Recently, a number of writers have grappled with this innovation slowdown. Michael Mandel wrote a BusinessWeek piece in 2009. Tyler Cowen wrote an influential book called “The Great Stagnation” in 2010. The science-Fiction writer Neal Stephenson has just published a piece called “Innovation Starvation” in World Policy Journal and Peter Thiel, who helped create PayPal and finance Facebook, had an essay called “The End of the Future” in National Review.
These writers concede that there has been incredible innovation in information technology. Robotics also seems to be humming along nicely, judging by how few workers are needed by manufacturing plants now. But the pace of change is slowing down in many other sectors.
As Thiel points out, we travel at the same speeds as we did a half-century ago, whether on the ground or in the air. We rely on the same basic energy sources. Warren Buffett made a $44 billion investment in 2009. It was in a railroad that carries coal.
The Green Revolution improved grain yields by 126 percent from 1950 to 1980, but yields have risen only by 47 percent in the decades since. The big pharmaceutical companies have very few blockbuster drugs in the pipeline. They are slashing their research departments. Keep reading . . .
The reference to Niel Stephenson called my attention. Science fiction writers join the debate [may be they can bring some good perspective, like or not some economics find strong connections between economic and science fiction, economists can find inspiration in SF as well]:
Niel Stephenson, profoundly, writes:
Where’s my donut-shaped space station? Where’s my ticket to Mars? Until recently, though, I have kept my feelings to myself. Space exploration has always had its detractors. To complain about its demise is to expose oneself to attack from those who have no sympathy that an affluent, middle-aged white American has not lived to see his boyhood fantasies fulfilled.
My parents and grandparents witnessed the creation of the airplane, the automobile, nuclear energy, and the computer to name only a few. Scientists and engineers who came of age during the first half of the 20th century could look forward to building things that would solve age-old problems, transform the landscape, build the economy, and provide jobs for the burgeoning middle class that was the basis for our stable democracy.
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 crystallized my feeling that we have lost our ability to get important things done.
So, how science fiction can help the economy, Stephenson claims:
1. The Inspiration Theory. SF inspires people to choose science and engineering as careers. This much is undoubtedly true, and somewhat obvious.
2. The Hieroglyph Theory. Good SF supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place.
[Snow Crash, a Niel Stephenson book isn't that optimistic, and he admits it].
May be Stephenson is right and we need to find optimistic SF writers to get inspired, at al least go back to the classics.