Skip to comments.Niall Ferguson: Donít Believe the Techno-Utopian Hype
Posted on 08/01/2012 5:36:49 AM PDT by Sir Napsalot
(snip) My pessimism is supported by a simple historical observation. The achievements of the last 25 years were actually not that big a deal compared with what we did in the preceding 25 years, 1961-1986 (e.g. landing men on the moon). And the 25 years before that, 1935-1960, were even more impressive (e.g. splitting the atom). In the words of Peter Thiel, perhaps the lone skeptic within a hundred miles of Palo Alto: In our youth we were promised flying cars. What did we get? 140 characters.
Moreover, technoptimists have to explain why the rapid scientific technological progress in those earlier periods coincided with massive conflict between armed ideologies. (Which was the most scientifically advanced society in 1932? Germany.)
So let me offer some simple lessons of history: More and faster information is not good in itself. Knowledge is not always the cure. And network effects are not always positive.
By the same token, there was great technological progress during the 1930s. But it did not end the Depression. That took a world war. So could something comparably grim happen in our own time? Dont rule it out. Lets remind ourselves of the sequence of events: economic depression, crisis of democracy, road to war. ....
In the 1930s script, democratic decay is followed by conflict. I am not one of those who expects Europes monetary meltdown to end in war. Europeans are too old, disarmed, and pacifist for there to be more than a few desultory urban riots this summer. But I am much less confident about peace to Europes south and east. North Africa and the Middle East now have the ingredients in place for a really big war: economic volatility, ethnic tension, a youthful population, and an empire in declinein this case the American Empire. ....
(Excerpt) Read more at thedailybeast.com ...
That took a world war.
This may be the biggest lie of the 20th century ( in a century of big lies).
Is Ferguson completely ignorant of the galloping advances in the understanding of biology and material science?
I am trained and worked in a science field since early 80s, and I find ((with due respect to the advances made in science and technology) most painted way too much of a rosy future hyping science and technology.
I tend to agree. When I see pictures of some tie-less dork tech CEO holding up the latest device on a stage, I don’t see real progress.
Who is “most”? Most Popular Science writers for sure.
Disagree with Ferguson.
I worked with Cray-2 supercomputers at Norfolk Naval Ocean Processing Facility in the 1980s.
It occupied 16 square feet of floor space, weighed 5500 pounds and consumed 195 kW of power.
The fastest computer in the world at that time with a clock speed of 125 MHz.
My current home computer has a clock speed of 3300 MHz. Plus it is much smaller, lighter and consumes far less power.
Computer tech has advanced more from 1987 to 2012 than it has in all the time before.
Then you probably remember the first time you saw a CRT on someone’s desk.
Every single job in the country is done radically differently than is was 30 years ago. At least the ones that still exist and not including the ones being done no one dreamed of 30 years ago.
You think there will be a breakthrough for the next 25 years in computer tech?
It is due to Gov't theft of overall productivity gains through inflation and debasement.
Yes. I think there will be many breakthroughs in the design and efficiency of transistors. Nanotechnology and all.
Computing hardware will continue to get more powerful, more efficient, and cheaper.
The word progress implies a goal. Socialists believe the only worthwhile goals are ones sheared by everyone. Hundreds of millions of private goals have been achieve by advances in technology in the past 50 years.
Technological promises change. Change offers opportunities. It is up to each of us to use the opportunities to our personal advantage.
If his point is humans are good at squandering opportunities then I agree.
I think Ferguson is on to something. The problem is not the advances or lack thereof in technology — it’s the dumbing down of society. We will continue to have substantial technological advances, but such advances will be put to increasingly trivial and unproductive pursuits. As the populace becomes more preoccupied with their Facebook accounts or playing Words with Friends, authoritarian governments will eagerly step in to “regulate and control” society. After all, the people won’t even know what an important issue is.
The achievements of the last 25 years were actually not that big a deal compared with what we did in the preceding 25 years,
What's he is saying is that while technology advances, it is being put to ever more trivial and unimportant uses. Compare landing a man on the Moon with a computer not much greater in capability than today's pocket calculator with the development of today's power PC, which is multiples of hundreds better than the Apollo on-board computers and is used to chat and exchange photos on the internet.
The unchecked growth of bureaucratic meddlers has hampered much technical progress over the last 25 years. The reason it would take us so long to get back to the moon is because many of the materials used in the 60s can no longer be manufactured. Think Freon.
Thank you EPA, and that moderate, Rockefeller wing of the GOP (Nixon, McCain, Bush and now Romney) whose initiatives prove to be more deleterious than outright communism. Just wait for the results of Free Drugs for Geezers and our demographic suicide through immigration and open borders to take effect.
That is such a myopic point of view.
I took my care to a one man mechanic the other day. He hooked his diagnostic computer to my car’s interface and read the service alarms. He went to his desktop computer and brought up the service manual for my car. Ran an app that estimated the time required to fix my problem and presented me an estimate in about 10 minutes. Then he went to another app and ordered parts from the cheapest source.
Inconceivable a small under capitalized entrepreneur could have that power even 10 years ago.
Yes, equivalent computing power. Around the time I was standing in the middle of a Cray-2 (a wonderfully unique opportunity during high school), I wondered what if all that computing power was applied to a single user interface; now I know.
Similarly here in technology—and I agree with you and Niall.
Information technology has taken (and continues to take) great leaps forward. Other technologies are somewhat at a plateau. Overall, we continue to refine the capabilities we have: making them faster, cheaper, more capable and more elegant.
My own feeling is that the next great leap forward will come when we start to colonize space. First the solar system, then the stars. Unfortunately, that’s probably not going to happen in my lifetime—maybe not even this century. I think we made a great mistake after the moon landing in 1969. We decided to look inward to fix social ills instead of continuing to expand outward. If we had done the latter, we’d have permanent colonies on the Moon and Mars by now.
Are you sure putting a man on the moon isn’t “trivial and unimportant” too? A lot of effort for not a lot of payoff. We haven’t been back for a couple generations.
Contrast with making available to all the ability to stuff a Cray-2 in their pocket for about $50/mo and use it to instantly publish anything for the world to see. You may chat and exchange photos; I publish advice on frugal yet fulfilling living (see tagline).
To the article’s point:
“the prospect of death contracts the mind wonderfully.” - Douglas Adams
Faced, looming or remembered, with the reality of mortality individuals and cultures tend to get their acts together and do meaningful things. Without such a focus, minds wander to inanities and luxuries and sloth.
The problem is not the advances or lack thereof in technology its the dumbing down of society
The Cray-2 costed $12-18 million in 1985.
It felt kind of cool working with the fastest computer in the world.
About 32,768 times more than its modern form.
He’s wrong, very wrong.
The biggest technological change in the past 50 years has been the Internet. It affects almost everyone, everyday. For both Business and entertainment. It has generated trillions in wealth.
You literally have almost the entire knowledge of the world in your hand. (smart phones). I realize that most people do not use it for that purpose, but that is another issue.
The explosion in knowledge in Biology is going to change the world in the next 10, 20 years.
The problem is not technological advancement, but society. We are literally separating into the smarter and dumber tribes and that will probably not end well.
Its true we turned out backs on Space, which was a major mistake. But what is needed here is two things. Cheaper access to space and a cash crop to pull investment and people into space. Some minor progress is being made on both fronts.
It help us win the Cold War over the Soviets -- I do not consider that trivial.
Half right. It took a Republican Congress in 1946 that dramatically cut the tax rate. Unemployment only went down earlier because every male between the ages of 18 and 37 got a draft notice. ----14 million in the military does wonders for the unemployment rate, but does not improve the underlying economic distress.
Life on the homefront during WWII was awful...
I get his point.
If you look at the leaps from horse and buggy to the Apollo missions, then from Apollo to today, we have slowed down.
Hence my point. What is derided as trivial isn’t; what isn’t trivial is too often derided thereas. Ability for anyone to cheaply share text & photos is not trivial either — instant worldwide publishing cheap-unto-free is the fulfillment of the right to free speech.
Maintaining the technological pace we had for ~50 years is hard & painful. Society needs time to absorb the change.
We are all so ignorant of how people in other professions do things today.
I was just at the dentist. He told me that Novocain was obsolete. Had been since he started dental school in 2000. He now uses 4 different types of anesthetic for different applications.
They no longer use mercury silver amalgam. They use engineered materials that cure under ultraviolet light in seconds and are almost instantly harder than enamel in seconds.
This kind of progress is being made in all (viable) industries. Is Ferguson thinking about this kind of progress in his flip analysis?
Engineers have pretty completely exploited the big basic physics discoveries of the 19th and early 20th century.
Then next great wave of change will come from the life sciences and materials science. Engineered life forms and materials with near magical properties.
Physics, not so much. What can future technologists do with the “multiverse”?
“This kind of progress is being made in all (viable) industries. Is Ferguson thinking about this kind of progress in his flip analysis?”
No he is not.
Most changes are evolutionary instead of radical. Compare cars of 30 years ago to today. They were junk. 18 MGP was considered good back in the day. No onstar or equilavent.
Technology is one of the few real improvements in the past 30 years while society is going downhill fast. If he had said that improvements in technology are not improving our lives as fast as cultural decay is causing problems, I might buy that argument.
But he said that science and technology is slowing down which is just not true.
They just figured out how to cram a LOT more data thru a narrow radio band ("unlimited bandwidth" may overstate, but not by much). Quantum computing is gathering speed. Entangled particles exhibit instant communication at significant distances. Teleportation & cloaking is achieved at increasingly larger scales.
Oh, physics has plenty to deliver on in my lifetime.
Can you point me to information on the bandwidth breakthrough?
We haven’t scratched the surface of the implications of quantum mechanics. Even though it has already led to unprecedented changes in civilization.
...and this isn’t even some freaky new understanding of reality, seems it’s a fairly simple “hey, what if...” with profound consequences.
I just read a book about Marconi. He was a complete physics illiterate. He was too ignorant to know what couldn’t be done.
eg. Since Marconi first demonstrated wireless communications in 1895
He was not the first to demonstrate wireless communications. A British scientist beat him and invented the primary device that made it possible. (haven't got the book here to supply the details). But this scientist thought it would never be more than a scientific oddity since he believed radio waves had to be line of sight and communications over distances of more than a few feet would ever be possible so he dropped the subject.
It's bursty for one thing. Thomas Kuhn called it paradigm shifting. It's not linear, and space travel is a perfect example.
What is happening with information technology is very much in its nascent stage - most of the toys for the masses are more a function of communications technology, no better or worse than the ability the individual already possesses to process the information communicated. If you're a thug, a flash mob is pretty exciting, but you're still just a thug. If you're a propagandist, it's incredible to get your story into millions of people's heads before they can call on a proper skepticism. But you're still just a propagandist.
But if you happen to be a thinker - a researcher in any field from psychology to quantum mechanics - the availability of raw data is unprecedented, and we are only beginning to notice its benefit. I'm suggesting that the talkers are overshadowing the doers at the moment in the popular eye, which is, after all, a function of talking. It won't be so in fifty years, and I think a wise observer would be well-served by waiting to pass judgment.
You are both right.
The first wave started with the steam engine and fossil fuels. Once we had a cheap, non animal or human source of energy, a lot of things were possible. It also dislocated much of the population in ways we haven’t adjusted to you. I grew up on a farm, and what my father farmed couldn’t support you now, and he farmed in an area covered by four small farms when he was a kid. That alone is 20 people who were no longer needed to do the job.
Industry is the same. The factory that needed 200 people to make a widget now only needs 50. The problem is that we still have the same or larger amounts of people who only have the ability to work in low skilled labor. We need to have something for them to do, beside eat on the dole.
One upcoming form of this is "large-scale 3D printing", to wit: rather than hiring a bunch of individually cheap workers to assemble a small building, a business can haul in a clever machine which can "print" the main structure with concrete, operated by just a few skilled workers. Example
The nature of human progress is to build a business serving a new need, satisfy that need, and to reduce the resources needed (human and otherwise) to produce it.
Bucky Fuller - Ephemeralization
the ability of technological advancement to do “more and more with less and less until eventually you can do everything with nothing”.
and the thing about information is it objectifies human lives. A despot's dream.