On December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers achieved a 12-second, 120-foot flight. Within about half a century, we were flying to Europe in eight hours. After a further half century, we’re doing it in . . . eight hours. Meantime, the Concorde, that could do it in three, was abandoned.
So has progress actually juddered to a halt? Michael Hanlon, writing recently in Aeon, says yes. He sees a “Golden Quarter” (GQ) from about 1945 to 1971 as the source of all the innovations defining the modern world, with nothing comparable since. Airplanes are Exhibit A; only marginally improved since the ‘60s, with no quantum leap analogous to that between the Wright Flyer and the Boeing 707. The Jetsons’ flying car never materialized. The Moon hasn’t been visited in 42 years. Similarly, in medicine, Hanlon puts all the world-changing advancements behind us, with continuing longevity gains being merely attributable to building on those past breakthroughs. We still haven’t cured cancer. Even social progress, he says, was great in the GQ, with nothing like it since.
Why? Hanlon proposes various answers. One is . . . wait for it . . . rising inequality. Progressives are obsessed over this, trying to prove inequality causes all manner of ills. Hanlon attributes the GQ innovation to a world getting richer, but says concentrating wealth in few hands somehow stifles innovation and breeds “planned obsolescence” of products instead. That linkage seems obscure; and anyway, while inequality within countries may be rising, worldwide it’s a different story, because the poorer nations – notably India and China, both huge – are experiencing faster economic growth than the advanced ones. Thus, far more people have far more income and wealth today.
More persuasive is Hanlon’s saying we’ve become less trusting of science and more risk-averse. An earlier generation was in love with technological and medical improvements, remembering how bad things were before. Today we forget, and even romanticize “the good old days.” There’s a belief that science and technology are false gods leading us astray, and a frightened focus on risks rather than rewards; thus a “precautionary principle” that rejects anything not proven riskless, an impossible standard. This gives us the misguided anti-immunization movement, opposition to fracking, and to Genetic Modification that could entail huge benefits for billions. Hanlon thinks a manned Moon mission would be considered too dangerous today.*
He also cites a 2011 essay, The Great Stagnation, by economist Tyler Cowen, suggesting that the U.S. in particular has reached a technological plateau. Cowen thought past advances were grabbing “low hanging fruit,” and further progress is simply much harder. But Hanlon actually rejects that idea as “fanciful,” saying that historically, “it has often seemed that a plateau has been reached, only for a new discovery to shatter old paradigms completely.” He cites Kelvin in 1900 declaring physics essentially done – just before Einstein came along. (Perhaps an odd point to make in an article contending progress has stalled.)
I’m no physicist, but I do think we’ve now reached a point where nothing could “shatter old paradigms completely.” The “low hanging fruit” metaphor also seems applicable to Hanlon’s prime exhibit, air travel. Not that jet planes aren’t a technological miracle – but, for moving lots of people long distances, this may be about the best that’s practicable, and any greater speed would entail a host of problems. We gave up on the Concorde for good reasons. And never got flying cars because that’s actually not a very good idea either.**
This perspective prompts a broader response to Hanlon – a la “what more do you want?” We can travel to Europe in eight hours! Moreover, as Hanlon actually acknowledges, that’s become affordable to ordinary people. (Which happened after the GQ.) Similarly, social progress has been enormous – civil rights, women’s liberation, etc. – also mostly subsequent to the GQ – and is still unfolding for gay rights. Violence (as Steven Pinker has persuasively shown), of all sorts, continues to decline. We may not be perfect yet, but surely there’s a lot less work still to do.
But none of this means progress, in all its manifestations, has fizzled out, and Hanlon has to twist things hard to make it seem so. While early on he sneers that progress today “is defined almost entirely by consumer-driven, often banal improvements to information technology,” later he allows that “the modern internet is a wonder, more impressive in many ways than Apollo.” The Internet too postdated the GQ.
Hanlon is ultimately a victim of a myopia he himself describes. It is indeed easy to take for granted and belittle modern amenities, forgetting what went before. It’s what Barry Schwartz, in The Paradox of Choice, called the adaptation effect – one adapts to the life one has now, which does seem banal, underappreciated as merely what one now expects. Day-to-day, or even year-to-year, progress may not seem evident. But if you compare today with 1971 – the end of Hanlon’s Golden Quarter – the difference is huge on a host of fronts.
And while “what more do you want?” may be a fair perspective on modernity, there are still big things we can yet aim for. We won’t blow ourselves up, or be done in by climate change. For all the fretting over that and rising inequality, I actually foresee steady economic advancement and a global mass affluence that will truly constitute a quantum change in the human condition. Similarly transformative will be further progress on health. Death by old age is a solvable medical problem.
Finally, all this improvement will be propelled by advancing artificial intelligence. That looms as a stupendous game-changer – Ray Kurzweil’s “singularity” when life becomes altogether different. Stephen Hawking actually worries this threatens humanity (and I recently reviewed a movie with that view). I’m more optimistic, and foresee an eventual convergence between Humanity 1.0, of the flesh, and a cybernetic version 2.0.
I discussed this in my famous 2013 Humanist magazine article, The Human Future: Upgrade or Replacement? And if anyone in that future remembers the Hanlon article, it’ll quaintly sound like Kelvin in 1900.
* He aptly notes that the thalidomide episode was awful, but such occasional screw-ups are the inevitable costs of trying out new things, the benefits of which exceed such downsides. That perspective is being lost, an attitudinal change to which Thalidomide contributed.
** But self-driving cars are coming.