The Great Stagnation of Innovation

There was much talk at the Singularity Summit this year of the Great Stagnation.  The basic idea is that contrary to popular belief (among transhumanists), innovation is actually in decline.  Here is an excellent blog post about the Huebner study that showed a reduction in per capita patents since 1870.  I guess John Smart takes issue with the data sampling, etc.  I have my own doubts that patents are a good metric for innovation, but it’s an intriguing idea.  Sure you have the internet, but where are the flying cars?  If per capita innovation is going down, maybe Homer was right all along and we are a bunch of degenerates.

Peter Thiel has been talking about this for a while now.  He points to high energy costs as a failure to innovate in the energy space.  He mentions that median real wages are unchanged since the 70’s and that this suppresses innovation.  He sees the space program in shambles.  Libertarian Thiel even actually (sort of) attributes the Apollo launch to the higher marginal tax rate of the 60’s.  Well he concedes that the government had more macroeconmic control but exercised less microeconomic control.  (i.e. the Polio vaccine wouldn’t have made it past the FDA)

In a debate at Stanford between Thiel and George Gilder, Thiel expands on his ideas that innovation in the real world of matter has been outlawed driving all innovation into the virtual world of bits such as information technology and finance.  Gilder on the other hand takes a view that all fields will become subject to information technology and will soon start to see progress similar to that seen in the world of bits.  Kurzweil commonly makes  similar arguments when he says that biology is becoming an IT field.  As an aside, I know some folks in bioinformatics and the fact is that this field is quite rocky.  Job growth isn’t very impressive.  It’s one thing to crunch the numbers, it’s another thing to deliver tangible results.

So Thiel focuses on the real world and talks about how food production isn’t outpacing population by much.  And he loves to bring up the theory that food cost triggered the Arab spring.  I’m sympathetic to this, I see him coming from an embodiment angle with that.  He also takes some issue with the views of optimistic experts like Gilder and contrasts that with the views of average people.  The percentage of people who think the next generation will be better off than the last generation has steadily gone down over the past 40 years.  I like that angle too, it reminds me of Wisdom of the Crowds.

But I am always wary about these over-regulation stories.  First, improvement in communication technology must be providing a huge decrease in the pressure to innovate on the transportation side.  On the other hand I wonder how much easier it is to move goods around.  I know most shipping cost is tied to fuel prices which supports Thiels energy narrative.   But, we do see logistics operations like Apple, Amazon, and even Walmart that simply could not exist without IT.  Sure, personal air travel might not be faster today than in the 1960’s, but my MacBook air arrived at my doorstep from Shenzhen 4 days after I ordered it.

A lot of the huge progress on the physical side might just have been low hanging fruit and we may just be in the area of diminishing returns.  Gasoline’s energy density is hard to match.  The information theory folks like Gilder and Kurzweil seem to do some handwaving on the energy story.

Fracking might be a thing, but we have to see how it actually pans out.  I don’t blame people for getting pissed when it turns their tap water flamable.  These energy companies love to skimp on costly safety measures (Valdez, Deep Water Horizon, even pipeline monitoring. ) Those Yankees whose drinking water gets hosed by cheap concrete lining in the fracking wells will probably shut it down.  Yankees are feisty like that.

Another problem with the over-regulation theory of innovation decline is that we would expect to see better innovation rates in places with less regulation.  So why don’t we see Texas taking the national lead in innovation?  Europe is pretty heavily regulated and we still see plenty of patents coming out of there.  So I don’t really disagree with most of Thiel’s observations (on this innovation thing only, not the other crazy shit).   I more question the causal mechanisms.  I look forward to his forthcoming book on this topic, coauthored with Max Levchin and chess great Garry Kasparav.  But I am skeptical about any grand plans to change the tides.

I talked with a bunch of Singularity Institute folks about this at the Less Wrong pre-party and the Summit itself and opinions varied.  Some say the innovation slump isn’t actually a thing.  Some say that it’s a thing but it doesn’t matter.  Some suggested that it might buy more time to  develop friendly AI.

But what about the long, long term.  Say there is no Singularity and that innovation was merely a  function of population growth.  If we have population stabilization or even a population crash, will we see innovation follow suit?  In Incandescence by Greg Egan, the survivors of innovation crash are “mining” wire to make crude tools.  This is a common thread in SciFi.  In A Canticle for Leibowitz survivors create illuminated manuscripts of circuit boards.

Oh, but those are more technology crashes than innovation crashes…hmm…

Kevin Kelly makes a compelling argument about the nature of technology in What Technology Wants. This is a cool book that deserves much more discussion, but the basic idea is that new technology sort of springs from the existing framework of old technology.  He points out many inventions that were independently arrived at.  In some sense technological change becomes inevitable but also highly constrained.  Innovation is dependent on the underlying framework of enabling technologies.

So how are you really going to change that?

UPDATE 12/27/2012:  A DOE scientist I met a few months ago actually pointed out that energy efficiency does represent real innovation in the energy space in spite of price increases:

For one example: See figure 1.3 of:

You will see that the real price of lighting services has dropped by a factor of ~1000 over the last two centuries: the lighting equivalent of Moore’s law.

14 thoughts on “The Great Stagnation of Innovation

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  4. I have a different take on the so-called “innovation slump”. First of all, I have to say that I believe there must be one, especially in the United States. My reasons would include some of those you mentioned (e.g., patent rates), but I also want to throw in other evidence such as depleted drug development pipelines, piss poor progress regarding transportation/renewable energy/the environment, the rise of neo-conservatism, a total lack of workable/comprehensive policies regarding gun control, health care, public education, and any number of other hot-button socio-political issues, and the lack of significant artistic movements even within the mainstream (think shitty, disposable pop music and Hollywood’s inability to do much of anything outside re-package comic books as talkies). I proffer that our current innovation stagnation is due not to over-regulation, energy costs, wage growth, or any of the other things mentioned, but rather a rising tide of moronification of humanity by an utter dependence on, and addiction to, technology. Our future will be dystopian for sure, something equal parts Fahrenheit 451, Wall-E, and Gangnam Style music video all blended into one easy-pour smoothie that may be sucked through an extra-wide straw or administered against the will suppository style. Either way, it’s gonna upset the stomach, and society will wish she had taken her doc’s advice to get more fiber: she shits herself on camera, and it gets nine billion hits on YouTube.

    When it comes to technology (and by technology, I mean “high-tech”, which does not include biotech, nanotech, the wheel, fire, or electronic toothbrushes), I’m in the camp of the likes of Jaron Lanier, the dreadlocked author of You Are Not a Gadget, and Andrew Keen, entrepreneur, Berkeley professor, and staunch critic of “the cult of the amateur”. That is to say I believe that technology took a wrong turn somewhere, and internet culture and Web 2.0 are actually debasing society. It used to be television that was considered the great technological pacifier of the masses, the thing that parents would warn their kids would make them dull. Well, there’s this new thing, the internet, and its ability to blunt intellects will remind you of the time you caught your mother-in-law cutting up cardboard boxes with your Wüsthof carving knife, making summer vacations spent staring zombie-like into the boob-tube seem like literary salon with Gertrude Stein. Lanier believes current high-tech memes (Facebook, Twitter, 4Chan, etc.) are a sad realization of technology and what was once the future promise of the web – I have to agree with him whole heartedly. I mean, come on. If Facebook is the apotheosis of the web, what other conclusions can be drawn other than innovation is really and truly dying. Facebook, Twitter, and other services are nothing more than distribution channels for narcissism, so the bald-faced ape can hit a button and squeal with delight when he sees his likeness appear in the magic glowing box. These so-called “technologies” somehow tap the most primitive parts of our brain, thereby reducing us to rats feverishly pushing the reward button for continuing hits of dopamine. “Like” this. Tweet that. Think in quanta of 140 characters or less. Push the button, monkey, and the magic box will reward you with a little beep. Forget about books, essays, criticism. Hell, even the complete sentence gets absolutely ZERO respect these days. After a steady diet of Facebook, Twitter, and SMS messaging, the human brain can’t muster enough action potential to read a book, much less cogitate on advancing the human race. In Nicholas Carr’s Into the Shallows, he goes into deep discussions of how our technology addiction is dumbing us down, and he goes beyond apparent correlations and provides data from controlled experiments to support his thesis. It’s an important read for anyone interested in these issues, and I highly recommend checking it out. But be warned: after reading Carr’s trenchant criticism, you’ll never feel the same about your Facebook News Feed.

    So this brings me to the real sledgehammer moment of what started as a simple response to a blog post. Web 2.0 and “technology” (the quotes are a must in this case) are the true catalysts of innovation stagnation because sea change innovation originates from the brilliant individual, not from the group, and modern technologies, unfortunately and inadvertently, are turning us all into one giant, dumb herd. The glassy-eyed, technology-strapped members of the herd believe they can be musicians, artists, writers, and they’re right, they can be…just really, really shitty ones. But they still get to broadcast their mental feces to the world and gain a following amongst other dumb ruminants like themselves. There are so many amateur musicians, artists, and writers out there that our world has literally become inundated with the brain-farts of dilettantes; and this has led to the notion that all media should be free (web 2.0 enthusiasts even say that “data wants to be free”). Art should be free. Music should be free. All content and media should be free. And if not free, then at least very, very cheap. As a result, professionals in creative fields have become marginalized and basically unable to make a living at their craft. The pros disappear, and the dabblers take over. Even worse than the debasement of the lives of professional culture creators is the debasement of the art form itself. If movies, books, music, art become ubiquitous and free, then by self-evident logic they will have no value; and this is exactly the frightening destiny that we are creating. I posit that this notion of the dumb herb populated by professional amateurs can be extended beyond creative realms to basically every professional realm. We don’t need professional point sources anymore…we can just look it up on Wikipedia. We don’t need professional educators to be paid to teach our children…we can just find web videos with lessons on physics, calculus, and history. We don’t need real friends…we’ve got Facebook where we have hundreds of friends. Why should be pay to go to the movies when we can find titillating, free, professional-grade content like H+ on YouTube (never mind that each episode is only 7 femtoseconds long; just keep watching and eventually your attention span will so erode that a femtosecond will seem like a full length feature)? Just to top it off, the ubiquity of technology and the web have become so pervasive (Facebook is now the second largest nation in the world) that our collective dumbing down is done with no one (well, almost no one) even noticing. Intellect, like everything else, is relative, right?

    We are being assimilated (yes, I meant to borrow the Borg-ian term) by our own technology. Facebook and Google are Big Brother. The only innovation is the dull kind propagated by, and to some extent the only kind allowed by, the great un-washed, huddled masses. And the dumb herd concept is now a meme that has spread beyond the digital world into the world of stuff, which is especially frightening. An acquaintance of mine, who is actually a respected poet, recently went to the Maker Conference and came back with a little plastic geegaw. He was nearly beside himself with how cool it was that anyone could instruct a 3D printer to make something so amazing. I was thinking to myself, “It’s not exactly a fucking Rodin.”

    • Bert,

      First of all, let me say that you are awesome. I appreciate that you took the time to read my blog and post such a hilarious and well-argued comment. I think this comment is better than my entire post.

      I am familiar with Lanier’s work and we talk about these ideas at my futurist meetup a lot. I will check out “Into the Shallows.” I hadn’t heard of that. So I am sympathetic to your views and I will blog about this viewpoint further. That said, I want to respond to a couple of the points you make.

      First of all, while I agree that true advances are the products of gifted individuals, theses people are always embedded in a web of ideas. Even Einstein needed his circle of friends to bounce ideas off of. And even he stood on the shoulders of those that came before him. So, no man is an island. The internet enables lolcats, but it also enables scientists to collaborate across vast distances instantly and to search vast stores of knowledge.

      Secondly, as bad as media is these days and as dumbed down as it is, you seem to be focusing on the lowbrows of our culture. High art is continuing to be made. Go check out the MOMA. There are still serious artists at work. They are creating work that speaks to people in this time and place. It’s not fair to compare makers to Rodin. Compare Eva Hesse with Rodin and compare makers with uh, folk craftsmen of previous eras.

      I think that it’s ok for a bunch of garbage to exist. It’s even OK for a bunch of people to get wire-headed by Facebook. The people that can figure out how to unplug occasionally and properly manage their media consumption will simply outcompete those that can’t. Humans are actually pretty adaptable. They will catch on to these things eventually. What’s a better use of their time anyway? Maybe Facebook will lead to a friendship singularity where everyone is friends with literally everyone else on earth. It will be a mediocre world, but without war.

      I do worry about how quality content creators will get paid. I am especially concerned about journalism. I can only hope that discriminating consumers will be willing to pay for higher quality media at some point. Maybe things have to get worse before they can get better.

      Anyway, it was good to hear from you. I would love to argue these points further.

      Best wishes,


      • Thanks for publishing my tirade. I kind of got carried away as this is a subject that really interests me. Also, no one (and I mean NO ONE) I know agrees with the view points of Lanier/Keen/Carr, so I’m used to having to shout to be heard. I can guarantee you that I’m no Luddite (I love technology more than Napoleon Dynamite’s brother), but I fear that our collective willingness to blindly adopt technology might result in a future that in certain ways resembles an Orwellian dystopia. And the really disturbing thing is that it won’t be some tyrannical government oppressing the people. It will be all of us doing it to ourselves, willingly, gleefully. Of course the profiteers of society’s anesthetization will be the big tech companies – Google, Facebook, etc. And I could go on and on how web 2.0 is not really democratizing data but rather concentrating it more than ever in the hands of data oligarchs, so the illusion of an impending data utopia is well…an illusion. Andrew Keen mentions how Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO, stated that he ultimately wants Google to be able to tell YOU what you want before you know you want it. Keen also cites conversations with the founders of YouTube where he asks if they are concerned about the quality of the content on YouTube. They replied that it doesn’t matter, and as long as users are entertained, then YouTube is realizing its mission. These irresponsible statements from the leaders of our biggest, most influential tech companies pretty much prove that the #1 priority of these leaders is to expand the scope, influence, and profitability of their respective algorithms (they are for-profit businesses after all). In other words, your best interest is nowhere in their sights. I believe that a Singularity is coming, if not already here, but the result will not be a positive one for society. Human brains are becoming massively parallelized by the likes of Google and Facebook, but the end goal is not a super-intelligence to realize a society of beneficent ubermenschen; rather, the goal is to sufficiently be able to model human thought so that super-intelligent advertising/marketing algorithms can generate massive wealth for the algorithm masters. I just watched The Hobbit, so I can’t help think that the data oligarchs, like the Dwarves of Middle Earth, will dig too deep in search of riches. Smaug might be waiting for them. Anyway, I’m getting carried away again.

        To your first point about lolcats vs. collaborative science, I agree…sort of. Actually, I don’t think scientists are any more collaborative than they had been in the past. Having been steeped in academic science for quite a long time, I can tell you that scientists compete viciously against one another, and they are more political than anything you could find at Capitol Hill. Web tech allows them to communicate more quickly and easily, but I don’t think it has increased collaboration. However, the cataloging of all the data being generated by all the scientists of the world does provide unique opportunities to analyze large amounts of data. This is an obvious trend best described by the terms “big data”. However, I have seen that the style of science being done is changing, not necessarily for the better, as a result of “big data” analysis. Many groups are focusing on finding patterns in, correlations in, and providing descriptions of these mountains of data, but deep mechanistic studies of how and why things happen is being lost. No postdoc these days will get a faculty job because he/she elegantly elucidates a single biological mechanism; and so they don’t do it.

        Of course great art is still being made. However, its influence rarely extends beyond the walls of the gallery, in the case of visual art, or a small community of intelligentsia for just about any form of art, be it performance, music, visual, or otherwise. When was the last great mainstream music movement that affected all aspects of society from fashion to politics? Remember when that used to happen? Remember how grunge and hip hop transformed the way people thought? This doesn’t happen anymore because the free ubiquity of music has made it valueless. There was a time when a great visual artist might grace the cover of TIME magazine. In 2006, TIME’s person of the year was…YOU. The cover of the magazine had a computer on it with the word “YOU” on the monitor. We have entered a new age of narcissism where professional critics, taste makers, gate keepers, and moderators (in other words, people who know what they’re talking about) have been totally marginalized in favor of the “wisdom of the crowd”. And let’s face it, the crowd has very, very bad taste. Always has. Always will.

        To your point about some people being dragged down by technology addiction while others flourish, I totally agree. This will, and is, happening. Since the world doesn’t have physical barriers anymore, human social groups (in terms of reproduction) are separated by education, intellect, wealth, and so on. Another separator is developing: attention span. These socio-economic and neurological separators will lead to speciation amongst what is currently a single “human race”. We will have “alphas” right down to “epsilon minuses” just like in Brave New World. The epsilons, after their shifts are up, will stare into computer screens with drool draining from slack, prognathous faces, repeatedly punching the “like” and “poke” buttons on Facebook, eating Cocoa Pebbles and playing video games.

        All of this may make me sound like a doomsday prophet, but I can assure you that I am not. I strongly believe in the power of technology to affect positive change in society; however, there are some dismaying trends that hopefully will be reversed. Maybe you’re right: things will get worse before they get better.

        • Well, you bring up a bunch of points, but I am game. I do agree with a lot of what you say. Perhaps you have seen this Huxley vs. Orwell comic. I think we ended up with both outcomes. The masses are distracting themselves into slavery while Big Brother simultaneously sniffs every packet on the internet.

          However, I must take exception to some of the assertions you make. First of all, you should really acknowledge that while Google is certainly profitting from gathering data on everyone, they also provide this search service that is somewhat useful. Perhaps you have used it? Google has greatly amplified our ability to locate useful information. Billions of people are deriving benefit from this every day. I and a vast majority or other knowledge workers literally could not do our jobs without search. So yeah, Google is evil, but their search tool is a big, damn, deal.

          Facebook is harder to defend. I have a friend who largely agrees with your views and he calls Facebook the single largest destroyer of human cognitive potential on earth. I used to feel that way, but I have connected to a lot of cool intelligent people on Facebook over the years and my feed is starting to become truly thought provoking. And maybe a tool that facilitates social interaction is positive generally. Maybe. [citation needed]

          As for Keen’s disgust for crowd-source knowledge, it’s actually been shown that Wikipedia has accuracy comparable to Britannica. Also, I personally liked Surowiecki’s “Wisdom of the Crowds.” It can certainly be shown that the so-called experts in many fields have high degrees of variance in actual skill. So there are a bunch of charlatans with the credentials of experts.

          I also question your anecdotal evidence that scientific collaboration is not increasing. That sounds wrong intuitively to me and there is some evidence to the contrary as well.

          The cultural movement question is interesting. A lot of Hip-hop sort of sucks actually. What’s so great about glorifying the depraved violence and misogyny of the ghetto? I also wonder if there aren’t actually a bunch of movements going on that we just aren’t hip to.

          But the bottom line for me is this: When were the masses actually better off? Is it actually worse to drool while pushing the like button or to sit staring mutely at a fire in a surf’s hovel?

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