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Dim Bulb Waits for the Lights to go Out

Stephen and Phil team up to respond to Bryan Appleyard's lengthy dystopian screed in the Times Online, Waiting for the Lights to Go Out. Let the fisking begin!

We've taken the past 200 years of prosperity for granted.

So we deserve to be punished!

Humanity's progress is stalling, we are facing a new era of decay,

Really? Says who?

and nobody is clever enough to fix it.

Wow. So, should we give up now or...

Is the future really that black, asks Bryan Appleyard

Oh, so he's just asking. Whew. We were afraid Bryan might have an ax to grind. Okay, so let's get into his balanced investigation:

The greatest getting-and-spending spree in the history of the world is about to end. The 200-year boom that gave citizens of the industrial world levels of wealth, health and longevity beyond anything previously known to humanity is threatened on every side. Oil is running out; the climate is changing at a potentially catastrophic rate; wars over scarce resources are brewing; finally, most shocking of all, we don't seem to be having enough ideas about how to fix any of these things.

But he was just asking whether the world was "that black." Now he's telling us that it is. Has he already made up his mind? We're so confused.

It's been said before, of course: people are always saying the world will end and it never does. Maybe it won't this time, either. But, frankly, it's not looking good. Almost daily, new evidence is emerging that progress can no longer be taken for granted, that a new Dark Age is lying in wait for ourselves and our children.

Can't you just see the "Dark Age lying in wait for ourselves and our children." Looks like a 19th century woodcut doesn't it? This daily evidence - is there a mailing list? Because the news we're getting must be complete crap. You know, stuff like this.

To understand how this could happen, it is necessary to grasp just how extraordinary, how utterly unprecedented are the privileges we in the developed world enjoy now. Born today, you could expect to live 25 to 30 years longer than your Victorian forebears, up to 45 years longer than your medieval ancestors and at least 55 years longer than your Stone Age precursors. It is highly unlikely that your birth will kill you or your mother or that, in later life, you will suffer typhoid, plague, smallpox, dysentery, polio, or dentistry without anaesthetic. You will enjoy a standard of living that would have glazed the eyes of the Emperor Nero, thanks to the 2% annual economic growth rate sustained by the developed world since the industrial revolution. You will have access to greater knowledge than Aristotle could begin to imagine, and to technical resources that would stupefy Leonardo da Vinci. You will know a world whose scale and variety would induce agoraphobia in Alexander the Great. You should experience relative peace thanks to the absolute technological superiority of the industrialised world over its enemies and, with luck and within reason, you should be able to write and say anything you like, a luxury denied to almost all other human beings, dead or alive. Finally, as this artificially extended sojourn in paradise comes to a close, you will attain oblivion in the certain knowledge that, for your children, things can only get better.

We were loving it all the way up to "artificially extended sojourn." How does any of this paragraph serve as proof of looming dystopia? The fact that things were worse in the past somehow proves that things are pleasantly out of whack now? Why should we believe this? Proof please.

Such staggering developments have convinced us that progress is a new law of nature

There is plenty of evidence to indicate that progress is, indeed, a law of nature. If you define progress (as we do) as the process of creating patterns of increasing order, then progress dates to the Big Bang. This has moved from physics and chemistry to biology, then to brains, then to technology.

Microsoft is always working on a better version of Windows. Today's Nokia renders yesterday's obsolete, as does today's Apple, Nike or Gillette. Life expectancy continues to rise. Cars go faster, planes fly further, and one day, we are assured, cancer must yield. Whatever goes wrong in our lives or the world, the march of progress continues regardless. Doesn't it?

Simple answer: Yes.

Complex answer: Life can be tough. Some people never find happiness in love, or find a satisfactory career. Some people get hit by trucks and die young or live life in pain. Some people deal with depression or have other emotional or mental problems. And then there are the cynics that live a blessed life, but refuse to take any pleasure in it.

But while all individuals suffer to a greater or lesser degree, "the march of progress continues regardless." Appleyard actually paints a pretty accurate picture of the march of progress in his first few paragraphs, and has so far said nothing to refute that it is real.

Almost certainly not.

We guess he didn't want to say "certainly not." Sounds too certain. But "probably not" doesn't adequately communicate his level of foreboding. Let's go with "almost certainly not."

The first big problem is our insane addiction to oil.

Is our reliance on oil really an "insane addiction?" Petroleum is a wonderful fuel. A remarkable amount of energy is stored in this easily retrieved and easily transported liquid. It's little wonder that we've used it so extensively. Pumping gas might be a pain, but it beats shoveling coal.

Our reliance on oil is an issue that is being addressed. Hybrid vehicle technology is developing nicely. These hybrids need to offer a "plug-in" option. Then, hybrid technology will be a bridge to the next fuel source - probably hydrogen fuel cells.

It powers everything we do and determines how we live. But, on the most optimistic projections, there are only 30 to 40 years of oil left. One pessimistic projection, from Sweden's Uppsala University, is that world reserves are massively overstated and the oil will start to run out in 10 years. That makes it virtually inconceivable that there will be kerosene-powered planes or petroleum-powered cars for much longer. Long before the oil actually runs out, it will have become far too expensive to use for such frivolous pursuits as flying and driving. People generally assume that we will find our way round this using hydrogen, nuclear, wave or wind power. In reality, none of these technologies are being developed anything like quickly enough to take over from oil. The great nations just aren't throwing enough money at the problem. Instead, they are preparing to fight for the last drops of oil. China has recently started making diplomatic overtures to Saudi Arabia, wanting to break America's grip on that nation's 262 billion barrel reserve.

Oh, my. Where to begin?

First off, energy consumption levels are beginning to level off, even as real strides are being made in achieving higher levels of fuel efficiency. Plus, there's more petroleum trapped in shale rock than we will ever know what to do with -- and the extraction procedures are cleaner and less expensive than anything imagined a couple of decades ago. Appleyard gives away his game by asserting that problems are solved by governments "throwing money" at them. If that's how he thinks things work, no wonder he's so freaked out. Poor guy.

Shell Oil, on its own and without any government assitance or involvement, spent years slowly and quietly developing the shale extraction procedures referenced above. That procedure will come on line sooner or later depending on something that Mr. Appleyard has apparently never heard of...market demand. Yes, there may well be a rough transition from sweet, light crude to shale-extracted crude. But we'd say that it's pretty darned "conceiveable" that we'll still have airplanes and cars even if the easy oil runs out.

Even if we did throw money at the problem, it's not certain we could fix it. One of the strangest portents of the end of progress is the recent discovery that humans are losing their ability to come up with new ideas.

Jonathan Huebner is an amiable, very polite and very correct physicist who works at the Pentagon's Naval Air Warfare Center in China Lake, California. He took the job in 1985, when he was 26. An older scientist told him how lucky he was. In the course of his career, he could expect to see huge scientific and technological advances. But by 1990, Huebner had begun to suspect the old man was wrong. "The number of advances wasn't increasing exponentially, I hadn't seen as many as I had expected — not in any particular area, just generally."

Puzzled, he undertook some research of his own. He began to study the rate of significant innovations as catalogued in a standard work entitled The History of Science and Technology. After some elaborate mathematics, he came to a conclusion that raised serious questions about our continued ability to sustain progress. What he found was that the rate of innovation peaked in 1873 and has been declining ever since. In fact, our current rate of innovation — which Huebner puts at seven important technological developments per billion people per year — is about the same as it was in 1600. By 2024 it will have slumped to the same level as it was in the Dark Ages, the period between the end of the Roman empire and the start of the Middle Ages.

The calculations are based on innovations per person, so if we could keep growing the human population we could, in theory, keep up the absolute rate of innovation. But in practice, to do that, we'd have to swamp the world with billions more people almost at once. That being neither possible nor desirable, it seems we'll just have to accept that progress, at least on the scientific and technological front, is slowing very rapidly indeed.

Huebner offers two possible explanations: economics and the size of the human brain. Either it's just not worth pursuing certain innovations since they won't pay off — one reason why space exploration has all but ground to a halt — or we already know most of what we can know, and so discovering new things is becoming increasingly difficult. We have, for example, known for over 20 years how cancer works and what needs to be done to prevent or cure it. But in most cases, we still have no idea how to do it, and there is no likelihood that we will in the foreseeable future.

As someone pointed out a while back, measuring innovations per capita to determine the rate of progress makes about as much sense as measuring what percentage of the population is in the farming business to determine how much food is available. Some numbers seem to be related to other numbers without really being related at all. People who can't distinguish real numerical relationships from illusory ones are what we call innumerate.

Huebner's insight has caused some outrage. The influential scientist Ray Kurzweil has criticised his sample of innovations as "arbitrary"; K Eric Drexler, prophet of nanotechnology, has argued that we should be measuring capabilities, not innovations. Thus we may travel faster or access more information at greater speeds without significant innovations as such.

Huebner has so far successfully responded to all these criticisms.

"...and it's just too bad that space limitations won't allow me to provide any evidence of this whatsoever. But really, he responded to them. And might I just add, successfully, at that."

Moreover, he is supported by the work of Ben Jones, a management professor at Northwestern University in Illinois. Jones has found that we are currently in a quandary comparable to that of the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass: we have to run faster and faster just to stay in the same place. Basically, two centuries of economic growth in the industrialised world has been driven by scientific and technological innovation. We don't get richer unaided or simply by working harder: we get richer because smart people invent steam engines, antibiotics and the internet. What Jones has discovered is that we have to work harder and harder to sustain growth through innovation. More and more money has to be poured into research and development and we have to deploy more people in these areas just to keep up. "The result is," says Jones, "that the average individual innovator is having a smaller and smaller impact."

How precisely is this "impact" being measured? We pour more and more people and money into research, and what do we get for our efforts? Just a lousy doubling of productivity with even faster gains expected.

Like Huebner, he has two theories about why this is happening. The first is the "low-hanging fruit" theory: early innovators plucked the easiest-to-reach ideas, so later ones have to struggle to crack the harder problems. Or it may be that the massive accumulation of knowledge means that innovators have to stay in education longer to learn enough to invent something new and, as a result, less of their active life is spent innovating. "I've noticed that Nobel-prize winners are getting older," he says. "That's a sure sign it's taking longer to innovate." The other alternative is to specialise — but that would mean innovators would simply be tweaking the latest edition of Windows rather than inventing the light bulb. The effect of their innovations would be marginal, a process of making what we already have work slightly better. This may make us think we're progressing, but it will be an illusion.

The notion that the glory days of invention have passed because there are no more steam engines or cotton gins to invent is kind of sad. What a dearth of imagination these people suffer from. On the other point -- as Kurzweil has shown us, we are apparently "tweaking" our way towards an explosion of intelligence that will probably be the most significant developmental epoch in the history of the planet since the cambrian explosion.

Also, doesn't the fact that older folks are winning the Nobel prize indicate that people are living longer, with many more productive years than they used to have? How is this a bad sign?

If Huebner and Jones are right, our problem goes way beyond Windows. For if innovation is the engine of economic progress — and almost everybody agrees it is — growth may be coming to an end. Since our entire financial order — interest rates, pension funds, insurance, stock markets — is predicated on growth, the social and economic consequences may be cataclysmic.

Is it really happening? Will progress grind to a halt? The long view of history gives conflicting evidence. Paul Ormerod, a London-based economist and author of the book Why Most Things Fail, is unsure. "I am in two minds about this. Biologists have abandoned the idea of progress — we just are where we are. But humanity is so far in advance of anything that has gone before that it seems to be a qualitative leap."

For Ormerod, there may be very rare but similar qualitative leaps in the organisation of society. The creation of cities, he believes, is one. Cities emerged perhaps 10,000 years ago, not long after humanity ceased being hunter-gatherers and became farmers. Other apparently progressive developments cannot compete. The Roman empire, for example, once seemed eternal, bringing progress to the world. But then, one day, it collapsed and died. The question thus becomes: is our liberal-democratic-capitalist way of doing things, like cities, an irreversible improvement in the human condition, or is it like the Roman empire, a shooting star of wealth and success, soon to be extinguished?

Rome is still here. This is Rome. The Empire model of social organization ultimately proved unworkable, and Rome was a glorious example of the failure. But civilization marched right along, and we carried some of the best (and arguably some of the worst) pieces of Rome with us.

Ormerod suspects that capitalism is indeed, like cities, a lasting change in the human condition. "Immense strides forward have been taken," he says. It may be that, after millennia of striving, we have found the right course. Capitalism may be the Darwinian survivor of a process of natural selection that has seen all other systems fail.

Ormerod does acknowledge, however, that the rate of innovation may well be slowing — "All the boxes may be ticked," as he puts it — and that progress remains dependent on contingencies far beyond our control. An asteroid strike or super-volcanic eruption could crush all our vanities in an instant. But in principle, Ormerod suspects that our 200-year spree is no fluke.

This is heartily endorsed by the Dutch-American Joel Mokyr, one of the most influential economic historians in the world today. Mokyr is the author of The Lever of Riches and The Gifts of Athena, two books that support the progressive view that we are indeed doing something right, something that makes our liberal-democratic civilisation uniquely able to generate continuous progress. The argument is that, since the 18th-century Enlightenment, a new term has entered the human equation. This is the accumulation of and a free market in knowledge. As Mokyr puts it, we no longer behead people for saying the wrong thing — we listen to them. This "social knowledge" is progressive because it allows ideas to be tested and the most effective to survive. This knowledge is embodied in institutions, which, unlike individuals, can rise above our animal natures. Because of the success of these institutions, we can reasonably hope to be able, collectively, to think our way around any future problems. When the oil runs out, for example, we should have harnessed hydrogen or fusion power. If the environment is being destroyed, then we should find ways of healing it. "If global warming is happening," says Mokyr, "and I increasingly am persuaded that it is, then we will have the technology to deal with it."

Okay, now this guy makes sense.That "social knowledge" is exactly what we carried forward from Rome. But modern liberal democracies weren't the first social structures to carry forward social improvement. They were an improvement on nationalist monarchies, which were an improvement on feudal states, which were a scaled-down form of government that came along in the wake of the failure of the Empire model.

But there are, as he readily admits, flies in the ointment of his optimism. First, he makes the crucial concession that, though a society may progress, individuals don't. Human nature does not progress at all. Our aggressive, tribal nature is hard-wired, unreformed and unreformable. Individually we are animals and, as animals, incapable of progress. The trick is to cage these animal natures in effective institutions: education, the law, government. But these can go wrong. "The thing that scares me," he says, "is that these institutions can misfire."

Oops, spoke too soon. So people are unreformed and unreformable. Some "institutions" are inherently good, except for their unfortunte tendency to misfire at the hands of unreformable human beings. Wow. One problem with the "animals are incapable of progress" idea, though. What about that whole "evolution" thing? Maybe Mokyr doesn't believe in evolution.

We would assert that when our hairy little ancestors grew bigger and bigger brains -- primarily as a means of survival -- and started doing things like creating language, art, culture, and (eventually) science there was some massive animal progress going on there, not to mention a substantial amount of reformation of human nature.

[Two paragraphs of tinfoil-hat political paranoia not worthy of being published anywhere, but certainly not fit for discussion on the Speculist omitted.]

The further point is that capitalism is one thing, globalisation another. The current globalisation wave was identified in the 1970s.

[Another paragraph of highly arguable crapola about globalization omitted.]

Progress is built on very fragile foundations.

Or perhaps it never happens at all. John Gray, professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, is the most lucid advocate of the view that progress is an illusion. People, he says, are "overimpressed by present reality" and assume, on the basis of only a couple of centuries of history, that progress is eternal. In his book Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern, he argues that human nature is flawed and incorrigible, and its flaws will be embodied in whatever humans make. Joel Mokyr's institutions, therefore, do not rise above human nature: they embody it. Science, for Gray, does indeed accumulate knowledge. But that has the effect of empowering human beings to do at least as much damage as good. His book argues that, far from being a medieval institution as many have suggested, Al-Qaeda is a supremely modern organisation, using current technology and management theory to spread destruction. Modernity does not make us better, it just makes us more effective. We may have anaesthetic dentistry, but we also have nuclear weapons. We may or may not continue to innovate. It doesn't matter, because innovation will only enable us to do more of what humans do. In this view, all progress will be matched by regress. In our present condition, this can happen in two ways. Either human conflict will produce a new ethical decline, as it did in Germany and Russia, or our very commitment to growth will turn against us.

Al Qaeda may be a modern organization, but last time I checked they were losing. The truth is that all progress must contend with and overcome potential regress. If there was equal "regress" for every isntance of progress we would never have accomplished anything. The fact that more people in the world today are free, literate, healthy, etc. than at any time in the past indicates that progress currently has the upper hand.

[Long section on torture omitted. Other blogs debate this issue; we don't.]

Progress, therefore, is faltering but, on aggregate, it moves in the right direction. Hitler was defeated and judicial torture may, in time, defeat terrorism. We just have to accept that three steps forward also involves two steps back. The point is to keep the faith.

Appleyard finally gets something more or less right.

But what if it is just faith? What if the very "fact" of progress is ultimately self-destructive?

Dang, spoke too soon again.

There are many ways in which this might turn out to be true. First, the human population is continuing to rise exponentially. It is currently approaching 6.5 billion, in 1900 it was 1.65 billion, in 1800 it was around a billion, in 1500 it was 500m. The figures show that economic and technological progress is loading the planet with billions more people. By keeping humans alive longer and by feeding them better, progress is continually pushing population levels.

Wrong. Population was growing exponentially for some time, it's true. And it is still growing. But not only is the human population not increasing exponentially, growth is slowing to the point that we may actually see a decline in population beginning this century.

With population comes pollution. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that global warming caused by human activity is happening.

Omitting the rest of Appleyard's contentious rhetoric about global warming, we refer him to Michael Crichton's thoughts on the dangers of consensus science.

In addition, antibiotic drugs are currently failing through overuse. No new generation of medicines is likely to be available to replace them in the near future. People may soon be dying again from sore throats and minor cuts. The massive longevity increase in the 20th century may soon begin to reverse itself.

The failing of anitbiotics is a true risk. We will chalk exactly one point up to Appleyard and his case for the end of the world.

Joel Mokyr's response to all this is that our open-knowledge societies will enable these problems to be solved. John Gray replies: "This is faith, not science." We believe we can fix things, but we can't be sure. And if we can't, then the Earth will fix them herself, flicking the human species into oblivion in the process.

Oh, but railing on about how it's all useless and everything is going to fail, now that's science. As Dr. Evil would say:


Of course, the end of the world has been promised by Jews, Christians, Muslims and assorted crazies with sandwich boards for as long as there has been a human world to end. But those doomsdays were the product of faith; reason always used to say the world will continue. The point about the new apocalypse is that this situation has reversed. Now faith tells us we will be able to solve our problems; reason says we have no answers now and none are likely in the future.

Slight typo in that last sentence. Instead of "reason," we think he meant to say "a poorly assembled collection of hysterical and ill-informed assumptions." But, heck, that's almost as good as reason.

Perhaps we can't cure cancer because the problem is simply beyond our intellects. Perhaps we haven't flown to the stars because our biology and God's physics mean we never can. Perhaps we are close to the limit and the time of plenty is over.

Whoa, dude. Heavy. Oh, wait, we have a response.

Perhaps we have more effective treatments for cancer than ever before. Perhaps, having been to the moon 35 years ago and having just witnessed space travel fall under the guidance of private entities for the first time, we are in fact well on our way to the stars. Perhaps we are close to the true beginning, about to enter a time of plenty unlike anything we've ever imagined.

The evidence is mounting that our two sunny centuries of growth and wealth may end in a new Dark Age in which ignorance will replace knowledge, war will replace peace, sickness will replace health and famine will replace obesity. You don't think so? It's always happened in the past. What makes us so different? Nothing, I'm afraid.

Yep, it's always happened that way in the past. Human history has been one long, unbroken zero-sum game. That's why we're still in the trees, just imagining all this other stuff.

We will not bother dealing with any more of Appleyard's rantings, nor his suggestions as to what must to be done to keep the world a livable place. Read the rest of his lengthy piece for your own amusement if you choose. The fact that it centers around creating something he refers to as "the Cuban ideal" should pretty much speak for itself.


I, for one, am delighted to see that the historic links between sensationalist Yellow Journalism and Cuba remain unbroken in over a century of use.

While the 'all is vanity' refrain is one that crops up with distressing regularity, (I suspect that there are distinct evolutionary advantages to such "don't get out of the trees" instincts, under the appropriate circumstances.) it is just the kind of sustained technological and social progress that Mr. Appleyard decries, from planned irrigation in Mesopotamia, to writing, printing, and general education, that even allow us to be collectively aware that ours is not the first generation to have members that feel this way.

I'm almost sorry that you guys spent such effort countering this 'argument'. The most serious response it deserves is bumper-sticker positivism: "The meek shall inherit the Earth...as for the rest of us we're going to the stars!"

Space exploration has all but ground to a halt.

Let that phrase roll around inside your mouth for a bit.

One site - JPL - lists twenty-two missions involving space craft. A few more involving ground facilities. I won't bother listing ESA, Japanese, Russia efforts; you get the point.

Gloomy pessimisim is one thing. Willful ignorance is just sad.

I'm impressed by the fact that it took Jonathan Huebner only five years to decide that progress was slowing.

Climate change, running out of oil... whaaaa!! and of course he imagines no one is doing anything about it or that this happening automatically means we're doomed. sigh. I think he also bemoans the lack of inventors, but apparantly the author has missed the invention of inventing (read: science). The kind of people who would have been in startups / inventors are now in engineering or any other kind of science.

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