Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Conning ourselves

The slowing in innovation is not merely a hypothesis, intuition, or vague impression. 
Jonathan Huebner has made a case for the concept of peak innovation using quantative measures.
His paper examines the number of technological innovations in relation to population size since the 1450s and reaches the flabbergasting result that innovation peaked in 1873 and that within a few years, the rate of contemporary innovation will drop to levels not seen since the Middle Ages. 
There may be inaccuracies in using patents as proxies for innovation, but the results are so marked that they at least suggest an overall trend. 
In the abstract, Huebner is therefore able to draw an astounding statistical conclusion: "
We are at an estimated 85% of the economic limit of technology, and it is projected that we will reach 90% in 2018 and 95% in 2038."
Not unlike with oil, it would seem that the low-hanging fruits of research have been taken. 
The remaining breakthroughs in science will take longer to attain and involve more extensive funding and regard ever more esoteric subjects. 
This can be seen, for example, in the age of Nobel Prize winneres. 
They have been getting older and older over the last many decades, suggesting that scientific results take longer to reach. 
For instance, the winners of the 2010 Nobel Prize in economics were 62, 70, and 71 years old, while conventional wisdom would have it that 50 years of age was an upper limit.
It seems that a technological solution to the challenges facing modern consumer society and its high energy lifestyles is happening in a circumstance where outlooks for innovation are very bleak indeed. 
We are facing the prospects of fewer breakthroughs, which require longer time for development, need more funding and will be less useful when completed. 
Over and against this, universities across the globe are facing severe cut-backs all the while bibliometric management principles have drawn efforts away from basic research and directed them into knowledge dissemination in conservative peer-reviewed journals. 
In fact, one issue here could be the inherent conservatism of the peer-review process, which consistently rejects ground breaking research.
Vested interest in given theories and schools of thought counters the process of "conjectures and refutations" that science lives by and slows innovation even further by reducing everything to what Kuhn calls 'normal science' rather than challenging paradigms.
So, how do we account for the discrepancy between popular conceptions about the rate of innovation and reality? 
Firstly, there is a general confluence of true innovation and gimmickry. 
Go-faster stripes on a cellphone hardly constitute a radical new breakthrough. 
In fact, modern life has developed into an age of illusion, valuing spectacle and fantasy more than reality.
Ever more efforts are spent on creating virtual innovation: new fantasies, new computer games, new special effects in movies, "reality" shows, political spin. 
These create the illusion of movement, while the technology supporting the real, physical basis for life has not changed, merely been ignored. 
Mankind is stuck in a highly entertaining hamster wheel and is running out of energy.
Being conditioned by computers, movies, malls, ads, and TV, many accept the seemingly magical appearance of food, clothes, water, heating, and electricity without any real knowledge about the more fundamental reality -- 
The enormous and hidden infrastructure  
Which sustains people. 
Many have simply learnt to suspend their disbelief, that very questioning ability, which drove Bronowski's primitive apes to pick up tools millions of years ago and resulted in the theory of relativity more than a hundred years hence. 
This suspending of disbelief numbs the faculties, which we employ when seeking deeper understanding of the natural world, which sustains us.
This conditioning is so extensive and powerful that many are even able to suspend disbelief in arguments that defy logic. 
Such as those that claim that exponential growth can continue indefinitely in a closed system.
Thomas Derek Robinson

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