Has Technological Progress Stalled?

Or Comments on the Thiel Thesis, Part I

Last week Mary Harrington published a long interview with Peter Thiel in the online magazine Unherd. Much of her article centers on Thiel’s conviction that meaningful technological progress stopped a good half century ago. This view is not unique to Thiel. In many ways it is the starting point for the entire “Progress Studies” movement. The Thielites and the Progress Studies folk take this shared premise to different end points, but both deem scientific inertia as the defining feature of the 21st century. Both also see technological and material stagnation as the root source of myriad ills tearing at America’s social fabric.

Here is Thiel’s description of the problem, as written up by Harrington:

Thiel… offers a strikingly different framing [from Patrick Deneen’s diatribes against growth]: we’re consuming ourselves not because the fixation on progress is inevitably self-destructive beyond a certain threshold, but because material progress has objectively stalled while we remain collectively in denial about this fact.

In Thiel’s view, this has been the case since the mid-20th century, except in digital technologies. “We’ve had continued progress in the world of computers, bits, internet, mobile internet, but it’s a narrow zone of progress. And it’s been more interior, atomising and inward-focused.” Over the same period, he tells me, “there’s been limited progress in the world of atoms.”

He’s been making the case for real-terms tech stagnation for 15 years now, he tells me, against a mainstream Left and Right that doesn’t want to know: “it was always striking how much it went against the stated ideology of the regime.” Perpetuating the fantasy of progress, against a backdrop of its actual stagnation, is at the heart of delusions on both Left and Right, he argues: “the Silicon Valley liberals don’t like it, because they think they’re driving this great engine of progress”, while social conservatives “have conceded the ground to the liberals, because they believe the Left-wing propaganda about how much science and technology are progressing”. And against this backdrop of cross-party denial, institutions and the wider culture are increasingly shaped by real-terms stagnation.

In his view, much of what passes for “progress” is in truth more like “distraction”. As he puts it, “the iPhone that distracts us from our environment also distracts us from the ways our environment is unchanging and static.” And in this culture, economy and politics of chronic self-deception, as Thiel sees it, we tell ourselves that we’re advancing because “grandma gets an iPhone with a smooth surface,” but meanwhile she “gets to eat cat food because food prices have gone up.”1


Mary Harrington, “Peter Thiel on the Dangers of Progress,” Unherd (25 July 2022).

There are three arguments here. Each deserves independent comment. Thiel’s first claim is that scientific and technological progress has stagnated since at least the ‘70s. His second claim, which is explored in greater depth in the rest of Harrington’s interview, is that this stagnation is the root cause of most American social strife. Finally, he argues that the central reason we do not recognize all of this is because progress (similar to words like “freedom” or “equality”) is a notion so fundamental to our culture that we cannot admit its erosion.

Here I focus on the first of these claims. This post is about technology, innovation, and scientific advance. My main criticism of Thiel’s view is that he is not pessimistic enough in his account of scientific achievement. Part two of this series will comment on Thiel’s second and third claims, and offer some observations on the changing place of science in American culture.


I came to my pessimistic understanding of information age technology a little over a decade ago. Vaclav Smil, not Peter Thiel, was the prophet who baptized me into the cult of stagnation. Smil’s Energy in Nature and Society: General Energetics of Complex Systems, more encyclopedia than argument, introduced the notion that all human activity—indeed, all human civilization—can be seen in energetic terms. Joules are the language of the universe. Everything we grow, build, illuminate, or set in motion can be measured by the energetic costs of doing so. This includes the narrow corner of the universe we call economics. “Economic activity” is just a fancy way to say “energy put to human use.” From this perspective fantastical wealth of the last two centuries was not caused or enabled by humanity’s expanding energy consumption—wealth is our energy consumption, just packaged in goods and services.

The first long essay I wrote for the Scholar’s Stage explored what this fact meant for the study of humankind’s “big history.”2 But until today I have not written an essay on the next two books of Smil’s that I picked up: Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact and Transforming the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations and Their Consequences.3


Tanner Greer, “Notes on the Dynamics of Human Civilization: The Growth Revolution,” The Scholar’s Stage (4 August 2010).


Vaclav Smil, Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867–1914 and Their Lasting Impact (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Transforming the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations and Their Consequences (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

In Creating the Twentieth Century and Transforming the Twentieth Century Smil argues that the last few decades of the 1800s formed a unique moment in the history of the human species. He calls these decades “history’s most remarkable discontinuity.”4 Smil drives the point home through a thought experiment. Imagine alien beings observing the Earth at great remove. Our artistic, religious, and aesthetic achievements are unlikely to carry meaning across species; these aliens would witness the rise and fall of empires with the same indifference we view struggles for dominance among the chimpanzees. For these onlookers, the measure of our civilization would be material.5 The Neolithic revolution would be legible to these aliens: it reshaped landscapes, ballooned the human population, harnessed non-human energy sources for human uses, and was the prerequisite for both polis and empire. The Columbian Exchange is another possible “discontinuity” on this scale: it was a shock to the biosphere of geological significance and the first step in knitting all of humanity into a common complex system.


Smil, Creating the Twentieth Century, 6.


Ibid, 1-2.

But the Neolithic Revolution took centuries to invent and millennia to spread. The technical innovations that went to market in the late 19th century were different. They brought about changes equally epochal—but the innovations behind them were invented in the course of one human lifespan. These devices powered a planetary transition. For the first time our imaginary observers in orbit would see the dark side of Earth twinkle with light. On the light side of the Earth, they would see an equally astonishing transformation as many brown and green surfaces of our planet were replaced by gray. The composition of the atmosphere shifted; the balance of the Earth’s mammalian biomass tipped towards human flesh and human food. The animals humans once harnessed for work were replaced by machines humans built. The physical materials that sheltered and warmed us were transformed entirely. For the first time it was possible for millions—and soon billions—of us to spend our entire lives in essentially artificial environments. The amount of energy we consume and the mass of physical material we manipulate began an exponential journey skyward.

Because of technical advances that occurred between 1867 and 1914, the modes of human travel, the mediums of human communication, the methods by which humans heated, formed, and shaped their environment, and the source of the energy flows that powered all these wonders all changed. Two generations of scientists and inventors birthed a new form of human civilization. It is the civilization we still live in today.

The list of technical inventions that made this new world possible is fairly small. Smil focuses on steam turbines, internal combustion engines, electric motors, alternators, transformers and rectifiers, incandescent light, electromagnetic waves, recorded sound, linotype machines, sulfate pulp, photographic film, aluminum smelting, dephosphorised steel and steel alloys, reinforced concrete, nitroglycerin, and synthesized ammonia. Most of these inventions had commercial applications before the First World War. Very few inventions from the 20th century have had equal impact. Smil believes that nuclear fission, rocketry, and solid-state electronics are the only 20th century technical advances of equal import. He concedes that public radio, television, plastics, and gas turbines are also contenders, but these inventions straddle the centuries, more commercial applications of scientific principles that developed in the pre-WWI era than pure creations of the period that followed. Most other great 20th century innovations were not “zero to one” inventions of this sort, but qualitative refinements of the Gilded Age technology.

In his second volume Smil makes this point with another thought experiment:

 Even the most accomplished engineers and scientists who were alive in 1800 would face, if translocated a century into the future, the electric system of the year 1900 with astonishment and near utter incomprehension. In 1900, less than two decades after the system’s tentative beginnings, the world had a completely unprecedented and highly elaborate means of producing a new form of energy (by using larger steam turbogenerators), changing its voltage and transmitting it with minimized losses across longer distance (by using transformers and high-voltage conduits) and converting it with increasing efficiencies with new ingenious prime movers (electric motors), new sources of light (incandescent bulbs), and new industrial processes (electric arc furnaces).

 In contrast, if the brilliant creators of this system, men including Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, Nikola Tesla, and Charles Parsons (figure 1.4), could see the electric networks of the late 20th century, they would be very familiar with nearly all of their major components, as the fundamentals of their grand designs fashioned before 1900 remained unchanged. The same lack of shocked incomprehension would be experienced by the best pre-WWI engineers able to behold our automobile engines (still conceptually the same four- stroke Otto-cycle machines or inherently more efficient diesel engines), our skyscrapers (still built with structural steel and reinforced concrete), our wireless traffic (still carried by hertzian waves), or printed images (still produced by the halftone technique)…

Our quotidian debt to great innovators of the two pre-WWI generations thus remains immense, and even if you have no intent to find out the actual extent of this technical inheritance by reading Creating the Twentieth Century, you can begin to realize it just by listing the devices, machines, and processes that you rely on every day and then trying to find their origins: the share that goes back to the 1867– 1914 period is stunning. Some of these inventions—mostly such simple metallic items as paperclips, crimped caps on beer bottles, barbed wires, or spring mouse traps—remain exactly as they were at the time of their commercialization more than a century ago, but most of them were transformed into qualitatively superior products.6


Smil, Transforming the Twentieth Century, 14-15.

The transition from an animal-powered, low-mass civilization to an electrified, mechanical, high-mass civilization accounts for the lion’s share of global economic growth. It has allowed our species to replace villages of mud with cities of steel. This transition accounts for the boom years of American, European, and Japanese expansion in the 20th century, as well as the growth of China in the 21st. If, as a recent study in Nature tells us, “human made mass” now exceeds all the biomass on our planet, Smil would remind us that most of this mass is made of materials invented between 1867 and 1914.7


Emily Elhacham et al., “Global Human-Made Mass Exceeds All Living Biomass,” Nature 588, no. 7838 (December 2020): 442–44.


Many of my readers may have come across the website “WTF Happened in 1971?” The website displays dozens of graphics tracking numerous aspects of American economics and social life: inflation, income inequality, fertility, political polarization, and much more besides. It is hard to scroll through these graphics and not conclude something fundamental to American life broke in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Three graphs, in particular, seem to tell a story germane to the problem of stalled science:

Perhaps the problem is that brilliant minds who once would have aspired to physics are instead drawn to careers in parasitic professions like law and finance?

This is probably the argument of the Andreessen acolytes, ready to blame everything evil on the ascendance of “wordcels” over “shape rotators.” Thiel seems to take a different position. The syllabus Thiel prepared for a class at Stanford (titled “Progress or Stagnation”) is an interesting window into his personal narrative of decline. He seems to locate the turning point in the 1960s, with the rise of the anti-nuclear movement and the flowering of the ‘60s counterculture. His review of Douthat’s book on stagnation for First Things echoes this theme, singling out the boomers as a particularly self-deceptive and complacent generation.8 This is plausible as far as these things go. If American culture has turned away from the material, if it has truly turned its back on innovation, then the boomer’s countercultural cul-de-sac is a sensible moment to place the blame.


Pablo Pineche, “Peter Thiel “Stagnation or Progress” Syllabus, Stanford 2020 Course (German 277),” Hacker News (27 September 2020); Peter Thiel, “Back to the Future,” First Things (March 2020).

But do these hypotheses square with the evidence laid out by Vaclav Smil?

 Economic historians sometimes speak of three industrial revolutions. The first, from approximately 1760 to 1820, saw the introduction of factory manufacturing powered by steam or water into textile production and other fields of “light industry.” This is often described as a transition point in human history equal in weight to the invention of the plow or the domestication of crops. The second industrial revolution is summarized above, as it is the main subject of Smil’s two volumes. The third industrial revolution, often dated from 1970 to 2000, marks the transition from mechanical and analogue electronics to digital electronics. It is also known as the “Digital Revolution.” We are intimately familiar with the effects of this revolution on modern life.

To successfully stake his claim, the stagnationist must discredit the achievements of the Third Industrial Revolution. The stagnationist argues that when placed next to the whole-sale transformation of human society wrought by automobiles, electrification, steel beams, and so forth, there is nothing revolutionary about the “digital revolution.” Information is powerful but incorporeal; information age technologies can make civilizational systems work more efficiently, but do not reshape the material or energetic basis of civilization itself. When we measure progress in material terms the accomplishments of the digital revolution wisp away. (Thus Thiel begins his piece in First Things by asking whether airliners go any faster now than they did in the 1950s. The information age has made it easier to buy your ticket; the plane itself travels slower).

Smil’s view of the digital is almost as dismal as Thiel’s (“commonly held perceptions of accelerating innovation,” he writes, “are ahistorical, myopic perspectives proffered by the zealots of electronic faith”).9 But his presentation of the past differs from the Thielites in a key verdict: he devalues not only the third industrial revolution, but the first.  His great “discontinuity” starts with electricity, not steam power. The technical advances of the 1700s did not result in a revolutionary transition in energy or material regimes. The everyday life of the median Englishman living in 1820 had more in common with that of an English peasant living in 1500 than with an English worker living in 1900. At the end of the first industrial revolution the most advanced nations in the world were still reliant on animal power for the majority of their economic activity; most buildings were made of the same materials, and heated with the same fuel, that had been used for centuries. As Smil sees it, the main significance of the First Industrial Revolution is that it provided the technical foundation for the Second.


Smil, Creating the Twentieth Century, 5.

The Thielite vision of history is more compact. Oswald Spengler—whose book Decline of the West is the second item on Thiel’s syllabus—identified the “restless thrust toward the infinite and unattainable” as the native impulse of the Western man.10 The Thielite version is similar, defining Western civilization by its history of discovery, exploration, and progress. The West’s endless pursuit of the frontier had blessed the masses with technological marvels and unparalleled prosperity. But sometime in the 20th century America was knocked off of this upward course. The test of our times is thus the challenge of return.


The phrase is Annie Pfieffer’s evocative gloss of Spengler’s beliefs, not his own words. Annie Pfieffer, “Oswald Spengler,” Modernism Lab (accessed July 2022). For my take on Spengler, see Tanner Greer, “Spengler and the Search for a Science of Human Culture,Scholar’s Stage (14 December 2020).

Smil’s vision of progress is different. In his schema, technological advance is the exception, not the rule. The remarkable trajectory of the 20th century was not the culmination of a civilization, but the product of a singular discontinuity in human history. Eventually all gains to be had from that unique period of discovery would be realized.

From this perspective the 1950s was less an age of novel technological wonder than the period in which advances made generations before were finally democratized. What the 21st century is to large parts of China, Africa, and India, the post-war decades were to the United States. But by the 1970s, the main gains had all been realized. The fruits of innovation were not ended so much as expended.

This leaves us with few escape hatches from pessimism. The dates no longer align with the ’60s counterculture argument. If we cannot blame the counterculture for stagnation, we might be able to blame academia: the great inventions and discoveries of Smil’s narrative all occurred before the advent of academic science. The American university has failed to foster technological advance. The American university system may well be the cause of this stagnation. I have argued that in the world of letters intellectual sterility is the main legacy of the tenure track.11 Many of my arguments could also apply to science.


Tanner Greer, “Where Have All the Great Works Gone?,” Scholar’s Stage (30 January 2021).

That would be the optimistic conclusion. But the truth might simply be that the years between 1867 and 1914 were an extraordinary moment in human history. This moment is unlikely to be repeated and should not be taken as a baseline for the future. It is not realistic to expect a Neolithic Revolution every generation.

But if we do insist on taking the 20th century boom years as our template for the future, Smil’s narrative describes what would be required. Silicon Valley dreams of an algorithmic revolution. This will not be sufficient. Thiel’s First Things essay talks of faster jet planes and cures for cancer. These are also insufficient.

Double-digit GDP growth means transforming the physical basis of an entire society. It means mud to concrete. Wood to steel. Sweat to dynamos. Shovels to dynamite. Wicks to lightbulbs. Carts to cars to areoplanes.

A future boom will not come from improvements in organization and information. It will be from inventing new materials to build from, new ways to move what we build, or new sources of energy to power our building. This is my yardstick for evaluating the “revolutionary” potential of new technologies. For this reason I am bearish on the long run economic impact of supercomputers. Like other information age technologies, all they do is coordinate, organize, and calibrate existing modes of production. Something like nanotechnology or bioengineered materials are more promising, for they promise to reshape the physical basis of our built environments.

Unfortunately I do not have the technical proficiency to judge whether or not we are close to real breakthroughs in these technologies. But it is not until I see breakthroughs of this class that I will comfortably predict a return to progress.


If this post on historical trends in progress caught your interest, you might consider some of my older posts on similar problems: “For God and Progress: Notes on the Training of the Medical Mind,” “On Living in the Shadow of the Boomers,” “Where have all the Great Works Gone?,” ” Book Notes: On Strategy, a History,” “On Adding Phrase to the Language,” “On Cultures That Build,” To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.


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I can construct an argument with the same structure as Thiel’s. Anyone familiar with ten year old humans will find a 15 year old human comprehensible. They have the same structure: bipedal, organs in the same place, large brain in a cranium that can turn left and right and up and down. Moreover, a biochemistry that is 99% the same: DNA codes for RNA that codes for proteins, the Krebs cycle, etc. Therefore, humans stagnate between ten and fifteen years old

This is trivially easy, but also there’s a very real DIFFERENCE between an adolescent and a pre-adolescent, and also certain life stages and their respective developments are far more dramatic than what goes on between the ages of 10 to 15.

Regarding Theil’s argument, it certainly seems true that at the “base level” of technical development, resource extraction and utilization, communications speed and density, and “paradigm shifts” have developed less within the last 50 years than they did between say 1870 to 1920.

It’s also worth wondering that if this lack of progress is a mere illusion, why is it FELT as such? Why is Western Culture incapable of imaging a practical and realistically possible future for itself? Why is it a prisoner of its own demented imagination if it’s still technically advanced?

Reducing this to some kind of mere emotional illusion “If only these humanities types would just accept that everything is okay we’d feel better” is a bit questionable. People can be victimized by their own delusions but those delusions are often supported by their environment, are often “adaptive” in some sense, and are deeply linked with habits, affective states etc.

Basically, the very fact so many people see some kind of technical slow-down and lack of ambition combined with ennui and stagnation suggests there is something worth discussing.

A lot has to do with stagnant and falling living standards since the 1970s. The fight against inflation meant suppressing economic growth for the vast majority to protect the wealth of a powerful minority. Inflation is a capitalist system’s way of managing growth. We’ve kept inflation under control, but at a great cost. Let inflation rise for a bit. Stop crushing the economy every time a hash slinger gets a dollar an hour raise. We’ll suddenly notice a lot more technological change and an optimism towards more.

straussian reading: most people are capable of doing what they’d be able to do as grown adults by the time they’re 10-15 years of age

Good essay, Tanner.

“Smil’s vision of progress is different. In his schema, technological advance is the exception, not the rule. The remarkable trajectory of the 20th century was not the culmination of a civilization, but the product of a singular discontinuity in human history. Eventually all gains to be had from that unique period of discovery would be realized.”

I’ll stick to the place where I have technical expertise: in medicine, I think the pessimistic view is largely correct. To be fair there are progressing areas (I hear good things from my colleagues in Hematology/Oncology and Rheumatology in particular!) and breakthroughs to be had…

But the vast majority of things we use in general medicine were invented in the 20th century. After that, it’s been mostly tinkering on the margins. Sure, there have been decades-spanning, well-resourced scientific debates on balanced vs. unbalanced crystalloids for fluid correction, LASIX vs. Demadex in heart failure, adding Plavix onto Aspirin for secondary stroke prevention, etc. All such debates are important to have, but they have only resulted in minor and probabilistic benefits, nothing earth-shattering.

This is seen even more clearly in the field of psychiatry. The major developments in antipsychotics were done in the 1950s-60s, antidepressants in the 1980s…and since then it’s been optimizing, again with relatively modest gains.

As you said, we need entirely novel fields of technology to have breakthroughs in to experience the kind of advancement we had in the 19th-20th century. I do not think many such breakthroughs will be forthcoming, because much of the low-hanging fruit has already been grabbed. Depakote was synthesized by a lone American chemist, and Fleming’s experiments with Penicillin are famed to this day. But you don’t see a lone genius advancing humanity forward anymore, because science is simply too complex now.

Mannas – No! While not entirely “here yet”, the incipient revolution happening in medicine is doubtlessly the biggest in human history. Take Grail, which is just now hitting the medical community at large, that offers the opportunity for cheap and effective early cancer detection for tens of cancers based on genetic sequencing. As we move from a molecular to a genetic/protein understanding of our biology and health, in no small part enabled by computational capabilities that is built on translators and ultimately on quantum mechanics, truly everything in traditional medicine apart from trauma etc will change.

I have no particular expertise in medicine, but I am curious regarding your take on the influence of medical robotics in surgery. Can it reasonably be described as revolutionary to how medicine is practiced—or I suppose, to borrow the wording of the blog post, does the usage of medical robotics fundamentally reshape how physicians are able to work with the human body?

mRNA vaccines also seem like they ought to represent a profound change in the practice of medicine, but this may more reflect the immense hype granted to them for their truly immense role in containing COVID rather than any true revolutionary effect on how all of medicine is practiced.

“Does the usage of medical robotics fundamentally reshape how physicians are able to work with the human body”?

Full Disclosure: My field is general internal medicine, I am not a surgeon.

I have seen da Vinci’s (the robots, not the Renaissance man) used in med school, and I looked at meta-analyses and systematic reviews to help answer your question. The answer is no. First of all, the robots assist the physician, they do not supplant him. Second of all, their differences are null on many variables measured, and generally modest on others. And then you have to factor in publication bias, residual confounding, etc, so you should be even more skeptical of purported benefits.

So, being quite generous to our metallic friends, I would put them in the category of “augmenting 20th century medicine,” not “revolutionizing what we can do.”

If you’re looking for a paradigm shift in medicine that could revolutionize what we can do, my colleagues and former professors are cautiously optimistic about the field of Hematology/Oncology. Again, this is not my field, so I cannot speak confidently on this.

@Tanner: Sorry, I mistakenly posted this first on my old account. If you could delete the other post, I would be much obliged!


“Does the usage of medical robotics fundamentally reshape how physicians are able to work with the human body”?

Full Disclosure: My field is general internal medicine, I am not a surgeon.

I have seen da Vinci’s (the robots, not the Renaissance man) used in med school, and I looked at meta-analyses and systematic reviews to help answer your question. The answer is no. First of all, the robots assist the physician, they do not supplant him. Second of all, their differences are null on many variables measured, and generally modest on others. And then you have to factor in publication bias, residual confounding, etc, so you should be even more skeptical of purported benefits.

So, being quite generous to our metallic friends, I would put them in the category of “augmenting 20th century medicine,” not “revolutionizing what we can do.”

If you’re looking for a paradigm shift in medicine that could revolutionize what we can do, my colleagues and former professors are cautiously optimistic about the field of Hematology/Oncology. Again, this is not my field, so I cannot speak confidently on this.

I have to sincerely disagree. When surgeons in London & Rio can work together to separate brain conjoined Siamese twins then robotic / remote surgery has been advanced beyond anything a living surgeon could have predicted.

I’ve just had DeVinci surgery for throat cancer, my recovery has been fast and complete. No morbidity. They did not have to crack my jaw, split my face open, expose all that internal tissue to oxygen. The Trans Oral Robotic Surgery completely changed what my oncology surgeon could do.

Remote surgery, completely new surgeries…these machines are transformative; not merely augmenting.

The general rule of thumb is that it takes about 30 years to get from a great idea to a practical demonstration and another 30 years for widespread adoption at which point it makes a real impact. This was in an article on, of all things, object-oriented programming which was a radical new idea back then but is now part of most programming paradigms. The example in the article was interchangeable parts starting with Eli Whitney scamming the Continental Congress, Whitney Jr and Sam Colt actually making it work and the widespread adoption of “armory practice” which is now used by even low end manufacturers.

When one sees a sign of progress in 2022, one is probably seeing something from 1992 or earlier. For example, we’re just seeing the first handful of cures using gene therapy, definitely 20th century technology. Don’t expect to see too many developments based on technology from this century, at least not for a decade or so.

P.S. I’m sure there are lots of exceptions, but that rule gives one a sense of the typical time scale.

The trouble with the “energy use is the defining characteristic of the progress of civilization” is that one simple thing screws up all your calculations: bombs. In terms of raw energy use the detonation of several hundred nuclear warheads would look like tremendous progress from this view, albeit short lived. From the Smilian perspective nuclear power must look like the biggest missed opportunity in terms of completely new ideas that society chose to ignore (well, except for the whole MAD thing).

The rest of the essay is an interesting expansion of the “good ideas are getting harder to find”/”low hanging fruit” model of stagnation. I can’t remember where I saw it, but recently someone was making an argument I’ve seen many times, that our knowledge of physics is probably as unreliable as Newton’s and will likely be displaced as scientific progress continues and I wondered “when was the last time we were *surprised* by something in physics”?

Final musing: People often question “why do we need economic growth?” Perhaps if we benchmarked economic growth by energy use instead of GDP, they would actually be happy.

Not sure about this – one kiloton is a little over 4 terajoules, while world energy usage is apparently 580 million. So 500 Minuteman warheads (which IIRC are ~200kt) is 400,000 terajoules, or less than one percent of world energy usage for the year.
You need to set off a lot of bombs to make a difference here.

While apparently a quite subjective judgement, I totally disagree we are experiencing stagnation. To the contrary the transistor that has so far enabled primarily an ICT and media revolution is now, on a second order, a major contributor to the fundamental transformation of basically everything else: from biotech (sequencing, gene editing, protein synthesis, etc.), transport (micromobility, soon eVTOL), energy (cheap, abundant, clean energy in sight), shelter (environmental and material sophistication at the high end creating a truly different environmental experience and eventually to trickle down), food (growing possibility of preserving taste and nutrition without sacrificing yields due to ag tech etc.) and more.

Thiel and his ilk should stop complaining and use their time and resources to push us forward. Whose permission is he waiting for? Is Elon hanging around complaining or getting stuff done? Even Bill Gates, however parochial some of his interests, is getting stuff done.

energy (cheap, abundant, clean energy in sight)

I don’t know about most of that, but Germany recently spent 2 trillion Euros on a renewable energy system that was supposed to provide 150% of their maximum needs. It actually provides about 6%. Germany isn’t sunny or windy, which is a real problem for solar and wind power there. The near-shutoff of Russian gas has put Germany in a very bad spot. Spain has had a similar experience with its solar farms, despite better latitude.

To say that fusion power has technical and economic issues is like saying Ukraine suffers from rude Russian tourists.

Renewable energy simply isn’t where it needs to be, and for fundamental reasons likely never will be.

Fascinating and lucid, as always!

Cent 1: It’s important to distinguish between technologies per se and the social effects thereof. A smartphone is just a bundle of things that had already existed for decades, but its impact on the quality of daily life is probably bigger than that of automobiles. I’m in my 30s and the generation gap with people 15 years younger than me feels way bigger than with people 15 (or even 50) years older than me. Also, no mention of the birth control pill? That probably changed society more than the foregoing century of feminist activism, not least by roughly doubling the competition for a lot of jobs.

Cent 2: Boredom is the mother of creativity. The amount of entertainment available to the average person increased throughout the 20th century and hit a saturation point in the early 21st. It effectively never happens anymore that somebody has nothing to do for a few hours but fiddle about with some bits of junk or noodle around on a guitar. People still go out of their way to be creative but it no longer happens by accident. Technological stagnation and cultural stagnation go hand in hand.

There is still reason to believe we would have seen much more growth had we stayed on the Henry Adams Curve of energy consumption– and there is at least a plausible explanation, centered on overly-cautious regulation, for why we could have stayed on that curve but did not. The book to read on this is J. Storrs Hall, _Where is my Flying Car?_ which argues that five decades more of unobstructed development of energy resources could indeed have given us new materials to build from (via nanotech) and new ways to move what we build (e.g. atomic powered flying cars).

I have just discovered this blog (from a Wikipedia reference regarding the recent Formosan incident), so excuse me if I’m not fitting. But in my view vis-à-vis the technology, what I can certainly see is the overall cultural flight from the optimism pervasive in the age of the Great Wars. Elon Musk is a poor man’s substitute for the grandiose plans of yesteryear. Both the liberals of Australia and the Hitlerians of Germany germinated such ideas as the Bradfield Scheme (creation of an inland sea) and Atlantropa (the draining of the Mediterranean) respectively. All came to naught eventually.

What remains of those designs are the giant inland seas of the Ukraine, and the Aral Sea disaster – all in the former Bolshevik empire. It is a common sentiment even in my native western Ukraine to perceive the current age as post-apocalyptic of sorts – no funds for museums, physics teachers without pay, all the hopeful designs of the past remain unreachable to the current generation, from the largest in the world Antonov An-225 Mriya airplane, to the long-abandoned AI-controlled Buran specaplane, once a competitor to the American Shuttle project (now, too, discontinued).

It might be the case that it was the Soviet Union that whipped the Westerners into the space race. Conversely, now, the anti-Soviet propaganda has scared the public against the use of nuclear energy – with propaganda films released as recently as 2019 (by HBO), long after the death of the USSR. It is ironic how the civilisational optimism of the past age might mutate into the climate change denialism of today – the concensus of the current academia is feeble, frightful of the future.

Of course, if we go deeper, I would even posit the Holocaust as a brainchild of the “optimism” of that bygone era – meanwhile, modern America is too squeamish to assert its dominance at the cost of a limited nuclear war against China (which only possesses ca. 300 warheads). But that might be somewhat radical.

Fusion power would be a game-changer if it actually panned out. And in fact, we already know of a way to generate electricity with fusion power: something like the PACER project. Detonate several fission/fusion bombs each day in a massive underground cavern and harvest the heat somehow. Of course, there are understandable reasons for why we don’t already do this.

We also, theoretically, have the ability to launch huge space colonies into orbit or beyond already. It’s called Project Orion. But it, like the PACER Project, would require hundreds of fusion bombs going off seconds apart, and in the open atmosphere, to push on a giant springy pusher plate to get the huge space module into orbit. Of course, there are understandable reasons for why we don’t already do this.

Gene editing would be a game changer. We could be screening all fetuses for known inherited diseases. Of course, there are understandable reasons for why we don’t already do this.

True artificial general intelligence would be a game changer. Of course, there are understandable reasons for why we wouldn’t want to do this even if we knew how to.

I wonder if the difference of the 1867-1914 period was that a large part of humanity (in the “Western world”) saw that it could do a lot of dubious, Promethian things, and the Enlightenment optimism of the period, the modernist self-confidence of humankind mastering nature in a rational manner for our own benefit in ways that would never blow back upon us due to unforeseen reasons, led us to say, “Screw it! Damn the risks, let’s do it!” But WW1 was just one of the first reminders of how Promethian (or shall we say, Pandoran) capabilities could indeed come back to bite us, and thus we’ve been much more cautious ever since in ways we don’t even realize because it has become such conventional wisdom that you don’t even question it. “Of course we don’t want to do eugenics! What, are you some kind of Nazi monster?” “Of course we don’t want to do the PACER Project! Do you even have a clue what sort of environmental impact studies would be needed?” “Of course we don’t want to do Project Orion! What if one of the launch bombs got lost and fell into the wrong hands???” Etc.

“Smil drives the point home through a thought experiment. Imagine alien beings observing the Earth at great remove. Our artistic, religious, and aesthetic achievements are unlikely to carry meaning across species; these aliens would witness the rise and fall of empires with the same indifference we view struggles for dominance among the chimpanzees. For these onlookers, the measure of our civilization would be material.”

This struck me as patently false. When we observe other species, as well as other planets, we’re absolutely fascinated by the patterns of their structures, their dynamics, their beauty (sic), while we have difficulty remembering or even conceiving what happens to them in terms of energy and quantity. And Smil’s reasoning ignores that all technological achievements are brought about through the human play with nuances. That every engineer, inventor, innovator, goes through hundreds of phases of tinkering, that may well look silly from the point of view of the “materialists” du jour.

People don’t produce & consume masses of cat videos because of the feline “material achievements.”

Progress… What in simplified terms can be said is that there is an interplay between man and the vastness of what man isn’t. It’s an interaction that can neither be predicted nor controlled, nor can we attain a vantage point to view it and judge it in a god-like fashion. Just as we don’t grow plants by controlling or boosting every step of their growth, we are unlikely to grow a material civilisation in ways other than by preparing the ground, planting seeds, taking an inevitably limited care of the conditions, … observing, … and changing our ways in response to what happens.

Smil’s example brings to mind an illustration to my point : Carl Sagan repeatedly pointed out through his works, viz. in “Contact,” that a precondition to addressing lofty matters is to get one’s act together in the domain of our relationships with other people and with ourselves.
A corollary to it is the need to face the problem of the increasing dominance of the financial and the symbolic over every other aspect of our lives. What Michael Hudson calls ‘financial capitalism’ is as good a candidate as many others as to why we’re in a technological stagnation, apparently.

The word apparently : From the thesis of an intellectual, academic stagnation, it follows that our very ability to make a reliable registry of our scientific and technological knowledge is compromised. It means that we can’t say for sure, or agree, whether “new materials to build from, new ways to move what we build, or new sources of energy to power our building” are NOT already found by some of us, and utterly obscured by a collective mind fog, a fruit of our MENTAL problems.


On the one hand, I think the above essay understates the value of 20th century medical improvements. Antibiotics and similar inventions cut child mortality in half. Without birth control, 21st century America would be vastly different – premarital sex would still be wildly risky, families would still be large, and most adult women would spend much of their lives pregnant.

OTOH, I suspect that the oil shocks of the 1970s were a key reason for the beginning of the stagnation. Much of the rest I’d attribute to environmental and civil rights laws which, while well-intentioned, provided mechanisms to allow third parties to stall new industry* and new construction for years, greatly raising the costs of doing anything other than business as normal.

*Especially, and in retrospect particularly regrettably, nuclear energy.

I would suggest that we have simultaneously become more efficient and more ossified. We can crunch numbers on one desktop which would have required a roomful of engineers. We also need many levels of permits to do the simplest things.

The IRS computerized in the 70s. Everyone was forced to tighten up their accounting. Whole sectors of the economy which depended on simple cash accounting succumbed to the one-two punch of payroll tax accounting and stricter enforcement.

Hi Tanner. Enjoyed your piece. Have you realized that there is a simple corollary to your point? That is, China will rule the world. The logic is simple. A stagnant world would be right be up China’s alley. In the past 2000 years up until 1900, China has perfected a political-economic system that best fits a stagnant society. Even if in an unlikely scenario China itself gets destroyed somehow, the rest of the world would converge to look like China. They have to, as that form of institution, after 2000-year of civilizational evolution, would be the fittest to survive the stagnation. By the way, I have called this thesis Ming-Qingization of the world (世界明清化).

Thanks for the worthwhile read. It’s a topic that keeps me busy as well. I disagree with the premise that energy lies at the foundation of human endeavor – work, and thus entropy, seems more important.

> Joules are the language of the universe. Everything we grow, build, illuminate, or set in motion can be measured by the energetic costs of doing so.

Entropy gives energy meaning from a sentient PoV. The ocean stores a huge amount of thermal energy which cannot be exploited because energy produces work only on an energy gradient (high to low, hot to cold). This is not me nitpicking, it aims directly at your energetic interpretation of human motivation.

> This includes the narrow corner of the universe we call economics.
Economies have actors with intentions, energy has no other intention than to increase a system’s entropy.

> wealth is our energy consumption
Wealth is caused by work (hat tip to Adam Smith) aka energy consumption, but wealth is energy arranged in a meaningful (from a human perspective) way.

> For these onlookers, the measure of our civilization would be material.
And yet, we – as the most developed species on this planet – take interest in the non-material activities of other species. We are more interested in the complex behavior of mammals than that of cellular organisms, we study with greater interest the interaction of dolphins than that of cows. We are interested in a system’s entropy, not its energy. If I may offer an interpretation towards the motivation: it takes a larger amount of energy to replicate the entropy of a system from scratch than directly copying its entropy… “inventing” vs “learning”.

> It will be from inventing new materials to build from, new ways to move what we build, or new sources of energy to power our building
Which can’t be invented without advances in information technology.

Despite the, deserved, praise of technology as the cause of three economic revolutions, I think it shouldn’t go unmentioned that a social revolution was the trigger for the industrial revolution: the abolishment of slavery following the illumination.

One view of entropy is that it encodes information. Energy expenditure increases the entropy in a system. If it appears that scientific progress is stagnant it is because the entropy of human knowledge is already large and it takes more effort to increase it further. Much of the technological progress until the 20th century is low hanging fruit; I personally know three people who I have absolute confidence in that they could reboot technological civilization after an apocalypse to the industrial age in a decade. Chemistry, metallurgy, a steam engine, a radio – it’s all knowledge that fits in a single person’s head. Computer technology however is a totally different beast that can’t be built from first principles.

So 1971 was the year America’s brainpower shifted its focus from innovation to speculation. Instead of creating wealth by designing and building useful products, smart kids now seek their fortunes via complex financial instruments that have little if any connection to physical assets.

Coincidentally, 1971 was also the year President Nixon “temporarily” abolished the last vestiges of the gold standard. You can’t finance real innovation with fake money!

The EPA was instituted in 1970. I view this agency creation not as a starting point of environmental religion but a signal Environmentalism had become mainstream. The politics of the public supporting economic growth and human flourishing changed, and in fact were replaced with reasons to reject human prosperity.

It is true that Silicon Valley is high on their own supply. Still, I would place computers and the Information Revolution, with the Printing Press – not a Industrial Revolution, but still important in and of itself.

Likewise, the rise of Machine Learning needs to be included in the list of bright prospects, whose potential should yield wonders, but haven’t yet.

Many of the inventions described by Smil were created by people with academic qualifications. The theories upon which they were based were often the work of academic scientists. Indeed, the era Smil describes is when scientific theory began to inspire invention rather than the other way around.

By the units they use, electrical engineers make clear their debt to Alessandro Volta, a professor at the University of Pavia, André-Marie Ampère, who taught at the École Polytechnique, and to Georg Ohm, who did some of his early work as a school teacher, but ended up in a position at the University of Munich.

James Clerk Maxwell, whose theories of electromagnetism made the radio and television revolutions possible, was Cavendish Professor of Physics at Cambridge. Hertz, who demonstrated the existence of radio waves, was a professor at Karlsruhe and Bonn. Though not enrolled as a student, Guglielmo Marconi attended lectures and had use of the facilities of the University of Bologna.

Charles Algernon Parsons, who pioneered the use of steam turbines, studied at Trinity College Dublin and Peterhouse, Cambridge. He noted in a lecture at Cambridge that:

“The almost infinite complexity of things has been recognized and methods, based on a co-ordination of data derived from accurate observation and tabulation of facts, have proved most successful in unravelling the secrets of Nature; and in this connection I cannot but allude to the work at the Cavendish Laboratory and also to that at the Engineering Laboratory in Cambridge.”

It is doubtful the great transformation could have occurred without the creation of modern academic science in Germany in the early 1800s and its subsequent diffusion to Britain and elsewhere.

It’s not just about materials, it’s about knowledge. I have personally made a number of highly ingenious and relevant scientific discoveries relating to human posture (going so far as to handwriting direction -the prewar Japanese way was biomechanically optimal, while the Greek way crippled men’s shoulders), injury recovery, evolution, and consciousness, which will be published soon. I expect fertility to spike greatly and technological progress to do so mildly.

I don’t even have any expertise in the relevant fields. I’m just an economist.

“From this perspective fantastical wealth of the last two centuries was not caused or enabled by humanity’s expanding energy consumption—wealth is our energy consumption, just packaged in goods and services.”

Nope. North v. South Korea pre 1990.

Yikes! I wrote this with carriage returns and yet…

Sorry readers! I don’t know what to do to force carriage returns in the above! It is worth reading I promise, even though the crazy person wall of text is certainly not helpful.

Nuclear power certainly counts as a “new form of energy”. The invention of that well after 1914 sounds like a big point for blame the Boomers/70s view. We just haven’t exploited it fully. Similarly, Smil dismisses the steam power of the first industrial revolution, but it could be seen as an advance that just wasn’t fully exploited until later.

Smil focuses on steam turbines, internal combustion engines, electric motors, alternators, transformers and rectifiers, incandescent light, electromagnetic waves, recorded sound, linotype machines, sulfate pulp, photographic film, aluminum smelting, dephosphorised steel and steel alloys, reinforced concrete, nitroglycerin, and synthesized ammonia

Does it bother him much that sulfate pulp, photo film, linotype machines, and incandescent light out of those are now obsolete?

Possibly more, too. Note that “recorded sound” is a super vague category while “linotype” is extremely specific. Thinking about it, it’s deeply weird to compare “linotype” with “electromagnetic waves” – one is literally a physical property of the universe and one is a shortlived bit of newspaper equipment. I reckon Smil was aware that big things were happening with regard to both sound and anything using radio (and indeed light!), realized he had a problem, and fudged the definitions.

Linotypes was, IMHO, interesting–as I knew nothing about it–and less convincing as an inclusion. The big hitters fall in the categories I discussed: new forms of energy, new forms of transportation, and new materials to make things out of.

That Smil couldn’t see that Linotype was a purely incremental improvement based on existing technology, surrounded by incremental improvements on both sides, doesn’t say a lot for his analysis. Linotype casts a lead slug for a line of print a lot faster than a compositor can hand-assemble the same line of type by picking sorts (letters) out of a box; that’s all. It’s nowhere near as great an innovation as movable type was in the first place, and arguably not even as a great an innovation as the phototypesetting that replaced it, much less desktop publishing systems. It just happened to last a “long” time from the perspective of someone living in the late 20th or early 21st century. In a few hundred years it will be a blip in history.

I would argue that the great innovation in moving from gas to electric lighting was not in changing the form of the energy generated and used, but in the control, convenience and efficiency of that energy use. Otherwise we end up arguing that incandescent lights are somehow a greater innovation from gaslight than the iPhone is from an incandescent lamp, because the latter two use the same form of energy.

Linotype in fact fits perfectly into this model: it was not a change in the essence of how we printed things (casting lead into letters that we then bang on to paper) but a change in when we did the casting (locally at the printer’s shop rather than buying casts from someone who specialises in casting them) and the faster and easier control of how we line the letters up into rows. Phototypesetting was a dramatic change the form of energy and control we use for that (completely replacing heat and mechanical systems with electromagnetic energy), yet Smil still seems not to consider it a major innovation.

[trying again, the first time I posted this it seems to have disappeared]

We have two different questions:

(a) has progress stalled? Without answering the question, let me suggest we look at an area where we have a vast set of data, namely microelectronics. If you choose to fixate on any particular metric in micro-electronics, you can posit a story that progress has stalled (or stalled 10 years ago, or stalled 20 years ago).

But if you look at micro-electronics with unbiased eyes, you see that the ever-rising exponential curve is built on a constantly changing set of S-curves. Obsess over any one curve and yes, progress appears to slow down; but new curves arise to take their place. If you insist on lithography as the *only* metric then, yes, N2 is not much more than N3, which is better (but not the usual 2x better) than N5. But why obsess over lithography over everything else? With N2 we get GAA (better transistors which will save substantial power), and even more to the point, which are the first building-block in going vertical; after two generations or so of GAA we’ll get Forksheet then about two generations later CFET and the vertical transistor era starts. Similarly soon after N2 we’ll get BPR, then BSPD, then not just backside power but backside clocks and the metal wiring bottleneck that has so severely limited the density growth of SRAM will be alleviated.
And so it goes: what look like minor few percent improvements today after in fact the start of a new S-curve.

Now extrapolate this to all material progress. There are spaces in which we have not made much progress, primarily because of physics, and no-one sensible 50 years ago was predicting otherwise. Planes go at the speed they go because of the cost of jet fuel and the disruptions of sonic boom. IF we had free energy (enough to synthesize jet fuel) we could work around some of this, but we couldn’t change the sonic boom, or the increased wear and tear on planes as they go faster.
But why insist that plane speed is the only metric? Better than fast planes is not *having* to travel, and this is still improving on multiple dimensions (video chat, easily ordering the varied manufactures and produce of the world, soon to be dramatically augmented by VR). Likewise for faster cars.

“Life” is, like micro-electronics, a set of S-curves. Some (plane speed, car speed) have flattened out in a predicable manner, others are still in their rapid growth phase, and new curves are starting all the time. You can obsess over plane speed, or you can delight in the fact that you can watch almost any movie you want in 4K HDR. That’s not trivial! People in the 30 through 70s though the ability to listen to (some) music of their choice was this unbelievable breakthrough, a huge advance in joy limited only by the fact that good quality playback was crazy expensive, and content was expensive — look at pretty much any teenager focussed movie from that period. Now good quality playback is available to anyone, and content is within almost every budget! And yet we utterly ignore this.
I can read pretty much whatever I want whenever I want and, hell, if it’s in a foreign language I can have it automatically translated to a passable level!
Same with medicine. Yes, everything takes longer than instantaneous, and you can focus on some conditions and problems and insist there’s no progress. But focus on others and you see tremendous progress. People are so massively ignorant about what life was really like, even just two generations ago!

So that would be my answer. Progress stalling depends on your metric; and people seem to get a kick out of deliberately choosing metrics that will reveal a lack of progress.

(b) so if things are getting better in the material sphere, why all the discontent?
I’d give two answers.
The first is the Peter Turchin/Eric Weinstein argument. Our society was built on assumptions of indefinite growth, not of general possibility (as I’ve covered) but of particular types of growth. Somehow the most desirable 5% of jobs would grow at 3x the rate of population growth? Somehow the most desirable places to live (like LA or NYC) would grow indefinitely without changing their character or becoming too crowded? This is where reality has collided with dreams, as people who imagined that although they were solidly at the 50% level of general competence, their mere possession of some credential would guarantee them a job demanding 80% or higher competence; or the mere fact that they always wanted to live in Manhattan meant they were entitled to it.
We can’t all be top, but somehow society has turned into Lake Wobegon, everyone convinced that they’re above average. Turchin and Weinstock and Thiel all posit this as generating a large part of the nastiness of everyday life (every person you can drag down via some sort of wokist outrage is one less person competing for the stuff you want); I suspect a secondary factor is all that late 60s and subsequent feel-good, everyone’s a winner education that convinced two generations now that they were indeed living in Lake Wobegon.

A second, very different issue, is that of the technical cornucopia. Yes, we can now watch any movie we want, and read anything we want, and listen to any music we want. And it is glorious. EXCEPT except
What is it that gives life and culture “meaning” ? Well there are a few different answers, depending on how you approach the question, but generically the answer is a lot of repetition, a lot of ritual, a lot of common experience. You feel embedded in and part of society when you make references, jokes, use language that everyone around you immediately understands.
In say 19th C England, someone could make a witty quote from Shakespeare, or the King James Bible, or refer to a name from Livy or Homer and get some traction, those who heard would understand and appreciate.
By the early 20th C that had broken down for literature, there was just too much content, so much that few had any sort of language in common. (Hence poems like _The Wasteland_ or efforts like Ulysses, last gasp attempts at a total survey of “what we all should know”). But most people still had music or movies in common.
By the 90s it was becoming obvious that we no longer had music in common. Enough was being produced, and enough stations were available, that I could refer to my ten favorite groups and you might never have heard of any of them. There’s a reason that every lazy movie that’s trying to use music as some sort of bonding experience talks about the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or maybe a 70s experience like Queen or Elton John. After the 70s it’s just too hard and unrealistic to pretend this sort of universality exists.

But in the 90s we still had TV and movies in common. By the 2000s, there were enough movies that those were no longer a binding thread, and by 2010s the last remaining common culture (TV and video games) had fractured into enough independent strands that they no longer tied us together.

And so inhuman levels of anomie, unlike anything in previous society…
The most educated elements of society, especially the techno-scientific elements, do not really perceive this because they live in a world of tight (and getting tighter every year) consilience. Their bodies of significant knowledge all hang together, and when they meet a fellow tribe member, even if their specialities are very different they can find some common ground based on atoms, genes, calculus, energy conservation, …
The same is true (warning, trigger statement ahead!) for *some* elements of the social science/humanities tribes; those who care about consilience and truth, for whom likewise things are in constant churn, but in direction that mostly feels like it’s getting better.

But for everyone else, nothing! They can’t speak a common cultural language to a random fellow citizen; they feel like the world of news, technology and knowledge is this bizarre hydra-headed chaos that just keeps randomly attacking them every month. They have no way to integrate whatever new thing they are told, it just replaces some random old thing they were told a year ago. They never graduate beyond James’ great blooming, buzzing confusion. I think, as much as anything else, this is the cause of so much of the anti-change sentiment we see. Whether it’s anger at Amazon, or anger at some proposed new building, people want something constant in life, and know they don’t want constant change. Seeing the same building every day may not be much of a link with your fellow humans, but it’s more of a link than having that building disappear!
(And this isn’t new. Multiple societies from Europe in the 30s to Iran in the 70s went through a crazy orgy of destruction as all these people feeling rootless in their societies tried to create a new polity that would bind them together. But we never did solve the problem; all we learned [it remains to be seen whether the lesson needs to be relearned every few generations] is that a politics of hate only binds you together for so long before you start paying a pretty damn serious price.)

Note that this is ultimately an even more pessimistic viewpoint than Thiel or Smil. Their world gets better when we tame fusion and have all the energy we want; my world gets even worse as now we can change things even faster.
Will the internet save us by allowing us to find new tribes within which we feel at home? Will it do this before the politics of hate kicks in?

Excellent comment — bringing in the cultural, psychological, even spiritual dimensions which are so itchingly missing from the Thiel & Co. line.
Of course the ulitimate cultural, psychological, spiritual element which is missing, beyond your relevant comments on cultural diversification via tech advance (there has always been local and super-local culture, too, so we’ll get over/through this eventually) is a universal faith / religious tradition in accord with modern conditions (socio-technological reality as it stands).
I believe that material & impetus exists in the world already but it may be some time before we (the vast majority) turn unto it. Without this spiritual Progress, taking form in a mature global spiritual community, always at least a little bit lost. But each iteration towards truth, love and justice is also its own reward.

Peak states. Deep states. Neumeier. Goering. Himmler. Putin. Rokossowski. Jiang. All I wanna say is that, neither Nazis nor Jews care about us. The Joker got this right.

BTW I went to probably the most Nazi university in the country. Not a Jew or SJW in sight.

All I have to say is
lift the chin up
and stay there.

Thiel is a tax grifter who is contributing nothing to progress except innovating ways to be subsidized by our tax dollars. His statements lack vision, imagination and are at their core anti-human. What we see is his own projection of what he himself lacks.

You know, there seems to be a Social Democratic university out there: Berkley. Karlin went there. Kotkin went there. Mayorkas went there. There seems to be something very interesting about that place.

As for Leiden, nothing needs be said.

I think there is a lot of confusion of technical and political issues. The industrial revolution could have raised living standards in the early 19th century, but political forces prevented this. The 18th century demographic transition France raised living standards, but the revolution at the end of the century served as an object lesson for those in power. As Xi knows, there are political risks in allowing living standards to rise.

The railroad, telegraph and steam engine made huge changes in the means of production, but their impact on living standards was suppressed. This changed because warfare changed and required educated citizen soldiers rather than peasant cannon fodder. The ruling class had to let living standards rise as a matter of survival. The Tsar didn’t free the serfs because he was a nice guy.

I agree that there was a hard to miss change in the late 19th century, but both Thiel and Smil focus on material aspects, the kind of stuff you can see from outer space. If you look more closely, you see that the transformation started well before that era and has continued since. There was just a period when the differences manifested themselves in a particularly visible way.

I think we are living in a golden age of materials science, and we are probably still in the early stages. A lot of late 20th century technological change was driven by the convergence of text, images, audio, video, sensor data and so on as they were computerized. I think we are seeing a similar convergence of fields like nanotechnology, bio-mimetics, combinatoric chemistry, membrane energetics, metamaterials, and bioengineering. This would not be possible without computers, just as computers would not have been possible without prior technologies.

Thiel has a specific political axe to grind. He wants a return to 19th century societal norms with a small wealthy class and most people just getting by. His critique isn’t so much about technology as about hierarchy. The last thing he wants is a solution that involves raising living standards. If he thinks the large number of lawyers is a problem, he really should show his work. If he wants more people to go into STEM fields, he should be pushing for broader outreach, better pay, more respect and overall better education. Fighting teachers’ unions to keep teacher salaries down is penny wise and pound foolish.

Smil, as much as I admire his research and exposition, is focused on energy and material. This is important because a lot of people ignore them, but Smil focuses very tightly. Energy and material create an envelope, but such envelopes are often much larger inside than they appear from the outside. At some level Smil recognizes this, but his nirvana is having a larger envelope. I think a larger envelope would be great, but I’m not sure it would make our hard problems any easier to solve.

I agree: a big thing happened mid-late 1800s and now it’s back to business: incorporating it into life, exercising it, finding out what to do with our new powers. Give us a few hundred years. (There will be some surprises still.)

Yet, without any breakthroughs in converting energy sources to work, our ability to produce more goods and comforts per person has continued to increase
since 1970, at a comfortable rate, even in the economies that were the world’s most developed in 1970. And even when it comes to energy, the game isn’t over. The size of batteries have been following a kind of Moore’s law for decades. Isn’t this also a component of the 3rd industrial revolution, the reason we all carry phones in our pockets and have been able to expand electrification to ever-increasing ends, not to mention substantially cheapen solar power?

Yes, this is where the ‘“Economic activity” is just a fancy way to say “energy put to human use”‘ statement utterly breaks down. Is listening to a album on 1950s record player somehow ten times the economic activity of listening to the same recording on your phone because the 1950s record player uses ten times as much power for the playback? (It’s probably far larger than ten.)

The primary job of engineers has never been “invent something new”; the primary job has always been, “get this job done cheaper.” Inventing an entirely new thing sometimes comes with that, but more often not. Saying we’re making “progress” when we change how we do things to do them ten times as fast, but not when we simply improve existing things to do them a hundred times as fast, doesn’t strike me as a particularly good definition.

Yes, commercial aircraft do fly at around the same speed most of them did fifty years ago. There are reasons for that. But focusing on that without even commenting on the massive, world-changing transportation revolution that also occurred between 1950 and 1990 that has everybody buying shoes made half-way across the world seems a bit short-sighted. (The innovation was basically just a box and better information handling. But that’s not sexy enough for those writing the history of technology, I suppose.)

The ability of Amazon to replicate the Post Office is more a testament to financial innovation than it is to the science of transportation. For while I appreciate “free shipping” it is not in fact free and it is not very efficient – it is not uncommon for me to have Amazon trucks, Amazon delivery contractors and UPS all delivering Amazon packages to my address on the same day!

The sad reality is that in modern blue state America it is very difficult to build new roads and build new houses and in all of America it is very difficult to build new airports and get approval for private sector commercial aviation service. There are too many political interests and most of them are rewarded for saying “No” unless money accrues to their pockets.

American government used to be very different. It used to see itself as an enabler of growth and innovation. The government recognized the citizens would do the real work and the government’s role was to facilitate it.

A great example of this dynamic was the electrification of the country. The Federal government wanted all Americans to have electricity service and so it incentived the private sector to do it. The result was hundreds, if not thousands, of electricity utility companies created in the early 20th century. The result was also near universal access to electricity anywhere in the country by the 1940s.

We need to return to an era where government is not a constraint on economic growth and human innovation but rather a supporter of it.

I’m curious how the conflict in Ukraine has informed your view here. Specifically for you think that the direct conflict shows that more modernized methods pitted against “pre-stall” military shows more progress than you are giving the last few decades credit for.

Re: AI, I have seen real, genuine progress in two areas:

1. Computer vision (e.g., the Discord content filter, which you should try for yourself)

2. Ability to get instant answers to programming problems (e.g., create a continuous rainbow gradient in JavaScript).

That’s pretty much it, though the above’s implication that Twitter could snap whole sectors of images out of existence remains underexplored.

I think our approach to education is largely to blame. Students are no longer rigorously educated in scientific or critical thinking. And without an education that does that, inventions cannot happen except by rare geniuses who teach themselves to think or by importing the well educated from elsewhere.

And the dismantling of education, unfortunately shows no signs of slowing. Schools are now **limiting** maths education in the USA. They don’t want to teach algebra until high school, leaving too little time for higher mathematics to be taught. Probability and Statistics is optional. In reading, we suck, as most high school students read at a basic level, and struggle to identify the main points of a piece of nonfiction writing. In science, most people struggle with very simple concepts classical mechanics, chemistry or biology.

If people cannot read and critically reason, cannot do maths, and don’t understand the very basic ideas of science, I don’t see why anyone is shocked that we aren’t inventing new things.

What changed in the latter half of the 20th century is the Western world lost faith in divine provenance. The perspective of America’s leaders changed from being optimistic in man’s power over the elements to being afraid. Reasons to not do things became more important. The most important constraint being the environment. Rather than allow ingenuity to satisfy the desire for both environmental and innovative improvements, the secular religion dictated that the environment should be untouched. Stagnation of the environment yielded stagnation in the innovation of the physical world.

We see this stagnation in commercial aviation. As others have well documented, the speed of passenger jets is lower than it was 50 years ago! It is more fuel efficient to fly slower, and so that is what our planes do. We are finally seeing breakthroughs in rocketry and space travel, but aviation is completely stagnant, and this because of politics.

Society has benefitted from the digital revolution. Our lives are more comfortable and convenient due to computer chips and related technology. Fortunately that innovation was allowed. But now we are seeing governments growing increasingly interested in regulating digital technology – and in the area of digital media they are already heavily involved.

Modern society needs a revival of innovative spirit. It needs to regain confidence that man can harness the physical elements to both improve life for humans and be good stewards of the earth. This requires not just new leadership, but a people who are confident in their ability to do good and that the supreme god will reward their efforts.