The end of development?

by Alex Tokarev
Posted on Wednesday, September 5, 2012, at 12:00 pm

Are you better off today than you were four years ago? Probably not. But sustained economic growth and public demand that life should improve every year is a fairly recent phenomenon. If you had been born before the Industrial Revolution and the spread of modern capitalism, you would have most likely been forced to survive on less than a dollar per day. Even if you had been a high priest, a military leader, or a king, you would have gladly given all the gold in your coffers plus a leg and an arm for the indoor plumbing and the air conditioning or the access to antibiotics and the internet enjoyed by the so-called poor Americans in the 21st century.

It is indisputable that technological innovations in agriculture and manufacturing after 1700 have created material conditions allowing for a significant population increase. It is less clear why these innovations came at that time and not earlier. Some economists believe in a reverse causality, from procreation to innovation, claiming that it was only after population had reached a certain critical level that it triggered economic growth. But despite the last three centuries of improvements, many educated people fear that our development has limits and that we are fast approaching them.

I can understand the members of the royal committee who investigated Columbus' proposal for an expedition and decided that it would be a bad investment since "so many centuries after the Creation it is unlikely that anyone could find hitherto unknown lands of any value." It is harder to justify the late 19th century pessimism of astronomer and mathematician Simon Newcomb, who claimed that people had reached "the limit of all we can know about astronomy," or the equally outrageous statement by the head of the U.S. Patent Office Charles Duell that "everything that can be invented has been invented." William Kelvin believed that at the beginning of the 20th century people had already learned everything there is to know about physics. Shortly after that, experts predicted that "the automobile has practically reached the limit of its development" based on the observation that there had been no radical improvements during … the preceding 12 months.

It gets even better - Robert Millikan, a Nobel laureate in physics, claimed in the early 1920s that humanity could never "tap the power of the atom." The New York Times told its readers as late as 1936 that "a rocket will never be able to leave the Earth's atmosphere." (Those guys have built a reputation by publishing wrong predictions and silly recommendations such as Thomas Friedman forecasting the failure of or Paul Krugman's weekly retro-Keynesian pamphlets.) A few years after the end of WWII, computer scientist and mathematician John von Neumann worried that humanity had reached "the limits of what it is possible to achieve with computer technology." In 1961, an FCC expert saw no chance that "communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television, or radio service inside the United States."

As you read this on your laptop, remember how Ken Olson, president of Digital Equipment Corp., announced in 1977 that he saw "no need for any individual to have a computer in their home." My personal favorite: "Inventions have long since reached their limit, and I see no hope for further developments." The author: Roman engineer Julius Frontinus in the first century.

So if you want to prognosticate reaching the limit of human ingenuity and the end of progress in our lifetime, go ahead. I would gladly bet all of my future Social Security income against the cash in your pocket.

Alex Tokarev

Alex is a former WORLD contributor.

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