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Friday, July 20, 2012

No more acceleration of knowledge?

At Reason magazine's "Hit and Run" blog, Brian Doherty writes about Peter Thiel's recent public debate with Google's Eric Schmidt, and about how Thiel repeated his thesis that there has been a slowdown of development of new ideas in many areas of the economy. (This is also the thesis of Tyler Cowen's book, The Great Stagnation.) Writes Doherty, "Especially grim for those of who read too much Robert Anton Wilson in the early 1980s and began beliving in a "jumping Jesus" phenomenon in which our knowledge and mastery of the world would begin doubling in quicker and shorter increments, and whose retirement plans thus depended on the allegedly around-the-corner world of endless techno-wizardry that make energy production and matter manipulation as cheap as a value meal."

Obviously, some of RAW's short term technological prophecies have not panned out; we aren't migrating to space yet, or on the threshold for physical immortality. Perhaps RAW's thesis needs to be amended to note that the acceleration of knowledge doesn't apply to all fields of endeavor. (Cowen argues that the undoubted rapid development of computer technology and the Internet masks a slowdown of innovation in other areas, such as transportation.) Science fiction writer Neal Stephenson (another favorite of mine) has argued that we've failed to "think big" in recent decades; we could go into space now and do wonderful things, but we've become too risk averse.

Then again, perhaps RAW's point remains valid, even if the timetable should not be taken too literally; I  would think that advances in private space exploration such as the SpaceX company, continued developments in the Internet, biotechnology, green energy research, nanotechnology and other fields should be produce something interesting in the next decade or two. Could Thiel, Cowen, et al. be exaggerating the problem because policies that promote innovation are the most promising way to aid the economy?

Last year, I wrote a post noting that Thiel and RAW appear to have many similar interests.

Also at Hit and Run, Jesse Walker writes about the history of anti-Mormon paranoia,  noting that it has largely receded.


michael said...

I found all of this interesting, so thanks.

The link after Brian Doherty led me to a 404; I found the article at:

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Thanks for the tip. It's fixed now.

phodecidus said...

I began reading RAW as a boy in '03, then and now, I though of his technological predictions as 'supershots of self-fulfilling prophecy' rather than conservative estimates concerning things to come. Perhaps if we had more self-fulfilling prophets with technological skill and know-how, RAW's predictions would look all too modest in hindsight.