Clarifications on tech stagnation

by jasoncrawford1 min read31st Jan 20213 comments

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Five points of clarification regarding the “technology stagnation” hypothesis:

It posits a slowdown relative to peak growth rates of ~100 years ago. It doesn’t mean growth has gone to zero, and it doesn’t even mean that growth has slowed to where it was before the Industrial Revolution. (I said this in the original post but it bears repeating.)

It is about the technological frontier and economic development in advanced countries. It’s not about global development, which has not, as far as I know, been stagnating. The last fifty years have been fantastic for India and China, for example.

It is about technology and economics, not science. Or at least, scientific stagnation is a separate question, and one that I have a much less informed opinion about, and have not weighed in on. There is widespread discussion about physics being “stuck”, but biology seems to be making progress from what I can tell.

It is descriptive and backwards-looking. It is a hypothesis about the past, not a prediction for the future. And it is unrelated to optimism or pessimism. It is compatible with believing that slow growth is:

  • inevitable and permanent (Gordon)
  • a phase we’re muddling through, and will soon get out of (which is how I interpret Cowen and others)
  • a failing on the part of our culture that we need to correct (which is the impression I get from Thiel)

It does not posit a cause, and certainly not a single, central, grand cause. It’s just descriptive: has progress slowed? There could be multiple causes. I tend to think it is a combination of the centralization and bureaucratization of research funding, over-regulation, and cultural attitudes turning against progress (not that these are unrelated).

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There is widespread discussion about physics being “stuck”, but biology seems to be making progress from what I can tell.

It seems to me like the paradigm of molecular biology yields a lot of knowledge. On the other hand it seems to be hard to establish new paradigms. Sydney Brenner, who helped establish molecular biology back then, said in an interview that it would be hard in the current enviroment to establish a new field like they did back then.

Practically, we for example have no scientific field that studies how to strengthen the human immune system and all the claims about how to strengthen it are left to alternative medicine. 

Instead of trying to understand the biology placebo effect well with scientific models we try to blind studies. We could have a field that tries to look with open eyes at what happens in people who take drugs and how they experience the treatment.

Isn't a vaccine a very clear example of "strengthening the human immune system"? Of course vaccines are more than 100 years old...

Vaccine's focus on training the immune system against a specific threat. They don't tell you why some people get a cold multiple times per year and others go years without a cold. 

Besides that even in the area of vaccine's we lack good theory about predicting which vaccine's are actually having an effect. If we would have a good theoretical understanding we wouldn't need to spend over half a year in clinical trials but could use our theoretical understanding to chose a vaccine without clinical trials.

The last year was let's give the body the spike protein of the virus, treat the immune system as a black box and see what the effects on clinical outcomes will be. There's some reasoning about chosing dosis of the vaccine based on measuared antibody production but that's not enough to trust the vaccine to work.