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.