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The world does not progress it merely

Support Aeon Donate now We live in a golden age of technological, medical, scientific and social progress. Look at our computers! Look at our phones! Twenty years ago, the internet was a creaky machine for geeks.

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We are on the verge of medical breakthroughs that would have seemed like magic only half a century ago: Even now, life expectancy in some rich countries is improving by five hours a day.

Surely immortality, or something very like it, is just around the corner. The notion that our 21st-century world is one of accelerating advances is so dominant that it seems churlish to challenge it. Yet there once was an age when speculation matched reality. It spluttered to a halt more than 40 years ago. Most of what has happened since has been merely incremental improvements upon what came before.

Just about everything that defines the modern world either came about, or had its seeds sown, during this time. Computers and the birth of the internet. The Green Revolution in agriculture. The birth of the gay rights movement. Cheap, reliable and safe automobiles. We put a man on the Moon, sent a probe to Mars, beat smallpox and discovered the double-spiral key of life.

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The Golden Quarter was a unique period of less than a single human generation, a time when innovation appeared to be running on a mix of dragster fuel and dilithium crystals. Today, progress is defined almost entirely by consumer-driven, often banal improvements in information technology.

As the US technologist Peter Thiel once put it: New industrial powerhouses arose from the ashes of Japan. Germany experienced its Wirtschaftswunder. Even the Communist world got richer. This growth has been attributed to massive postwar government stimulus plus a happy nexus of low fuel prices, population growth and high Cold War military spending. But alongside this was that extraordinary burst of human ingenuity and societal change.

  • Capital drove the industrial revolution;
  • In a world first, those shipments of liquefied ethane will begin arriving in Rafnes later this year, and into Scotland next;
  • He lived in London;
  • The law and order has made life and property safe.

This is commented upon less often, perhaps because it is so obvious, or maybe it is seen as a simple consequence of the economics. We saw the biggest advances in science and technology: But we also saw a shift in social attitudes every bit as profound. By 1971, those old prejudices were on the back foot. Simply put, the world had changed. But surely progress today is real?

Well, take a look around.

  1. Carbon fibre is another.
  2. But Friends of the Earth Europe believes wealthy nations also need to cut down on the amount of energy consumed.
  3. The need for food, transport, communications, water. For Edwin Land was the first to mix cutting-edge technology with design.
  4. The growth of knowledge is seen most unmistakably in our control over the forces of Nature, which has opened up infinite possibilities of achievement. For the customers, it has been proof that industry consolidation can work together for the greater good.
  5. The world currently consumes about 529 quadrillion British thermal units every year.

Look up and the airliners you see are basically updated versions of the ones flying in the 1960s — slightly quieter Tristars with better avionics. In 1971, a regular airliner took eight hours to fly from London to New York; it still does. And in 1971, there was one airliner that could do the trip in three hours. Now, Concorde is dead. Our cars are faster, safer and use less fuel than they did in 1971, but there has been no paradigm shift.

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And yes, we are living longer, but this has disappointingly little to do with any recent breakthroughs. Despite these billions of investment, this war has been a spectacular failure. Even if you strip out confounding variables such as age more people are living long enough to get cancer and better diagnosis, the blunt fact is that, with most kinds of cancer, your chances in 2014 are not much better than they were in 1974. In many cases, your treatment will be pretty much the same.

After the dizzying breakthroughs of the 20th century, physics seems to have ground to a halt For the past 20 years, as a science writer, I have covered such extraordinary medical advances as gene therapy, cloned replacement organs, stem-cell therapy, life-extension technologies, the promised spin-offs from genomics and tailored medicine. None of these new treatments is yet routinely available. The paralyzed still cannot walk, the blind still cannot see.

We still have no real idea how to treat chronic addiction or dementia. And most recent advances in longevity have come about by the simple expedient of getting people to give up smoking, eat better, and take drugs to control blood pressure. There has been no new Green Revolution. We still drive steel cars powered by burning petroleum spirit or, worse, diesel.

After the dizzying breakthroughs of the early- to mid-20th century, physics seems Higgs boson aside to have ground to a halt. String Theory is apparently our best hope of reconciling Albert Einstein with the Quantum world, but as yet, no one has any idea if it is even testable.

And nobody has been to the Moon for 42 years. Why has progress stopped? Why, for that matter, did it start when it did, in the dying embers of the Second World War? One explanation is that the Golden Age was the simple result of economic growth and technological spinoffs from the Second World War.

It is certainly true that the war sped the development of several weaponisable technologies and medical advances. The Apollo space programme the world does not progress it merely could not have the world does not progress it merely when it did without the aerospace engineer Wernher Von Braun and the V-2 ballistic missile. But penicillin, the jet engine and even the nuclear bomb were on the drawing board before the first shots were fired. They would have happened anyway.

Conflict spurs innovation, and the Cold War played its part — we would never have got to the Moon without it. But someone has to pay for everything. The economic boom came to an end in the 1970s with the collapse of the 1944 Bretton Woods trading agreements and the oil shocks. So did the great age of innovation. Case closed, you might say. The 1970s recession was temporary: There is more than enough money for a new Apollo, a new Concorde and a new Green Revolution. These fruits include the cultivation of unused land, mass education, and the capitalisation by technologists of the scientific breakthroughs made in the 19th century.

It is possible that the advances we saw in the period 1945-1970 were similarly quick wins, and that further progress is much harder. But history suggests that this explanation is fanciful. During periods of technological and scientific expansion, it has often seemed that a plateau has been reached, only for a new discovery to shatter old paradigms completely.

The most famous example was when, in 1900, Lord Kelvin declared physics to be more or less over, just a few years before Einstein proved him comprehensively wrong. Lack of money, then, is not the reason that innovation has stalled. What we do with our money might be, however.

Capitalism was once the great engine of progress. It was capitalism in the 18th and 19th centuries that built roads and railways, steam engines and telegraphs another golden era. Capital drove the industrial revolution. Now, wealth is concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite. Firstly, there is a lot more for the hyper-rich to spend their money on today than there was in the golden age of philanthropy in the 19th century. Furthermore, as the French economist Thomas Piketty pointed out in Capital 2014money now begets money more than at any time in recent history.

When wealth accumulates so spectacularly by doing nothing, there is less impetus to invest in genuine innovation. In the UK, that trend levelled off a few years later, to reach a historic low point in 1977. Is it possible that there could be some relationship between equality and innovation? As success comes to be defined by the amount of money one can generate in the very short term, progress is in turn defined not by making things better, but by rendering them obsolete as rapidly as possible so that the next iteration of phones, cars or operating systems can be sold to a willing market.

Half a century ago, makers of telephones, TVs and cars prospered by building products that their buyers knew or at least believed would last for many years. No one sells a smartphone on that basis today; the new ideal is to render your own products obsolete as fast as possible.

Thus the purpose of the iPhone 6 is not to be better than the iPhone 5, but to make aspirational people buy a new iPhone and feel better for doing so. In a very unequal society, aspiration becomes a powerful force. This is new, and the paradoxical result is that true innovation, as opposed to its marketing proxy, is stymied. In the 1960s, venture capital was willing to take risks, particularly in the emerging electronic technologies.

Now it is more conservative, funding start-ups that offer incremental improvements on what has gone before. But there is more to it than inequality and the failure of capital. During the Golden Quarter, we saw a boom in public spending on research and innovation. And so we find that nearly all the advances of this period came either from tax-funded universities or from popular movements.

The first electronic computers came not from the labs of IBM but from the universities of Manchester and Pennsylvania.

The golden quarter

Even the 19th-century analytical engine of Charles Babbage was directly funded by the British government. The early internet came out of the University of California, not Bell or Xerox.

In short, the great advances in medicine, materials, aviation and spaceflight were nearly all pump-primed by public investment. But since the 1970s, an assumption has been made that the private sector is the best place to innovate. The story of the past four decades might seem to cast doubt on that belief. And yet we cannot pin the stagnation of ingenuity on a decline in public funding.

  • Yet the chemical industry is even more relevant — and important than ever in helping to create a greener economy — today;
  • Capital drove the industrial revolution.