12 votes

The golden quarter—Some of our greatest cultural and technological achievements took place between 1945 and 1971. Why has progress stalled?

1 comment

  1. onyxleopard
    (edited )
    I don’t find this kind of rose-tinted view of progress instructive. To pick at one part of this, what if curing cancer (which isn’t a singular disease, despite the linguistic peculiarity of having...

    I don’t find this kind of rose-tinted view of progress instructive.

    Even if you strip out confounding variables such as age (more people are living long enough to get cancer) and better diagnosis, the blunt fact is that, with most kinds of cancer, your chances in 2014 are not much better than they were in 1974. In many cases, your treatment will be pretty much the same.

    To pick at one part of this, what if curing cancer (which isn’t a singular disease, despite the linguistic peculiarity of having one English word to refer to a huge array of diseases) is a problem orders of magnitude more difficult than the problems tackled during the supposed Golden Quarter?

    What if the low hanging fruit is exactly what was picked first? (This is admitted later, but then the goalposts are moved to rant about risk aversion, as if that is a bad thing.)

    Our cars are faster, safer and use less fuel than they did in 1971, but there has been no paradigm shift.

    Except for electric cars. Maybe making arguments is easier when we get to ignore any evidence that detracts from our thesis?

    The paralyzed still cannot walk, the blind still cannot see. The human genome was decoded (one post-Golden Quarter triumph) nearly 15 years ago and we’re still waiting to see the benefits that, at the time, were confidently asserted to be ‘a decade away’.

    Except, there have been breakthroughs in medicine that have solved some of these problems. Not universally, but gene therapy and other treatments have seen real-world application. Genetic engineering is a real discipline that has been feeding people since the 80s. We had Dolly, the cloned sheep in the 90s. The field is not stagnant (though we do have some regressive anti-GMO sentiments lingering).

    No one sells a smartphone on that basis today; the new ideal is to render your own products obsolete as fast as possible. Thus the purpose of the iPhone 6 is not to be better than the iPhone 5, but to make aspirational people buy a new iPhone (and feel better for doing so).

    This is a stupid way to look at progress. “Apple didn’t make any significant year-over-year progress in the iPhone! Innovation is dead!” Well, have you looked at the difference between the first iPhone and the current generation? You’re truly going to look at the difference between those things and tell me the first one isn’t obsolete compared to the latest one? Do you think Apple could have stayed afloat in the 13 years in between by selling the original iPhone and today, and then had the engineering talent, supply chain, and other resources to launch the iPhone 11?

    The problematic issue of consumer culture, such as the “keeping up with neighbors” is not a recent development. It came from the US car manufacturers in the 50s and 60s. (Oops! Right smack in the middle of the Golden Quarter!)

    Risk-aversion has become a potent weapon in the war against progress on other fronts. In 1992, the Swiss genetic engineer Ingo Potrykus developed a variety of rice in which the grain, rather than the leaves, contain a large concentration of Vitamin A. Deficiency in this vitamin causes blindness and death among hundreds of thousands every year in the developing world. And yet, thanks to a well-funded fear-mongering campaign by anti-GM fundamentalists, the world has not seen the benefits of this invention.

    Hold up. You were just arguing a minute ago that the discovery of DNA hasn’t led to any innovation. Now you’re going to walk that back just to explain how regressive policies are bad for innovation, rather than concede that innovation is not dead? And you’re not going to point out the totally unequal application of risk aversion when it comes to issues like anthropogenic climate change? What’s a bigger risk than letting our planet become uninhabitable? (By the way, we knew about the risks of burning fossil fuels during the Golden Quarter, so don’t try to spin that as some newfangled 21st century issue.)

    Apollo couldn’t happen today, not because we don’t want to go to the Moon, but because the risk would be unacceptable

    Bullshit. It could happen today. There’s just no incentive to do it. We tend to balance risk vs. reward (when we’re being rational). We have more productive (and technically more difficult) efforts like the ISS and sending robots to land on asteroids. They are also risky. And we still undertake them.

    But it could have been so much better. If the pace of change had continued, we could be living in a world where Alzheimer’s was treatable, where clean nuclear power had ended the threat of climate change, where the brilliance of genetics was used to bring the benefits of cheap and healthy food to the bottom billion, and where cancer really was on the back foot. Forget colonies on the Moon; if the Golden Quarter had become the Golden Century, the battery in your magic smartphone might even last more than a day.

    I call bullshit on this whole premise. If you want a cell phone whose battery lasts more than a day, you can buy one. If you want a smartphone with the most powerful and power hungry, latest and greatest processor, there is going to be a trade off. The trade offs that are profitable are determined by the market under capitalism. Battery tech is progressing along with all the other tech. Technological progress follows S curves. And their trajectories stretch over decades or centuries. Not necessarily some magical 25 year quarter-century. They flatten out before something disrupts and then they accelerate again. But they don’t all happen synchronously. Claiming that there was somehow some giant overarching S curve that has led to some great stagnation in 1971 just doesn’t line up with any evidence. This is a totally fallacious view of history, and this whole thing is an incoherent, poorly argued mess.

    11 votes