Saturday, 8 August 2015

The Great Stagnation

Commenter Lord T notes on another thread that
We have made no advances in 20 years, unless you count making things smaller. Mobile phones, computers, our wages...
Now, being the naïve lefty metrolib arts grad that I am, I assumed that this statement was absurd.  Of course the human race has made advances in the last twenty years or so, I thought to myself.  After all, I considered, I keep having to replace my phone because each new model does something whizz-bang, and I have to keep up with the Joneses.  But challenged by Mr Quango to do a blogpost proving Lord T wrong, I am wondering whether I am perhaps hopelessly naïve indeed.

Let's take the mobile phone point.  Twenty years ago you could get this:

It's called a Motorola Flare.  It does everything a mobile phone needs to do: it can make phone calls from pretty well anywhere that Mercury One2One provides a signal.  The latest iPhones (other phones are available) can take photos, record and edit videos, interact with friends and strangers in 192 countries, and let you check your bank balance, but really that is not so much an advance as putting several different devices into one box.  Not clever.  In fact, modern phones have useless batteries, so the Flare is probably better overall.  The Flare worked on exactly the same GSM networks which we still use today, and in 1995 One2One's coverage was comprehensive (as long as you didn't want to venture outside the M25).  Carrying around hyper-connected supercomputers in our pockets is just absurd consumerism; we were good enough at mental arithmetic to divide up the restaurant bill in our heads.

If you did need a camera in 1995, you could buy one of these, which I am sure you will agree is perfectly adequate:

This camera has memory storage for 36 photos, who needs any more than that?  I bet you could even have bought a selfie-stick if you needed one.  In 1995 there wasn't a button to upload your photos to Facebook, but can we really call Facebook an advance??  In 1995 we used to actually visit our friends and family, to interact with them in real life, rather than send them photos of what we are eating for supper.  To get there we might have used the UK's top selling motor of the era.

Cars are another field in which absolutely no advances have been made at all.  This little beauty has four wheels, a petrol engine (no doubt running on unleaded), and the 1.4L model could get up to 105 mph.  It could do 34 miles to the gallon.  I learned to drive in something very similar, and I could not fault the handling.  The current entry-level Focus has a 1.0 litre engine (which is obviously much worse than the 1.4 which the Escort had in 1995) and the fuel economy is only about 50% more with only a tiny increase in power.  Modern cars have seatbelts, as cars did twenty years ago.  There have been no developments to speak of in car-safety, and our roads are more accident-prone year-on-year.  So again, in the car field, no advances at all.

If instead you decided to stay in, TVs were just as good twenty years ago as they are today.

If you were a high-roller you would probably have Sony's latest Trinitron 32" screen.  Maybe you wouldn't even have needed to be a 1%er: they only cost about £2500.  In 1995, everyone had Sky or cable, so you would have been able to choose from nearly 30 channels, or you could rent a video from Blockbuster.  TV highlights debuting in 1995 were Dangerfield, Hollyoaks, and The Thin Blue Line.  No TV of any note has emerged since 1995, as we all know.  Indeed even the most leftymulticultysoftleftpinko has to admit that cultural output in Britain and the wider world has pretty much collapsed in the last twenty years.  Nobody has produced any music, film, or literature of note in the last twenty years, so we are forced to keep re-reading High Fidelity while listening to the Spice Girls.  HD is just for wendyball.  Hilary Mantel, Zadie Smith, pah.

Architecture and building engineering has been treading water; the art world has never recovered from Damien Hirst pickling a shark.

OK, OK so all of this is fluffy consumer crap that nobody needs.  What about the important stuff?

According to the UN, extreme poverty has declined significantly over the last two decades. In 1990, nearly half of the population in the developing world lived on less than $1.25 a day; that proportion dropped to 14 per cent in 2015.  Globally, the number of people living in extreme poverty has declined by more than half, falling from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 836 million in 2015. Most progress has occurred since 2000. The number of people in the working middle class—living on more than $4 a day—has almost tripled between 1991 and 2015. This group now makes up half the workforce in the developing regions, up from just 18 per cent in 1991.  The proportion of undernourished people in the developing regions has fallen by almost half since 1990, from 23.3 per cent in 1990–1992 to 12.9 per cent in 2014–2016.

So that's that pretty much answered: we're all poorer and hungrier than we were twenty years ago.  I would try and find some UK income or GDP numbers, but we all know they are made up, so what's the point?

In the good old days, we were promised glamorous Jetsons-style living, flying cars, nuclear aeroplanes, and holidays on Mars.  None of that has happened.  In the last twenty years, we have made no progress at all in space exploration.  We have absolutely not sent exploratory robots to Mars, comets, or taken high-resolution photos of Pluto.  Definitely not.  On the topic of aeroplanes, no new commercial aeroplane models have been introduced since the 777 in 1994.  Jet engine economy has not soared, long-haul travel has not become ever cheaper and more accessible.  The UK aviation industry has basically closed down, and everyone holidays in Skegness because we are all in such poverty. Olé.

No new drugs have been developed.  UK life expectancy has not risen by five years in the last twenty.  Everyone pretty much dies of cancer or AIDS when they hit 40.  And you aren't even allowed to smoke in pubs.

So I think Lord T has it pretty much spot on, and I have to admit defeat.  Luckily, nobody will ever know, because blogs haven't been invented, and you don't have an internet connection at home.


Anonymous said...

BE - you'd expect things to improve as long as intelligent people are allowed to work and be rewarded for it, and as long as the infrastructure built over generations persists.

People now survive illnesses that would have been fatal less than 50 years back, for example.

But in 1975 a working guy on a low wage could afford to buy his own house. On a median wage he could raise a family with a stay at home mum. That's all gone.

And even the incremental improvements haven't lasted for ever, if history is any guide. From around 400 AD to 1066, following barbarian invasion, people stopped building in stone in the UK, the roads fell apart, piped water and central heating vanished not to return for 1500 years. Or alternatively look at somewhere like the former Belgian Congo, where the infastructure collapsed post-colonialism and travellers find forgotten railway lines buried in jungle, or rotting steamships on the riverbanks.

I recall a few posts back you were speculating that we could handle a barbarian invasion and turn the invaders into productive citizens. Think on.

Blue Eyes said...
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Blue Eyes said...

So technological progress is inevitable, except when it ain't, something something house-prices, foreigners.

Lord T said...

I like the bit about the blog. OK. We didn't have blogs but we had bulletin boards and we didn't have broadband but we had modems. I was online in the 1990s and I wasn't in the first wave. Blogs and Broadband just making what we had 30 years ago that little bit slicker and faster.

I've been saying this for a while and the nearest thing that has come to prove me wrong is medical advances. However they are usually 20 plus years in the making and they tend to be built on similar developments.

I would be pleased to find something that proved me wrong. It would show that as a species we were advancing but they would rather not take any risks nowadays and the risk takers aren't allowed to buy the materials. Might get a paper burn or something. Pathetic.

andrew said...

I think you left out the bit where 20-30 years ago most people under 25 thought they would die in a nuclear war, or in the late 80s BSE or AIDS before 30.

Now they think they may still be in rented accommodation at 30 - a much worse fate.

Lord T said...

or staying with their parents at 30. Most other places on the planet still have extended families living together. Is that a bad thing? Who cares?

These things are not advances. They are simply improvements on what we have already.

Where are our holidays to Mars? Where are our nanobots fixing us on a daily basis, where is our cure for aids, cancer, blindness?

Everything is just making things shinier, for less to make more profit. 5 years longer but you vegetate in a home for those years, what about quality of life? Poverty is relative. We could be doing something constructive to feed those on $1.50 a week but if they already live on $1.50 a week then it sounds like it is only called poverty because most of us in the west don't but we are only 10% of this planet so that is irrelevant.

Small improvements no real advances.

Nick Drew said...

many people of my parents' generation (in their 80s) live in broadly the same ways as regards technology-that-they-use-themselves as they did 50, even 60 years ago

(obviously the tech that is used by many people they interact with is much more recent - pharmacy/surgery, retailers & suppliers of all kinds including TV programme makers, etc: and the modern versions of items they do use have chips inside and are made of newer materials)

- car, bus, train
- TV, radio, 'phone
- domestic appliances
- holiday abroad by train or boat or plane
- cinema, theatre
- shopping catalogue
- all furnishings

mobile 'phone is a newer thing, of course (and they do have one of those - for occasional use); and it'll be a digital camera (no big deal, it's still down to Boots for the prints)

the microwave (oven) is actually quite important, and a bit more recent than the rest - but hardly mind-boggling

probably more technology in the garden + toolshed than 50 years ago, if I think about it

sometimes I think the utilities they are served by are equally rooted in technology of 50-60 years ago

Anonymous said...

So many factually incorrect statements based upon personal preferences/prejudices.

I can't tell if this is troll bait?

Blue Eyes said...

Improvements vs advances. I think there is a risk of playing a game of definitions.

Also, aren't we in danger of assuming that every improvement we have got was inevitable, while time travel and warp drive have been held back from us?

I would not say that the rapid improvement in the health living standards of the poorest humans is a trivial matter. Also, while we may regard Twitter as a twattish self-indulgence, I wonder if the same view is taken in China, Burma, and elsewhere?

Finally, do people really think that smartphones, fast broadband and the growth of internet commerce are mere sideshows? They have enabled a global supply chain to evolve. We now do things as a matter of course which would have seemed impossible twenty-thirty years ago.

So, sorry, I don't think we have been standing still.

Nick, while I am proud that the UK leads the world with its TV dinner opportunities, I am not sure how world-changing they are. Plus microwave ovens are a bit older than the twenty-year window Lord T defined ;-)

Blue Eyes said...

Sorry, Anon, which statements in my post are inaccurate?

Bill Quango MP said...

Home shopping and the banking system that underpins that is the advance.
We had the Internet 20 years ago. We had internet shopping.
But it was rubbish. And quite risky.

The genius of Mr eBay was not getting people to sell their old junk to each other. It was getting someone in Scotland to agree to buy something from a stranger in Devon, and for that stranger to send them the item.

It's commonplace now. But in 1995 it wasn't.

Steven_L said...

I've only just become an 'Apple' customer a few weeks back. I'd never even owned an iPod. But John Lewis had a customer returned 16GB Apple Mac Pro in for £1,100 so I took the plunge.

The software you can get for pocket money prices and run on a home computer small enough to take hand luggage on Easyjet now is nothing short of amazing.

I get the impression that any old idiot can be a DJ, music producer, video editor and special effects artist now.

I reckon with a bit of practice, and a bit of time invested, you could make a cartoon of Simpsons / Southpark quality on a laptop in your bedroom now.

Blogs are so 2005!

Electro-Kevin said...

BQ - I've just sold my old car to someone in Scotland through Ebay !

As regards the post. Things are getting better and worse at the same time - for the same reason.

Virtually my whole home entertainment system, my camera, my filing, my post (only better) can be held in something smaller than a fag packet. And I can skype on it !

That was simply unbelievable 20 years ago.

Food is better and we have the solution to the origin of the Universe, though it is yet to be proved.

There is no God but we are about to be dragged back to the dark ages.

andrew said...

I think I have invented a new law:

In any blog post on progress someone will inevitably comment on something that has improved and use that as evidence of the decline of western civilisation.

In the same tradition I will now provide my obligatory link to the idea of decline in western civilisation by a herman.

Roger said...

One thing has changed dramatically in the last 20 years, the ability to do stuff in countries far away. All you need is a slab of concrete, a road and a leccy supply somewhere nice and cheap. Ship in a robotic factory and the locals can easily do stuff it took awkward expensive sods to do back home.

So the world's bounty has become more evenly spread, it's just that our jam is now spread a more thinly. Unsurprisingly those locals are eager for education, it means good jobs etc. Equally unsurprisingly our own kids are not eager for education, it don't mean good jobs any more. Cue Ms Batmanghelidjh and friends.

Electro-Kevin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Demetrius said...

Oh where and oh where has my Amstrad gone?

Demetrius said...

Oh where and oh where has my Amstrad gone?

Electro-Kevin said...

Roger @ 7.47

20 years ago it was 1995, well after the Thatcherian union reforms began in the '70s. Sierra man had voted for several Tory governments by then.

He was far from awkward but, to his dismay, off went his job too.

Figures show that welfare spending actually went up under the Tories before Tony Blair came to office. The Tories were subsidising the outsource of our work then as much as they are subsidising the insource of labour now. If they'd been more courageous on welfare then Britain might be a less indebted and less academically stultified country than it is today and the double-glazed, centrally heated lives of today's unemployed far exceeds whatever the union membership of the '70s aspired to. It has been a hugely expensive 'victory'.

The reason people in the third world respect education is that without it not only is there no job, they starve. Our kids know they get to play Xbox and dine on takeaway pizza the rest of their lives if they flunk school. In fact being an uneducated single parent drop-out is a sensible option.


My earlier comment on God. Since 1995 a theory of the Universe has emerged which may prove to be every bit as revolutionary as Darwinism.

Its emergence coincides with a new, nonesensical and growing dogma which cannot be challenged because of political correctness and because of some of its adherent's predilection for violence. It may eventually threaten all the gains on equal rights for women and homosexuals and all the advances in science.

It is ironic that humanity's zenith in global communication and transport coincides with a cultural and intellectual nadir.

Graeme said...

I think that being able to pay for your parking via your mobile phone is a great advance - rather than carting around piles of coins for metres. Also being able to look at your bank balance and book a hotel room/flight online rather than having to pop in to a bank branch/ATM machine or a travel agency.

The experience of queuing up at a travel agent to book a flight to Paris, whilst the couples ahead of you were assessing the merits of every package holiday in every single brochure with the staff is something that remains in my mind - a 2 hour wait to buy a plane ticket. Not really possible to buy those things over the internet back then. Did you ever try it in 1995? I don't think even travelocity existed then. You certainly couldn't do it over a 2g mobile phone.

Book and cd purchases were greatly facilitated by online purchasing. In 1995, you were still limited to book/record clubs if you wanted esoterica. High street retailers had the bare minimum of interesting stuff available. You actually had to comb through dingy backstreet shops whereas now you have dealers in Australia or the USA competing for your order. The same thing applies to furniture and white goods now.

Also, you forget the limitations of those old 2g GSM networks. In the good old days, there was so much crackle that sometimes you could barely hear the person at the other end. You also discount the fact that even 20 years ago the majority of people did not have mobile phones, so you were calling houses or offices rather than people and often hitting answerphones. And text messaging had not really started to happen. Why make a call to tell someone "I'm on the way" when you can send a simple text message instead?

Real advances.

Lord T said...

Hardly advances.

Sure things have gotten easier but in a few years there will be no jobs for the unskilled as they will have been priced out of the market and the remainder will be producing things that nobody can afford. Then robots will be here doing those jobs and those that can will be performed in Africa. All these people fighting to get here now will be fighting to get to the place of their birth and they won't be a bunch of namby pamby SJWs.

We need space flight to get off this planet and we need advances, real advances, to feed and care for everyone.

Bring on the Matrix.

Anonymous said...

@Roger - "the ability to do stuff in countries far away. All you need is a slab of concrete, a road and a leccy supply somewhere nice and cheap. Ship in a robotic factory and the locals can easily do stuff it took awkward expensive sods to do back home."

The locals can easily do it in Korea or Thailand. Doesn't seem to work so well in Sudan or Eritrea (whatever made me choose those two countries?).

Blue Eyes said...

Lord T, I will acknowledge one issue: the huge switch from "investment" to "redistribution". We couldn't afford another Cold War now, because we spend so much on childcare. Every productivity increase in the private sector is absorbed immediately by the welfare system.

Brian Cox says we should spend more on "science". I'd rather my tax money went to his pet projects than to Labour's.

CityUnslicker said...

The internet is the greatest advance in human history. period. No debate required and it was only just getting started in 1995, when I got my first email address.

The chances of a new dark age are tiny, because all the manuals for progress are on the internet. Just becuase Europe decides to allow itself to be invaded by Africa will not mean the end of the world. The far east has not such problems and neither does Australia, the dark age - should it occur - will be regional.

Also my thinking is that some of the next barriers - asteroid mining with robots and nuclear fusion as two prime examples- are very tricky. They may yet take another generation or two. But in the scheme of history this is nothing as compared to what they will achieve. Then there is the discovery of life on other planets and maybe aliens which is growing more likely (though the odds are astronomical to start with) by the day - it will be a great event, but one a very long time in the making.

The overall clouding issue for humanity is still the population boom and the resource and political dynamics that this represents.

andrew said...

The chances of a new dark age are tiny, because all the manuals for progress are on the internet.

I think you need to reconsider that. More like:

The chances of a new dark age are much greater, because all the manuals for progress are on the internet.

If you switch the internet off the manuals are all gone.
If you burn a book, all the other ones are still there.

Worse, if you lose google you will never find that manual.

When many run for the supermarket tinned beans, you may be better off printing those manuals.

Jan said...

The major advance was possibly further back than 20 years. My father died in 1977 and never lived to see the advent of computers. he was an engineer and did everything with a slide rule. Come to think of it there weren't any calculators except large ones in offices which plugged into the mains. He would be amazed if he were here now to see computers/internet/mobile phones etc.

He was also a crossword addict and would also have loved Sudoku/killer Sudoku etc and all the other new fangled puzzles (Rubik's cube etc).

I don't think anyone had a credit card back then either and there certainly weren't ATMs for a few more years. Whether encouraging everyone to get into debt was a good thing is debatable.

Also the internet/internet banking/internet shopping which we are all totally dependent on is only any good as long as there is a reliable electricity supply (a terrorist threat perhaps?)

Lots of things are the same eg most of the underground system/Great Western trains (which still have BR etched on the metal things for opening the windows).

Anonymous said...

Necessity, is the mother of invention. It ain't over yet but mother necessity, she's riding out of town.

Someone [above] mentioned microwave ovens. I am pretty sure that, they were a development used during the Saturn/Apollo space programme, hot food a must for astronauts revolving, travelling in zero gravity space.
Additionally among many other inventions, the considerable advances made in computerization, because of the necessity of a vast variation of calculations required to make the moonshots possible, from engineering to estimating to a nicety where the re-entry would be made and subsequent Pacific landing for the module - all had to be within a range of thousandths of a degree. Some other advances here

I firmly believe 'we' are reaching the end of the road - when innovation, invention stagnates and this in no small part is due to the sclerotic and corrupt socio-economic system imposed on us by the political and corporate elites - they've got us by the nuts, a new phone with bells on keeps us's a slam dunk all it needs is reams and reams of rules, red tape and bureaucracy to keep the competition out of the way [ring any bells?].

In truth, it is reckoned that the antecedent [baby boomers] generation will be the first to have had a superior and more better academically rigorous education than that of those succeeding them.

'tis true that, we have ceased advancing, we got fat and when we got lazy, hubris sets in. Western 'civilization' sits on the brink of an abyss.

If one reads history, there are striking parallels between Europe now, compared with the conditions which precipitated, engineered the fall of Rome. So too with; Greece and Egypt and a host of other ancient civilizations. Rome became far too corrupt, stopped expanding - an inevitable consequence and an Empire [of Rome] running out of steam. Rome, was totally dependent on lotus eating and thus the rape and the exploitation of land, men, commodities, produce and ores and materials. It built fine mausoleums and colossal amphitheatres, doling bread and circuses could it could not sustain the whole and the tribes of the North had had enough.

Though this time "the tribes" they come from the East and South.

To all you, who no doubt will say that I read the omens too darkly, I will concede these; Graphene, Fusion, fifth generation computers, Stem Cell technology, we found a cure for Ebola when we set our minds to it [HOSANNA], Empathy, Christianity.

Though, Death and pestilence is knocking and it is through the door, is plague and the wolf that feeds on us, it is the weak for now, but pestilence will taint and the lupus he will grow in numbers and in boldness, for he spies no opposition. Nor, is there the will to fight..................feeble we are nobbled by our own authorities and we have sold our insurance - defence, sold down the river by a generation of politicians and promises and empty ones at that.

Whatever happens, better get ready for some very tough, rough times.

Electro-Kevin said...

Jan - BR was meant to be crap but it developed some innovative and long lasting stuff.

Electro-Kevin said...

Andrew - I say dark age because, despite all this enlightenment - we are still forbidden from saying certain things are bollocks.

There are now more oppressed women in the UK than there have been for generations.

Anonymous said...

*Sorry, Anon, which statements in my post are inaccurate?*

Everything? Take phones, you just ignore lots of things they do because they are not used/necessary for yourself.

Same with cameras, just because you are happy to take 32 low res photo's on a camera that cost £350 back in 90s does not mean someone else is. It is amazing that I can buy a giga pixel camera that can hold thousands of photo's for £50, I make prodigious use of such a feature for work purposes (inspecting building sites is much easier when you can snap lots of pics that you can instantly view back in the office).

You don't use or understand the huge versatility of modern electronics, because a 1990's nokia does everything YOU need = no progress.

Repeat ad-Infiniti for all you points.

*****If you switch the internet off the manuals are all gone.******

Even A large nuclear war would still leave most of it intact, whatever event that can cause 'the internet' to die is going to leave us fucked beyond beliefe.

Anonymous said...

"whatever event that can cause 'the internet' to die is going to leave us fucked beyond belief"

Like an asteroid hit for example. Or people thinking its a good idea to allow millions of economic migrants from Africa into Europe.

Anyone read Lewis Dartnell's "The Knowledge - How To Rebuild Our World From Scratch"? By no means perfect, but an interesting book with some good thinking points.

Anonymous said...

You forgot the 787 aka Dreamliner ,

What a useless post

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