Slowing down

We’ve been discussing speed quite a bit lately, and this story about the end of Concorde illustrates a point I’ve been making for some time. On most of the obvious measures, technological progress in transport stopped sometime in the late 1960s and, at the frontiers, we are now seeing retrogression.

In 1970, we had regular visits to the moon, and supersonic passenger flight via Concorde was on the way. Now we have neither. Even the space shuttle, designed as a low-cost “space truck” to replace the expensive moon program, is now headed for oblivion, with no obvious replacement.

At a more prosaic level, the 747 jumbo jet, introduced in the late 1960s, is still the workhorse of passenger air transport. Boeing’s attempts at producing a new generation of passenger planes have failed, and the likely replacement for the jumbo jet is the Airbus A380 – essentially just a double-decker jumbo. In all probability, this will be the standard for the next thirty or even fifty years. Of course we don’t have flying cars, or even personal helicopters, as most projections from 50 years ago supposed.

On the ground, cars are safer and more comfortable than they used to be, but the rate of innovation has slowed substantially, and as we’ve discussed, there’s been no increase in the average speed at which we travel – if anything the opposite. Here, for illustration are specs for the 1962 Holden EJ released just over 40 years ago. There are some obvious differences from the cars of today, but they are pretty minor. Go back another 40 years and you’re looking at this. Forty years more and even the bicycle is still is in embryo (the first modern one was made in 1885, predating the first Daimler and Benz cars by four years)

There are a couple of points to make here. The first is that, outside the areas of information and communications, technological progress has generally slowed. All the easy stuff (penicillin, jet aircraft, skyscrapers) had been done by the late 1960s. Only in IT and telecom does anything like Moore’s Law work in our favour.

The second is that while the relationship between transport and communications is complex, in the long run they are substitutes. We don’t need to send humans into outer space to tell us what’s there, because we can send cameras and telescopes and download the results. We don’t need to fly from London to New York in five hours when we can make a phone call for a few cents a minute.

Interestingly, this logic hasn’t prevented some industries, notably financial services, from clustering ever more closely in a handful of ‘global cities”. As I’ll argue in a later post, this says more about the dominance of crony capitalism in the financial sector than about the technological requirements of doing business.

18 thoughts on “Slowing down

  1. Hmm I see it more as a redirection of energies than anything else. when technologies are young one assumes that per investment dollar you get alot of bang for your buck, as they get more mature diminishing returns begins to set in. So in that sense spending alot on communications and information is good, overall technological progress is maximised even if it is concentrated in one area, and not across the broad spectrum of all technologies.
    OTOH the amount of money one spends in a particular area is also subject to diminishing returns, as the .com bust showed.

    I’d also like to point out that governence technology has improved dramatically in the 90’s with the fall of communism and the ascension of democracies, this coming from the political stagnation that was the cold war. (Ok so it’s not so much new discoveries, as getting existing discoveries used more widely)

  2. John,

    I’m not convinced that geographical clustering is irrational.

    A great deal of information is traded via informal social networks. Sure some of this takes place by email or telephone, but far more of it moves between people who are having face to face contact.

    It’s vitally important for people to maintain these their social networks and those who occupy strategic positions (eg by bridging two otherwise separate networks) can derive unusually large benefits.

    Despite the advent of email, video conferences, and Effie’s telephone ‘chatathon’ offers doing lunch, having drinks, office afternoon teas, seemingly pointless meetings, and bumping into each other in the office kitchen still remain enormously important.

    Take, for example, the ‘pointless’ meeting. A bunch of people herd into a room, everyone says Hi, drinks coffee, scribbles notes on a whiteboard that won’t print, and swaps information that could have more efficiently transferred by email.

    While these gatherings are abysmally inefficient at transferring information they are much better at keeping relationships between people going. By maintaining ties they keep channels of communication open.

    Another example are the informal networks of smokers in office buildings. These people cluster together outside the fire exits and back doors of office blocks puffing away… and… chatting with each other. These networks are important in organizations because they are more likely to be made up of people who wouldn’t otherwise talk with each other. This means that the information that moves across is less likely to be redundant. In a large complex organization the smokers’ back door ghetto can sit on top of several ‘structural holes.’

    Sexual relationships are another example. Because of the trust and intimacy between partners these contacts are more likely to carry the kinds of information that would not move through official channels (eg confidential and personal information – the CEO’s wife has cancer etc).

    Think about the way people find jobs. Employers are often suspicious of job seekers who advertise on the internet (why can’t they find a job the normal way) and prefer to recruit through personal and professional networks. Social and professional networks are the #1 method of job finding just about everywhere. IT hasn’t changed this.

    Geographical clustering fosters social capital. That’s why it makes sense.

  3. Don, my point, which I’ll elaborate further is that, given the impersonal way in which financial markets are supposed to work, the main function of social capital for market participants must be to facilitate anti-social collusion.

    This problem of “bad” social capital has been discussed in various places, but I haven’t seen a really satisfactory treatment.

  4. Just when you think things are slowing down I read about some blokes researching the feasibility of a space ladder/elevator. It supposedly could be built from some high tech nano carbon about 10,000 km high and drastically reduce the cost of getting payloads/people into space. Still I guess they haven’t run it past Al Qaeda and their indemnity insurers for Development Approval and costings yet.

  5. And the rifle reached its technological peak – perfection of its kind – in the Boer War, and has been declining ever since. The key point is “kind”; assault rifles wear more and are less accurate with less stopping power than a Lee-Enfield .303, but they achieve a different sort of thing.

    However, there is one key decline with (say) space travel since the 1960s that hasn’t happened with rifles. Jerry Pournelle has pointed out that the USA no longer has the capabilities to put together what it had in the 1960s even if its priorities changed – the support industries themselves have faded. Take that far enough, and it could get locked in, like a locked in decline in education. (I have sometimes wondered how education got bootstrapped from low levels of literacy in the first place.)

  6. As to the orbital lift:
    -Make it rather 40000 km long. It must reach beyond geostationary orbit.

    -Must be from the equator of Earth. The middle of the Pacific Ocean is fine. Atlantic and Indian Oceans should be of use too.

    Education in the past worked because it paid clearly. Expansion of the welfare state required schooled personnel.


  7. Seems to me it’s the initial, sharply increasing benefits of the IT revolution that’s keeping everything afloat. In the 70’s there was a real “treading of water” in an industrial/technological sense and an associated slump in western economies. Didn’t really change until; the mid-80’s.

    The neo-liberals claim it is their reforms that have changed the world, but I think it was ust coincident.

  8. Talking about the technology of transport, here’s a curly one for the lateral thinkers. What individual component(spare part)is the only component that is interchangeable on every car motorcycle and truck on our roads today? (You can exclude all the fluids and lubricants from this teaser)

    I guess the fact that so many parts are similar(eg mirrors or tyres), yet have so many variations/interpretations, is indicative of our current technology. The reciprocating piston engine is still the stalwart under every bonnet, despite the fleeting dalliance with a few pretenders.

  9. John,
    You’ve acknowledged IT and nano technology.What about genetic engineering and associated medical technologies?Maybe the next wave of invention is in agriculture?

  10. To adapt an old epigram “Biotech is the wave of the future and always will be”.

    A bit overstated perhaps, but if you look at Gordon Rattray Taylor’s 1968 book The Biological Time Bomb, you’ll see my point.

  11. Pr John “Beware of Technology Booster” Quiggin is starting to sound suspiciously like that another jaded, left-liberal, John “End of Science” Horgan, given his dim views on techonology growth:

    outside the areas of information and communications, technological progress has generally slowed.

    Pr Q’s deflative judgement is true as far as it goes but it does not go very far at all. Until about 1995, I would have agreed with Pr Q in saying that the real modern dynamic was in society, not technolgy.
    In the middle third of the century was the age of the machine. Taking 30 yr spans, from about 1925-55, the technology revolution more or less carried advanced countries from the horse and buggy to the automotive age. Machines changed, but basic social mores were rather stable.
    But from 1955-85, technology innovation more or less ground to a halt, and mores went wild. That was the age of sociological revolution, the baby boom & outsider group liberation. (due to birth control). Culture changed, machines did not. But from 1985 onwards (Windows), the IC started to become the basic industrial tool. And from 1995 onwards, it is clear that another techno revolution is in the offing.

    The innovation rate is faster.In one area Pr Q is flat false. The data on innovation contradicts Pr Q’s modern tech slowdown thesis. Over the OECD, the number of patents issued per 100,000 is something like twice as much now as it was in 1980. Assessing Australiaâs Innovative Capacity in the 21st Century pdf Table A-5: Historical Innovation Index 1980-2000 shows for US, innovation rates went up from 145.4 in 1980 to 214.4 in 2000, a respectable 30% pc increase. Australia went from 20 to 50, more than 150% pc increase. This may reflect growing trends towards privatisation, but it surely is not indicative of a slow down.

    Info-tech is bigger than we realise. Somewhere between a fifth and a third of income earned by agents in OECD states involvest the critical utilisation, production and distribution of info-tech related products. Thus high rates of development in these areas have big social consequnece, both in terms of wealth acccumulation and life style. What is the most hi-tech company in the world? bet you did not know that it was Wal Mart!

    When it comes to managing high-impact innovation, there is no contest÷Sam Walton still matters more than Bill Gates.
    The reason is simple. Wal-Mart is by far the commercial worldâs most influential purchaser and implementer of software and systems.

    It is surely no accident that AUstralia and the US have seen the most massive increases in personal wealth over the past 10 years, contemporaneous with the info-tech sector. Just look at the global score board, tech executives dominate the rich lists. That trend will continue with the commericalisation of research & development.

    Bio-tech is coming. For a phony wave of the future, bio-tech has been causing a lot of real turbulence lately. The massive increase in the biotech indexes on the NASDAQ and AMEX indicate that big earnings are expected from biomedicine. There is also a much more pragmatic and realistic tone about the industry, as indicated in the latest reporting, see Will Biotech Boom? It is too early to say if the answer to the question is this biotech boom for real?is a resounding Yes!, but it is certainly the case that this boom is no bubble:

    some industry analysts believe the biotech industry is slowly reaching the day when it will finally earn more cash than it burns ÷ a milestone that will help dampen its dizzying booms and depressing busts. Industrywide, biotech revenues are growing at about 15 percent a year.. the biotech industry could reach profitability within five years ÷ for the first time in its nearly 30-year history.

    Nano-tech is being boosted. Inner space is the final engineering frontier, and the US and Asian governments are throwing hundreds of million, in some case billions at research in these ares.

    Future tech will have greater synergies. The new industries have obvious cross-fertilising and applicating possibilities:
    intellectual info-tech
    instrumental nano-tech
    incorporeal bio-tech


    “Biotech is the wave of the future and always will be”.
    A bit overstated perhaps, but if you look at Gordon Rattray Taylor’s 1968 book The Biological Time Bomb, you’ll see my point.

    I don’t. We have now just crossed the frontier of artificial meiotic-like cloned reproduction and mitotic-like stem cell regeneration, historic thresholds in my view. Science made stem cell engineering the innovation of 2000, and a cloned human is not far off. For the record, I checked out a review of Rattray’s book, and it is worth reviewing his predictive record with positive results interpolated by this commentator:

    human life-spans doubled…[both nematode worm & methuselah mouse) have been bred to double normal life spans] weird hybrids part man, part animal [chimeras]…genetic warfare [customised genetic pathogens]…human reproduction without sex [cloning] …control of mind, mood and memory by drugs [ritalin, prozac, viagra] and other means [brain-computer organic interface]. Imagine all this (and more) and then realise that it is not science-fiction but a reality likely to come about within the next few decades.

    Contrary to PR Q rather tart put down, Rattray’s digest of predictions stacks up pretty well. Rattray overestimated in some areas (doubling human life span), but underestimated in others (nothing about genomics and stem cells). Hardly reason for Pr Q to engage in a patronising smirk. Pr Q should beware that his skepticism of the financing of tech firms does not lead to skepticism towards the products, lest he experience a Rip Van Winkle– type reaction in the region of his brain dedicated to techno-updates:

    But the age was getting a little fast–
    The Revolution had come and passed,
    And Young America, gathered about,
    Received his tales with many a doubt,
    Awhile he hobbled about the town;
    Then, worn and weary, at last laid down,
    For his locks were white and his limbs were sore–
    And RIP VAN WINKLE will wake no more.

  12. Jack, I score Rattray 0.5 for 4, assuming that 35 years is “the next few decades”.

    Doubling of human life-spans : actual outcome, no change in maximal life spans, most increases in life expectancy arising from standard public health measures, road safety less smoking etc

    Weird hybrids – whatever may be possible in a lab, this is evidently not happening in a way that actually affects us

    human reproduction without sex – probably possible in the near future, but (as I’ve argued in the past) unimportant, since it will remain as a last resort for the infertile

    control of mind, mood, and memory by drugs (0 on memory & mind, marginal advances on the mood-controlling drugs available when he wrote e.g prozac vs valium, ritalin vs benzedrine)

    As you say, he may merely have been premature. But my view is that this is an area where the marginal value of patents is declining, so more research is required to keep up a given pace of change. Again, I say, look at the innovations since 1968 and ask if any of them matches the big innovations of the previous 35, including penicillin, polio vaccines, or, on the reproductive side, workable methods for artificial insemination [still a marginal issue for humans, but v. important in animal husbandry].

  13. I would concede that, in the past few decades, there has not been biotech breakthroughs equivalent to vaccines or contraceptives, although viagra is indicative of the shape of things to come (grin).

    I would agree that imrovements in biotech experimental and instrumental results are not identical to their improvements in their practical & commercial value (although the booming indexes indicate that the latter can’t be too far off). Nonetheless, experimental and instrumental results are worth something, so scoring Rattray a half-mark for each category seems fair and reasonable. This would give him 3.0 out of 6. Or does Pr Q think that lab breakthroughs are worthless?

    I would also add extra points for Rattray’s conservatism in underestimating the progress of the two biotech biggies of the past few years, genomics and stem cell engineering. It is no accident that the name of the standout genomics firm was Celera.

    Pr Q seems to be missing the accelarating potential of complementary fields of info-tech and nano-tech, where real progress is being made, or is being seriously pursued.

    It seems to me that the lab experimental and instrumental breakthroughs mentioned in my annotated review are indicative of major real breakthroughs in the next generation. That would mean that Rattray erred by overestimating the speed of biotech progress by a magnitude of about 50%.

  14. It would help to be profitable: Warren Buffet 1995
    “And the interesting thing is, of course, is that if you go back to the time of Kitty Hawk, net, the airline transport business in the United States has made no money. I mean, just think if you had been down there at Kitty Hawk, and you had saw this guy [Wilbur Wright] go up [in the air], and all of a sudden this vision hit you that tens of millions of people would be doing this all over the world some day and that it would bring us all closer together and everything, and think my God this is something to be in on.”

    “And despite putting in billions and billions and billions of dollars, the net return to owners from being in the entire airline industry, if you owned it all, and if you put up all this money, is less than zero.”

    “If there had been a capitalist down there [at Kitty Hawk the day the Wright brothers made their first flight] the guy should have shot down Wilbur! I mean · [audience laughter]. You know· one small step for mankind, and one huge step backwards for capitalism!”

  15. Pr Q misses the convergence between IT and BT, which means that biotechs progress curve will start to resemble info-tech’s:

    Only in IT and telecom does anything like Moore’s Law work in our favour.

    The speed of bio tech analysis is dramaticly increasing (and cost decreasing) partly due to the overall improvements in info-tech:
    hardware: increasing chip speeds have made one day, $1,000, genomes, a real possibility
    software: bio informatics programs eg Celera’s shot gun method of data analysis & digitisation, have improved efficiency
    netware: raid diffusion of data and analyses throughout the scientific community
    Leroy Hood spells out the complementary synergies:Systems biology leading to advances in IT, medicine

    The study of systems biology, the field of research that creates predictive models of complex biological processes, will lead to advances in pharmaceuticals and medical treatment, but also to advances in computer science…The study of how biological systems work together, and modeling how one change to a cell or a gene affects the rest of an organism, should lead to a convergence between biotechnology and information technology over the next 10 years…I think we will have an instrumentation that could well bring sequencing of the human genome … down to a 20-minute process and do it for under $1,000,” Hood said. “This changes the way we think about predictive medicine”

    Hood is not a sci-fi buff, he is a highly respected biomedical scientist. GIven the success of Celera in sequencing the Genome a decade ahead of schedule, it would be unwise to underestimate the pace of bio-info science.
    The rate of progress will be spurred by scope exensity as well as process intensity.
    Indian and Chinese life scientists are now coming on-line and their industrious and insightful efforts will be co-ordinated and enhanced by networked exchanges of information.

  16. Pr Q believes that certain forms of industry clustering can be an index of crony capitalism:

    this logic [of the subsitutability of virtual communication for actual transportation] hasn’t prevented some industries, notably financial services, from clustering ever more closely in a handful of ‘global cities”… this says more about the dominance of crony capitalism in the financial sector than about the technological requirements of doing business.

    I think that Darwin would be a better guide than Hilferding in this matter (not that finance capitalists aren’t cronyistic). It is more likely that industry clustering reflect pure cronyism, with capitalism tacked on. Once location is disconnected from occupation, by fast travel or correpondence, then the managers & professionals will seek to live where they want to play, rather than where they have to work. THus the rise of the so-called “creative class” of wired workers has led to the revival of hip cities, which basicly offer greater opportunuties for mate selection, (same sex) recreation and (opposite sex) procreation, as well as encouraging creation through talent concentration. Work place choice reflects life style preference. this can be seen in Australia, where the Sea Change phenomenon has caused a smearing out of population along the coasts. A useful disgest of articles on this subject can be found at The Economic Geography of Talent

  17. An orbital lift is possible but only if you begin building from the orbital station towards earth. You would have to suply the orbital station with the necessary material to build one and equip the lift and cables with rethro trhusters in the orbital station to prevent the reentry burnout from the frictionspeed. A removal lift built from space to earth. It could prove useful in the long run.

  18. Cargo lift not removal lift. A question though, how much weight would the orbital station be lifting from earth? is it plausible? do we realy know the answer. The pull comes from near 0 gravity. has it ever been tried?

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