Peter Thiel (Creative Commons photo)
In many different articles and interviews, Robert Anton Wilson made bold predictions about technological progress that have not come true.
For example, the RAWilsonfans website includes a 1977 interview that predicted, “in the next 30 years,” developments that RAW said would include “the SMI2LE breakthrough – Space Migration, Intelligence-squared, and Life Extension.”
As more than 40 years have passed and we haven’t migrated into space and life expectancy in the U.S. actually has declined slightly because of drug addiction and suicide and booze, it seems reasonable to point out that RAW was too optimistic.
RAW apparently assumed that accelerating technological progress would continue unabated. He wrote about this expectation in "The Jumping Jesus Phenomena" in Right Where You Are Sitting Now.
In the last few years, a number of folks have been arguing that scientific and technological progress have been slowing down, including Peter Thiel and Tyler Cowen. This point of view is captured in Thiel’s quip, ““They promised us flying cars, and all we got was 140 characters.” Cowen wrote a book called The Great Stagnation.
Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex now agrees that tech progress has slowed down. In his blog post “What Intellectual Progress Did I Make in the 2010s,” he writes that he changed his mind about the controversy:
In the 2000s, people debated Kurzweil’s thesis that scientific progress was speeding up superexponentially. By the mid-2010s, the debate shifted to whether progress was actually slowing down. In Promising The Moon, I wrote about my skepticism that technological progress is declining. A group of people including Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen have since worked to strengthen the case that it is; in 2018 I wrote Is Science Slowing Down?, and late last year I conceded the point. Paul Christiano helped me synthesize the Kurzweillian and anti-Kurzweillian perspectives into 1960: The Year The Singularity Was Cancelled.
Cowen essentially argues that much of the "low hanging fruit" has been picked, and if you follow the link for "Is Science Slowing Down?" you can see Alexander embraces that theory. It's interesting to note that Cowen has swung more in the direction of Wilsonian optimism lately and believes that computers and AI will usher in big advances.
Of course, it is possible we’ll still get life extension, space colonies etc., and Wilson was merely premature in his optimism. I lean toward that. And the realization that a slowdown in technological innovation may be real did not become apparent until after his death.