The Future has stalled. Sure, some snazzy new gadgets came out this year, but all the Next Big Things are still just over the horizon. Neal Stephenson and Peter Thiel both have depressing articles trying to pin down the culprit for our technological stagnation. They both take some shots at government, at education, and at how technological progress has become self-defeating. One passage from Stephenson crystallized the argument:
Innovation can’t happen without accepting the risk that it might fail. The vast and radical innovations of the mid-20th century took place in a world that, in retrospect, looks insanely dangerous and unstable. Possible outcomes that the modern mind identifies as serious risks might not have been taken seriously—supposing they were noticed at all—by people habituated to the Depression, the World Wars, and the Cold War, in times when seat belts, antibiotics, and many vaccines did not exist. Competition between the Western democracies and the communist powers obliged the former to push their scientists and engineers to the limits of what they could imagine and supplied a sort of safety net in the event that their initial efforts did not pay off. A grizzled NASA veteran once told me that the Apollo moon landings were communism’s greatest achievement.
We’ve stopped innovating in big, world-changing ways. Clean energy, health care, and space travel are all roughly where they were in the ‘70s. So what’s missing? Why is it not just the West, but seemingly the entire world has suddenly shuddered to a crawl in terms of technological progress?
Oddly enough, the beginnings of an answer to our innovation woes can be found in another cultural throwback: the massive protests that are Occupy Wall Street.