Why technological progress is really stuck. A look at what happened to all the cool technology that 1960s science fiction promised us.
Last week on the WhoWhatWhy podcast, we looked at how the world might be without human intervention and technology. In this week’s podcast, we look at it from the opposite point of view.
We are joined by author, engineer, and futurist J. Storrs Hall, who wrote Where Is My Flying Car?
Hall looks into the mystery of why the technological advancements promised in the 1960s have yet to materialize. He explains his theory that technological stagnation on big projects began in the ’70s, fueled by factors such as the failure to adopt nuclear energy, and the rise of a counterculture hostile to energy production.
Hall believes this stagnation has had devastating consequences on global wealth creation and distribution.
His vision of the future is one based on production of more and different kinds of energy; he argues that future exponential growth and technological progress must be powered by advancements in nanotechnology, biotechnology, AI, and nuclear power.
In explaining why this will result in a world of greater wealth and abundance, he issues a call to action for a future that matches the vaunting ambitions of the 1960s science fiction writers.
Full Text Transcript:
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Jeff: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Once upon a time, we were promised technology that would really change the world. Futurists and science fiction writers, who often write the first draft of technological progress, offered up a world of abundant energy, frictionless mobility, eternal health, and a greater proliferation of knowledge and wisdom. So what happened?
Instead of harnessing the energy of the atom, we learned how to swipe left and right. Instead of flying cars, we got the ability to order a car over the phone. Instead of eternal health, we got, if lucky, the ability to fill out medical forms online. In education, we wondered if the whiteboard was really any better than the blackboard. Are these failures of imagination or of will, or is there some complacency virus that entered our national bloodstream and slowed us down?
Back in 1962, Jack Kennedy said, “We should go to the moon not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard, because,” he said, “that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept and one we are unwilling to postpone.” When he said that, he wasn’t talking about inventing social media or even the pocket phone, or the ability to carry our music around with us. The goals were far bigger. Why have we failed so badly at doing these big things?
We’re going to talk about that today with my guest, J. Storrs Hall. He’s an independent scientist, an author. He was the founding chief scientist of Nanorex and president of the Foresight Institute; and is currently a research fellow at the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing, and an associate editor of the International Journal of Nanotechnology and Molecular Computation. His work is suddenly garnering lots of new attention. His most recent book is Where Is My Flying Car? And it is my pleasure to welcome Josh Hall here to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. Josh, thanks so much for joining us.
Josh: Thank you. And it’s a pleasure to be here.
Jeff: It is great to have you here. There was a time, once upon a time, when we could do big things, whether it was go to the moon or move aircraft design along to create the 747. All of that seemed to stop at a certain point. What was that point as you see it?
Josh: Well, as I see it, that was the inflection point in the Henry Adams curve. Henry Adams was the grandson of John Adams and the son of John Quincy Adams. And he was a man about the world in the 19th century. And in his autobiography in about 1910, he pointed out that it was really one of the most amazing facts of his world, that we had been able to use more and more and more energy over the course of the Industrial Revolution, and his prognostication of that actually continued well after he was gone, until about 1970.
And then what happened? This beautiful exponentially rising trend line of how much energy we had to do wonderful things with just flatlined. And since about 1970, the average American has not gained the ability to have any more energy at all, but in fact, somewhat slightly less. And that’s also true of most of the more mature industrial economies in the world, notably Europe and the UK.
Jeff: Is that because energy became less abundant or more expensive, or was there something else at play?
Josh: Oh, it was a perfect storm of the various things that could happen to you. But I think — and this is my own take on the subject — I think that what happened is that we just got dumb, fat, and happy and quit striving to do more energy. And once you get into that mode, the only way that you can get ahead is to criticize what other people are doing and act like you’re being good and they’re being bad. And the most obvious and apparently effective thing that most other people were doing that came to be seen as being bad is producing and using large amounts of energy.
So when you look at the predictions made by the science fiction writers and the futurists and anybody else who was making long-term predictions back in the ’50s and ’60s, they are the people who were expecting us to have flying cars and all the other stuff. And so what happened is that I went in my latest book, I looked at all the predictions and I cross-correlated them with what amount of energy a solution to that prediction would have used.
And it was a stark, stark relationship where if you made a prediction that required less than, let us say, 10 kilowatts per person, which is the level that we flatlined at, it generally came true. And if you made a prediction where the solution to the prediction or the implementation of that particular vision of the future was going to cost significantly more than that in terms of energy, it didn’t come true.
Jeff: To what extent was that individuals at corporations at the time trying to protect the status quo and really prevent innovation that might be disruptive to those that had been successful already?
Josh: Well, there was a certain amount of that. It’s a phenomenon that was noted by Machiavelli 500 years ago, that if you’re trying to do change, you better watch your tail because the people, the powers that got there by doing certain things don’t want things done differently. But that’s part of the human condition. As I say, that was Machiavelli’s observation in Renaissance Italy 500 years ago.
On the other hand, in Renaissance Italy things actually changed quite a bit. And they have been changing, especially since the Industrial Revolution. So while that phenomenon is something of a stumbling block to progress, it can’t be the whole answer — because over the course of the Industrial Revolution, the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, you had a lot of progress, a lot of new stuff, and there were plenty of powers that weren’t particularly concerned that the average person did better and better. They just wanted to stay on top. Of course, we still have that with us.
To some extent, what happened in the ’60s and ’70s was that the Machiavelli-type situations got a little more firmly entrenched because people were less likely to look to technology as being the solutions to their problems. And again, there was a perfect storm of things that made that happen in society, but all of the different sources of that lack of progress came together about that time. And that’s why you get beautiful, clean improvements in the amount of energy that people are getting all the way up to 1970. And that includes a large build-out during the 1960s of nuclear power, for example.
And then some people realized that they could make political hay and become known as saviors of humanity simply by opposing that and casting aspersions on it and producing all sorts of fear, uncertainty, and doubt about that kind of thing. And so in the social environment of the ’60s, a lot of that stuff got traction that it simply would not have gotten decades or even centuries before.
Jeff: There was also a sense in that same period of denigrating technological progress.
Josh: Yes. And that’s something that I was grappling with in the book because just a century ago now, the technological heroes, they named towns after Edison, all of the people who invented the airplane and electricity, and all the other stuff that we got that completely improved our lives — I mean, even indoor plumbing. This is not just frilly stuff; it’s basic to the way we live now and have this really comfortable existence. But to some extent, you have a comfortable existence, you begin to take it for granted. So when I was writing the book, I was saying, “Look, just a century ago, the people who did things like Edison and invented the cool stuff that we now take for granted, were heroes.”
If you go back in the Google engrams of the books and other publications of the day, you’ll find that the Thomas Edisons and the Wright Brothers are just as popular as Babe Ruth and the other people that we think of as being popular as sports figures and other heroes, but that just vanished. It was not until, I think, probably the Vietnam era where that changed. It’s not clear to me why, in a very general sense, that happened and that happened then, but it certainly did happen.
Jeff: One of the things you point out, for example, just to take aviation as an example, that between the Wright Brothers and the 707, it was 50 years. In the 50 years since, very little progress has been made in aviation.
Josh: Now what’s happened in the meantime, is that there’s been huge progress on making the airliners more efficient, and use less fuel, and be cheaper to run, and so forth. There hasn’t been no progress, but the fact is that airline travel available to every person is kind of stuck in a rut, and that rut has been around since the ’70s, and the flat line of the Henry Adams curve of energy is— We ought to be — if we had stayed on the curve of airline improvement, how fast you could actually fly and so forth by buying a ticket on an airplane. You go up to the ’60s and then there is a natural rut in the space of actual — the physics of flying, which is that you’re getting close to having to fly at the speed of sound, and that’s a lot more energy-intensive.
So they did manage to build a couple of supersonic airliners back in that era — the Concorde, for example — but they were not economically viable. It’s only now that people are beginning to say, “Okay, wait a minute. We dropped the ball here. We ought to be able to go from London to New York in an hour and to Tokyo in two hours.”
And so people are beginning to look at that again, but in this particular case, you had not only the economics and the lack of improving energy, you look at the future and you say, “Okay, we’ll all be taking supersonic airliners.” But that requires us to have continued to improve the amount of energy available to everybody, and we didn’t. That was the first part.
Now, the other part is a bunch of sort of regulatory crud that accrues on everything. If you just sit back and watch, there’ll be more regulations about what you’re trying to do any year than there were a year before, and that’s just apparently a phenomenon of living in a highly bureaucratic country. So there’s that. That was a bit of a problem for supersonic aircraft, but the main one was the flat line in the energy curve.
Jeff: What accounts for, as you analyze it, what accounts for that flatlining, for that stagnation in the energy curve?
Josh: Well, as I was saying, I think there was a perfect storm of social phenomena. So the first and most obvious one was that people got richer and they got more comfortable, and they didn’t need progress to bring them to a comfortable place to be, because by and large, they had gotten there.
If you look at countries where people are still poor, they are trying really hard — like China, for example. You’ll find that they have not had a flat line because the average person in China doesn’t get anywhere near the amount of energy that we do, and so China is still putting more power plants online essentially every year than we have. This is just a huge country, and they’re really building out. They’re still skiing up that curve, and who knows when they will hit that point.
They’re an example that one of the reasons that you try hard to build out more energy is that you need it. If you get to the point where you think you don’t need it, or you can take it for granted or whatever, then you don’t try so hard. And all the other phenomena that have to do with where you build energy, like anything from environmentalism to simply wanting to invest in something else instead, show up and form a sort of trying to wade through mud. And if you don’t have a strong wind behind you and you’re still trying to wade through mud, you slow down, and that’s what we did.
Jeff: To what extent did the counter-cultural revolution of the ’60s play a role?
Josh: The counter-cultural revolution of the ’60s was a rejection of a whole bunch of stuff, starting with, how shall we say, protestant sexual ethics and going from there. And it turns out that if you are trying to object to somebody’s society and way of life and all that stuff, the first thing you object to is the thing that sticks out, the thing that is more obvious, the thing that is more powerful. And so, in the case of the counter-cultural revolution, there were these people who were ready to object to just about anything their parents had taught them, but the things that were most salient, that were easier to get people riled up about, were the big powerful things. And so, those were the ones that got attacked first.
Jeff: And of course, the environmental movement grew out of that.
Josh: There was a substantial increase in the environmental movement. I think in the counter-cultural revolution, people were just casting about to find things that they could say, “We are better people than you.” And the environmental movement just got a lot of feedback from that. The environmental movement was around a century before when they started founding the national parks and forests and wildernesses and so forth, and people began realizing that we had a really wonderful environment in this country that we should try and preserve.
And it changed its character to some extent, and it took on a whole bunch of virtue-signaling aspects, and essentially the aspect of a religion. There’s something real there; it’s just that, like anything that is real, it can be hijacked by people who are basically virtue signaling and trying to put themselves above others and use that as a social lever.
Jeff: Given that we have seen this migration, certainly over this same period of time that we’re talking about, that we’ve seen this migration more and more to cities and outside of rural areas and suburbs and “nature,” as it were, why hasn’t that translated into more enthusiasm for the technological progress we’re talking about?
Josh: Well, it’s a good question, but I think actually what happens is that cities are just not done right. This is a technology we have not mastered. People who live in cities live in essentially an entirely artificial environment, and they are less happy than people who live in small towns, who are less happy than people who live in the country. Stats from the General Social Survey, it’s just a fact. And what that means is when we have the opportunity to build the entire environment, the complete artificial environment that people can live in, we just haven’t done a good job.
And I think one of the things that, if we have any sense whatsoever, we’ll look at is in the future we had better start studying about how to build an artificial environment because a lot of us are going to be living in them no matter what, one way or the other. We should start looking about how to build an artificial environment that is as pleasant to live in, and gives you as much a quality of life, as living in the country.
Jeff: One of the things that you talk about, also, is this extremism in the environmental movement, this movement towards the idea that somehow humanity itself is a problem.
Josh: Well, I think that’s a self-defeating thing. In the longer run, I’m not worried about it. If everybody who thought humans were the poison of the earth simply had the courage of their convictions and never had kids, they’d die out pretty quick. That’s essentially what I think about that. It’s not something I’m particularly worried about. Every so often, I’ll see some expression of that and say, “Are you crazy?” But that’s about it.
Jeff: Talk about the stagnation that happened with respect to nuclear power and the reasons why you think that happened.
Josh: Well, the first one was nuclear power was, A, big and powerful, and B, not well understood, and C, this is probably the most important thing, was associated in the public mind with nuclear weapons, even though it’s a completely different technology. You get people who use exactly the same word, nukes, for nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants. And so there was a major failure of education on the part of people who should have been doing the education.
So, for example, after the Three Mile Island incident in America — in which absolutely nobody was killed, and essentially, the only major damage was purely economic — they ruined a nuclear power plant that cost billions of dollars, and so they were out billions of dollars. But there were a couple of things that happened. One was, there was micromanagement by Congress, who thought, “Oh, this is nuclear. This is like atom bombs. We have to have a direct interest and tell everybody who’s doing this exactly how to do it, even though we don’t have a clue.” So, that happened, and that was one of the problems with nuclear, because the standard industry techniques, like computer control of processes and so forth, were illegal.
But the other one was simply that the people who were the anti-nuclear forces went around and misinformed people about the technology and the physics and so forth in a really, really big way. So, right after Three Mile Island, people went and did surveys of the public. And it turns out that something like two-thirds of the public believed that a nuclear a power plant was essentially a giant atom bomb just waiting to go off, which is way, way, way far from the truth. There’s nothing whatsoever that could cause a nuclear power plant to explode in the sort of way that people had been told it could.
And so, it was a wild vast failure to understand the actual technology and process on the part of the public. And I think in this one case, you can lay the blame specifically on the people who are promoting this disinformation. Normally, I think when people don’t understand something, that’s just the way people are: Nobody is an expert in everything. And rumors and ghosts and goblins and fairies and all sorts of other beliefs will just grow because that’s the way people are. But in the case of nuclear, it was actually promoted. The falsehoods about nuclear power were intentionally promoted by certain political forces.
So that’s the background on which the then-unfortunate decisions made in the political process were made. And it turns out that we got some really bad luck and we had a rabid anti-nuclear guy be installed as the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, at which point nuclear plants just quit being built.
Jeff: How much of it also comes from the fact that the evolution of nuclear energy and the splitting of the atom itself happened in such secrecy and was really about weapons? And that was really the beginning of it as far as people understood it.
Josh: Well, it was actually just science up until World War II. And then in World War II, everything became about weapons. So there is certainly something to that point of view. On the other hand, once we came out of the war, the Eisenhower administration, for example, promoted “Atoms for Peace.” I don’t know if you remember that, that we were going to now take the technology that we had created and put it to the service of humanity and make poor people rich and provide energy to the masses and share this with the world.
So, why did one government program succeed and the other one fail? I don’t know. But there remained from the war a— If you just go back and read newspapers and science fiction and novels and everything, like On The Beach, to the ads for home fallout shelters that were in every popular science magazine in the ’50s and ’60s, the culture just picked this up somehow. And culture tends to run with something that is a scare story better than it does something that isn’t. And that’s just, as far as I can tell, simply the way people work.
Jeff: Where does all of this leave us today, in your view, looking forward towards maybe reinvigorating this desire to do big things?
Josh: Well, I kind of thought I was a voice in the wilderness when I wrote the book. And the book was originally my memoirs and I was just going to say, “Here’s what we all thought when I was a kid and didn’t happen. Why not?” But I was a bit surprised when Stripe Press came to me and said, “We’d like to take your memoirs and publish them as a real book, and I’ll give you an editor” — who made it a much a more readable thing, by the way. It was just a meandering reminiscence in my original version of it.
So, they did a good job. But it turns out there is a small movement of people who were of like mind that I hadn’t even really known about. And because of the book, I’ve been privileged to meet many of them. And the other thing about them is a lot of them are young folks who are much more likely to make the future than I am because I’m pushing 70 now. And so, all I can do is sit back and dandle grandchildren on my knee saying, “Ah, I like this from the old days.” But the young guys are actually getting out there and doing stuff. So, I am more optimistic about the future than any time when I was actually writing the book.
Jeff: Where does digital technology, the future of that and things like Moore’s Law — which does seem to be going forward, although that seems to be in stagnation at the moment too — and the prospect of AI? How does that fit into this larger equation?
Josh: Oh, I think it’s a big deal. I mean, I spent my whole career designing computers and doing artificial intelligence, and I am really pleased at the progress that we’ve had in those fields. And I have an iPhone that has more computing power than any university computer I ever used when I was actually at a university. This is quite amazing. And I probably don’t even have to tell you what amazing things that the new artificial intelligence, the large language models, and that kind of thing are doing. But what I can tell you is that the reason that they’re doing it is the availability of enormous amounts of computing power compared to what we ever had in the 20th century.
So it goes hand-in-hand, but we are learning a lot about what it takes to make an intelligence. We don’t come close to actually knowing all of it. They found these techniques that just work. But in my last artificial intelligence book, I predict that this is 10 years ago, that people will suddenly start realizing these techniques are actually working, and the money and the research and the experimentation will just pour in. And that’s exactly what’s happened. So I’m very bullish on the future of AI and of robotics.
And I think, ultimately, that will feed back into our ability to produce energy and to understand how to unlock the energy inherent in the nucleus of the atom and not have to worry about burning dead dinosaurs in the Earth’s atmosphere to keep from freezing. So, all in all, I would have to say that I’m really a lot more optimistic than I was 10 years ago about how things are going.
Jeff: And do you anticipate pushback from these people that are fearful of this technology? And as we’ve seen repeatedly throughout history, people that are concerned that somehow this is going to upset the balance of the status quo, both because it impacts them personally, or it has a larger global impact as they see it.
Josh: Well, you could in fact see a Machiavelli-effect push back to AI. And for example, imagine that somebody realizes that you could take a somewhat enhanced version of a large language model, and use it as a tutor for every single kid who’s trying to learn stuff in school. I would not be surprised at all to find the teachers’ unions opposing this, especially in California. But ultimately, these sort of things happened.
A century ago, the musician’s unions were trying to keep people from recordings of music, because they were so lifeless. So there were no live musicians playing this stuff. And yet, you hear more recorded music now [laughs] than ever in the world. So I think that there will definitely be resistance, and pushback, and Machiavelli-effect backlash, but I think that this is so much the wave of the future that it’s not going to do more than impede it at the edges.
Jeff: And maybe, it will bring about flying cars at some point.
Josh: Well, let’s hope so. It would be nice.
Jeff: And before I let you go, talk about an area that you are so deeply involved in, nanotechnology, and how that fits into this equation.
Josh: Okay. In the book, I argue that the key technologies that will shape the 21st century are nanotechnology and nuclear power sources and artificial intelligence, and I think they just go together in a good technological way. Now, technology is essentially when we reinvent life. Life is basically just a technology. It evolved, but it’s a technology that works with atomic precision at the atomic scale. And that’s why living things are so much different from things that are not living.
And we have, obviously, used life and technology for our food, to begin with, but for almost everything we make for as long as we’ve been a civilization out of the Iron Age. So, that is going to undergo a tremendous change in the capabilities and so forth of technology with nanotechnology, where we are essentially able to harness the same kinds of machines that living things use, only more powerful and able to withstand greater variations, and temperature, and to use electricity as opposed to simply breathing air, or something.
In order to design all these machines, we are going to need artificial intelligence. In order to power them, we are going to need power derived from nuclear sources, simply because they will be able to use it, and to fulfill their potential they will need to use that much more power. We are sitting on the edge of a whole nother industrial revolution that will change the world as much as the first one did.
But I think those three basic technologies — and when I say those three, I’m saying essentially that biotechnology, which is going great guns right now, will just be folded in as a subset of nanotechnology— So molecularly precise physical technologies, information technologies that allow us to make good decisions at any scale from the atomic to the national, and a source of power that is essentially limitless and cheap and clean all await us if only we buckle down, and get to work, and make them.
Jeff: J. Storrs Hall, his most recent book is Where is My Flying Car. Josh, I thank you for spending time with us today here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.
Josh: I was happy to be here. Thank you for having me.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I hope you join us next week. For another radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.