Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Our age

Interesting stuff on the excellent blog of science and finance maverick Scott Locklin. He argues that not much has happened technologically in the last fifty years, at least compared with the previous fifty and the fifty before that:
I’d go so far as to say that the main technological innovation since 1959 has been space flight—a technology we’ve mostly abandoned, and it’s daughter technology—microelectronics. Computer networks came a year or two after 1959 and didn’t change very much, other than how we waste time in the office, and whom advertisers pay.
On the other hand, the previous fifty saw truly revolutionary progress:
The rate of change between 1959 and 1909 is nothing short of spectacular. In that 50 years, humanity invented jet aircraft, supersonic flight, fuel-injected internal-combustion engines, the atomic bomb, the hydrogen bomb, space flight, gas warfare, nuclear power, the tank, antibiotics, the polio vaccine, radio; and these are just a few items off the top of my head. You might try to assert that this was a particularly good era for technological progress, but the era between 1859 and 1909 was a similar explosion in creativity and progress, as was the 50 years before that, at the dawn of the Industrial revolution.
I imagine every age has its narcissism: that it is extraordinary in some way, the worst ever or the best ever. We're told we're experiencing a dazzling and unprecedented period of technological change: not so much, it seems.

Politicians, in particular, love this sort of discourse: they like to pose as the visionary, placing our uniqueness in the grand historical sweep. Another claim I've always found risible is all that Bush-Blair nonsense about our living in unprecedentedly dangerous times. The fact that we live in an unusually unstable and dangerous world is part of the small change of hand-wringing newspaper commentary.

But even in my lifetime things have improved in quite obvious fashion. Just of the top of my head, we've seen the back of: the Cold War (more than half of Europe occupied by a hostile nuclear power); the Soviet Union and Maoist China; fascist dictatorships in Spain, Portugal and Greece (imagine that on your hols) as well as in a lot of Latin America and Indonesia; apartheid in South Africa; and Republican Irish terrorism. Incredible enough. But even more incredibly - and I mean virtually no-one would have believed you if you'd told them this 30 or so years ago - it almost all happened peacefully.

The viciousness of a group of inadequate Islamist nutters, whilst being something we could do without, doesn't really loom very large compared to a lot of the above. At least we've got global warming to hug to ourselves: we really are special, you know.


Brit said...

I've often announced (partly for effect, but partly because it's true) that we live in an unprecedented Golden Age. It goes down very badly, but we do.

scottlocklin said...

I actually believe we're living in a sort of silver age myself. Certainly I can't think of a better time for the majority of humanity. On the other hand, as a technologist interested in rates of change of technology and increases in humanity's power over nature, the present is pretty weak.
I compare our age to the reign of Philip the Arab; a nice time to be alive, but not a time of great cultural progress.

Kev said...

Interesting article, thanks for the link. As a engineer I should probably spend less time feckin around online and get working on this.

I agree on the political thing as well I've never gone so far as to call it a golden age like Brit but I've generally found it to be poorly received. I think people really like to complain and the position that "things are great" tends to undermine that.

Gaw said...

The Pax Americana's been good for us in material terms. But I think that in the UK there's been a falling away in cultural achievement, as well as technological, since the Victorian era. Nevertheless, internationally, the UK seems to outperform, perhaps a sign that everyone's been falling away somewhat. These are obviously ridiculously broad generalisations about very deep subjects. But hey, the PhD thesis will have to wait.