Everywhere you look, you see smartphones and jet-powered airplanes, complex medical operations being performed and huge industrial machines that manipulate the physical and/or chemical nature of materials to give us the products we need. All of these are technological marvels, but not exactly groundbreaking; they’re just incremental updates over previous innovations. What happened to our innovative skills? How did technological breakthroughs stop being so common?
Michael Hanlon of Aeon Magazine talks about the decay in progress and inventions in his well-written piece The Golden Quarter. He conveys his thoughts with the following lines, which in my opinion are the best in the essay.
Yet there once was an age when speculation matched reality. It spluttered to a halt more than 40 years ago. Most of what has happened since has been merely incremental improvements upon what came before. That true age of innovation – I’ll call it the Golden Quarter – ran from approximately 1945 to 1971. Just about everything that defines the modern world either came about, or had its seeds sown, during this time. The Pill. Electronics. Computers and the birth of the internet. Nuclear power. Television. Antibiotics. Space travel. Civil rights.
He calls the period from 1945-1971 the Golden Quarter, for it’s scientific innovation and progress. But why has progress seemingly stalled in our times?
Every great piece of technology we have today is an improvement over inventions made during that period. It was a time of intense competition (the Space Race during the Cold War era), huge growth in GDP and living conditions and was a time when most innovation was funded by public money.
Put simply, there just isn’t enough interest in people today to invest in innovations. In our times, money begets money, so what is the incentive for the rich to promote advancements in certain areas?
It seems that the level of progress has reached a plateau, kind of. There are no huge upgrades now. Every product is just a marginal improvement over the existing one; take the iPhones for example.
A differing view
Some researchers argue that we feel a lack of progress not so much because it truly is there, but more so becuase inventors before us simply “plucked the low hanging fruit”. They simply had innovations at a level which was pleasurably easy; thus making it harder for us to make advancements; to get the high hanging fruit.
But no matter what researchers might say of the past, the fact that the über rich simply don’t care about advancements and innovations, mixed with the fact that companies produce products that become obsolete soon is a major cause for worry.
Humans need technological progress. It has always been our only edge against this unrelenting planet and the nature here, where everything was out to eat our ancestors. It was our quick understanding and wielding of technology, that helped us out from the Stone Age onto the Bronze Age, led to the rise and fall of civilisations with huge armies, gave birth to the Industrial Revolution and now is the cause of this booming cloud-based electronic age we live in today. Someday, it is this technology which will enable inter-galactic travel and hopefully save us from extinction.
But unless there is renewed interest on part of the public, innovations cannot reach the masses. So here’s to a more innovative, progressive future.