Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Fear and Loathing in Science

In my day job I am involved in both project management as well as R&D at a fairly unique research facility. It's a fun job most days. It also provides a very interesting vantage point to watch how the consequences of this huge wave of negative mood and emotion sweeping us all along will play out in the supposedly rational and fact-based world of science, technology and innovation.

The tides of emotion drive everything from the types of research that seem popular, the products that people want to buy and develop and especially drives the political funding of basic science.

These waves of emotion have affected science from the days when real scientific work was forced to be conducted underground due to concerns that religious authorities might burn you and your trusty lab assistant at the stake up through the "modern" era with the pitiful sight of the United States abandoning the exploration and eventual exploitation of the solar system - which occured during the bear market of the the 1970's, I might add. The Cycle Wave 5 optimism that we saw up through 2000 was not enough to even get astronauts back on the moon, another interesting validation of the "real" strength of Third Waves versus the sometimes-illusional strength of Fifth Waves.

With that context in mind, the following article takes on special interest:

Entering a dark age of innovation
by Robert Adler, New Scientist
SURFING the web and making free internet phone calls on your Wi-Fi laptop, listening to your iPod on the way home, it often seems that, technologically speaking, we are enjoying a golden age. Human inventiveness is so finely honed, and the globalised technology industries so productive, that there appears to be an invention to cater for every modern whim.

But according to a new analysis, this view couldn't be more wrong: far from being in technological nirvana, we are fast approaching a new dark age. That, at least, is the conclusion of Jonathan Huebner, a physicist working at the Pentagon's Naval Air Warfare Center in China Lake, California. He says the rate of technological innovation reached a peak a century ago and has been declining ever since. And like the lookout on the Titanic who spotted the fateful iceberg, Huebner sees the end of innovation looming dead ahead...

...In an effort to find out, he plotted major innovations and scientific advances over time compared to world population, using the 7200 key innovations listed in a recently published book, The History of Science and Technology (Houghton Mifflin, 2004). The results surprised him.

Rather than growing exponentially, or even keeping pace with population growth, they peaked in 1873 and have been declining ever since (see Graphs). Next, he examined the number of patents granted in the US from 1790 to the present. When he plotted the number of US patents granted per decade divided by the country's population, he found the graph peaked in 1915...

Now, the techno-optimist inside of me chirps up with all sorts of objections. The per-capita way of evaluating innovations is suspect as is the fact that a few geniuses can serve as a fountain of vast numbers of patents (i.e. Edison), though it does give a feel for how much slack society provides for people from all levels and castes to develop their talents. In addition, the regulations around the development of coal and oil power were next to nothing, compared to the regulations which surround the development of nuclear power - a big reason the development curve and build-out of useful applications has been so flat for nuke science.

My personal objections aside, socionomics is the study of mood and how that social mood provides the framework in which we operate. If we are fizzling out into a long era of negativity then that means the support structures that undergird innovation and the unleashing of genius will be damaged.

The era he points out, 1873-1915, was characterized by optimism, very little government regulation of business, few nuisance taxes, junk fees, etc. The technology paths chosen were wide open for development and the energy to power the devices was abundant and ridiculously cheap. The social mood that served as the foundation for the upsurge in innovation and patents, the unleashing of talents from individuals in all levels of society (witness the huge numbers of developments per capita) fit the technologies perfectly (or the technologies chosen for development fit mood perfectly...). The path that innovation and genius faces today is vastly different and growing worse by the moment.

By that I mean, we could have twenty new Edisons born tomorrow, but if they grow up in this coming era of a Grand Supercycle Bear Market, then the legal protections for developing intellecutal property (patents, royalties, copyrights, etc.) might be weak or non-existent and so the fuel for the development of their talents (income streams from successful innovations and basic breakthroughs, a consistent legal framework that allows for development of industry or enterprise) will not exist and their talents will not have an outlet for the full development.

The assertion above has much in common with Peak Oil, in my opinion. Huebner has identified a real trend in my opinion, but when you leave out the "ocean" of mood we all swim in, you miss the fundamental point of science - building systems of theory that match the facts of the world around us, systems that can be used to improve our lives and challenge us as a species. Like Peak Oil, I think he has a point - the current systems we've built up, the types of technologies we've chosen to develop, the disciplines our educational systems focuses on - they are all mature or very mature to one degree or another. Peak Oil will come, but in my opinion, humans will adapt and, as the Elliott Waves shift from downtrend back to an uptrend years or decades hence, the adaptations and work-arounds in the face of expensive and unreliable supplies of petroleum will fluorish in a new era of optimism. I think this decline in innovation is real as well - but trends follow waves - not straight lines.

Systems that are highly developed, systems that have interpenetrated every aspect of our lives, systems that are remarkably efficient - and brittle - must often be smashed in order to be replaced. Reform becomes impossible in the face of entrenched regulations, entrenched special interests and a lack of motivation to try something new. Bear Markets break through these barriers. There are vast fields of science that have lain fallow for centuries - leveraging vibrational mechanics for work, new interpretations of quantum mechanics (whether the TEW theory, the theories proposed by the folks at Blacklight Power, or others) and they are ripe for development - in a coming era, unfortunately. Ideas that are currently too far from the mainstream will be choked off, even if they show great promise at mitigating some of the worst effects of collapse.

That's why Nature and Nature's God has provided us with Grand Supercycle Bear Markets, in my opinion. Bear Markets discredit the established elites, provide for the smashing of boards and commitees and "peer review" structures that strangle new ideas at birth.

However, getting from here to there may be tricky, to say the least.

I expect science to become almost a dirty word at some point in this era of negative mood. Whether the fear and anger memes are tarted up in the "green" movement jargon or a religious backlash, there may come a time when science must go back underground, when brilliant minds will be forced to dull their colors to the outside world and pursue their work in secret, waiting for mood to turn and the next Great Renaissance to ignite.

3 comments:

David said...

Was the U.S. Apollo program a grand step for humanity or a monument to cycle wave (3) optimism...like a skyscraper?

The space program, operated under the perverse incentives of a tax-supported bureaucracy, is simply the Military-Industrial-Complex without the slaughter, isn't it? Look at that low Earth orbit vacation spot called the International Space Station. It's the definition of a white elephant, a monument to waste and political grand-standing, producing absolutely nothing of value in the marketplace.

As long as the state remains in charge of anything space related, I will celebrate the fact that we're getting less of it.

Flagg707 said...

Hey David,

No question the entire space program was warped by the Cold War and the fear machine built up to support that war.

That said, the fear machine was, in my opinion, hooked up to a long-standing impulse and strength of the Old Republic - the conquest of a new frontier and the chance to build a new and better world. That this sales job was hijacked may be true, but it is also true that the impulse for confident expansion and a leap into a new frontier fizzled as well, deflating support for manned space exploration.

Good or ill, I believe it serves as a fantastic marker of social mood.

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