation of our prosperity, the current “elites” are applying graffiti – inventing facebook, hydrogen and tesla cars, squandering on solyndras.
Next comes the demolition: overrunning us with bad immigrants, subverting the rule of law.

Don’t worry, I’m sure the elites will come out of it OK.

LetsPlay
Member
LetsPlay

A big tell for the stagnation is the constant search for questionable technologies always looking for a solution. Seems like the venture capital people are always looking for funding for this or that idea which could be the next Faceberg, but too many are just ideas generated with no target problem in mind. So the “inventors/creators” go around looking for applications to make their ideas worthy. How many mobile apps do people really need? There is just so much crap out there, it is ridiculous. And while some here deride improvements in existing technological devices, i.e. refrigerators, some of the… Read more »

james wilson
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james wilson

Gigantism and universalism mark the decline of civilizations, not the apex. When all think alike no one thinks very much. Mediocrity is made a virtue and even that state is beyond reach. A civilization will be judged by the state of it’s people, not it’s robots, who they resemble.

Drake
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Drake

That’s a fine line. A certain level of homogeneity and submissiveness is required for a civilization to function.

Drake
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Drake

My hypothesis on the Sapient Paradox – we were wolves and had de-evolve into dogs in order to live in large groups. Those early humans were bigger, faster, stronger, and smarter (significantly bigger brains) than we generally – just as wolves are to average dogs. Scientists have discovered the they can very quickly breed wild animals into domestic animals by selectively breeding those that are most friendly towards humans. See the Russian fox experiment. Along the way, the animals change colors and get a bit smaller. The end result is an animal that can live with humans. Humans couldn’t live… Read more »

Marina
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Marina

I have a hobby of churning credit cards and bank accounts. You open a new one, spend/deposit the minimum amount, collect a signing bonus of $100-1000, cancel the card or close the bank account, and repeat. With a little organization, this easily makes me a couple thousand dollars a year, more than enough to cover the luxuries in our budget. People more serious about it are often able to fund a couple international vacations a YEAR this way. Something about this feels so ridiculously post-industrial, government subsidized crazy that I just assume it’s going to stop any day now. Like… Read more »

Piffle4Me
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Piffle4Me

It totally is untethered from reality. My credits pay me to use them, although I like the churn idea. It just doesn’t seem like it’s going to last forever.

Marina
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Marina

Churning is very much worth doing. It’s a way to monetize having good credit and some cash in the bank. Right now we’re trying to save up as quickly as possible to move, but if you want to just spend, it can add significantly to your baseline. We spend $40,000 on everything for a family of 3. Adding another $2-3,000 in spending power via credit card and checking bonuses would substantially up our standard of living. I look at it as my way at getting back at banks for the bailout. If you’re interested, the credit cards worth starting with… Read more »

meema
Guest

One caveat here, that I see. Nowadays every activity impacts your credit score. My score dropped once just because I closed a long term credit card because I was just cleaning up and didn’t need it anymore.
Just saying’ I’m surprised this isn’t on the radar of the credit bureaus.

Drake
Guest
Drake

On the other hand, the average credit score is so low now, a few points don’t matter. Mine is close to perfect – minus the little dings for stuff like this. When a loan officer looked me up last time we re-financed, I thought his eyes were going to pop out of his head.

Marina
Guest
Marina

Yes, this is a concern. My credit score dropped when I paid off my student loan! I waited until after we had gotten a mortgage to start this, and I have no immediate plans to take on more loans. My husband and I open about three new accounts a year, each, and the effect on our score has been minimal. We’re both around 800. This is a good hobby if you have excellent self control and good money management skills. It’s a very bad one otherwise.

UKer
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UKer

While there isn’t the will to do things, or rather, do large things nowadays (our focus is on bridging feelings, not bridging rivers) we will have to get the know-how and will back at some point. Countries like the UK will be in a difficult position for a time when a collapse comes: the further away that is, the more people will suffer (and the more technical manuals will be thrown out to make way for books on diversity) because the closed coal mines won’t be re-opened without some major catastrophes as no one knows anything, and a lot of… Read more »

Kathleen
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Kathleen

The past is not prologue, and while today’s scientists, theoretisists, and researchers have no doubt stood on the shoulders of giants and accomplished great things, I wouldn’t say we’ve seen the end of the best, and I wouldn’t want to make a bet against the future. All of a sudden a discovery, a theory, an invention, will totally come out of left field, and that’s the sweet spot where humanity advances. You’re not likely to see it coming. My own opinion, obviously not alone in this, is that the next major breakthroughs will be in health/medical/aging. Do I know what,… Read more »

LetsPlay
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LetsPlay

I agree with you Kathleen. There are natural “resting” points in the growth of any living organism but when you add in the meddling of regulations by governments and drives to create oligopolies, aka crony capitalism, then true invention is stifled. The “Wow, That’s Amazing” moments” are a big part of what make life enjoyable. These are things that all of mankind can take pleasure in while not being the direct inventors. While I have not studied the timeline myself, I would also think that there are periods of existential need, as in war, when advances come to the forefront… Read more »

Member

Funny. Just yesterday I opened a book I’ve had sitting around for a while. The Medieval Machine by Jean Gimpel. In the preface: “We are witnessing a sharp arrest in technological impetus. No more fundamental innovations are likely to be introduced to change the structure of our society. Only improvements in the field of preexisting innovations are to be expected. Like every previous civilization, we have reached a technological plateau…The economic depression that struck Europe in the fourteenth century was followed immediately by economic and technical recovery. But the depression we have moved into will have no end. We can… Read more »

Dan Kurt
Member

What a totally “back ass ward” post and discussion. I can hardly believe it happened on the Z Man blog.

Everyone go and buy George Gilder’s book Recapturing the Spirit of Enterprise published in 1992. The minds of free men will reclaim the future.

Dan Kurt

LetsPlay
Member
LetsPlay

Who is George Gilder? I know Arthur Laffer. What did George invent, or is he one of those who talks and writes for a living (see previous post)?

Dan Kurt
Member

re: “Who is George Gilder?” LetsPlay

Who is Boswell? Same difference. Get the book and read a few chapters especially the ones concerning George Simplot, but the entire book is well worth reading to see the mechanism of innovation. You will discover that invention is important but the type of person who can figure out how to exploit the change is even more important, something that often involves maneuvering through the hazards of governmental obstruction.

Dan Kurt

LetsPlay
Member
LetsPlay

” … maneuvering through the hazards of governmental obstruction.” I love it. That is the essence of the problem. Used to be “Build a better mouse trap and the world will beat a path to your door.” Now you have to get gummint permission to be in bidness. Sounds like you favor lobbyists and lawyers more than free enterprise. They seem to be the gate keepers to the “exploitation of change” these days. Economists … a dime a dozen.

Dan Kurt
Member

LetsPlay,

You have no clue. Read the book.

Dan Kurt

LetsPlay
Member
LetsPlay

Thanks anyway. Too many other books on my reading list to bother with stories from someone who thinks highly of Michael Milken and that Bill Gates in “underpaid.” Right!

meema
Guest

Remember the animated movie ‘Wall-E’? Humans were forced to abandon earth because it was overwhelmed with junk. The clean up robot spent his days sorting. Humans ended up on a space transport moving around lying on their fat backs on mobile beds. Of course the message was about the threat of human pollution but, practical philosopher that I am, I took away another truth. Humans can never progress to a state of perfect being because human nature can never change. Like a three year old, human nature wants pleasure, funny, sweet and easy, but the only way humans have ever… Read more »

Member

No cognitive, empirical understanding of the universe will ever be attained. The “universe” is a boundless ocean of energy in which discursive thoughts are “waves” that arise and subside while the “ocean” simply IS. Want an “understanding” of the universe? Read Huang Po.

Member

I agree, the constant oscillation–from energy to matter, matter to energy–is the pulse, the heartbeat if you will, of what we call the universe. That’s all we need to know.

meema
Guest

It all depends on what is is. :-}

Member

James and Meema, I could go on and on about this and am trying to do so in a book, heh heh, but as you both likely know, it’s briefly discernible in intuitive and experiential “knowledge” (satori, to use the zen term). Quantum physics will move more and more closely to the Unified Theory of Everything but will never quite arrive because “Everything” (i.e. “Mind” or the “universe”) IS. I’d beg to differ with “oscillation” because it smacks of dualism and I’d prefer to use the term “simultaneity”, a concept (can’t escape ’em in discourse) that I’ve found is the… Read more »

Member

Montefrio, I like simultaneity better, thanks. Tell us when your book comes out. BTW, Alan Watts got me thinking about this years ago, and I still don’t know anyone else who puts it better in plain vernacular English.

Member

Our knowledge stopped expanding when we threw out the possibility of a non-local attractor, simply because it insulted our vanity. It’s been recursive ever since. The closed loop of mathematical truth is showing up in the closed loop of physics. We’re burrowing into the micro to extrapolate it to the macro and it’s getting us gno-where. Even information is becoming recursive and through the modern miracle of the Internet, we can watch it happen in real-time on Twitter. Hossenfelder’s essay is a cry for help in getting out of the self-constructed limits of what is permissible to think about. Science… Read more »