Is progress slowing down? Do we need a better understanding of 'progress'?

C C Offline

INTRO (excerpts): . . . Robert Gordon [The Rise and Fall of American Growth] claims that the staggering changes in the US of 1870-1970 were built on transformative, one-time innovations, and therefore Americans can't expect similar levels of growth to return anytime soon, if ever. The remarkable thing is "not that growth is slowing down but that it was so rapid for so long", he writes. In Gordon’s view, this slowdown isn’t anyone’s fault: "American growth slowed down after 1970 not because inventors had lost their spark or were devoid of new ideas, but because the basic elements of a modern standard of living had by then already been achieved along so many dimensions."

For most of history, the world improved at a sluggish pace, if at all. Civilisations rose and fell. Fortunes were amassed and squandered. Almost every person in the world lived in what we would now call extreme poverty. For thousands of years, global wealth – at least our best approximations of it – barely budged.

But beginning around 150-200 years ago, everything changed. The world economy suddenly began to grow exponentially. Global life expectancy climbed from less than 30 years to more than 70 years. Literacy, extreme poverty, infant mortality, and even height improved in a similarly dramatic fashion. The story may not be universally positive, nor have the benefits been equally distributed, but by many measures, economic growth and advances in science and technology have changed the way of life for billions of people.

What explains this sudden explosion in relative wealth and technological power? What happens if it slows down, or stagnates? And if so, can we do something about it? These are key questions of "progress studies", a nascent self-styled academic field and intellectual movement, which aims to dissect the causes of human progress in order to better advance it.

Founded by an influential economist and a billionaire entrepreneur, this community tends to define progress in terms of scientific or technological advancement, and economic growth – and therefore their ideas and beliefs are not without their critics. So, what does the progress studies movement believe, and what do they want to see happen in the future?

[...] Gordon builds on fears made famous by economist Tyler Cowen in his 2011 book, The Great Stagnation. Cowen similarly argues that the US ate most of the "low-hanging fruit" that enabled consistent growth in American median incomes, and that the country can’t expect to grow like it used to.

So, have all the low-hanging fruit gone? Are "ideas" getting harder to find? A team of economists from Stanford and MIT posed this exact question in a 2020 paper. They found that research and development efforts have significantly increased, while per-researcher productivity has declined. In other words, we’re getting less for our time and money. A lot less. They estimate that each doubling of technological advancement requires four-times as much research effort as the previous doubling.

Why? Some from the progress community point to sclerotic funding bureaucracies, which eat nearly half of researcher time and create perverse incentives. This may explain some of the drop-off, but the paper authors found that US research productivity has declined more than 40 times since the 1930s. Is it plausible that US scientific funding became that much less efficient?

Instead, the authors favour Gordon and Cowen's low-hanging fruit arguments: we’ve found the easy discoveries and now put more effort towards what remains. For instance, compare the insights that Albert Einstein made as a patent clerk, or that Marie Curie unlocked in a rudimentary lab, to multibillion-dollar megaprojects like the Large Hadron Collider or James Webb Space Telescope.

[...] The stagnation hypothesis is not universally accepted. Ideas can be combined and recombined, creating a combinatorial explosion of new innovations, an effect that counters the gobbling of low-hanging fruit. And some have pointed out that if you measure research productivity and benefits differently, the picture is much rosier.

Nonetheless, fear of stagnation is a central motivation for many people in the progress community. Unlike Gordon, however, they are optimistic about their capacity to change it – which leads us to the story of how the progress studies movement was founded... (MORE - missing details)
confused2 Offline
Re: Progress.
In the UK the average car is now an SUV in a country with a well maintained road system, few extremes of climate and an average car journey of around 9 miles a day. IMHO the UK peaked somewhere around 1970 and likewise the US would have done had it not been for the special operation in Vietnam
Magical Realist Offline
I don't know how we gauge progress. What benchmarks do we use? I thought flying cars would be the next big thing. But in fact it is the Internet. Instead of flying around in aerial vehicles, we fly about in cyberspace gathering information and ideas and imagery for our minds. So what's after the Internet? I suppose smartphones were. We have instantaneous access to anybody at any time. I personally think instantaneous access is highly over rated. Smile

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