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There was no great stagnation; article published in Works in Progress

One of my major passions outside of evolutionary psychiatry is thinking about the future. I believe we are going through one of the most major shifts in human history, as we move into the computer-connected age. It was therefore a pleasure to write an article for 'Works in Progress' in a special issue dedicated to 'Where's my flying car', a book by J Storrs Hall which laments our age as one of unfulfilled promise and stagnation. The article was titled 'There was no great stagnation' and you can read it here.


I'd like to thank the editors for doing a top job in fact checking and advising on the various drafts of this article, which was particularly important as it moved into areas outside my expertise.


I'm copying in a couple of parts from the article that I particularly like; the first thinking about how much things have changed, the second thinking about how much they could change in coming decades.

 

As [Storrs Hall] presents it, stagnation is everywhere, even the defining feature of our society. And yet we haven’t seen stagnation in our methods of banking, purchasing, relaxing, planning, dating, route finding, communicating, cooking, eating takeout, using taxis, writing, publishing, reading, watching, learning, listening to music, exploring obsessions, reading scientific literature, completing classwork, sharing research, or our ability to put Monty Python’s ‘What have the Romans done for us’ clip on a 10-hour loop as a sleeping aid (after years of lying awake plagued by anxious thoughts of the slow demise of civilization).


 

Storrs Hall invokes the dreams of 1960s science fiction: flying cars, nanomachines that could rebuild the infrastructure of America in weeks, moon bases, and interstellar fleets. Those dreams did not come to pass – we never developed the technology to make them work.


What, though, could the twenty-first century’s futurists dream of? Perhaps an education system where every child has access to the world’s most interesting and important educational materials, is given a syllabus molded around their individual talents, and has their daily lessons designed based on evidence of their personal progress. Perhaps a justice system where rapists and robbers are reliably caught because every crime witnessed can be recorded, every token of money tracked, every person and valuable item geolocated. Perhaps today’s futurist might dream of massively participatory systems of government where every citizen can easily have their say on every local, regional, and national law and regulation, and every publicly funded activity can be made completely transparent, reducing inefficiency and preventing corruption and waste.


There is something different about these dreams, in comparison to twentieth-century science fiction of the type Storrs Hall was inspired by: All of these twenty-first-century dreams are technically achievable right now. They require only a modicum of software development and a bit of existing hardware distribution (plus, less easily, the necessary political and institutional vision). We don’t have to wait for some technological development of supersonic, supersafe flying cars, nuclear fusion, or nanomachines. We don’t even need to wait for artificial general intelligence. The capacity to vastly improve critical elements of our culture already sits in our hands; we only need to decide on implementation.

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