Slowing Rate of Change and Tech Innovation

"We flatter ourselves by imagining that we live in an age of endless invention and innovation," says Paul Kedrosky. A classic approach is applying Moore's Law to…everything, and then leaping to claims about unprecedented change in society more generally. I'm reading a number of commentators call bullshit. They are arguing that the number of new important innovations has been steadily declining and that the pace of change is slowing.

Here's Philip Longman in U.S. News & World Report:

There is a distinction to be made between inventions that are merely sophisticated–such as, say, personal digital assistants–and those that fundamentally alter the human condition. The invention of the light bulb created more useful hours in each day for virtually every human being. The electric motor directly raised the productivity in every sphere of life, from speeding up assembly lines to creating so many labor-saving devices in the home that millions of housewives were able to join the paid work force. The internal combustion engine allowed for mass, high-speed transportation of both people and freight while also opening up vast regions of cheap land to suburban development. The materials revolution that brought us petroleum refining, synthetic chemicals, and pharmaceuticals involved learning to rearrange molecules in ways that made raw materials fundamentally more valuable. Without the genetically improved seeds that brought us the "Green Revolution" of the late 1960s and '70s, there would be mass starvation.

Can we make any parallel claim about the single greatest technology of our own time? It remains possible that networked computers and other new information technologies will one day create similar, societywide bursts in productivity, health, and wealth. Yet to date, the marginal gains computers have brought to communications are modest even compared with the improvements made by the telegraph. The first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable in 1866 reduced the time required to send a message from New York to London from about a week to a few minutes. Notes economist Alan Blinder: "No modern IT innovation has, or I dare say will, come close to such a gain!"

Here's Scott Sumner with a personal observation in a post about economic growth rates:

My grandmother died at age 79 on the very week they landed on the moon. I believe that when she was young she lived in a small town or farm in Wisconsin. There was probably no indoor plumbing, car, home appliances, TV, radio, electric lights, telephone, etc. Her life saw more change than any other generation in world history, before or since. I’m already almost 55, and by comparison have seen only trivial changes during my life. That’s not to say I haven’t seen significant changes, but relative to my grandma, my life has been fairly static. Even when I was a small boy we had a car, indoor plumbing, appliances, telephone, TV, modern medicine, and occasional trips in airplanes.

Michael Lind makes similar points in his Time magazine piece called "The Boring Age."

Here's Peter Thiel:

The question about what sorts of innovations we are likely to see in the next 10 or 20 years depends a great deal on what people do. The pessimistic view is that we are living in a society that depends on innovation and science and technology, but that is actually not focusing on these things nearly enough and that as a result, we are headed towards an extended period of stagnation and very slow growth throughout all the nations of the developed world.

The more optimistic view is that we somehow figure out a way to restart the innovative engine that's probably gotten stalled. And my version of this would be that we go back to where the '50's and '60's ended and look back at the great technologies people were pursuing at the time; space, robots, artificial intelligence, the next generation of biotechnology and sort of look at where people thought the future of the world was going to be in 1968 and we try to take off from where things got detoured at that time.

Here's a different 10 min video of Peter Thiel in which he talks about the lack of innovation in the context of financial markets. There is an attitude that "someone else is doing it" but in fact no one is doing it. "There is a lot less going on than people think," he says.

So: Why is this happening?

Tyler Cowen once said, "If we had to build today's energy infrastructure working under the current regulatory and NIMBY burden, it probably could not be done." Can we extract from this a larger claim that a bloated government and burdensome regulatory environment are significantly dampening innovation? An ever-powerful bureaucratic class strangling creativity? Or is it that the government is not doing enough in funding basic research toward big innovation (as it did with Darpa and space program of the past)? Are there cultural norms around conformity that are causing too many to be too deferential to the status quo? Are too many smart young people going to school? (In the past boy-geniuses had more unconventional educations which helped lead to extreme innovation, perhaps.) What are other reasons?

One counter-argument to all of the above is that there is indeed accelerating change and new innovation, it's just that we don't yet see it. As David Dalrymple said to me in a tweet, "The exponential trend only applies directly to enabling technologies, not to technologically-enabled milestones like flight."

(thanks to Michael Vassar for helping brainstorm some of these ideas.)

34 Responses to Slowing Rate of Change and Tech Innovation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *