You Call this Progress?

September 18, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.
One of the prevailing narratives of our time is that we are innovating our way into the future at break-neck speed. It’s just dizzying how quickly the world around us is changing. Technology is this juggernaut that gets ever bigger, ever faster, and all we need to do is hold on for the wild ride into the infinitely cool. Problems get solved faster than we can blink.

But I’m going to claim that this is an old, outdated narrative. I think we have a tendency to latch onto a story of humanity that we find appealing or flattering, and stick with it long past its expiration date. Many readers at this point, in fact, may think that it’s sheer lunacy for me to challenge such an obvious truth about the world we live in. Perhaps this will encourage said souls to read on—eager to witness a spectacular failure as I attempt to pull off this seemingly impossible stunt.

The (slightly overstated) claim is that no major new inventions have come to bear in my 45-year lifespan. The 45 years prior, however, were chock-full of monumental breakthroughs.
A Tale of Three Times
Before diving into the defense of my bold claim, let’s set the stage with a thought experiment about three equally-separated times, centered around 1950. Obviously we will consider the modern epoch—2015. The symmetric start would then be 1885, resulting in 65-year interval comparisons: roughly a human lifetime.
So imagine magically transporting a person through time from 1885 into 1950—as if by a long sleep—and also popping a 1950 inhabitant into today’s world. What an excellent adventure! Which one has a more difficult time making sense of the updated world around them? Which one sees more “magic,” and which one has more familiar points of reference? The answer is obvious, and is essentially my entire point.
Take a moment to let that soak in, and listen for any cognitive dissonance popping inside your brain.
Our 19th Century rube would fail to recognize cars/trucks, airplanes, helicopters, and rockets; radio, and television (the telephone was 1875, so just missed this one); toasters, blenders, and electric ranges. Also unknown to the world of 1885 are inventions like radar, nuclear fission, and atomic bombs. The list could go on. Daily life would have undergone so many changes that the old timer would be pretty bewildered, I imagine. It would appear as if the world had blossomed with magic: voices from afar; miniature people dancing in a little picture box; zooming along wide, hard, flat roads at unimaginable speeds—much faster than when uncle Billy’s horse got into the cayenne pepper. The list of “magic” devices would seem to be innumerable.
Now consider what’s unfamiliar to the 1950 sleeper. Look around your environment and imagine your life as seen through the eyes of a mid-century dweller. What’s new? Most things our eyes land on will be pretty well understood. The big differences are cell phones (which they will understand to be a sort of telephone, albeit with no cord and capable of sending telegram-like communications, but still figuring that it works via radio waves rather than magic), computers (which they will see as interactive televisions), and GPS navigation (okay: that one’s thought to be magic even by today’s folk). They will no doubt be impressed with miniaturization as an evolutionary spectacle, but will tend to have a context for the functional capabilities of our gizmos.
Telling ourselves that the pace of technological transformation is ever-increasing is just a fun story we like to believe is true. For many of us, I suspect, our whole world order is built on this premise.
On the flip side, I can think of loads of things about modern life that would have been perfectly familiar even to an ancient Egyptian. These are on the side of what it means to be human: laughter, drama, jealousy, shelter, bodily functions, family, jerk-wads, motherly love, tribalism, scandal, awe over the stars, etc. Because these are such constants, it is not hard for me to imagine key elements of the far future of humanity (see previous list). As far as technology goes: buzzing electric toothbrushes? I’d be foolish to count on them. But I’d bet on the wheel remaining important.
Space Leaps
Another interesting consideration: the 65-year time span we considered before is very similar to the amount of time it took to go from the first airplane to landing people on the Moon (in 65.6 years, we went from no powered flight to Moon-walking). Prior to the flight era, humans might have been able to get tens of meters off of terra firma without risking likely death. The Moon landings extended this pre-flight scale by seven orders of magnitude, so a pace of about an order-of-magnitude per decade. Not only have we not kept pace—we should have seen humans twice as far as Pluto by now and at the light-year scale by 2040—but we stopped our upward/outward march completely!  Try convincing someone in 1965 that the U.S. would not have a human space launch capability 50 years later, or that we would retreat from far-flung human exploration after 1972 and they would think you to be stark-raving mad.
In My Life
I was born 9.5 days after the epoch of Unix Time, at the beginning of 1970. It’s very convenient for several reasons. 1-9-70 is 1970. President Nixon’s birthday is the same, and I was born when he was in office. It doesn’t make me a crook. Remembering my age in a particular year is easy math, especially so close to the New Year. And if I want to know my age in seconds, I just grab Unix time from any computer programming language’s time library function call. Answer: 1.44 billion seconds.
So my claim is that I was born into a post-invention world. I can’t possibly mean this in the extreme. I myself invented the first cryogenic image slicer, and co-invented a nifty airplane detector that is selling to observatories. But these are not big deals—just derivative products.
The big deals are: the computer revolution, the internet, mobile phones, GPS navigation, and surely some medical innovations. But I would characterize these as substantial refinements in pre-existing gizmos. It’s more an era of hard work than of inspiration. I’m not discounting the transformative influence of the internet and other such refinements, but instead pointing out that the fundamental technological underpinnings—the big breakthroughs— were in place already.
Computers existed before I was born, and even talked to each other over (local) networks. Mobile phones have a long history predating my birth. GPS navigation is a space-based refinement of the older LORAN system, which is also based on timing of signal receipt from transmitters at known locations. Lasers (now important for optical drives and many other devices) were invented before I was born and were even used to measure the Earth-Moon distance to few-decimeter precision in 1969. The microwave oven was invented just after World War II; the first countertop model became available in 1967.
Before my birth it was understood that vitamin C fixes scurvy, and vitamin D rickets. Prior to the 20th Century we already had vaccines for smallpox, cholera, anthrax, and rabies. The 1920′s saw insulin, penicillin, and vaccines for Diphtheria, tuberculosis, whooping cough, scarlet fever, and tetanus. In later years, we got vaccines for Yellow Fever, Polio, Measles, Mumps, and Rubella. Since my birth, we’ve seen vaccines for chicken pox, Hepatitis A and B, meningitis, Lyme disease, rotavirus, and possibly malaria and ebola this year. Obviously we have not stopped the march, and that’s encouraging. But consider that the amount of funding poured into medical research has skyrocketed in my lifetime, so that the progress per dollar spent surely is going down. The easy battles were fought first, naturally. Cancer, Multiple Sclerosis, and a raft of other pernicious diseases resist cures despite large continuing investments. But I admit a lack of expertise when it comes to medical research/progress (see overview here), so take this one with some Epsom salt.
I am more familiar with—and concerned about—energy technologies. What’s new on the table since my birth? Solar, wind, hydro/tidal, geothermal, nuclear fission (including thorium), wave, biofuels, fuel cells, etc.: all were demonstrated technologies before I was born. Where are the new faces? It’s not as if we have lacked motivation. Energy crises are not unknown to us, and there have been times of intense interest, effort, and research in my lifetime. Tellingly, the biggest energy innovation in my time is enhanced recovery techniques for fossil fuels: perhaps not the most promising path to the future.
We continue to work on nuclear fusion (note that we have succeeded in producing fusion in Tokamaks, for instance, and also in the spectacular explosions of hydrogen bombs). Should we succeed at controlled, sustained, net-positive fusion, we would qualify it as a new face at the table. I might characterize it as the most expensive way to create electricity ever devised (and electricity is not the hard nut to crack). If that’s our only substantial hope for game-changing innovation, we risk losing this game.
The true game changers would turn sunlight into liquid fuels. Agricultural routes compete for food and require substantial sustained labor (low EROEI), and algae may have water and gunk problems (see post on the biofuel grind). Artificial photosynthesis remains a favorite fantasy for me, but there may also be thermo-chemical approaches using concentrated sunlight.
But I digress: I’m trying to make a point about lack of fundamental inventions in my lifetime, and the energy domain fits the same pattern.
Social Progress
One realm that has seen substantial progress in my lifetime is not technological, but social. Tolerance for different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and other conditions/choices marking individuals as “different” has improved in most parts of the world. This is not without exception, and at times appears to lurch backwards a bit. But there is no doubt that the world I live in today is more tolerant than the one I grew up in. And only part of that involves moving from Tennessee to California.
The one caution I cannot resist raising is that I view this tolerance as stemming from a sated world. In times of plenty, we can afford to be kind to those who are different. We are less threatened when we are comfortable. If our 21st Century standard of living peaks—coincident with a peak in surplus energy (i.e., fossil fuels)—then we may not have the luxury of viewing our social progress as an irreversible ratchet. Hard times revive old tribal instincts: different is not welcome.
Down with the Narrative
To me, this is all the more reason to raise awareness that we ought not take our future for granted. I believe that the narrative we have elected to believe—that progress is an unstoppable force and ever-accelerating technology will save us—is ironically the very attitude that can bring “progress” crashing down.
I think we should admit that our hypothetical 1885 person would be more bewildered by the passage of 65 years than the 1950 “modern” human. I think we should admit that the breathtaking pace of major breakthroughs has actually declined. That’s different from stopping, note. I think we need to take our energy predicament seriously, and acknowledge that we have few new ideas and don’t have any consensus on how to design our future infrastructure given the pieces we already know very well.
Note to commenters
I can predict that this post will be offensive to many and that the comments will be loaded with anecdotes and “what about X, you moron” sorts of posts—but hopefully more politely put. I will likely have little time to respond to each such thing. Just know I am not downplaying how transformative refinements (internet, computers, etc.) can be. But also know that the odd counterexample has a hard time dismantling the larger picture: just imagine that I could lob three pre-1950 inventions back for every post-1950 offered if I deemed it worth the time to play that game. Now, if you find yourself in this “offended” category, ask yourself: why is this so upsetting to you? How reliant are you on the narrative of progress for your sanity and understanding of our world and its future? I’m just sayin’—you might want to have that looked at.

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. An amateur astronomer in high school, physics major at Georgia Tech, and PhD student in physics at Caltech, Murphy has spent decades reveling in the study of astrophysics. He currently leads a project to test General Relativity by bouncing laser pulses off of the reflectors left on the Moon by the Apollo astronauts, achieving one-millimeter range precision. Murphy’s keen interest in energy topics began with his teaching a course on energy and the environment for non-science majors at UCSD. Motivated by the unprecedented challenges we face, he has applied his instrumentation skills to exploring alternative energy and associated measurement schemes. Following his natural instincts to educate, Murphy is eager to get people thinking about the quantitatively convincing case that our pursuit of an ever-bigger scale of life faces gigantic challenges and carries significant risks. Note from Tom: To learn more about my personal perspective and whether you should dismiss some of my views as alarmist, read my Chicken Little page.

Tags: myth of progress, technological progress, Technology