Thanks for another massive mountain of missives - and, for those of you who swung by the Steyn store to pick up some of our exclusive soon-to-be-collector's-items Mann vs Steyn trial merchandise, thank you for helping support my pushback against Dr Mann, notwithstanding this case's procedurally tortured path to court.
We'll address some of the Big Climate mail in the days ahead, but the most controversial topic this week was a few observations I made in the wake of a Wall Street Journal piece on our society's innovation slowdown. I had my say at length on this subject in After America (proceeds from personally autographed copies of which help fund my campaign against the Clime Syndicate), so I'll let my naysayers say their nay in the space below. All but a handful of readers disdained Steyn's thesis entirely:
I think you're overstating your case here and dismissing the digital revolution a bit too easily. Yes, much of the internet is pretty vapid. Still, someone can download the complete works of William Shakespeare instead of cat pictures if they want to.
On a more abstract level, isn't it a little impressive that a computer that once occupied a warehouse now fits in your pocket? Regardless of what one might choose to do with it, that's pretty impressive just from an engineering standpoint, isn't it?
Asinine culture and government surveillance are ultimately cultural and political problems -- not technological ones.
No, but culture determines technology. In order to discover things, you have to want to discover them - or at least be alert to the possibility of discovering them. Islam, for example, is not a culture of inquiry, which is why it does not innovate.
John Hethcox seconds Pat's point:
You recently quoted the section of After America about the slowing pace of technology compared with the years 1890-1950. As I remember you noted, the rise of computing technology is an exception. I think economically speaking, you may have given the PC and the Internet short-shrift with regards to increases in productivity. While we are awash in information we don't need, much of the information needed to make informed market decisions can be distributed instantaneously compared to early technologies - including the phone and telegraph.
I also think the advances in medical technology are just as revolutionary as the more visible technologies you used in your argument. There are so many diseases that can be effectively treated now compared with 20 years ago. The rise of orthroscopic surgical techniques - as one example - have reduced the impact of medical procedures and made surgery an option for people who are otherwise too frail for traditional procedures. And don't get me started on joint replacement.
That said, I do see the value in your argument. Why does it still take 6-8 hours to fly to Europe? Cars are better, nicer, and much safer, but also more expensive. Have we hit a limit on physics, market capitalism, some intersection of both?
PS I just finished Passing Parade, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Had to quit telling people I was reading an entire book of obituaries, though. Too many strange looks.
Tom Fuller writes from China to accuse me of Michael Mann-style cherry-picking:
I appreciate a lot of your commentary and share your love of good music. I will rise in defense of technology since 1969, however. I've written on the same topic and I think you have to cherry pick innovations to get a decline. And I don't like cherry picking any more than you do—good luck fighting Mikey Mann.
It is true that the physical boxes of the modern world look much the same as 75 years ago—houses, cars, even televisions. But what's inside the packages is a lot different. I don't see how you can in good conscience pass over the advances in biotechnology, computer science, robotics and genetics when assessing modern innovations. Defining what a macro innovation is is of course subjective—but you do a better job offering your viewpoint in other areas, IMO.
Patent applications and grants have grown steadily and not just because of license wars and the addition of new countries to the patent world. Cars may look the same—but they are safer. Houses may look the same—but they are cleaner. And really—televisions are a bit different than 75 years ago, aren't they? And Bruce's 67 channels of nothing have morphed into a new golden age of television.
When physical structures reach an optimum, they tend to stop changing. Four walls on a house really works well, pace Buckminister Fuller. And if you really think planes haven't changed much since 1969, I suggest you have a long talk with a pilot.
I think we're still on Day One of a wave of revolution that started three centuries ago. I would refer you to the opening of Peter Drucker's Post Capitalist Society who said it far better than I:
Every few hundred years in Western history there occurs a sharp transformation. We cross what in an earlier book, I called a "divide." Within a few short decades, society rearranges itself—its worldview; its basic values; its social and political structure; its arts; its key institutions. Fifty years later, there is a new world. And the people born then cannot even imagine the world in which their grandparents lived and into which their own parents were born. We are currently living through just such a transformation. It is creating the post-capitalist society, which is the subject of this book.
My grandmother did not have running water in her home—when she married. She lived to see men walk on the Moon. That's dramatic. She died of a disease that is now routinely treated and I am alive as a result. That's also dramatic.
I enjoy and appreciate your writing and website very much, but have to make a mild rebuttal to your contentions made in your post regarding the pace of innovation.
It is true that the airplane you fly in and car you drive today are more-or-less evolved versions of technologies a half-century old or more. 1969 was indeed a banner year for aerospace, and we have not advanced past that point in terms of raw performance of the machinery in question.
However, technically speaking, the salient observation here is not performance of the machines but the fuels they use being the same over these decades. Oxidizing a hydrocarbon molecule procures only so much energy at so high a temperature, and vehicles like a 747 or Saturn V are essentially reaching the ceiling of what hydrocarbon energy can practically achieve in regards to speed or power. The Space Shuttle's H2/O2 engines reach the limit of chemical oxidation of any kind (unless we want to start using fluorine) in regards to performance-per-pound of fuel and oxidizer. It is that reason transportation machinery has remained essentially static since 1969 thereabouts.
One could invent new aircraft (stealth airplanes are good post-1969 example), but performance-wise one just re-invents the wheel with such exercises until there is a better fuel. Now, in regards to efficiency, we have become accomplished building machines at the high end of these performance envelopes with a reliability and economy far beyond anything possible in 1969 - mostly through integrating digital innovation that you largely dismiss (reducing such inventions to mere Justin Bieber delivery mechanisms) into these machines.
A 747 today is, as you mention, nothing new compared to 1969; but a 747 that can be flown by two people non-stop for 8,000 miles - and then land itself better than a human could - all while using less fuel than the '69 version did to go half the distance is pretty good progress given the raw energy source (kerosene) is essentially identical.
Well, in After America, I was looking at it from the point of view of an H G Wells-like time-traveler from the late Victorian era - in terms of 19th century man's conquest of time and distance (via electric light, the internal combustion engine, etc). As I said, in the first half of its life, air travel went from the Wright Brothers to the transatlantic jet. If you had said that the only progress in its second half-century would be improvements in fuel consumption and automatic pilot, those mid-20th century guys would have been more than mildly disappointed. Forget about me; it's not what they expected to happen.
I think you're absolutely wrong on cars. Technologically they are quite advanced from your father's car or your first car. Yes they run on gasoline (quite the most remarkably volume-efficient energy source ever) but they are incredibly more efficient and safe (if you crash). Other than that, I'm with you.
Cars: I had my first car accident in 1962 at the age of nine. After the college and I parted ways, I began repairing in 1974. And not being very good at it, have been the Boss for a lot of years. There is no comparison between the automobiles of today and the cars of that time.
Years ago, literally anyone could repair most problems on a car. You could "gap" a spark plug with your pocket knife. Now it requires vast computing power, special scanners, 4 line oscilloscopes and a technician (not a mechanic) who is adept at interpreting ohms and current drop and has wireless access to an online subscription service crammed with technology just to get the damned engine to run correctly.
In 1972, no one in their right mind would have bought a car with 100,000 miles on it. I gave up my last truck at 200,000+ (it is still in service as a customer loaner) and have 134,000 on my current truck. Yaw in-put, thrust angle, active suspension, steer-by-wire, brake-by-wire... it requires a lap top and and $40,000 dollars of equipment to do an alignment on the new cars. Something that I learned to do with a nail and a length of string. (OK... I lived in the sticks, but I'm making a point here) When I interview someone for a job, one of the first questions is "How many dollar worth of tools do you have?" Now, they all lie, but unless he has $80K to $100K worth of tools and three different scanners, the interview is basically over.
HAVING SAID THAT... in the 70's, a repair of $300 was a good ticket. You didn't want to loose a mechanic producing $13,000 of work in a month. Now repairs of $2000 to $3000 are common as dirt and if you don't generate $30k in a month (working a 5 day week) you are only average.
The automobile of today is remarkable, fast,fuel efficient over-engineered, too safe, expensive beyond words and bogged in a morass of technology. But,they run rings around the "classics". And they pretty much start when it gets cold.
When I wrote After America, I asked various medical types why we were no longer curing diseases, compared with the 1920s. And I got used to being told that "all the low-hanging fruit has been plucked". Angelo DePalma says that applies to other areas too:
You're being a bit harsh on innovation, or the lack thereof as you perceive it.
Take the automobile. Given the existing roadway and traffic infrastructure, and the abundance of petroleum, where exactly do you expect automotive innovation to go? Our cars are alleged to be much safer and fuel-efficient than your grandpappy's jalopy. Thanks to computerization they practically diagnose problems on their own. Were you looking for driverless cars? Flying cars? Cars that break the laws of thermodynamics by traveling 800 miles on a thimbleful of potato extract?
Ditto for airplanes. Accelerating much faster than the Concorde would be gut-wrenching, not to mention too stressful on such minor acoutrements as wings, tail fins, engines, etc. Or are you aware of a space-time warp that engineers at MIT are too lazy to harness for mankind's greater good? As they often say in the pharmaceutical industry, "all the low-hanging fruit has been plucked."
You poo-poo teenie gadgets but they represent one of the greatest innovations of all time -- 99.99% of which was realized during the last fifty years. Those iPads possess more computing power than was used to send men to the moon. Thanks to modern engineering, computing power density doubles less than every year or thereabouts. The miraculous improvements enabled by the microchip affects hundreds of areas of human endeavor, and tens of thousands of products from medicine to manufacturing, are no triviality. And the good news: It keeps getting cheaper.
Ever hear of biotechnology? This field, also less than fifty years old, promises (and delivers) medicines that are safer and more effective than anything in your current medicine cabinet. Not to mention enabling advances in food processing, crop development, fuels (still experimental, but yes, fuels), electronics ('round and 'round again), paper manufacturing, chemical waste mitigation, etc., etc.
There have also been revolutions in fields that are inconspicuous to lay people whose overly romantic (and in most cases only) appreciation for science consists of sending humans to cold, dark, totally inhospitable and forever uninhabitable places hundreds of thousands of miles away to score some jingo points. Materials, for example. Synthetic fibers, composites, structural materials, electrically conductive materials, light-emitting and high-frequency semiconductors (think cell phones), insulators and conductors, chemical vapor deposition/thin film technology and literally hundreds of other materials and materials processing methods have revolutionized our lives in ways that your favorite bumpkin from 1950 might not notice.
Unless, of course, he gets stranded on Mt. Washington in late autumn and, instead of freezing to death within a couple of hours, he pulls out one of those fleece jackets you can buy for $7.98 at Wal Mart and survives the night.
Newton, New Jersey
Patrick Griffin comes at that culture/technology seesaw from a different angle:
In your post on the slowing of human progress, you mention that cars haven't changed that much in the last two generations. I won't quibble about gas mileage or the computerization of cars because the point is well taken. My comment is that while cars have not changed much in their essentials (internal combustion engine, steering wheel, four rubber tires), the people driving, or rather not driving them, have.
I'm in my early 30s and when I came of age, driving a car free from parental restraint was a rite of passage. There was just something about the freedom of the open road, where a young man could go wherever he wanted, with whomever he wanted, as fast as he wanted - so long as the fuzz and his parents didn't catch him. Now the trend is for young men not to learn to drive until they absolutely have to. Instead, they sit in their mother's basement surfing the net or take the bus to the university for their graduate women's studies class.
And this is seen as the enlightened attitude of the feminist, carbon-conscious, young metrosexual. Progress indeed, if progress is defined as a kind of slow cultural suicide.
By the way, I appreciated the key chain and thank-you note for the gift certificate I bought for my good friend (who incidentally introduced me to your writings many years ago). I wasn't expecting it, so it was a very pleasant surprise. The fact that you did take a few moments to hand-sign the card is just another example of the kind of person you are. TPlease keep defending our rights with your usual wit and enthusiasm.
Patrick W. Griffin
No, it's I who should thank you, Patrick. I've been humbled by the overwhelming response from readers to the pushback against the Big Climate enforcers. But that doesn't mean that I'm not just as full of it as Mann is:
You're wrong (I guess you get that a lot). Let me explain.
You – and apparently the WSJ – and Mr. Vijg buy his measure of "inventiveness" as the rate at which "macro-inventions" come to the fore (apparently I'd have to buy his book to see his inclusions – the world famous Greenwich Library hasn't seen fit to purchase it, although they do have three of yours). And improvements to these "macro-inventions" don't count by his reckoning. And your choices of the 747, the Concorde, the Harrier, and the manned lunar landing wouldn't either.
It just ain't so. Yeah, you can argue that automobiles are much the same as they were in your grandfather's day. But back then they'd need an engine overhaul after 70,000 miles or so – if you were lucky – and diligent about changing the oil. And if it had a radio you'd have been deafened by the hum of the mechanical inverter changing the 6 volt DC to half-wave AC so that the transformer could step the voltage up to 90 to heat the filaments of its vacuum tubes. And it wouldn't have an automatic transmission, or air conditioning, or even safety-glass.
Let's turn your argument around. Of course civilization hasn't changed much over the centuries.
French cuisine was developed on coal or wood stoves and without refrigeration.
English law has existed for centuries and is the basis for American and Canadian law.
Orchestras play the same instruments that Mozart and Beethoven wrote for.
My point is that INCREMENTAL inventiveness is still inventiveness. You don't have to knock it out of the park to help the team (you have learned a bit of baseball metaphors, right? – or EH?). The thing of it is that it takes time and effort and talent to make these incremental improvements. And it takes time to recognize what improvements are needed.
Yes, people buy toys. But, they always have. You're a student of the music halls. Did Gilbert spend too much time writing "patter patter" and not enough time inventing the transistor? Were his audiences wrong to love his work?
I liked your "turnaround" of my argument - for a while. And then it seemed to me that your examples - law, music - work just as well on my side. That's to say, in art and manners the great accomplishments of our civilization are also behind us. We don't develop new orchestral instruments because there's no Bach or Mozart or Mahler writing for them. Now so-called "high art" is The Death of Klinghoffer, there's no middlebrow, and most "low art" you can make with a guitar, electronic keyboard and AutoTune pitch correcter. As for Common Law, we are "incrementally improving" it - via a bazillion micro-regulations and legalisms - out of existence, to the point where we have completely inverted core legal concepts. 1215, Magna Carta: "rights" are restraints that the subjects place upon the King. 2014, Obamacare et al: "rights" are baubles that the benign King graciously bestows upon his unworthy subjects. So, while impressed by the nimbleness of your arguments, I would say the examples you cite are also evidence of a society in decline.
In my original SteynPost, I noted that many readers reference their access to my columns as evidence of the innovations of the age:
After all, they point out from various corners of the planet, without the Internet they'd never have heard of me. Fair enough — if your measure of societal progress is more efficient means of Steyn distribution. But I can't help feeling there ought to be more to it than that.
Andrew McIlwrath thinks there's less to it than that:
Nothing so new about effecient Steyn distribution either.
First communicaitons satellite - 1962
First PC - late 60s to early 70s depending what definition you use
First email - 1971
First cell phone call - 1973
First data transmission between 2 different computer networks (birth of the internet) - 1975
Two other world changingly important firsts unrelated to Steyn audio/video/data distribution.
First poutine - 1957
First GPS satellite launched - 1978
Ah, now you're talking. In Montreal sometime back in the Nineties, I heard Bowser & Blue sing "The Night They Invented Poutine". Speaking of automobile improvements, a GPS unit that served up a great steaming heap of poutine every 75 miles would be quite something.
Finally, John Morzenti on the big picture:
RE: Your piece today "Where has all the progress gone?" Strangely, I've been carping on this same dismal point for the past thirty years at least, even enumerating the same examples you've listed.
Realistically, in terms of travel speeds, communications, crop yields, manufacturing efficiencies, and wealth accumulation there is a built-in limit unless we can devise a means of exceeding the speed of light and travel to other worlds and exploit their resources. Unfortunately, the theory of relativity would tend to eliminate that option and also explain why, despite the almost limitless number of inhabitable planets there are out there in our universe, we've never been visited by any other carbon-based life-form, the ravings of the oofoe nuts notwithstanding.
There's also a built-in limit to just how much "stuff" we can accumulate and use in our limited lifetimes, as well as limited space in which to put all the accumulated junk. I suspect that the world, ten thousand years from now, will look more or less as it does today, as will we and our living standards.
I'd have to disagree with that conclusion, John. As readers of After America well know, I'd bet much of the map will re-primitivize in the years ahead, and that our living standards will be the preserve of a few well-protected redoubts of civilization. Whether we'll reinvent our way back to the way we were by 12014 is doubtful. On which cheery note, pip-pip!