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.

65 thoughts on “Grinding To A Halt

  1. 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 in the last two generations has been as bound up as any narrow-minded bigot, and the vanity of intellectualism is the downfall of its very intelligent acolytes. The modern Scientific Method was born in the Christian world view and nowhere else because the True attracts those who seek it with an extreme prejudice against personal bias. It dies without this extreme seeker mentality.

  2. 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.

    • 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.

      • 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 one that is the mind-bender unless it’s been experienced. IS simply is, the ground state from and into which all flux arises and subsides. Call it consciousness, call it awareness, call it whatever, the hologram that IS is, well, is everything all at once while not being “any thing” at all. Individuated concepts are the shadow play in which IS provides the illumination.

        • 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.

  3. 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 advanced was through difficulty. Once the optimum desires of abundance and leisure have been met, human nature yanks civilization back into behaviors that always get us in trouble. That little kid eats too much candy and gets sick.

    What was that quote from Einstein? ‘I don’t know what weapons will be used in WW3 but WW4 will be fought with sticks and stones.’

    What human nature deems to be progress always has a downside in the big picture. And like the smooth voice over on the drug commercial concludes the potential side effects of a drug beneath the presentation of happy people living life to the fullest- ‘and in rare cases, death.’

    I say – redefine ‘progress’.

  4. 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

    • 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)?

      • 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

        • ” … 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.

          • 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!

  5. 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 anticipate centuries of decline and exhaustion. There will be no further industrial revolution in the cycles of our Western Civilization.”
    It’s easy to see why this is a largely forgotten book. I wouldn’t doubt that the author was contemplating suicide when he wrote that. The West promptly had an economic recovery in the decade following and we’ve seen communications transformed by the internet. He mentioned the recovery after the devastation of the plague and crushed economy in the fourteenth century. That recovery was a paradox when considered through the lens of modern macroeconomics. Deflation was rampant and labor costs were sky high. Yet the well being of the average worker was never better before then. If Paul Krugman had been writing then he would have been even more depressed than our author was in 1975.

  6. 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, specifically? Of course not, few do, but I’m open to New Stuff. Lots of other advances will follow in other fields, like they always do. I’m looking forward to it while at the same time dreading the social/cultural/political convulsions the country needs to go through and will go through to get to what’s next. The future doesn’t need to be bad, it could be, but I guess how it turns out depends a lot on what we think and embrace and do in the meantime. You can have negative feelings about the culture/political climate currently in the US and the West generally, and still feel optimism for the future of humankind.

    • 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 through concerted efforts of many. Seems like so much of today’s science revolves around the religion of proving evolution and the Big Bang Theory. At least if you ask Nat Geo or The Discovery Channel.

      However, when I look at the non-science fields like law, education, finance/economics, all I see is a degradation of knowledge due to a drive to corrupt a “system” to the advantage of a few. Things like the usurpation of education by the left to push socialist ideals does nothing to further the “spirit” of invention or entrepreneurialism. Take Constitutional Law. We have a President who majored in “The Weaknesses of Said Constitution and How to Escape and Evade The Law”. He has certainly had the “Audacity” to use that “Con” Law to achieve his Fundamental Transformation goals. In other fields, we know so much based on history and yet, people refuse to use those learning or twist and conflate them to their own malevolent desires. And no one is there to call them on it or hold them accountable. It’s called Justice. Where are the so-called Educators, Legal, Justice, etc. Associations that are supposed do the “self policing” to set standards for practice and hold practitioners to those standards? Never mind, it’s a rhetorical. We have fallen to the level of “What is the definition of ‘IS’?”

      But what is truly available for the individual is learning. The wealth of knowledge is simply astounding. It may not be invention but everyone can experience Discovery on a daily basis. The human body, the world and it’s inhabitants in all forms and varieties is a marvel. And that is just nature I am talking about. Not even the heavens. Or technology or the path that technology has taken. Just looking through pictures in Flickr can be fascinating in it’s own right even if you are not a photo buff. I think it is heartening to hear the comments acknowledging the non-permanence of electronic storage. So many people equate, I believe, that being able to store huge amounts of data on electronic media means that it can be saved … forever. (We know it is not secure!) Good to see that many are aware of this fallacy.

      As for me, I see a big hope in developments in battery technology. Small, high capacity, fast charging, reusable, long life cells that add a new dimension to mobility and portability in all aspects of life, including protection from the grid going down. Solar powered recharging a co-requisite of course.

  7. 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 people will get burnt trying to make steel again. Oh, we will learn how to do some basic things once again but after the age of plastic is done, we will need people who can make bricks and carve wood and mill metal. Once the oldies who knew this stuff are gone, the yoof will struggle for a time.

    Still, all the immigrants imported from the ME and Africa know how to make things from dung, so we might be alright.

  8. 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 many things in our economy, it feels totally untethered from reality. I mean, REALLY, Citi, you want to pay me $400 to open a savings account?

    • 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.

      • 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 would be the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Freedom, Chase Ink Business and Chase Freedom Unlimited. Chase bars you from new credit cards if you’ve opened more than 5 at any bank in the last 24 months, so always start there before you’re banned. Open the card, spend enough to get the bonus, collect the bonus, and then cancel the card. Cards take time to come in the mail, so always apply for the next one about 2 weeks before you meet the minimum spend on the one you’re currently working on.

        • 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.

          • 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.

          • 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.

  9. 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 with big groups of humans 100,000 years ago – they would simply kill each other for mates and territory. Then we got comfortable and selectively bred for those who could stand to live in a groups – smaller, dumber, less dominant people.

  10. 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.

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

  11. 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 advances are really quite a marvel but are “no-show” and that is why marketers constantly want to show the “smart” fridge that detects and reorders your milk and eggs when you get low on stocks. Talk about a perpetual vision of the future. The home of the future … to what end?

  12. 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.

  13. “…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 the link and some of his bullet points

    “…We modern humans, who can send signals to each other over great distances are the byproduct of modern commerce which barely exists on this planet and is very fragile.

    Among the trillions of species on earth for several billion years there are only 7 billion humans alive today. The total is 100 trillion species years. And we are the only ones with the potential for technology.

    Of that 7 billion, since the beginning of modern commerce in 1800 there have been less than a few billion such humans in only a few million square miles who have participated in modern commerce with sufficient competence to read, write, do numbers and create technology necessary for long distance communication. Maybe one billion.

    Of that billion, only a tiny fraction had the social attributes necessary to generate technology and operate it.

    That fraction needed to operate in
    a meritocracy

    with a non-tribal group of peers,

    in an environment that supports individual initiative
    supports free markets

    operate in a nation with a weak, free individual oriented government

    and in a large collection of friendly cooperative members of the species…”

    He is not optimistic about the future:

    “…Since only a few people, maybe 100, understand what created this extraordinary time in modern commerce and hundreds of millions of people (Lefties worldwide) are trying to destroy it, I don’t think we can expect this miracle to occur anywhere else in the universe…”

  14. 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.

      • 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.

        • Lost technology is a great topic to ponder. Greek Fire and Damascus Steel are tow fine examples where technology was lost. The printing press allowed for the cheap preservation of even minor knowledge. We have now replaced that storage method with the less durable electronic storage. A solar storm at the right time could set us back a long way.

          • It’s not just about the long-term preservation of knowledge. Perhaps you’ve already considered this, but think of the sheer catastrophe *just* from vehicles not starting. No food in the stores and no way to get there.

            Who would be left?

          • O yeah. The power goes out and it is Lord of the Flies time in most cities. Places like Baltimore will revert to warlordism overnight.

          • Oh no, not just Baltimore, and not just the cities. Suburbia is equally devoid of the capability to sustain itself without electricity.

            All transportation would be dead. The equipment to get grain out of grain elevators would be fried. The animals raised for meat, unfed, would die by the millions (billions?). The farming machinery would be dead, too. Vast tracts of land would turn fallow, there being no one to farm them. With the exception of the Amish, the country would return to its pre-agricultural revolution state. It would be the old Amerind country again.

            The rural areas would be equally affected. Few country folk have the knowledge or fortitude to live in a world without electricity. The last generation with that memory is dying out; my grandparents are it. “I’d just shoot some deer.” So would everyone else.

            The last time there was a big one the only even vaguely electrical thing was the telegraph. The storm was strong enough to give telegraph operators electrical shocks. Fortunately they didn’t have microprocessors in every little thing.

      • 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 missing ingredient” and that those in the cement business didn’t know something so basic?

        Unfortunately, now that our infrastructure is reached the point of obsolescence and all those things need replacing, there simply is no money left.

      • 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 of organically contaminated bankrun gravel, natural portland cement and contaminated water, and when in-place freeze/thaw cycles and common road salt limit the life of concrete structures. In Russia, during the time of the USSR, most concrete buildings of three stories or better required iron banding to remain self standing, the Soviets had to hire West German engineering outfits to build for the 1980 Olympics.

        Modern concrete is a compromise between cost and performance, and it always will be, and sometimes it will fail.

  15. 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:

    Paranoid? Maybe, but the non-fictional likes of Tony Soprano have done far worse for less gain.

    As for the rest of humanity, perhaps we have become overly content as a species. After all, why invent better equipment to climb the mountain when we would rather take selfies of ourselves enjoying the view from the plateau.

    How DO e-mails transfer attachments? How CAN a text message travel through the air and hit the bullseye every time? Perhaps the real question we should try to answer is why we don’t care how it works as long as it does. And, maybe the answer is because “no show work” takes effort and patience, whereas “show work” feels so good.

    Like Narcissus who loved himself to death, why should we move upward and onward when staring at (and sharing) our own reflection is so much fun? Besides, The Jetson’s are on Netflix this month anyway.

  16. 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, but “employing” a few hundred thousand people on building your pyramid sends one hell of a message about your place in the social order. Remember those old Marxist anthropologists, who loved to study the Indian potlaches because they were the epitome of capitalism’s useless resource-extraction? Well, they were more right than they knew — labor power is, according to the Marxist, the only source of value. He who harnesses the most labor power is the Elite. Remember, live-in servants were common in America within living memory — the Brady Bunch, anyone? If I had two nickels to rub together, I’d call Monty Burns and figure out how to invest with him in Consolidated Slaveholdings.

    • @ 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 a similar means of transportation as the elite 1%. The only real difference is how much time you have to enjoy it all.

      • 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 shows the whole world what a big man you are. Think of the later Roman Empire, when patricians had hundreds of house slaves — there was no possible “use” for all those people, and in fact they made the practical tasks of household management far less efficient. But it was all about status: “I have *three* Academy-educated Greeks whose only job is to wipe my kids’ asses.”

        • 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!

          • 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 have TWO wymyn’s studies majors from Oberlin. The poor dears can’t find employment, and they’ve got to make student loan payments somehow. So, so sad”).

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

    • 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.

  17. 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 more efficient and require less maintenance, but that’s it. My computer is it and it’s questionable how much it really improves my life.

    So the idea that the last 100 years in terms of technological advancement will continue is quite dubious. But not surprisingly, that’s what people have latched onto, particularly in the technology realm.

  18. 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 to Hawaii or Spain for a holiday. This is also true for almost all forms of transportation from lighter, more fuel efficient vehicles (which everyone can afford,) to high speed rail in Europe or Japan. The same is true in computer power. Today we can buy a handheld smartphone with more capability than the early Commodore or Apple computers and for half the price.

    To your statement “We lack the will and wherewithal to fund something like the Manhattan Project or the Apollo project…” SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are a solid argument of just the opposite. The difference is the Manhattan Project and Apollo projects were government funded and had no real commercial value on the consumer market. While SpaceX (and others like it) are privately funded “for profit” enterprises and are only limited by capital investment.

    The limits aren’t because of a lack of forward progress, it’s because we’re against the limitations of physics.

    *Gustave Whitehead Condor in 1901 and Concord SST in 1969.

    • As to your first point, yes, there was a great leap from riding horses to riding planes. No doubt, but no one alive will see us riding jet packs, flying cars or transporters. That’s a great example of what I meant by fits and starts. We had the long run up of theoretical science that flowered into a burst of new practical technology like planes. With regards to airplanes, nothing new has happened in a long time. The last great advance was jet power half a century ago.

      As to SpaceX that’s just an attempt to commoditized existing technology. There’s nothing new there. I’ll also note that no one can put a man on the moon right now, suggesting that our space travel ability has declined, not advanced.

      • “that’s just an attempt to commoditized existing technology” which I see as exactly the type of incremental advance of which you wrote. That’s the problem with no-show work – it doesn’t look like much, it seems too tiny to amount to anthing.

      • With regards to airplanes…. The biggest advance I’ve noticed is the humongous drop in incidents, accidents and fatalities over the past 50-60 years. These days, when an airliner shuts down an engine in-flight anywhere in the world it makes “breaking news”. When I flew Connies 50-60 years ago hardly a week went by without a 3-engine landing, and occasionally it was on 2-engines. And we didn’t even make the local rag.

        • There’s no need to go to the moon. Engineering developments over the past 30-years have proven the technology necessary for both long distance travel as well as extended living in low/zero gravity. The next step is Mars. Consider that It took 60-years to go from the Wright Flyer to Concorde, so we should expect space travel will take a bit of time too and with the economy of SpaceX, it’s a huge cost advantage . Honestly, I wouldn’t expect human travel to Mars anytime soon. It’s unnecessary. Drone technology can provide automated base station construction so the basics are already established ahead of human arrival.

          But to your point of “there’s nothing new there” that would be incorrect. Actually they did develop a new technology; reusable rockets. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin first pulled off a landing in November; Elon Musk’s SpaceX did it in December. But perhaps that’s the no-show work you’re talking about. True – it’s not sexy and doesn’t get much press – but neither did carving a propeller from a stick of wood.

          • The moon has fuel sources we can use. It’s also a logical staging area, and a base there is actually pretty practical both from a ascent/descent proving ground to a stable and relatively nearby forward operating base.

            Otherwise, going to Mars is just the Griswold’s at the Grand Canyon.

      • And, alarmingly, too many people have forgotten what our current wealth is based on, and are eagerly undermining the foundations – of free market capitalism, as well as the specific industries that underlie productivity – steel mills, chemical refineries, logging and mining and even dams and affordable electricity.

        It’s as if there’s a limiting factor placed on humanity – when the “elites” have too much power, money and leisure they go to war? Seeking the luxury of a less crowded world? Are they seeking to replace existing law and citizens with sharia and barbarians in an impoverished society – any time a course of action has a certain effect, the possibility that it’s intentional should be considered. Why have the (D)irtbags become so bellicose with Russia and China, while arming Iran?

  19. “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.

    • 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.

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

        • 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.

  20. 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 brothers is a quant and the other failed algebra 2 twice before limping to a C.

    • 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.

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