Exploring the Stagnation Hypothesis

The stagnation hypothesis, the idea that we have seen steady decline across science and technology over the last 50 years or so is increasingly gaining ground and becoming mainstream:

Thiel, along with economists such as Tyler Cowen (The Great Stagnation) and Robert Gordon (The Rise and Fall of American Growth), promotes a “stagnation hypothesis”: that there has been a significant slowdown in scientific, technological, and economic progress in recent decades—say, for a round number, since about 1970, or the last ~50 years.

Jason Crawford, Roots of Progress

This hypothesis is important for everything from how and if tech should be regulated to what kind of economy our grandchildren can expect to live through. But the hypothesis, as it stands, is hard to test and hard to find good metrics for. A generally sinking GDP (as referenced by Jason in the post linked above) is certainly an indicator, but is it enough to show that we have technological stagnation? Tyler Cowen and others have suggested that we may be living through a period of human stagnation (in my reading) and that the challenge is not so much that technology cannot progress anymore for some unknown reason, as that we have ceased to be hungry for the future. One way to phrase this is to say that we have shifted from viewing the world as uncertain to viewing it as manageable risk and this means that we do not value progress as much as we used to. The pandemic is a good reminder that this is a mistake, and the increasing uncertainty in our world (a consequence of, among other things, increasing complexity) should bring us even more pause.

So, maybe, then the stagnation we have to deal with is more of a spiritual stagnation where we have exchanged the spirit of progress for one of security? That may be controversial, but it is worth thinking about – since it may be just as hard to change the spirit of an age as to foster more technological innovation – and maybe we want to be doing both?

The other challenge with the hypothesis is that it measures progress overall linearly. Here we run into an interesting question of horizontal vs vertical innovation speeds. The best example is a coarse grained analogy with the Cambrian explosion, and it is easy to explain in a picture:

Measuring the pace of progress

So, if A in the figure is smaller than the sum of the B vectors, it seems that progress might actually be faster in the horizontal case than in the vertical case. That in turn seems to suggest that any general metric risks missing a hidden, silent Cambrian evolution – like connectivity becoming the norm in all artifacts or so.

Now, this is just a rough model, and more needs to be done here. But I think that the heart of the problem is that we may be misunderstanding the word progress – we may be thinking of progress in a single dimension or across a very small domain. Still — it is worthwhile working out what we should do if we believe that we are caught in a stagnation. is it more crazy projects hoping for break-throughs? Or is it, like Stanislaw Lem suggested a problem of the combinatorial growth of space of possible invention where the haystack is expanding but the amount of needles remains constant – where the answer is more scientific search capacity (through, for example AI)?

And this leads to a final point – maybe we ought to assume technological stagnation. Because everything we do to accelerate innovation will benefit us anyway!

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