I’ve been reviewing some of Peter Thiel’s musings about the deceleration of Technological progress, something that any regular reader of this blog knows I mostly agree with. From the most famous 2011 National Review article “The end of the future”: The end of the Future to this pretty perceptive take on the implications for VC on our lack of optimism and belief in a determinate future contained in the class notes of the course he imparted in Stanford in 2012: Thiel's class. Mr. Thiel is obviously a very perceptive observer, and I find it doubly deserving of praise that he has managed to avoid the (in my humble opinion entirely unfounded) techno-optimism that permeates so thoroughly his milieu (the Silicon Valley based investors and entrepreneurs between whom he makes his living), regardless of the “exotic” policy choices he has made of late.
Or may be both (the savviness about how to invest money in a modern, technologically stagnant economy and the support for an “unconventional” candidate in politics) are intimately related, as precisely because he has such insight in the workings of the system he realizes the dangers of stagnation, the likelihood of collapse derived from unfulfilled promises to a growing majority that is growing restless with the perceived inequality and underlying unfairness of how things are organized, and is thus willing to cast his lot with the person less likely to keep the status quo going, unpredictable as the outcome of such bet may be. However, what the review of such copious notes (with which again, and uncharacteristically, I found much to agree) has kept me thinking about is the extent to which the current consensus about how the future may look like is wrong, and how a more sober assessment of where we are headed to may look like.
Now, when we talk about the “current consensus” we have to take such artificial construct with a pinch of salt, as there is a growing number of academics and journalists on whom it is (slowly and painfully) dawning that the super-duper revolutionary changes that are upon us may be a bit oversold, that there may be a bit more hype than reality in the maelstrom of technological wonders that the likes of Thomas Friedman keep describing in the editorial pages of the NYT. Not only Robert Gordon (whom I’ve drawn extensively from) has tried to show that the pace of innovation has measurably slowed in the last decades, but even more run-of-the-mill journalists are letting some doubts about the incoming automation revolution (see, for example, Derek Thompson in the latest number of “the Atlantic”: So where are all those robots?). However, I still think the vast majority of public opinion lives in a La la land in which innovation is still happening at a breakneck speed, and we are on the cusp of the “greatest changes in how humans live in the whole history of our species”, a vacuous assertion typically backed by some of the following:
· Automation and artificial intelligence pose an imminent threat to the livelihoods of a third of the workforce (lawyers, physicians, accountants, truck drivers, retail clerks, inventory managers, and almost any conceivable manufacturing-related occupation are widely considered jobs that may be replaced and made redundant by “robots” in the next five years, ten tops)
· Autonomous electric vehicles are all you will see on the roads five years from now (sounds far-fetched? I’m I straw manning here? Not at all, according to John Zimmer, not surprisingly CEO of Lyft: Third transportation revolution is upon us already in 2025 private car ownership will have all but disappeared from major US cities)
· Renewable, clean energies will replace all coal, gas and nuclear power stations within the next decade
· Advances in medicine enabled by the “decoding” of the human genome will “defeat death” and make us live forever (side rant: one can not but wonder if the people that give voice to such pabulum thinks that “us” is just the journalist and his interviewee -who is the one making a comfy living out of other people’s credulity, usually thanks to the media platform provided by the gullible reporter- or includes somebody else, up to the whole of humanity, like Aubrey de Grey seems to imply with his frequent quote that “age-related diseases account for one hundred thousand deaths a day, that’s the cost of every single day of delay in defeating death” - by giving him more money for research, one surmises)
· Between now and 2045 (the stated date of the singularity, according to Ray Kurzweil) the continued improvements in hardware will make the apparition of a “superintelligence” (general purpose and well beyond human capabilities in any cognitive field) all but inevitable. Once that superintelligence becomes sentient, all bets are off about what may become of us, old and clunky chunks of meat sadly unable to compare with such clever contraption
· If genetic tinkering doesn’t do the trick, the massive use of nanobots to replace our aging cells and remove damaged tissue will surely vastly improve our life expectancy. If separating the good cells from the bad ones proves to be too daunting a task, there are bazillions of things the incoming nanotechnology revolution will potentially do for us (building materials that reconfigure themselves to adapt to the stress they are subjected to, intelligent fabrics that reflect the climatic conditions or just our mood and fancy, cleaning sites after nuclear accidents… ooops, sorry, no nuclear accidents in our future, as we will be getting all our energy from wind and sun in a few years)
· And of course, we have the Internet of Things, truly revolutionary in its implications (or has that one already been exposed as a commercial gimmick that consultants use to convince their naïve clients so they part from their hard-earned money?)
· Immersive, seamless Virtual Reality will revolutionize entertainment, bringing an end to every form of leisure humanity has known until know as people retreat more and more within the harmless artificial paradises enabled by the new technology (well, given all the work will be done by robots, it’s all well and good we will at least have something to keep the masses entertained)
· What to say about space travel and exploration? Permanent base on the moon? Human colony on Mars? Laser-on-lightsails powered nanoprobes on their way to the closest star? Guys, is the future we are talking about! Why be shy? All of them, and then some, in the coming decade!
What can I say? Other than, as I’ve indeed say before, none of them are going to happen. Not for sure in the “immediate future” (between now and 2027, sorry Mr. Zimmer). Most likely not between now and 2037 either, a collapsing social system in which a growing majority is “proletarianized” (again, as I do not tire to remind my readers, in a Toynbeean, not Marxian sense) and thus disengaged from the dominating values of the elites is less and less able to innovate, and one of its defining features is that everything end up costing more than originally envisioned. I do not entirely deny that some of those marvels may end up materializing in 20-50 years (my bet for most likely ones are autonomous cars, which will probably be electric and communal -but never all of them, cars are too much of an status symbol to be so easily forsworn by plutocrats; followed by overwhelmingly wind- and solar-based energy somewhere around 2040).
Am I an “stagnationist”, then? Do I think that the future will look more or less like the past, as the vast majority of people have thought for the vast majority of human history? Far from it. Given how good we have it (in our corner of the world, sure, but such corner now encompasses more than a third of humanity), being a stagnationist would be a joy and a source of comfort. This is the deal: societies are essentially unstable (I’ll get to why in a moment), so when they are not “advancing”, developing its internal strengths, growing and evolving they don’t just stay put in whatever level of civilizational achievement they have reached. They start to decompose, degenerate, rot from the core and disintegrate. It can be a slow process, drawn out during centuries (like the paradigmatic case of the Roman empire, and may be the Ottoman empire too) or they can pretty dramatically go out with a bang (like those pre-Columbine Mexican societies whose cities we can still admire, abandoned in an unexplained bout of fury and despair). In the growth phase we tend to pay attention to a couple of forces: art and technology, as they help us understand the world view of their inhabitants: what scenes did they paint? What aspects of man did they enhance and pay more attention to in their sculptures? About what circumstances did they write? And of course how did they cultivate their fields? How did they procure clean water? How did they dispose of their refuse? How did they weave their clothes? A lot of ink has been spilled, and a lot of thought devoted to how those two currents (arts and technologies) relate to each other, how one explains more or less of the other and how advances in one modify or open new fields of exploration in the other. But what is less frequently acknowledged is that in the second phase of every civilization’s lifecycle (the descending one) those two forces become secondary to another one: social relations.
You may rightfully argue that “social relations” is a catch-all term that can easily incorporate under its broad mantle both the two previously mentioned forces (art and technology) as well as many, even more disparate, others: economic relations are definitely social in nature, the use of military force may be construed as an extreme form of social relation, and so on and so forth. So let me explain what I mean. What I detect in most writers that have stubbornly bought the canard of accelerating technological advances in the face of (equally stubborn) productivity and median income statistics that show that there is no acceleration at all, but rather a day by day more marked deceleration is a fixation in technology, and in a particular type of technology at that: Google has developed a program that can defeat the best human go player, and go is the most complex board game devised by humans (I don’t have the faintest idea of the rules of go, so I’m taking that oft-cited assertion at face value); Amazon can deliver to your doorstep any book ever written or any tchotchke you can dream of a few hours after you know of its existence for the first time; You iPhone can alert you that an appointment on the other side of town is coming, and call an Uber car for you to get there without you as much as lifting a finger… So everything is up for grabs, and the future will be even more full of such wonders because that particular type of technology has the potential to completely upend how society works.
And what I’m trying to say is that technology doesn’t function in a vacuum (not exactly groundbreaking, I know), and that the areas in which it chooses to invest, the problems it sets to resolve and the obstacles it attempts to overcome all are dictated (if you think “dictated” is too strong a word, change it for “influenced”, the argument doesn’t change much for it) by the social circumstances of the people that fund it. Which, in our current age and place, means the elite cadres of Western bourgeoisie (what different writers have termed the “Davos elite”, the “Complacent Class”, the “Globalist elite” and the like), which at this point just yearn for more convenient delivery of richer goodies, chosen from a vaster selection, with less time investment (so they can work more and earn more money, which in turn they’ll use for more of the same ultimately vacuous cycle). Some of them practice philanthropy and throw some resources to solve some (for them) marginal problem like malaria or lack of running water in villages in Africa, but essentially the time and energy devoted to improving energy, human transportation, third world health, building, agriculture or manufacturing is zilch. Or maybe not exactly zilch, but in any case not enough to overcome the mounting inertia imposed by the regulatory needs of a complex economy.
One example I’m more familiar with: apparently a lot of investment goes into new forms of producing energy. But no new reactor designs are being approved or, I dare to say, will be approved for massive deployment in the next two decades. And I’m not talking just ol’ fission, the same goes for fusion, coal (although we are talking of super-hyper critical boilers already, the real equivalent to a “new generation” here would be carbon capture, which is as “not gonna happen” as any SMR), and even wind and solar. I can hear Tom Friedman scoffing how the latter have reduced their price in one or two orders of magnitude to which I can only say sure, as long as you do not take into account what actually building the stations cost (as opposed to what the estimates of the IPP bidders say it may cost according to the most rosy scenarios imaginable) and you take the storage cost conveniently out of the picture (to do things like, em, keeping the lights on when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing). So the vaunted reduction in renewable energy prices is basically a bit of economies of scale for manufacturing more of ‘em (undeniable, but overblown) and accounting gimmickry, as a society we have decided we don’t mind paying substantially more for our energy (not that I oppose that, I would just prefer we were more open about it and not try to sell it on false premises).
The question then is, why aren’t we collectively getting more bang for our buck of investment in the development of newer energy sources? And the answer is that the investment that does happen is simply not enough to overcome all the regulations we have found it necessary to impose on the activity to avoid chocking on the fumes, rad waste and other ugly byproducts. We have learned so much of the negative effects of the existing ways, most of which are still not fully borne by the ones benefitting from its production (case in point, CO2 emissions by coal-burning plants in most of the world), that we have created a very necessary mesh of rules to try to minimize their negative impact in our common well-being (and, again, we have not been entirely successful at such prevention). But such mesh also gets in the way of newer forms of energy production, making it simply unfeasible at the end of the day. A number of (mostly American) conservatives seem to naively think that it is a simple instance of regulatory overreach by that dreaded and hated Leviathan, the state, and that just repealing it wholesale would make all the good entrepreneurial spirits flourish and the innovations in this area (like in so many others) blossom. I don’t share their uninformed optimism at all. Most (if not all) of those “burdensome” regulations are there for good reason, and there is simply no way to just get rid of them wholesale and expect the economy to chug along graciously (that is, without going back to a grim past of soot and polluted waters for most, probably billionaires would still be able to get clean air and water delivered to them by drone). So in that are, like in so many others, we are essentially screwed.
But that doesn’t mean, again, that all I see in the horizon is stasis and continuity. Back to my argument about the distinct force of social relations: what the pundits and the journalists and the Davoisie don’t realize is that even in a scenario of technological (and economic) stagnation powerful currents may still be at work, accumulating tensions in weaker parts of the structure until they are violently released. Those tensions take the usual form in decadent societies (or, resorting again to Toynbee, in the terminal phase of civilizations): a majority of disgruntled, disengaged proletarians that do not identify with the characteristic values and goals of the civilization, and a minority of creatively exhausted elites that focus on their particular problems (for example, extending their lifespan even more without worrying if such expansion would ever be scalable to the forgotten masses) unable to offer any hope or any guidance to the rest of society. And when people realize (consciously or unconsciously) that’s the predicament they are in, when they finally accept that the idea that their sons (those they are not having, because life is not worth it anyway) will have a better life then themselves is an empty lie, that the fact they have not experienced a salary rise in a decade is not an abnormal glitch that will soon be corrected, but a newly built-in feature of the system, what will they do?
That’s exactly what I mean by social relations coming to the fore and displacing technology (or the arts, which are but an expression of the collective interests, and which in time of creative exhaustion instead of proposing common goals can only certify the emptiness and lack of meaning of every human life). And why the substantial change that awaits us will not came in the form of some magic technology delivering us from our present malaise, but in the old, worrisome, unpredictable, likely violent form of major social upheaval.
So a second (or third) revolution? May be, why not, most likely. Just don’t count on it being known as “industrial” a few centuries from now.