Progress studies from afar

— (11 min read)

The web’s big thinkers periodically revisit big questions about modernity. Why is progress slowing down? (Is it?) Why is contemporary culture inferior to past golden ages? (Is it?)

Sometimes the questions are more individualistic: Where are all the geniuses? Or, more cautiously and rarely, why can’t I name artists and scientists, living or recently deceased, who are obviously of world-historical importance?

These questions lead to pictures of the dynamics of discovery and creativity. A few classes of answers arise to explain various lines of evidence:

  • It is the way of things. (For example, “Low-hanging fruit are being exhausted.”)
  • Something is broken. (“There are institutional obstacles to taking research from prototype to product.”)
  • Everything is fine, and the question is asked in ignorance. (“Some genius is recognized only in retrospect.”)

These answers are meant to focus attention on where resources can be spent efficiently.

I’m skeptical we’ll have much to show for further desultory, high-abstraction analyses in this mold. They seek to explain something so broad that any number of proposed factors are plausible contributors to a full explanation. Plausibility is sufficient to motivate more focused questions, and another skim of the top of one’s head and some headline numbers won’t rule out or single out any factor with actionable confidence.

But it looks like fun, so, here we are. I try to be forthright and scrupulous with language in public. This post is a little lighter and may betray some distaste for its own genre. I hope you don’t find it tendentious.

Why is progress slowing down?

Before I get to my pet story, I’ll try to catalogue some answers I’ve heard. These are overlapping, non-exhaustive, often tongue-in-cheek, and variously applicable to different strains of human endeavor with more or less rephrasing, notwithstanding the absurdity of treating them all on the same footing. I think most answers have something to them, even the ones that contradict each other. If I mention merit, effort, aptitude, taste, progress, and so on as though they’re well defined, objective, and quantifiable, those are figures of speech. Feel free to insert “, whatever that means” as necessary.

It is the way of things

Small world
  • The world isn’t actually that big. The literate Anglosphere has grown by a factor of 300 or so from Shakespeare’s time. If you believe that Shakespeare was uniquely exceptional in his time, that one in a thousand Elizabethan eras produce a Shakespeare, then maybe you shouldn’t be so surprised you don’t see 300 today.
  • The world is very big. There are hundreds of Shakespeares today, not to mention several contemporary with him. If not one, another would be just as acclaimed.
  • You probably haven’t heard of them. Much is necessarily obscure, and there’s no cultural mechanism that would bring the right obscurities to your attention.
  • You may or may not have heard of them, but acclaim is basically relative, so none stand out.
  • It was easier to be first or best in the past when there were fewer historical or contemporary competitors.
  • Great works can’t distinguish themselves from the crowd on merit, so acclaimed works are optimized for proxies or marketed especially well.
  • (And if that’s true, why bother?)
Cultural saturation
  • There’s only so much bandwidth in a given layer of culture. Society can only support so many radio stations with so many broadcast hours. People already read about as much as their interest or time permits.
  • There’s only so much cumulative attention to go around. There’s hardly enough time for every paper to be read.
  • Critics can only be so vocal.
Psychological saturation
  • One can only hold so many works in one’s heart, no matter how good the rest are.
  • One life only has room for so many pivotal experiences before they start to seem ordinary.
  • The “magnitude” of aesthetic experience is bounded. If a work were somehow “twice as good”, one might barely be able to tell.
  • One only has so many neurotransmitters.
Low-hanging fruit
  • Discovery and novelty used to be within reach of amateurs.
  • As we make progress, it takes more training, education, or general effort to reach the boundary of what’s been done. Collaboration is necessary.
  • The easy problems are solved, so what’s left today is intrinsically harder.
  • Everything has been explored; we’re combing the same old territory, but there’s less to find and it’s harder to spot. The reception of a work depends on a mixture of familiarity and novelty, which is a recipe for a rapidly narrowing search space given a constant audience.
Diminishing returns
  • The marginal progress from a unit of effort on a given problem diminishes (or worse) as more effort is being spent on it. Individuals’ intellect and creativity don’t stack. Parallelization comes with overhead, errors, and duplication of work.
  • The importance of a unit of progress in any direction diminishes as the world gets bigger and more complex. More things than ever affect our lives, and improving one may go unnoticed.
  • Marginal progress with increasing individual or institutional aptitude is not so great. We’re bottlenecked on resources or time.
  • Once something is good enough, it’s not worth breaking the bank for marginal improvements.
  • Once we’ve invested deeply enough in one path, paths whose destinations may be vastly superior in principle are not worth the investment it would take to catch up.
The long arm of Moore’s law
Apologies to Cyrus Mody.
  • Steady improvements to standard technologies outpace breakthrough technologies without consensus behind them, leaving breakthroughs to founder.
Inputs and outputs
  • The world is complex. There are many intermediate stages between the work one does and the effect it has on society, often involving inefficient, inelastic processes of synthesis and selection. Even if one stage grows, another remains a bottleneck. A function that lags an exponential is not a displaced exponential and only approaches one at late times.

Something is broken

Shoulders of giants
  • Richard Hamming: Newton said, ‘If I have seen further than others, it is because I’ve stood on the shoulders of giants.’ These days we stand on each other’s feet!
  • We fail to combine intellectual and creative effort efficiently. Work is duplicated, and opportunities to build from a higher starting point go unused. Breakthroughs are not subsumed into a larger body of knowledge.
  • We don’t study enough history. New works are not in conversation with the long tradition they unwittingly echo.
Footprints of giants
  • We are too anchored in our study of history to see what is possible. We need outsiders.
Extinct giants
  • Something happened. We don’t make them like we used to. The sort of person in the past we point to no longer exists, or exists in smaller proportion.
  • A relatively small population monopolizes opportunity
  • Children develop in an environment that’s worse in relevant ways
  • Institutions select for conformity
  • Institutions suppress, censor, or subvert genius
  • Society taboos “individual excellence”
  • Society pedestalizes “individual excellence”
Institutional inadequacy
  • We don’t have enough monopolies
  • We don’t have enough competition
  • We don’t have enough private investment in R&D
  • We don’t have enough startups
  • We lost whatever was special about Bell Labs (technical management, researcher freedom, serendipity by design, long-term thinking, monopoly profits)
  • We don’t have functional academic institutions
    • Evaluation is broken (admissions, bibliometrics, credentialism…)
    • Publishing is broken (peer review, open access, incentives for replications and null results…)
    • The career pipeline is broken (PhDs far exceeding positions, large sacrifices for uncertain prospects, leakage of tacit knowledge, deadweight loss of hostile environments, PIs’ managerial ineptitude, poor support for younger scientists…)
  • We don’t have functional government institutions (particularly for funding science)
    • Too slow, too little money, too reliant on brute cash, too top-down, too conservative, too many strings attached, too focused on flashy megaprojects like colliders and manned spaceflight, regulatory dysfunction, intellectual-property-law dysfunction…
Distracted giants
  • The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. Culture-neutral or net-negative careers are more attractive than art and science.
  • Elites have bad taste
    • Biased toward the past, biased toward novelty, involuted, hostage to false consciousness
  • The masses have bad taste
    • Biased toward spectacle, toward surfaces, toward undemanding work, hostage to advertisers
  • Your personal taste just happens not to be broadly ascendant at the moment
    • Sorry
Winner takes more

Everything is fine

There can only be a few
  • Sometimes the winner takes all the acclaim. Double the population and there’s still only one chess World Champion. The number of Olympic events (and medals) doesn’t grow nearly as fast as the number of people who can run a four-minute mile. Nobel Prizes are still shared among at most three individuals, while the number of nominations in Physics grew from 30 (with 12 unique names) to 140 (89 unique names) between 1901 and 1970, the latest year for which nominations have so far been made public.
  • It takes time for the importance of a breakthrough to be realized
  • The merit of art lies partly in how it stands the test of time
  • We’re not accounting for survivorship bias, instead comparing ourselves with the best of the past
  • Genius is often only recognized in retrospect
  • Genius is arbitrarily assigned or invented in retrospect for the sake of heroic narratives
Culture is not about esthetics
  • Sorry, hold on. What is culture even for?
  • Back up. What is culture?
  • Who really cares about excellence, let alone novelty?
  • If we were to somehow distribute acclaim and attention proportionally to merit, this could break other things
  • People need familiarity
  • People need community, shared context and experiences, a canon
  • People need to demarcate their community from others
This is good, actually
  • We already have far more art than we can apprehend, so we’re free not to worry so much about what’s new
  • We already have more great art than we can appreciate, so we’re free to instrumentalize new art
  • Sometimes, it’s good that we don’t elevate individuals or individual works
  • Sometimes, it’s good that winner takes all, since only the best matters
  • It’s good that credit is shared
  • It’s good to make room beside “the work” for things like representation and personal character, particularly when value over replacement on “pure merit” is small in a crowded world
  • It’s good to let the market decide

I’m most interested at the moment in my fragment of a bullet under It is the way of things: “There’s no cultural mechanism that would bring the right obscurities to your attention.” Well, why shouldn’t there be?

Our culture does not elevate excellence in a scalable way

Acclaimed people, discoveries, and cultural artifacts don’t keep up in quantity or quality with the growth of our cultural base. The best are not elevated to proportional heights, and the merely excellent are everywhere among us.

This is not quite a restatement of the original concern that progress is slowing down. It sets aside slowed growth of the “cultural base” and refocuses on matters of attention, recognition, and acclaim, in some amorphous sense. It preempts “everything is fine, and the question is asked in ignorance” and positions ignorance as central to the problem. Global information networks have fallen short of their promise. Great art, discoveries, and human potential already languish in very ordinary situations; before we worry about producing more, we ask how we can build a culture that realizes its full richness.

I hope to write more on this topic in the future.