Is technological progress winding down? I think it might be. And if it is, I have some ideas as to why this might be so.
I have seen many changes in my adult lifetime (since 1957), but I think the changes my grandparents saw were greater. They saw the advent of electricity, the telephone, piped water, radio and the automobile—not that these things were invented in their lifetimes, but that they came into widespread use.
What have I seen that is comparable? Television, the personal computer, the Internet, affordable air travel. I don’t think that any of these things changed my life as the progress of technology changed my grandparents’ and my parents’ lives.
I don’t think this is because inventors are less creative. The electrical generating plant and the internal combustion engine were much more complicated than the steam engine, and the nuclear reactor is more complicated still. The telephone was a more ingenious invention than the telegraphy, and the Internet even more ingenious. Compared to the first car I owned, the car I have now is like something out of science fiction.
Rather it is because the simple inventions that have a big payoff have already been made. As the Japanese would say, we have picked the low-hanging fruit. It is in the nature of things that the demands on engineers and inventors in the future will be greater, and the payoff will be less.
The first oil wells were simple devices compared to deep water drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Think about drilling a deep vertical shaft into the earth’s surface, then drilling a horizontal shaft out from that, then setting off explosives to fracture the layers of shale, then pumping in detergent to force out the oil and gas. It is amazing to me that this is possible at all. Yet the payoff is less and the hazards are greater than in the old well because the low-hanging fruit already has been picked.
Then, too, to the extent that technological progress consists of using external sources of energy more efficiently, it is self-limiting, because there are finite amounts of water power, fossil fuels and nuclear fuels.
I remember all the people in the past, including the man who said about a century ago that the U.S. Patent Office should be closed because there was nothing important left to invent. And even if I’m right for now, there could be some breakthrough that would change everything.
Why, then, do I even bother to post on this topic? It is because so many people, especially us Americans, seem to think that indefinite technological progress is a law of nature.
The extreme example of this is the high-tech entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil, who says that accelerating scientific progress will soon bring us everything we could wish for, including immortality. A more common example is the people who refuse to be alarmed about climate change, exhaustion of fossil fuels or mutant drug-resistant disease, because they are confident something will turn up.
I’ve seen construction crews with flow charts of their work, culminating in a box saying [AND THEN A MIRACLE OCCURS]. This of course was a joke, but if we as a people assume this in real life, the consequences will not be a joke.