RE: The cyclic nature of time, and claims made about the "superiority" of present-day humans to those who lived in centuries past. But otherwise OT.
The one-time "futurist" Robert Gordon has written a book with the misleading title "The Rise and Fall of American Growth". However it is not about America specifically, and doesn't focus exclusively on "growth" in the traditional sense of GDP or geopolitics. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/31/book ... -were.html
It is about the technological progress of humankind over the last couple of centuries in general... driven, we must admit, largely by Western science and technological entrepreneurship.
It argues (quite convincingly) that the pace of science-driven technological progress that took off about 1870 peaked about 100 years later, and by that by 1970, the high-acceleration phase was permamently over.
From the review (linked above) of this book by Paul Krugman:
Robert J. Gordon, a distinguished macroeconomist and economic historian at Northwestern, has been arguing for a long time against the techno-optimism that saturates our culture, with its constant assertion that we’re in the midst of revolutionary change. Starting at the height of the dot-com frenzy,
he has repeatedly called for perspective: Developments in information and communication technology, he has insisted, just don’t measure up to past achievements. Specifically, he has argued that the I.T. revolution is less important than any one of the five Great Inventions that powered economic growth from 1870 to 1970: electricity, urban sanitation, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, the internal combustion engine and modern communication.
In “The Rise and Fall of American Growth,” Gordon doubles down on that theme, declaring that the kind of rapid economic growth we still consider our due, and expect to continue forever, was in fact a one-time-only event. First came the Great Inventions, almost all dating from the late 19th century. Then came refinement and exploitation of those inventions — a process that took time, and exerted its peak effect on economic growth between 1920 and 1970. Everything since has at best been a faint echo of that great wave, and Gordon doesn’t expect us ever to see anything similar.
As [Gordon] says, “Except in the rural South, daily life for every American changed beyond recognition between 1870 and 1940.” Electric lights replaced candles and whale oil, flush toilets replaced outhouses, cars and electric trains replaced horses. (In the 1880s, parts of New York’s financial district were seven feet deep in manure.)
Aside from its being an interesting story, however, why is it important to study this transformation? Mainly, Gordon suggests — although these are my words, not his — to provide a baseline. What happened between 1870 and 1940, he argues, and I would agree, is what real transformation looks like. Any claims about current progress need to be compared with that baseline to see how they measure up.
And it’s hard not to agree with him that nothing that has happened since is remotely comparable. Urban life in America on the eve of World War II was already recognizably modern; you or I could walk into a 1940s apartment, with its indoor plumbing, gas range, electric lights, refrigerator and telephone, and we’d find it basically functional. We’d be annoyed at the lack of television and Internet — but not horrified or disgusted.
By contrast, urban Americans from 1940 walking into 1870-style accommodations — which they could still do in the rural South — were indeed horrified and disgusted. Life fundamentally improved between 1870 and 1940 in a way it hasn’t since.
Now, in 1940 many Americans were already living in what was recognizably the modern world, but many others weren’t. What happened over the next 30 years was that the further maturing of the Great Inventions led to rapidly rising incomes and a spread of that modern lifestyle to the nation as a whole. But then everything slowed down. And Gordon argues that the slowdown is likely to be permanent: The great age of progress is behind us. But is Gordon just from the wrong generation, unable to fully appreciate the wonders of the latest technology? I suspect that things like social media make a bigger positive difference to people’s lives than he acknowledges. But he makes two really good points that throw quite a lot of cold water on the claims of techno-optimists.
First, he points out that genuinely major innovations normally bring about big changes in business practices, in what workplaces look like and how they function. And there were some changes along those lines between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s — but not much since, which is evidence for Gordon’s claim that the main impact of the I.T. revolution has already happened.
Second, one of the major arguments of techno-optimists is that official measures of economic growth understate the real extent of progress, because they don’t fully account for the benefits of truly new goods. Gordon concedes this point, but notes that it was always thus — and that the understatement of progress was probably bigger during the great prewar transformation than it is today.
So what does this say about the future? Gordon suggests that the future is all too likely to be marked by stagnant living standards for most Americans, because the effects of slowing technological progress will be reinforced by a set of “headwinds”: rising inequality, a plateau in education levels, an aging population and more.
It’s a shocking prediction for a society whose self-image, arguably its very identity, is bound up with the expectation of constant progress. And you have to wonder about the social and political consequences of another generation of stagnation or decline in working-class incomes.
Basically this guy Gordon has thrown cold water on the hubris of the tech-triumphalists for whom every new app, gadget, or startup is a "revolutionary" new innovation that will fundamentally make the world a better place. He says that on the scale of changes that alter the course of history, whatever progress really mattered took place between 1870 and 1970, and since then we're only pretending. No doubt things like Moore's law will provide for an exponential increase in processing power, data storage etc. but the whole focus of information technology is so narrowly focused and self-limiting (despite what the Apple/Google marketing people say) that it will never have a fraction of the impact on history, or serve as a profound driver of changes in the economy, in the way that radio or railroads or aviation or antibiotics did.
Why am I posting this here? Briefly, IF one accepts Robert Gordon's thesis, two things become apparent:
1) In relation to this thread, I wanted to point out that the teleological argument for a perpetually linear (or asymptotically rising) expansion of human ability and agency through the ages, on the basis of continuous and ongoing improvements in science and technology, is far from won. In fact, history almost certainly progressed in cycles, as our ancients have always said, and as Gordon is one of the few thinkers in the West to belatedly recognize. There were spurts of great advancement alternating with periods of stagnation and downfall. What Gordon argues is that the "downfall" doesn't necessarily come as a result of some great disaster (World War III, or climate change, or meteor strike)... it just happens. Like many organisms that grow in furious spurts and then become dormant, perhaps the capacity of human societies to develop is also self-limiting (and, at some point, self-renewing).It is important to note that this could have been true for our ancestors in India as well.
There could have been civilizations that collapsed into slow decadence without earthquakes or floods or drought or barbarian invasions as necessary *causes* of decline (such eventualities may have helped things along, but the decline may have occurred independently in any case, as it has with America).
Corollary: Saying "X must be so many centuries later than Y because societies contemporaneous with X had P,Q,R technological/agricultural/literary/scientific abilities while societies contemporaneous with Y did not"... doesn't hold any water whatsoever. Even in the last 150 years we've seen the West peak in terms of advancement, and then start on the way down, with no obvious identifiable cause for retardation or reversal.
2) What this means for the sake of the Strategic Issues and International Relations Forum in general: The USA (and its Western allies) have reached their apex, exhausted their capacity to make significant advances at the rate prior to 1970, and aren't going to see rapid progress anytime soon.
Today, other countries (including India) have a lot of catching up to do to get to the level of USA 1970 for a majority of their citizens. The good news for them is that the West is slowing down hugely; so that even if "developing" countries take another 100 years to catch up, the further strides taken by the West between 1970 and 2070 will be negligible compared to the 1870-1970 period. Thus the target for developing countries to meet in order to equal the West's standard of living is moving much less rapidly than it was 50 years ago, if indeed it is moving significantly at all.
So at some point in the coming century, ceteris paribus
, a version of the world where all countries have more or less equal standards of living that still look recognizably the way things did in say 2010, is more likely than a version of the world where some countries are in Star Trek reality while others have bullock carts and illiteracy. A great equalization is afoot. IF you accept Gordon's theory
But that is ceteris paribus. Among other things, Islam will be a great tool for those interested in the preservation of inequality to assure that this happens. But now I'm going seriously OT so will stop