Thursday, 4 December 2014

Did civilization splutter to a halt in the '70s?

Now, wealth is concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite. A report by Credit Suisse this October found that the richest 1 per cent of humans own half the world’s assets ... When wealth accumulates so spectacularly by doing nothing, there is less impetus to invest in genuine innovation.
Michael Hanlon thinks that innovation 'spluttered to a halt more than 40 years ago' and pins at least some of the blame on the direction the political economy has taken since the end of the post-war boom. We've sort of been here before with David Graeber's Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit. Like Gaeber, Hanlon also blames the de-funding of public research:
During the Golden Quarter, we saw a boom in public spending on research and innovation. The taxpayers of Europe, the US and elsewhere replaced the great 19th‑century venture capitalists. And so we find that nearly all the advances of this period came either from tax-funded universities or from popular movements. The first electronic computers came not from the labs of IBM but from the universities of Manchester and Pennsylvania. 
Graeber qualified this by noting that:
 ...the United States never did abandon gigantic, government-controlled schemes of technological development. Mainly, they just shifted to military research.
If  Hanlon's right and Graeber's qualification also stands, maybe the question is how come no people longer seem to be getting obvious trickle-down benefits from the military-industrial complex (jets, radar, ARPANET), that we got in the boom years?

Graeber and Hanlon also agree that dreaming big is off the agenda, due to the lack of space for blue-skies thinking, intellectual timidity and risk aversion:
Those thinkers most likely to make a conceptual breakthrough are the least likely to receive funding, and, if breakthroughs occur, they are not likely to find anyone willing to follow up on their most daring implications. [Graeber]
Could it be that the missing part of the jigsaw is our attitude towards risk? Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as the saying goes.[Hanlon]
And they both conclude that things could have been / could be so much better:
For earlier generations, many science fiction fantasies had been brought into being. Those who grew up at the turn of the century reading Jules Verne or H.G. Wells imagined the world of, say, 1960 with flying machines, rocket ships, submarines, radio, and television—and that was pretty much what they got. If it wasn’t unrealistic in 1900 to dream of men traveling to the moon, then why was it unrealistic in the sixties to dream of jet-packs and robot laundry-maids?[Graeber]

If the pace of change had continued, we could be living in a world where Alzheimer’s was treatable, where clean nuclear power had ended the threat of climate change, where the brilliance of genetics was used to bring the benefits of cheap and healthy food to the bottom billion, and where cancer really was on the back foot.[Hanlon] 
There's obviously a huge counter-factual going on here and there's only so far you can go in speculating about discoveries and innovations that don't actually exist in our timeline. Maybe some of the progress Hanlon and Graeber think we  missed out on is down to purely technical limitations and nothing to do with priorities and political economy.

But I'm still left wondering how much better the world might be, if the trillions captured by vested interests for socially useless speculation and rent-seeking were available for real-world innovation and whether, if the innovation motor really has stalled, anybody has any jump leads.