Where's My Flying Car?
Book by J Storrs Hall; an analysis of how and why our innovation stagnated
[An analysis of Where's My Flying Car by J Storrs Hall, as an entry point to a more systemic analysis of the thesis on why we saw innovation stagnate. Also related to Isolated Narratives of Progress, Punctuated Equilibria Theory of Progress, The Next S Curve]
Occasionally there's a non-fiction book comes along that has enough data, enough original thoughts, enough assertions and enough chutzpah that it gives you that great jolt of electricity and kicks you out of your stupor! Where Is My Flying Car is one of those books. Not since Robin Hanson's Age of Em have I read something that so consistently and systematically looks at a world of fantastic possibilities so realistically. If Arthur C Clarke had a baby with an engineering manual, that'd be this book. At times I wasn't sure if I was reading an exquisitely researched science-fiction book or a lightly fictionalised technological manual.
The cover shows what we are going to be talking about. Despite the weird subtitle, A Memoir of Future Past, the book goes into an incredible level of detail about all things technological past and future. And most interestingly, it never does the whole "wink-wink" thing with the viewer where every seemingly outlandish claim is tempered with a smiley face emoji, as if there's an inside joke amongst us serious people that this will ever happen, but isn't it cool to imagine nonetheless?
Instead it purports to answer the problem as set out below.
Technologically, we as a culture became a lot less adventurous in the past half-century. Thus, to guess what we might have done, one must venture a step or two past the limits of the known possible, and speculate on what might have been discovered or invented. This is a project fraught with epistemological peril.
And if you think our lives are so much wonderful than our 19th century counterparts, sure it is, but hold on for a second.
And yet, as we have seen, the great innovations that made the major quality-of-life improvements came largely before 1960: refrigerators, freezers, vacuum cleaners, gas and electric stoves, and washing machines; indoor plumbing, detergent, and deodorants; electric lights; cars, trucks, and buses; tractors and combines; fertilizer; air travel, containerized freight, the vacuum tube and the transistor; the telegraph, telephone, phonograph, movies, radio, and television—and they were all developed privately.
In fact, outside of science fiction I don't think I have read such an unapologetic view of what's possible outside of occasional internet comment threads. And unlike the comment threads, here lies data!
The rallying cry that Josh suggests is "It is a possibility!" on how we ought to deal with examining seemingly crazy ideas about the future.
The three biggest themes from the book were:
The Great Stagnation is real, and was caused by careful strangulation of all of the potential avenues of search and advancement we have had
There is surprisingly little correlation between regulatory increase and scientific and technological progress and it can be seen over and over again in multiple sectors
There are credible paths of research as yet untapped, amongst all areas seen as science fiction - including nanotechnology, nuclear energy and yes, flying cars
Josh summarises it brutally using the income classification of the world population developed by Hans Rosling.
The miracle of the Industrial Revolution is now easily stated: In 1800, 85% of the world’s population was at Level 1. Today, only 9% is. Over the past half century, the bulk of humanity moved up out of Level 1 to erase the rich-poor gap and make the world wealth distribution roughly bell-shaped. The average American moved from Level 2 in 1800, to level 3 in 1900, to Level 4 in 2000. We can state the Great Stagnation story nearly as simply: There is no level 5.
This book is actually two books. Book 1 is an examination of the various ways in which our assumptions about how innovation actually happens are false. Book 2 is a wide ranging diversion on how crazy sounding projects in nanoparticles, nuclear energy and yes, flying cars, could become reality. Book 1 is a phenomenal read and even with its forceful polemic makes a ton of interesting points. Book 2 reads like someone's idea of gathering background intel to write hard sci-fi.
It's not to say there's no link between them. Book 2 is the answer to what the utopian future Level 5 and beyond could be like. After all if you believe that certain technologies have been held back unfairly, the way you make that case make sense is also to have a view on how they should have been attempted in the first place.
The whole book is an attempt to answer one question - why are we not living like the Jetsons? After all, that's what most experts, and most laymen, and indeed most hardnosed businessmen, expected we'd be doing half century ago but that dream never came true. So why is that?
The answer that Josh gives is in a few parts:
High degrees of bureaucratisation and regulatory throttling of promising research avenues
We stopped trying to increase our energy usage somewhere around the 70s
We became horrible at actually converting the R&D dollars from the government to usable innovations
There's an endemic "Failure of Nerve" amongst the entire elite intelligentsia, including both the researchers and the bureaucrats, that leads to a reduction in ambition
When you combine all of this, you get the crazy cocktail that we've all accepted as normality. That large scale technological changes and breakthroughs are well-nigh impossible, and being "rational" means that we should set our sights lower.
Much in the way that a well-meaning parent might tell their child to not dream about being an astronaut but try to become an engineer, we've bridled our own ambition.
So the book basically goes as follows.
We had great science fiction style aspirations in the 50s
This was also true of those people bent on making the science fiction into fact
In steps the high hand of overly harsh regulations, government overreach and general painful bureaucracy - some endemic within institutions and some extrinsic coming from elite consensus
We become highly risk averse across most things
We don't make the science fiction aspirations come true
And this negative feedback loop makes us fall into reducing our current aspirations as well, kicking off the loop again and making it a self-fulfilling prophesy
The beginning is my favourite chart to start with, showing where we hit a ceiling in the airline cruising speeds. This is the old adage about why we don't have Concorde anymore. This is also the launching pad for Josh's litany of issues around why we haven't been progressing.
But before we get into that meat, let's imagine you were building a utopian society in the best of the science fiction tradition. What would it look like?
First we learn to fly our cars
This is the largest segment of the book. Quite natural, considering the name. Josh details out all the ways in which the world was ready to mass manufacture and adopt flying cars from the late 50s onwards. There were designs, there were prototypes and concepts that worked, there was financing, and there were entrepreneurs aplenty.
And yet the flying cars got sidelined.
Is it because of air traffic control being difficult? No, not really. Because the skies are vast and there's plenty of room up there, what with three dimensions to play with and no "road" restrictions.
Is it because of skill to operate? No, not really. Including his personal example of elarning to fly, Josh shows how while it is different to driving, the difficult is not so high either. And while maybe not every 70 year old grandma might fly, they don't need to. The point here is that the marginal effort is still way skewed in the direction of the flying cars.
Is it the cost? Not really. Before the regulatory haul made a meal of plane costs, Josh shows how a Cessna used to cost c.$30k, not a crazy amount, while today it's closer to 5-10x that. So clearly there's room to move.
Is it safety? No again. "The lading cause of death amongst active pilots is ... motorcycle accidents." I don't know the source of the statistic, but it's true that worst case scenario, aviation seems about as deadly as riding motorcycles.
Is it legal liability? Yes to some extent! Anything to do with machines in the air have gotten ungodly scrutiny from the FAA and pretty much forced to shut down, just like what happened with pretty much the entire small aircraft industry.
Part of his argument about the benefits of flying cars is that our effective range can increase from tens of miles a day to hundreds of miles a day. It's almost the same argument made about communication devices and even the internet.
Then we learn about limitless power
The conventional wisdom goes that it's expensive, and that it's dangerous. Neither of these are inherent properties. Re the danger, Josh shows us how we're overregulating to take away even the slightest chance of something going wrong, and in such pre-emptive regulating, we end up making the technology stuck in stasis.
The point here is that there's been a clear change in our previously-exponential energy usage, what he calls the "Henry Adams Curve" which is a rather clear divergence. The wage line here, you'll note, is the obligatory "wage stagnation" one that I examined here.
The same thought process also goes regarding its expense. Part of it is of course the increased regulatory burden imposing hefty costs and, in this case, not providing a single new license for decades! He shows how the construction costs of US nuclear power plants went up by 7x between 1980 to 1995.
Even in the Sixties we knew how to make artificial radioactive isotopes of various elements by exposing them to neutrons. Josh discusses this, and also how beta radiation, produced this way, can be blocked by a couple inches of water or a thin sheet of metal.
He mentions this as an example of how there's a colossal Failure of Nerve with respect to trying to find a Moore's Law equivalent for energy. The fact that nuclear fuel is more energy dense and can product high energy neutrons isn't enough of a reason to not follow through on at last examining it.
Josh also examines whether we're just not going after nuclear power because our knowledge is far ahead of our ability to control it, and comes to the conclusion no. He suggests
Nuclear Physics lacks a coherent theoretical foundation that would permit us to analyze and interpret all phenomena in a fundamental way; atomic physics has such a formulation in quantum electrodynamics, which permits calculations of some observable quantities to more than six significant figures. ... Two of the leading theories, the liquid drop model and the nuclear shell model, each have areas where they give good predictions in agreement with experiment.
The problem with nuclear energy tech is not just that it's expensive and has seen pretty insane regulatory headwinds. For example, France doesn't share the worries that US has, and generates 70% of their energy from nuclear.
It's that with US not leading the charge, and other countries alongside it, there has been minimal ability to come down the cost curve as drastically as we'd like. It also means that there's not been enough efforts to actually try new techniques in nuclear power generation.
The efforts have shifted from engineering decisions that need to be continually improved, to regulatory decisions that require extremely stringent controls.
It is important to say here though that this seems to be (slowly) changing now. There are startups getting funded which try new forms of reactors, including fusion, like TAE Technologies, Tokamak Energy, Commonwealth Fusion or General Fusion. Is this the beginning of a new expansion? We don't know, but it's true that it's taken a few decades of stasis to get here!
And moving on to the beautiful promise of Cold Fusion
The story here starts with Fleishmann and Pons who invested $100k of their own money to experiment on cold fusion in 1985. Needless to say, since we don't have cold fusion yet, they ran out of money and didn't have much to show for it, except for this one, anomalous, result.
They were not the first, and they weren't the last. The Department of Energy dug into the phenomenon and found nothing. Without going into detail about all the other trials of the technology, suffice it to say cold fusion quickly became synonymous with a massive embarrassment and pretty much the equivalent of magical pixie dust.
One major problem with the state of cold fusion research today is that while there is a small cadre of smart and careful scientists slowly making small advances, there is also a substantial number of flakes, crackpots, and mountebanks, making outrageous claims—and regularly being discovered to be self-deluded or frauds when serious testing is done on their apparatus. Furthermore, due to the high difficulty of replication, it is all too easy for an honest but inexperienced researcher to fool himself into thinking he has positive results when he doesn’t. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if the cold fusion literature were at least as unreliable as, say, the biotech literature, where studies have shown that only about 20% of published results could be replicated.
But Josh cites Arthur C Clarke, Julian Schwinger, Brian Josephson (latter two being Nobel winners) and several other notable physicists as supporters of research into cold fusion, lamenting the fact that we don't spend nearly enough time or attention on the topic.
But by 2008, there had been over 300 published replications and verifications of cold fusion phenomena by scientists around the world.
Josh makes the claim that cold fusion has been unfairly maligned, that there have been successful small scale tests, and that it needs more resources put against it. Considering the evidence, albeit circumstantial, it's not entirely unreasonable!
And we build palaces, atom by atom
Richard Feynman talked about nanotech in a particular fashion. He thought the key to successfully creating nanotech was to create machines that could make machines a size order below, and continue pushing the boundaries of what's possible to build in that direction. While it's not exactly the same as a von Neumann replicator, there are similarities. And Josh wholeheartedly agrees here.
Josh spends a lot of pages on the technological barriers in place that stops us from making von Neumann nanorobots. The dream is to be able to make entire machines in nanoscale, swarms of small robots that are able to help solve everything from health issues inside your body to building magnificent machines and new materials like we've never seen before.
For instance, Josh details the problems that remain in place - reaching the atomic scale means that we have to treat materials as discrete atomic particles rather than a continuous metal, forces impacting on particles changing from gravity to adhesion, increased heat dissipation, and in case that's not enough, quantum mechanical tunnelling.
But still, the blame that Josh lays here is on the centralised research bureaucracy that wrote off these ideas. He coins the term Machiavelli Effect as a term for when older, established folks don't want to effect change while the beneficiaries of said change don't push hard enough to make it happen.
It's worth saying the Josh is deeply involved in the field of nanotechnology. He founded the sci.nanotech Usenet and moderated it for 10 years, and was the founding chief scientists at Nanorex Inc. He's also developed several ideas that sound like they should be in a Crichton novel but are actually real, like the utility fog. So it's one of those cases of listening to the expert in the field express optimism that a super difficult problem set will be cracked if we just apply ourselves.
Building the Tower of Babel and 100km space piers
One of the best detailed part of the book brings a few of the technologies together and suggests how we can build cities that are an entire single building. Josh goes through the calculations, how we can house 40 million people in a tower ten miles high with a footprint of a square mile.
A ten-mile tower might have a footprint of a square mile and could house 40 million people. Eight such buildings would house the entire current population of the United States, leaving 2,954,833 square miles of land available for organic lavender farms.
The benefit of a flying car is that the third dimension is our friend. The benefit of nanotechnology is that building a ten mile high tower is within our grasp. The benefit of nuclear energy is that we won't have to worry about the energy requirements to build any of that.
That's the lesson of the book. The type of reality we could build if we were to really work and solve the problems in front of us. If it helps, I read this while listening to Stairway to Heaven, which helped with the mood.
In exactly the same way, were we to solve all these problems, we could create an aircraft that has a ten-mile wingspan. Perhaps shaped like a manta ray. With chords give miles at the center, a mile thick, with enough volume to house 10 million people at 12k square foot each. It would have 250 levels of roadways, 50k elevators and more. A flying city.
We could even build space piers that stand atop 100km towers, where we could launch items into orbit and beyond with a railgun. If we're able to manufacture diamonds aplenty as a building material, or maybe something even better, this is something we could accomplish.
Flawless diamond, with a compressive strength of 50 GPa, does not even need a taper at all for a 100 km tower; a 100-km column of diamond weights 3.5 billion newtons per square meter but can support 50 billion. Even commercially available polycrystalline synthetic diamond with advertised strengths of 5 GPa would work.
The words "even commercially available" is what stands out to me above.
And a consequent dilution of culture
Green fundamentalism gets its fair share of slapping around in the book. Josh shows again and again how they overreact to the potential environmental hazards of nuclear energy and flying cars. This also drives ergophobia, which in the tome means the fear of increasing our energy usage. The level of attention the Greens get in the book seem overplayed considering their impact has been, if anything, rather muted on a macro scale.
Josh also talks about our cultural zeitgeist is one of winner-take-all decisioning, where we're convinced that the way to get ahead is to increase our share of the pie, rather than increase the pie itself. Here he draws on Peter Turchin's idea that when an empire gets large enough it stops worrying about existential threats from outside and rather focuses on internal competition. The thesis being that, just like Ozymandias in the Watchmen, we need an external threat to make us all point in the same direction!
Technologies that provoke antipathy and promote discord, such as social networks, are the order of the day; technologies that empower everyone but require a background of mutual trust and cooperation, such as flying cars, are considered amusing anachronisms.
That's a highly summarised flavour of the book. There are deep and technical discussions about wingspans and lift with the cars, energy potential in nuclear power, dollar/kg cost of launching payloads to orbit and its cost curve, newtons/sqm calculations of a diamond column's weight support, half lives of various nuclear isotopes, and many many more. The organization of the book presumably made a whole deal of sense to the author, but I had to flip back and forth a ton on my kindle to get here.
It's a compelling story. We have clear narratives in place that tell us that we're in a place of technological stagnation, political polarisation, economic growth bifurcation and general malaise affecting a large swath of the economy. But the question I kept asking is why these technological developments seem so highly contingent in the first place. It's difficult to blame regulations and bureaucracy as the sole reason why these technologies haven't come about. As I'd written about in my examination on wage stagnation, while regulations did rise in several sectors, including at the federal level, the time also saw fat profits coming in the private sector who were subject to said regulations.
If we are to believe that the Great Stagnation was a result of us getting in our own way, we have to address the two major issues that Josh identifies – 1) the regulatory burden that we impose on anything resembling new innovation, and 2) the lack of ambition/ nerve/ interest in continuing our search for the next avenues of growth.
The growth in regulations was not a binary event. It happened gradually, in stages, and so we should expect to see the chilling effects it had also come about gradually. The regulations didn't happen in a vacuum.
For instance, the regulations to do with flying vehicles is examined in great depth, especially poetically because the author himself is a pilot. It shows, for example, how there is a 175,000 page long regulatory manuscript from the FAR which even has rules specifying who can do paperwork about the maintenance of an aircraft.
But even here, it didn't go from 0 to 175,000 in one shot. There's a historical contingency in this growth. Even allowing that this is insane, and it so clearly is, what's unclear is why, like every other industry on the planet, this also didn't see lobbying to make life easier. After all the Dodd-Frank bill was incredibly complex too. It created several agencies and added a multitude of requirements on the existing financial institutions.
But it still hasn't stopped companies from forming or technologies from developing. Unlike what we see in flying cars, which stayed in limbo for a few decades, people keep throwing money at folks who think they can solve the problem.
So this is not what we see generally. The industries that Josh argues should have been pursued pretty much look like they hit a brick wall. It didn't go from "approval takes a month" to "approval takes six months", but "approval takes a month" to "let's just not do this at all". That's a rather drastic change.
None of this is to say regulations don't matter. They absolutely do and they slowly strangle new industries through sheer intransigence. The rise of fintech in London came about through deregulation, as a case in point of how it can very well be stifling in its effect.
What I'm arguing is that when there are clearly laid out paths by multiple interested parties, you need more than creeping regulatory rise as a cause for their death. You need to explain why no well meaning philanthropist or venture capitalist didn't burn a few hundred million in chasing the dream.
You would also have to explain why companies like Lilium seem to be coming about now, and the whole VTOL movement, and companies making supersonic crafts like Boom, since regulations are still crazy.
The only way that argument makes sense is if we insist that the industries were all at the cusp of unprofitability, and the regulatory shifts towards becoming just that much harder just pushed them over the edge. And believing that multiple technologies were all simultaneously teetering at the edge of commercial viability seems a tad inappropriate.
Sure you can make that case maybe for nuclear power, since around the same time we started getting interested in solar. But what about healthcare? That's insanely regulated and continues to be even more rigidly regulated. Like a twitchy mob boss if you so much as look at it sideways it gets all uppity and increases its prices for the nearest drug or procedure by 300%.
It's also insanely bureaucratised with enough paperwork to make even the Pale King happy. But there is still investment going into the sector. There's still innovations being uncovered and there's still progress, even if parts of it are slower than what we would like.
It means there's something else going on behind the scenes. Somehow the institutions that we set up end up becoming nooses around our neck as opposed to helping us grow. It's a bigger problem to do with increasing organisational inertia rather than an easily solved choke point.
There has to be a reason why the operators, the financiers, the venture capitalists, the large tech conglomerates, none of them saw fit to pursue the dreams that are laid out in this book.
Failure of nerve and imagination
And here's the second, and arguably more interesting aspect of the book. Josh coins the phrase "Failures of Nerve and Imagination" which he specifically speaks about the problem that those who oversee science and research funding have.
One of the great tragedies of the latter Twentieth Century, and clearly one of the causes of the Great Stagnation, was the increasing centralization and bureaucratization of science and research funding. This meant that Failures of Nerve and Imagination, which are particularly strong among bureaucrats, instead of merely causing incorrect predictions from pundits, caused resource starvation and active suppression, and became self-fulfilling prophecies.
But isn't this typical of bureaucrats and overseeing bodies always? How recent a development is this that the Failures of Nerve and Imagination seems to be temporally aligned in a particular time period, or sectorally in particular sectors? That seems like a bit of a stretch.
Also, this is a far sweeping assertion about lack of funding. But it's just not true. We spend billions on insane research. Bear in mind that the CIA wasted money on equipping bats with bombs, mind control and LSD. Are you really claiming that nanotech was where they drew the line?
Of the billions appropriated by the military to research the most absurd ideas on the planet, they didn't want to actually explore the slightly-less-absurd end of the spectrum?
It especially falls apart because one of Josh's key ideas is the Machiavelli Effect. It's essentially the idea that elites are resistant to change when there's a chance it could hurt the elites. So for example he says:
Centralized funding of an intellectual elite makes it easier for cadres, cliques, and the politically skilled to gain control of a field, and they by their nature are resistant to new, outside, non-Ptolemaic ideas. The ivory tower has a moat full of crocodiles.
But if that's the case, then shouldn't the more opaque and byzantine institutions either do only the most run-of-the-mill research? If they can put radar and explosives on bats, why can't they dig deeper into nanotech?
Another one of the issues here is on funding from private sources. Here the Machiavelli Effect that Josh coins is applied to folks like VCs. But again, VCs would never fund something like this anyway. VCs fund research where it can return tangible results in a predictable fashion across portfolios. For instance they might fund 10 different drug molecules because they know one of the ten will break through. There's just no equivalent in nanotech of the sort Josh talks about.
My conclusion is that while the effects that Josh describes are undeniably true, and the causes he describes play only a supporting role, there has to be a more systemic explanation.
For instance, we should know why despite nuclear energy being a mainstay in France, that liberal bastion, that provides 70% of their needs, it still feels like it's in a technological and political stranglehold in several places in the world. The same in South Korea also where they saw highly successful nuclear power development for a while before plateauing.
And if we had pockets where nuclear power was used successfully, such as in the Navy, why didn't it expand to more civilian areas? We managed to get the GPS to become ubiquitous, but a cheap and clean energy source was somehow taboo?
Bear in mind that China, as the latest superpower, is also building plenty of power plants, with almost 5% of the total electricity in China coming from nuclear energy as of 2019. Once again, there does seem to be movement in this domain, just not within the United States. We should know why that is.
We should also know why despite the military spending billions on building robots that can run and even self driving cars, they didn't fund nanotech to a degree that would make Josh happy.
We should know why flying cars became scary around the 60s and 70s as opposed to other things, like miniaturising supercomputers, or Thalidomide, or even rocket science.
So if the question is why aren't we doing anything to advance the state of these affairs, that’s begging the question. Since my answer is that we actually are. Badly, grasping at fake straws at times, but we are. Our scientific productivity has been falling of a cliff for many disciplines, but we also dedicated two decades to the study of a biological process, under duress, which resulted in our ability to fight the pandemic in 2020. Isolated narratives of progress makes it sound like what innovations we get are the rare oasis amidst a desert, but they're not. Our ability to push forward multiple lines of inquiry are what lets us solve some of them, and for multiple dominoes to seemingly fall at the same time.
I also looked around to try and figure out if there had been any research done to try and identify how and if regulatory underreach leads to similar counterintuitive outcomes too.
There was an empirical paper I found answering this question, which looked at the outcomes of regulation called "How deregulation can become overregulation", which had the following line:
Functional regulation is a deregulatory measure, giving the organizations the responsibility to implement systems that result in safe operations, while governments only are to verify that the organizations have implemented systems. Contrary to the deregulatory intentions, the organizations implement rules, clutter and red tape that often not contribute to safety, and even continue to grow. Many organizations have tried to simplify their safety management systems, but still have ended up with at least as many procedures as before (Power, 1999).
Paradoxically then, deregulation seem to lead to overregulation.
They describe the condition as overregulation, since the internal regulation is detailed and overachieving on the limit to contradict its objectives.
Though it's an empirical study of Norwegian coastal cargo and fish farming, the implications definitely don't seem limited to that instance.
So if regulation by itself can't help explain the nosedive that our innovative spirit took, can something else? Something that created our failures of nerve and imagination? It’s unclear that there were enough external events that made this happen either. For instance, 1970s saw an oil crisis. Shouldn't this have acted as a catalyst for us to examine other energy sources? Especially if it were one of the key events that led us to re-examine our entire very energy dependence and flattened the Henry Adams Curve.
If the argument is that energy becoming scarce combined with Green fundamentalism to push us into conservation mode, and this happened a few decades before Climate Change even became a household worry, then you have to also ask why this didn't lead us into a renaissance of looking at cleaner sources.
My read is that there's a tangled web of motivations here. It's like a simple graph with seventy variables, all of which have relationships with each other. There are plenty of stories that can fit the observed pattern, and plenty of causal stories that can be drawn. To be so convinced of a conclusion here seems, to me, a tad hasty.
Every large company and organisation goes through the same calculus, is the effort worth the payoff? And that answer comes from assessing the costs of the regulation alongside the rest, and analysing whether it makes sense to follow through. None of them usually just focus on the left hand side, the regulatory side, and walk away.
In industry, for the longest while, technological advance seemed completely tied to manufacturing capacity. While the creation of the car is an undeniable technological advance, it became a household tool only when Henry Ford discovered the assembly line process and 4x-ed the productivity. The reflexivity in between technology per se and its industrial applications also seems applicable to nanotechnology and space exploration that Josh writes about. There's a long road between being a curio in a CIA lab and something that exists in the wider world, and that chasm isn't bridged easily just through willpower. It requires an entire substrate to already exist.
Also, energy demand is elastic, as discovered first by Willian Stanley Jevons in 1856 when he wrote The Coal Question. He noted, as written in the book:
...when the steam engine became more efficient with the introduction of James Watt's separate condenser (and many other improvements), the amount of coal used in England grew rather than declining. What this meant was, of course, that people were using the new, efficient Watt engines to do many more things than they had been using the older, less efficient, Newcomen engines to do.
As we find more efficient ways of doing things, we start doing many more things. The best example here is of course electronics, which has become ubiquitous just as it has declined in cost.
It's not a counterpoint per se, but the mood affiliation gets a bit clearer. If you're proposing that our utopian future Jetsons life was derailed by those annoying Greens, government bureaucrats and silly regulators, some of that ire would also spray onto unsuspecting targets like the "don't eat too much fat" lobby.
The impression I get from reading the book is that Josh is quite upset that we’re not more engaged and optimistic and confrontational about the opportunities that exist in front of us. Which is fair. What I think he misses is the fact that our efforts to grow is often contingent upon what has already been done, what is available, what society expects from us, and what those other geniuses around us do. While there are legitimate gripes about our ability to get anything done, I’m not sure throwing the technological growth baby with the stagnation bathwater actually explains much. The explanations Josh advances all seem accurate, though peripheral, to the issue that it seems like our progress in technology has stagnated. To answer it we have to a) prove that technological stagnation is real, and not just in isolated pockets like flying cars or nanotech, and b) identify a cause for it that goes beyond our search for energy efficiency.
As humans we like all encompassing explanations for large macroscale phenomena. While this stands us in good stead when it comes to physics, it has led us astray when it comes to economics, politics and sociology. So while I reject the overarching explanation for us being a bit too chicken to do anything, I do think that we could do more. Should we push our advances in more areas? Absolutely.
And we’re doing that. To quote an older article:
Equally interesting is that the UK is spending $250m to help bring about the world's first fusion power plant. Again, the success here is not the point as much as the effort. This follows the footsteps of China and a European one. And there are also several companies around the world that are trying to make nuclear fusion reactions more portable. There's CFS that's MIT backed, TAE in California, First Light Fusion in Oxford, Tokamak Energy in Oxford, and the world's largest fusion project in ITER in Southern France. This is a technology that's always been a couple decades away and still might be so. But anything aiming to bend the Adams curve is worth noting.
So the question is less one of if we will ever fulfil our potential, and rather one of what all do we need to do to ensure that we can fulfil our aspirations. And that’s a much harder question.
Two other tidbits that I liked in the book that I want to mention. 1) Nuclear physics appropriated the term nucleus from biology where it was used for the central organelle in a cell since 1831. Same regarding the word fission. And 2) Almost in passing Josh also entertains the idea that "fat is unhealthy" diet is incorrect, and shows plenty of insight from his personal experiments. However the study he draws upon, from Gary Taubes, has rather significant flaws that Scott Alexander has pointed out.
The last point is one that was pointed out by Patrick OShaughnessy on Twitter.
We wanted flying cars and all we got was satellite internet blanketing the world, supersonic jets, 2-day vaccine development, a budding genomics revolution, a $1T self organizing internet native currency, and AI advancing at insane rate, doubling compute demand every few months.
In many ways this was a book that explored several themes that have also come up in my search – the search for a cause of the Great Polarisation, the search for why wages stagnated, the search for why progress seems unbounded on the one side and extremely bounded on the other, the question of why organisations seem to suck so often, and the question of why hierarchies are amazing to get things done generally but frustrating to get any one thing done.
Overall, our belief in growth comes from an inductive process. A belief that as it has come before, where humanity solved its largest struggles, so we will do again. The pessimists similarly demonstrate an incredulity on whether we will ever be able to achieve such heights as we have before. Some look at the institutional setup that we have built up and see masses of bureaucracy and the mediocritisation of our entire species. Some look at that setup as the inevitable consequence of success. After all, we can't very well organise 7 billion people to do anything without some level of bureaucracy.
I think the takeaway from the book, to me, is that there are plenty of roads not taken, and the avenues for exploration remain as fertile as it ever was. We should be optimistic, not pessimistic, after reading it. It's one of the books that's gotten me to learn and think about a wider variety of subjects in more depth than I would've guessed.
Sometimes when it looks like we're just treading water it's because we're building platforms and capabilities that are needed for the next S curve. I think everyone should get a hold of the book and read it, not as a narrative of pessimism, and not as a barometer of how far askew we've come from some original goal, but rather to see how much remains to be built, and to get inspired.
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