I remain, as always, optimistic about the future, my personal optimism being rooted in the fact that things really are getting better for everyone. Charlie Stross had a nice piece at his blog pointing out some of the reasons why, in the aptly-titled “Reasons to be cheerful”.
Prior to 1988, diagnosis with AIDS was essentially a death sentence.
Between 1988 and 2000, chemotherapy became available that was pretty horrible but made it more or less survivable if you were good at sticking to the treatment regime and had potloads of money (or your healthcare providers did).
Between 2000 and 2010, AIDS somehow turned into a non-fatal-if-treated chronic medical condition, and the drugs got cheap enough that even developing world countries can afford them; and despite the huge epidemic, AIDS is no longer killing more people than tuberculosis or malaria or the other classic hench-plagues of the grim reaper.
I’d call that an improvement. Wouldn’t you?
Oh, and we’re close to exterminating polio and dracunculiasis (aka guinea worm disease) in the wild. (Two extinctions I won’t be shedding any tears over.)
In other news of improvements, both China and India underwent annual economic growth averaging around 10% per year throughout the decade. The sheer scale of it is mind-numbing; it’s as if the entire population of the USA and the EU combined had gone from third-world poverty to first-world standards of living. (There are still a lot of dirt-poor peasants left behind in villages, and a lot of economic — never mind political — problems with both India and China’s developed urban sectors, but overall, life is vastly better today than it was a decade ago for around a billion people.)
The number of people living in poverty and with unsafe water supplies world-wide today is about the same as it was in 1970. Only difference is, there were 3 billion of us back then and today we’re nearer to 7 billion. Upshot: the proportion of us humans on this planet who are living in third world poverty (unable to afford enough food, water, clothing and shelter) has actually been halved.
[. . .]
Warfare … we haven’t nuked ourselves. It is now two-thirds of a century since an invading army crossed the Rhine, marking the longest period of peace in Europe since the height of the Roman Empire. Despite certain inadvisable excursions in the middle east and central Asia, the absolute number of people living in states in conditions of civil war or external warfare has dropped significantly since the previous decade, which in turn experienced a massive drop after the end of the Cold War (and proxy conflicts fuelled by it). It would be premature to hail an age of world peace, but we do seem to be fighting a lot less.
Our computers are about ten times faster in clock speed than they were circa 2000, but have vastly more (and faster) storage, are cheaper, and are crawling into everything from hotel room doorhandles to automobiles and TVs. My mobile phone today is significantly faster and more powerful — and has a higher resolution display and more storage! — than my PC in 2000. And my broadband today runs roughly 32 times as fast as it did in 2000. (Whether this is good or not is a matter of opinion, but at least it’s available if you want it.)
There’s been enormous progress in genomics; we’re now on the threshold of truly understanding how little we understand.
[. . .]
I’m sorry to note that most of the good stuff didn’t happen to those of us in the developed world — but the human world is indisputably in better shape overall in 2010 than it was in 2000. And what makes my neighbour happier without damaging me makes my world a better place.
And I think that the direction of change will continue to be good. Leaving aside what I see as a worldwide trend towards non-zero-sum solutions to long-standing problems that has only been slowed down, not stopped, by the global financial crisis, technology is going to continue to advance. Dan Gardner at Twitter called his readers’ attention to this article, Barrie McKenna’s “Has innovation hit a brick wall?” in the Globe and Mail, where a pessimistic approach is suggesting.
University of British Columbia economics professor James Brandery[,] in a new study published in the Canadian Journal of Economics[,] concludes that the pace of innovation is slowing dramatically in four key areas: agriculture, energy, transportation and health care.
The consequences could have a profound impact on our lives. The world’s great technological leaps typically unleash periods of rapid economic growth. Think of the impact of planting crops from seeds, the steam engine, the light bulb, the motor car, refrigeration, or the computer.
“Current and projected rates of innovation might not be sufficient to improve or even maintain living standards in the face of still rapidly growing population, global warming, and other challenges of the 21st century,” Prof. Brander writes.
His thesis is relatively simple. Look around at all the things you depend upon to live and to work. Prof. Brander argues that all the big ideas are already out there.
Innovation is literally hitting a wall, of physical and biological limits. Larger and larger investments are netting increasingly modest and incremental gains. We’ve all been living off the fruits of what our parents and grandparents achieved.
In agriculture, for example, Prof. Brander argues that the major leaps came in the third quarter of the 20th century during the so-called green revolution. Improved crop varieties, irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides, improved machinery and education – these all produced remarkable increases in crop yields. But growth rates are now slowing for most major crops since the golden age of the 1950s and 1960s, he says.
“It seems likely that this (relatively) happy period of agricultural surplus arising from rapid technological progress has ended,” writes Prof. Brander, who hastens to add that he’s not “predicting famine any time soon.”
Instead, he envisions an “increasingly challenging problem of generating sufficient productivity gains in food production to feed the world’s growing population in the face of major threats to the food supply system, including global warming.” These challenges include a world population growing at about 1.1 per cent a year, the diversion of corn to produce ethanol, and vanishing agricultural land.
Innovation in energy shows a similar pattern. Prof. Brander points out that nothing in the past 30 years has come close matching the impact of electrification – and that was more than century ago. The key advances since (photovoltaic cells, large-scale wind turbines, biomass fuels) have yet to make a major dent in the dependence on fossil fuels. Other new technologies, such as hydrogen fuels, aren’t coming fast enough to match rising energy thirst.
The longer the world remains dependent on fossil fuels, the greater the risk of “potentially catastrophic global warming,” he warns.
Prof. Brander is similarly pessimistic about the transportation sector. We already have the car and the plane, developed during a “period of revolutionary innovation” from 1910 to 1960. Beyond the space program, however, the 50 years since has been marked by “incremental innovation.”
I think I disagree. Even incremental innovations can have entirely outsized effects, since it’s not only the existence of innovations but their actual implementation on the ground that inspires growth. I recently came across an article in the Russian journal Global Affairs, Vladislav Inozemtsev’s “Nineteen Eighty-Five”. This article, mostly a criticism of Russia’s decline relative to an integrating Europe, a dynamic Brazil, and especially emergent-superpower China over the past generation. He made the point that technology and its implementation advanced in entirely unexpected directions, with huge consequences for the world.
In the mid-1980s, many associated the future of humanity with nuclear and thermonuclear energy, or space exploration, but it was innovations authored in American garages by the first computer hardware engineers and software specialists that were destined to determine development guidelines. Computer technologies were personalized and turned into a means of accumulating and storing information and of communication among people. Whereas in 1985 only 7.5 million computers were produced in the world, in 2000 there were 132 million, and in 2009 – more than 300 million. The leading makers of software, chips, computers and communication gadgets entered the top ten on the list of the most expensive corporations of the world (Microsoft held first position in 1998-2000, Intel, third in 1999, Cisco, fourth in 2000, and Apple, tenth in 2009). Apple’s capitalization in 1998-2010 increased 83 times, and that of Microsoft in 1990-2000, 297 times.
The computer and communications industry remained virtually the only one where products became instantly cheaper, while their technical properties soared: the average memory of a PC’s hard disk grew 1.2 million times from 1985 to 2010, and speed, 90,000 times, while the price dropped by a factor of 4-6, even without adjustment for inflation. The information revolution has spilled over to mobile communications and the Internet, making them the fastest growing sectors of the global economy. Whereas in 1985 the world fleet of mobile phones did not exceed 5 million pieces (it was on January 1, 1985 that Britain’s Vodafone launched the UK’s first mobile network), today they number 4.6 billion, and the Internet is used by 1.9 billion subscribers, or 27.3 percent of the globe’s population. The spread of PCs and the Internet eliminated barriers to the transfer of information, it virtually deprived the closed totalitarian countries of any chance to develop, and – more importantly – it changed the essence of the economic system in the post-industrial world. As new computer technologies expand, it has become possible – especially for people of creative professions – to sell not their labor, but finished creative products; in other words, inside the traditional capitalist economy a non-capitalist sector has begun to emerge, and we are still unable to gauge the effects of this development.
My conclusion? As Dan Savage said in a very related context, “It gets better.” It’s gotten so much better already; the state of the world is going to continue to improve in the years and decades ahead, notwithstanding our major challenges.
What say you?