Thursday, December 4, 2014

Why has progress slowed down?

Lot’s of people have been asking that question in the last few years. Michael Hanlon writes in Aeon:
The notion that our 21st-century world is one of accelerating advances is so dominant that it seems churlish to challenge it. Almost every week we read about ‘new hopes’ for cancer sufferers, developments in the lab that might lead to new cures, talk of a new era of space tourism and super-jets that can fly round the world in a few hours. Yet a moment’s thought tells us that this vision of unparalleled innovation can’t be right, that many of these breathless reports of progress are in fact mere hype, speculation – even fantasy.

Yet there once was an age when speculation matched reality. It spluttered to a halt more than 40 years ago. Most of what has happened since has been merely incremental improvements upon what came before. That true age of innovation – I’ll call it the Golden Quarter – ran from approximately 1945 to 1971. Just about everything that defines the modern world either came about, or had its seeds sown, during this time. The Pill. Electronics. Computers and the birth of the internet. Nuclear power. Television. Antibiotics. Space travel. Civil rights.

There is more. Feminism. Teenagers. The Green Revolution in agriculture. Decolonisation. Popular music. Mass aviation. The birth of the gay rights movement. Cheap, reliable and safe automobiles. High-speed trains. We put a man on the Moon, sent a probe to Mars, beat smallpox and discovered the double-spiral key of life....

Today, progress is defined almost entirely by consumer-driven, often banal improvements in information technology.
Hanlon attributes the problem to risk aversion. And yes, risk aversion is real. But risk aversion has always been with us. I think the problem is different, and deeper.

* * * * *

I’ve got a way to think about the problem that’s easy enough to state, but that’s little comfort because the easy statement is couched in a theoretical language that few people share. It was developed by me, David Hays, and a few others back in the 1970s and after. There’s a website that collects most of the main documents: Mind-Culture Coevolution: Major Transitions in the Development of Human Culture and Society.

So, what’s the problem? We’ve gone just about as far as we can with methods of thought invented in a period running from the early modern era through the middle of the 20th Century. While new methods of thinking may well be stirring here and there, they’ve not yet coalesced into coherent form. In the terms Hays and I developed, we’ve done all we can with Rank 3 and Rank 4 methods of thought – our central statement about cultural rank: The Evolution of Cognition (1990) and downloadable HERE – but Rank 5 hasn’t yet emerged.

Here’s a simple analogy: Think about doing arithmetic calculation with Roman numerals. You know, where:
1 = I
2 = II
3 = III
4 = IV
5 = V
and so forth, so
I + III = IV
IV + V = IX
and so forth.
Now, what’s X * X? That’s easy: C. What’s X * C? Again, that’s easy: M. Now, what’s M * M? Maybe there’s a Roman numeral for 1,000,000, but I don’t know what it is off hand. Let’s say it’s Q. So, what’s Q * Q? I’d be very surprised if the Romans had a numeral for that one. But let’s say that they did; call it R. What’s R * R?

I just looked at the Wikipedia article on Roman numerals, and there is a convention that covers a value such as 1,000,000. But, at a glance, it doesn’t seem very useful nor does it go much higher. The limitation is inherent in the system.

Obviously we can keep playing this game. It’s not the sort of game that poses any problem for the arithmetic notation we’re used to, which derives from medieval Islamic culture, and so is known as Arabic numerals. But it poses an insolvable problem for the Roman notation. Hence there’s a practical limit to the calculations you can perform using Roman notation.

The argument Hays and I make is that, in effect, all systems of thought are like that. They’ve got limits. If you try to solve problems that are effectively outside those limits, you get nonsense.

That’s where we are now. That’s why progress has stopped.


  1. My suspicion is less that progress has slowed/stopped because of an inherent limit, than that it has done so due to concentration of wealth & power into the hands of a small few, and their stunted prioritization of development. Hugely progressive advancements are possible in many areas, but they are either suppressed or ignored by the leviathans of capitalism.

    Pharma companies will not support areas of research that aren't profitable, so immunology experts who can create cancer cures don't get funded.

    Tech companies that develop amazing natural language processing systems shelve products that could change human/computer interaction forever and instead focus on ways to improve advertising revenue.

    Energy companies buy up patents to technological advancements in various fields in order to keep their monopolies from being disrupted.

    Short sightedness and greed are the plagues that sicken the implementation of the future.

    1. There's no lack of short-sightedness and greed, Mike. But there are areas where folks are just spinning their wheels and I don't think lack of investment has anything to do with it. I'm thinking of the fine arts, and also of literary criticism or, for that matter, linguistics. Those areas are just spinning their wheels and more money won't help. In literary theory and related areas of philosophy the language is so convoluted that its impossible to make any sense out of it and thus to build on it. In the case of the fine arts, one can argue that more money just makes things worse as it encourages the further production of expensive, but rare, crap.

  2. I agree, science and technology really start to develop at pace when society became increasingly fragmented and detached. Social blindness, greed and the self interest of particular developing social classes may rather than hinder be a motivating factor in its development.

    Social consequences evident within our cultures and within education systems.