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When I ask them, "but who will pay for your tolls in 30 years when oil is scarce and/or incredibly expensive?", they just look at me and say that some substitute will have been found by then....

Even if we did throw money at the problem, it's not certain we could fix it. One of the strangest portents of the end of progress is the recent discovery that humans are losing their ability to come up with new ideas.

Jonathan Huebner is an amiable, very polite and very correct physicist who works at the Pentagon's Naval Air Warfare Center in China Lake, California. He took the job in 1985, when he was 26. An older scientist told him how lucky he was. In the course of his career, he could expect to see huge scientific and technological advances. But by 1990, Huebner had begun to suspect the old man was wrong. "The number of advances wasn't increasing exponentially, I hadn't seen as many as I had expected -- not in any particular area, just generally."

Puzzled, he undertook some research of his own. He began to study the rate of significant innovations as catalogued in a standard work entitled The History of Science and Technology. After some elaborate mathematics, he came to a conclusion that raised serious questions about our continued ability to sustain progress. What he found was that the rate of innovation peaked in 1873 and has been declining ever since. In fact, our current rate of innovation -- which Huebner puts at seven important technological developments per billion people per year -- is about the same as it was in 1600. By 2024 it will have slumped to the same level as it was in the Dark Ages, the period between the end of the Roman empire and the start of the Middle Ages.

The calculations are based on innovations per person, so if we could keep growing the human population we could, in theory, keep up the absolute rate of innovation. But in practice, to do that, we'd have to swamp the world with billions more people almost at once. That being neither possible nor desirable, it seems we'll just have to accept that progress, at least on the scientific and technological front, is slowing very rapidly indeed.
[...]
Huebner has so far successfully responded to all these criticisms. Moreover, he is supported by the work of Ben Jones, a management professor at Northwestern University in Illinois. Jones has found that we are currently in a quandary comparable to that of the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass: we have to run faster and faster just to stay in the same place. Basically, two centuries of economic growth in the industrialised world has been driven by scientific and technological innovation. We don't get richer unaided or simply by working harder: we get richer because smart people invent steam engines, antibiotics and the internet. What Jones has discovered is that we have to work harder and harder to sustain growth through innovation. More and more money has to be poured into research and development and we have to deploy more people in these areas just to keep up. "The result is," says Jones, "that the average individual innovator is having a smaller and smaller impact."

Like Huebner, he has two theories about why this is happening. The first is the "low-hanging fruit" theory: early innovators plucked the easiest-to-reach ideas, so later ones have to struggle to crack the harder problems. Or it may be that the massive accumulation of knowledge means that innovators have to stay in education longer to learn enough to invent something new and, as a result, less of their active life is spent innovating. "I've noticed that Nobel-prize winners are getting older," he says. "That's a sure sign it's taking longer to innovate." The other alternative is to specialise -- but that would mean innovators would simply be tweaking the latest edition of Windows rather than inventing the light bulb. The effect of their innovations would be marginal, a process of making what we already have work slightly better. This may make us think we're progressing, but it will be an illusion.

This is, I think, a relevant factor to consider at a time when many of us (not me, since I'm a pessimist in the high-tech casino and am betting on the House, that is, on Entropy) are pinning our hopes on "major scientific breakthroughs" to get us out of the oily corner we've painted ourselves into.

as Appleyard points out

Of course, the end of the world has been promised by Jews, Christians, Muslims and assorted crazies with sandwich boards for as long as there has been a human world to end. But those doomsdays were the product of faith; reason always used to say the world will continue. The point about the new apocalypse is that this situation has reversed. Now faith tells us we will be able to solve our problems; reason says we have no answers now and none are likely in the future. Perhaps we can't cure cancer because the problem is simply beyond our intellects. Perhaps we haven't flown to the stars because our biology and God's physics mean we never can. Perhaps we are close to the limit and the time of plenty is over.

Waiting for the Lights to Go Out Brian Appleyard, Times Online.

His point is haunting:  as of today, it is a faith-based position that we can invent and innovate our way out of our present fix.  A reason based position taking into account the present evidence of collapse already underway, diminishing returns in just about every sector, and an utterly helpless reliance on a dwindling finite energy source (petroleum), would be gloomier.

I suggest that one reason for the decline of innovation is the ever-intensifying secrecy and vindictiveness of the intellectual property enforcers.  The patent frenzy creates, not a free market in information, but a highly obfuscated, controlled, and licensed realm where there is often more profit to be made in suppressing an innovation, or in the litigation surrounding the control or suppression of an innovation, than in promoting and encouraging innovation.  Our leading-edge  agritech [I say this somewhat sarcastically] as represented by Monsanto, is far more concerned with engineering scarcity with patent restriction and Terminator seeds, more keen on destroying abundance than on creating abundance.  The example of Bolivia comes to mind, where after the privatisation of muni water systems, the water corp attempted to make it illegal to gather and store rain water, again attempting to engineer scarcity in order to jack up prices, rather than to provide abundance.  The same Enclosure/control-based strategy in the "marketplace of ideas" can only strangle innovation.

Tokyo households have become so skilled at conserving water that municipal authorities are preparing to "punish" them by raising rates. The trend towards careful water husbandry is enabled by appliance manufacturers, such as Toto, Matsushita and Sharp, which produce washing machines, toilets and dishwashers that use a fraction of the water of their forebears five years ago. As a result, over those five years average water consumption in Japanese homes has fallen 10%, and water bills have tumbled, since most water use is metered. Consequently, Tokyo and Yokohama residents now face possible water-price hikes of 20%. (11 Apr 06 Economist Tokyo Briefing)
 [hat tip PeeDee over at MoA]

PeeDee further comments:

I didn't intend to be cryptic. I just thought it interesting to note that Japanese fresh water use is declining not because of a decline in well-being, but through an increase in efficiency, probably created both via both technological advancements and a societal willingness to emphasise the virtue of and invest in conservation. Secondly, the reaction of the economic actors which have invested considerable resources in a consumption model (more water is better) that may now be obsolete is to try and recover their capital investment via higher pricing, which in turn merely accelerates the societal change to using less water and possibly developing alternative sources (like rainwater). The illogical outcome of this cycle is to legislate to force consumption to keep the economy going.

We all know how precious fresh water will become. I think there are also implications here for energy consumption, and more.

The mistaken conflation of increased consumption with increased quality of life (when the opposite is probably closer to the truth, if there is one) is something that has to be remedied before we destroy our environment; but the impact on economics as we know it is not well understood. What if minimal investment combined with a cultural change meant that we could live (more) happily on 1/30th (the world average) of what we consume now? In our current paradigm GDP drops by 96%. What happens to the Dow?

[italics mine]

Most -- or a startling amount -- of our innovation and energy at present is dedicated to engineering scarcity.   The US spends a staggering amount of its "health budget" employing millions whose job it is to selectively deny health care to other millions.  It's not unknown for corporations to realise significant returns on litigation over abstract symbols (brand name lawsuits) instead of on producing actual goods or delivering services.

In a by-no-means atypical scenario:  small innovative company A comes up with a hot new product or method.  Large wealthy company B buys company A.  Hooray, we say, this means that Company B-for-Big will be able, with its hefty manufacturing and marketing apparatus, to get that improved technology out to millions of consumers at a lower cost, thus enhancing quality of life and advancing the state of the art.  But Company B may well find that it "makes more sense" to acquire the patents to A's product, shut down the working group that produced it, and prevent it from ever reaching the consumer -- because it would have competed with an existing Company B product which requires only minimal maintenance/cosmetic upgrades and is now a cash cow, whereas the newer/better A-gizmo would have taken real labour to get ready for mass market.  Company B has just prevented innovation from reaching end users, by suppressing competition and protecting their existing investment in the inferior product.

Duplicate this process over and over again in every field and you may have a credible explanation for the decline in innovation:  artificially limiting the number of brains that can work on a problem -- by hiding the source code, enforcing "industrial secrets," and demanding ridiculous extensions of patent protective periods -- automatically cripples the work of problem-solving.

When, oh when, will we hear the attack-opeditors of the financial rags sneering "protectionist neanderthals!" at the RIAA, MPAA, the patent-lawyer nexus, the gene pirates, and the rest who try to make a living from engineered scarcity and authoritarian control of the "free" market in information?

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Mon Apr 10th, 2006 at 09:01:16 PM EST
I'd add another strand to this (although I can't seem to dig out figures right now) which is more recent, but speaks to our ability to produce life-changing innovations.

There's been an increasing effort to shift "research money[]" from the public to the private sector. This is having enormous effects on the kind of research undertaken and indeed the way it is undertaken.

As a result, people who really understand innovation[+] theorise that the number of really important innovations is bound to decrease as ever more money is focused on (to quote from your quote) :

The other alternative is to specialise -- but that would mean innovators would simply be tweaking the latest edition of Windows rather than inventing the light bulb. The effect of their innovations would be marginal, a process of making what we already have work slightly better. This may make us think we're progressing, but it will be an illusion.

[] I say "research money" because the ways and forms this is occuring through are very diverse: Ranging from shifting out of directly paying for research towards "tax credits for industry," pressurising universities to commercialise their research at an every earlier stage and even fundamental shifts in the culture of large corporations like AT&T (c.f. Bell Labs.)

[+] Who really understands innovation? That's a topic for a complex diary, but as ever, I'd ask everyone to be suspicious of economists who invoke "innovation" as a black box that can neatly be incentivised by their usual means.

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Tue Apr 11th, 2006 at 06:52:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Oops, word to the wise, don't use the star as marker, else you get oddly bolded bits of text.
by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Tue Apr 11th, 2006 at 06:53:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I have friends who has worked with life-time-shortening engineering. That is to shorten the life span of a product so that the company can sell more products. The reverse of engineering for a better world. Wish it were not so.

Colman found me not so cheerful on The Future and this is the reason. Engineering is not working in some space free from the powers that be, free to work wonders in making processes less wasteful and more efficinet. And ideas are owned.

Another future is possible but one of the conditions is that the whole notion of intellectual property is stuffed in a wastebasket. And I working for such an outcome. I am after all a member of the Pirate Party. If someone missed it you are very welcome to  donate. We have just finished the ballots and all money raised to the end of this week will go to printing ballots (they are paper and we will need lots of them), 3 euro gives about 1000 ballots. There are no rules preventing international donations.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Tue Apr 11th, 2006 at 07:36:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The Work Less Party of BC salutes you, Pirate Party!

As our name suggests, we're for reducing working time. At the beginning of the 20th century, economists and humane employers discovered that reducing the hours of work led to productivity gains and was thus, in itself, a technological improvement. That's why I give workshops that I call the Work Less Institute of Technology.

But work-less technology is "BAD!" technology because the workers get to keep most of the gains from it. It's awfully hard for a corporation to erect a fence around it and install a turnstile. If left to itself, this "bad" technology would drive out "good" technology, such as scarcity engineering and life-time-shortening engineering.  So the economics establishment has waged a relentless propaganda war against reduced working time policies under the banner of the lump-of-labor fallacy. Funny coincidence -- all the neoliberal think-tank hacks know the lump-of-labor claim by heart.

Sandwichman

by Sandwichman on Tue Apr 11th, 2006 at 11:08:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Good points. I think there is a general trend here. The elites in government and the private sector have more power and inertia today than they have ever had to the point where the public can no longer cut the waste and decay from the system when it becomes extremely harmful to the public. We can't storm the castle and behead the king anymore. This causes a couple of problems when it comes to innovation:

  1. As modern governments become more rigid over time, innovation and creativity increasingly becomes a dangerous action in the "mind" of the government as it shifts from representing the public interest toward forcing the public to serve government interests. Increasingly certain innovations will be criminalized or rendered socially unacceptable. The same goes for people with creative personalities.

  2. Increasing complexity for each new generation of tech means higher development costs that can only be borne by ever larger corporations. The bigger the corporation the more risk adverse it will be, meaning over time fewer concepts will reach prototype stage with even fewer reaching production.

Suppression of new tech and the ability to force innovation energies into preserving obsolete business models based on scarcity come out of the above problems.

As far as the fossil fuel crisis, technical "solutions" will only accelerate our demise if they are aimed at preserving the current economic and social system. The changes required are mostly social. Very minimal economic growth, if any, radically reduced energy consumption, and probably a reduction in human population. Current innovation needs to be centered entirely around energy - either in creating it with renewable sources or finding ways to use less of it when making the products we will still have to obtain in the future - food, shelter, transport, communication, etc.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Wed Apr 12th, 2006 at 01:35:35 AM EST
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