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The ascent?

In the classical 1973 BBC production The Ascent of Man, Bronowski lists a number of amazing accomplishments that grew from primitive tools millions of years ago to wonders such as the theory of relativity and understanding DNA as a basis for life. One cannot but be impressed with how little the series has aged in terms of technology, paradigms and scientific understanding. However, the apparent agelessness of the documentary poses a very fundamental challenge to the wide spread assumption that the rate of technological change and scientific understanding is accelerating exponentially. In fact, accelerating technology and scientific innovation constitutes a pillar for the school of thought, which rejects peak oil and its consequences. An impending energy crunch and resultant devolution of modern lifestyles will be avoided -- it is argued -- through amazing scientific discoveries and technological implementations, which will allow indefinite exponential growth even in a closed and limited system.

While Jevons' Paradox suggests that technological conservation of energy will be eroded by greater usage, there is an even more fundamental problem, namely that: 1) technological progress is less useful than usually thought, because of marginal returns and 2) technological advancement and innovation has slowed alarmingly over the last decades. This is why The Ascent of Man seems so timeless: mankind has not ascended much in the recent past. We are in fact witnessing a severe collapse of creativity and innovation in spite of the newest apps on your phone.

One formulation of technological optimism is found in Moore’s Law, which has accurately stated that computing power will double approximately every two years. Futurists believe that Moore’s Law will lead to what is known as a technological singularity –- a situation in which computations occur virtually instantaneously. This could perhaps be attained using quantum computers based on super-positioning and entanglement. However, here one must remember the law of diminishing returns. How much benefit can be drawn from this ever increasing computing speed?

We have long since passed the point at which greater computational speeds have greater significance in everyday life. For instance, when I search "house" in Google, I get 1,520,000,000 hits in 0,05 seconds. The question being, whether am I significantly better off now than two years ago when I only got 760,000,000 hits in the same time, or when it took me all of 0.1 seconds. These differences are effectively beyond the threshold of human senses: the time differences have become negligible and I would never in a whole lifetime be able to browse all the results and make a meaningful choice between them. So, in this particular case, Moore’s Law has not improved my life significantly. In fact, some would argue that the proliferation of possibilities and options as regards hits in a computer search and technologies have made me much worse off, creating paralysis in the face of all this information and choice. The psychologist Barry Schwartz has eloquently argued that this reduces the quality of life.

Although computing speeds double every other year, the computer is itself an old invention, as readers of Neil Stephenson's Cryptonomicon will know. The first mechanical computers go back to the 1600s and savants such as Blaise Pascal and Gottfried von Leibnitz. Indeed, the cryptology and mathematics involved are older yet, since the binary number system used for computers originates with the ancient Indian mathematician Pingala. The 1800s saw the rise of punch-card computers and the first modern electrical computers were designed by Alan Turing in 1936 and built during the Second World War. This is old stuff. The first commercial word processor was WordStar from 1978, which was –- coincidentally -- made famous by Arthur C. Clarke who praised its qualities from a Sri Lankan beach. The Internet is from the 1960s, the cellphone is from 1973, the first satellite was put into orbit in 1957, the details of which were put forth by Clarke in a Wireless World article in 1945, but Konstantin Tsiolkovsky had already calculated the necessary orbital speeds in 1903. The first heart transplant was in 1967 and the first kidney transplant in 1953. The list of technology goes on and on: television, radio, nuclear reactors, cars, refrigeration, rail, internal combustion, reinforced concrete, aeroplanes, industrialized agriculture, robots, windmills, solar panels, in vitro fertilization, and so on. These were all invented in the 19th and 20th centuries. In fact, one would be hard pressed to suggest a single innovation from the last 30 years that has changed, improved or eased everyday life for ordinary people in a radical way, such as those mentioned here.

At best, one could speak of combining existing technologies, such as internet on the cellphone or improving efficiency, as in Moore’s law and deadly and destructive economies of scale. In fact the Time magazine list of best inventions for 2009 has astounding wonders such as the universal unicycle, the edible race car, and the sky king, a radical breakthrough in paper plane folding.

Even seemingly useful inventions on the Time 2010 list, such as a seed bank or Seed Cathedral is a rip off from the 20th century. The 1972 Sci-fi movie Silent Running has a seed bank, but reality also has them, such as the 1926 Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry, the 1936 Wellcome Trust, the 1984 Nordic Gene Bank at Svalbard. Why delude ourselves into thinking that this is innovation in any other manner than presentation and aesthetics? Similarly flying cars (sic), jet packs (sic) and plastic fur (sic) from the 2010 list are not true innovations either, but high-energy gimmicks.

The slowing in innovation is not merely a hypothesis, intuition, or vague impression. Jonathan Huebner has made a case for the concept of peak innovation using quantitative measures. His paper examines the number of technological innovations in relation to population size since the 1450s and reaches the flabbergasting result that innovation peaked in 1873 and that within a few years, the rate of contemporary innovation will drop to levels not seen since the Middle Ages. There may be inaccuracies in using patents as proxies for innovation, but the results are so marked that they at least suggest an overall trend. In the abstract, Huebner is therefore able to draw an astounding statistical conclusion: "We are at an estimated 85% of the economic limit of technology, and it is projected that we will reach 90% in 2018 and 95% in 2038."

Not unlike with oil, it would seem that the low-hanging fruits of research have been taken. The remaining breakthroughs in science will take longer to attain and involve more extensive funding and regard ever more esoteric subjects. This can be seen, for example, in the age of Nobel Prize winners. They have been getting older and older over the last many decades, suggesting that scientific results take longer to reach. For instance, the winners of the 2010 Nobel Prize in economics were 62, 70, and 71 years old, while conventional wisdom would have it that 50 years of age was an upper limit.

It seems that a technological solution to the challenges facing modern consumer society and its high energy lifestyles is happening in a circumstance where outlooks for innovation are very bleak indeed. We are facing the prospects of fewer breakthroughs, which require longer time for development, need more funding and will be less useful when completed. Over and against this, universities across the globe are facing severe cut-backs all the while bibliometric management principles have drawn efforts away from basic research and directed them into knowledge dissemination in conservative peer-reviewed journals. In fact, one issue here could be the inherent conservatism of the peer-review process, which consistently rejects groundbreaking research. Vested interest in given theories and schools of thought counters the process of "conjectures and refutations" that science lives by and slows innovation even further by reducing everything to what Kuhn calls 'normal science' rather than challenging paradigms.

So, how do we account for the discrepancy between popular conceptions about the rate of innovation and reality? Firstly, there is a general confluence of true innovation and gimmickry. Go-faster stripes on a cellphone hardly constitute a radical new breakthrough. In fact, modern life has developed into an age of illusion, valuing spectacle and fantasy more than reality.

Ever more efforts are spent on creating virtual innovation: new fantasies, new computer games, new special effects in movies, "reality" shows, political spin. These create the illusion of movement, while the technology supporting the real, physical basis for life has not changed, merely been ignored. Mankind is stuck in a highly entertaining hamster wheel and is running out of energy.

Being conditioned by computers, movies, malls, ads, and TV, many accept the seemingly magical appearance of food, clothes, water, heating, and electricity without any real knowledge about the more fundamental reality -- the enormous and hidden infrastructure -- which sustains people. Many have simply learnt to suspend their disbelief, that very questioning ability, which drove Bronowski's primitive apes to pick up tools millions of years ago and resulted in the theory of relativity more than a hundred years hence. This suspending of disbelief numbs the faculties, which we employ when seeking deeper understanding of the natural world, which sustains us.

This conditioning is so extensive and powerful that many are even able to suspend disbelief in arguments that defy logic, such those that claim that exponential growth can continue indefinitely in a closed system.


Thomas Derek Robinson was born in 1975 in the depths of the Cold War, in what was then a frontline state with the Warsaw-pact: Denmark -- but grew up in Thatcherite, North-East England. Dual-nationalities and multicultural living made Thomas a bilingual and gave him a need for certainties, which lay beyond tradition and convention, wherefore he has a degree in philosophy. Thomas currently translates Danish (not the pastry) research into English. He and his family have a farm with horses on the Danish island of Funen (Fyn). Horse muck and living outside the city have also made it possible for him to develop a prodigious interest in gardening with the aim of soon being self-sufficient.

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