The Second Renaissance

Every day that goes by where I donÂ't fly to work in an autopilot hoverbubble pisses me off.  IÂ've long since expected robots to pretty much tackle the mundane tasks of the day, including but not limited to cooking my dinner, washing my clothes, pre-warming the toilet seat, and tucking me in with a nice glass of juice at night.  The fact that I even have to type these words instead of projecting a focused stream of thought at my computer screen is bitterly annoying – though, I take some solace in that my word processor automatically kicks out the extra s I always put in the word focused.  Sure, my vision of the future is derived in no small part from what was promised by 1950s science fiction authors, but come on, I expected better than this.  I canÂ't help but feel like our technological sprint is degenerating into a leisurely jog through the park.

ItÂ's hardly fair for me to fault people for not maintaining the greatest leap in human knowledge presumably since someone hit someone else on the head with a heavy stick, but thatÂ's no reason for me not to do it.  I have little doubt that - should we not all be dissolved into our elemental constituent parts because someoneÂ's God got really hacked at someone elseÂ's God and told a bunch of people to just blow the whole damn thing up – futureÂ's history will record the twentieth century as something both remarkable and unprecedented.  It was violent to be sure, but also possessed of a steady crescendo of knowledge and implementation; from the assembly line to the internet in the span of a century.  This will someday be referred to as the second, and I think greater, renaissance.  Compare, for contrast, the technological advancements of the mid-renaissance fifteenth century where humanity made the mindblowing leap from inventing the first golf ball to inventing whiskey!  Sure, some German guy also modified a wine making press to incorporate movable type, but that hardly stacks up to the microprocessor, a-bomb, airplane, or penicillin. 

Unfortunately for us, weÂ're coming into the game at its end.  When they look back on our days they will speak of the second renaissance beginning in the late industrial revolution and ending with reality TV.  ThatÂ's not to say weÂ've a terrible dystopian cliché to endure along the horizon, but that I think we ought to get used to the things weÂ've got, because I suspect not much more is coming for a while.  CanÂ't you feel the big slow down?  I can.

Look at the leap from the 1950s to 1970s – bellbottoms excluded.  From the early a-bomb, cars the size of medium sized asteroids, and a thousand technological and medical barriers aching and soon-to-be broken to a world where man walked on the moon – and got pretty bored with that in a hurry – put a machine on Mars, broke the sound barrier, and created the first ICBM.  From black and white movies and television about basically good people doing unambiguously good things, to color television, special effects, and moral ambiguity as entertainment.  From the Big Bopper to the Beatles, to the BeeGees.  It was a world dashing forward, never catching its breath.  The chasm between the two generations was both volatile and obvious in almost every respect.  Civil rights, womenÂ's rights, workerÂ's rights, a narrow world view shifted to a global worldview, advancements medical, pharmaceutical, and technological; it was a tumult of change rolling like boulder down K-2. 

Then came the computer revolution, the internet, the space shuttle, and space stations.  Were I to guess where the finish line might some day be drawn, IÂ'd put it near the completion of the human genome – for all the good thatÂ's doing anyone.  Things have been slowing down, and at an increasing rate, since the late sixties.  Plenty of invention and innovation to be sure, but ones of increasingly less macrosignificance, like for example the word macrosignificance which is one entirely of my own invention, but ultimately not particularly relevant. 

So weÂ've got nothing to look forward to?  Well, no itÂ'll still be busy days, just on a different front.  WeÂ've spent so many years amassing this knowledge and technology that weÂ've never really sat down and fixed a grasp on how it changes the world and how we deal with one another. If IÂ'm wrong, and weÂ're not at the end of the second renaissance, then certainly itÂ's changing face on us.  ThereÂ's a whole world culture that needs to be addressed and sorted out.  Above and beyond the simple stuff like having to deal with people who believe in other Gods because they can just call them up on satellite telephones, the big issues might be how weÂ'll deal with a rising lifespan, how weÂ'll communicate effectively in the untamed online frontier where anonymity is taken for granted, or how weÂ'll keep ourselves busy in a world automated enough that we have a lot more time to threaten to blow each other up, and from time to time do it. 

The stories of evolution and change are always less interesting when focused – I put that extra s there again, by the way – on the semantics instead of how the people affected cope with that change.  In truth, the coming days may be far more interesting than anyone has a right to look forward to.

Methinks that I skate too close to being political, topical, or pertinent here, so letÂ's leave it at that.  IÂ'm not trying to make some grand suggestion here.  Maybe a prediction of sorts, though itÂ's more likely that IÂ've just strung some words together to play out a random thought I had in the car when I passed an old man wearing a gray fedora driving his fifty-something chevy too slowly for my tastes.  Regardless, I suspect that the advancement of the technological world to which weÂ've become so accustomed might very well be long past its prime.  I leave it to you to decide if thatÂ's good or bad.

- Elysium


My favorite MV yet. Very well written, as usual.

I have a bit of an issue saying that anything in the last millenium has had a bigger impact than the invention of moveable type, but I suppose if you're looking at it from a simply technological standpoint, it's not a really big leap forward.

I think this issue has something to do with the lack of anywhere to go. I mean, at this point all have left is space and convenience. I think it's telling that all the advancements your wanted [whether you were just being humorous or not,] were either improvements on existing products, or new products which don't really increase efficiency, they just create less work for us. I can speak to someone in China both in audio and video, all in realtime.
We really have no NEEDS.

That's not to say that tech can not advance, it certainly can, but when it does all it will really do is make what we already have smaller, faster or cheaper. As we see in wartime, huge leaps in technology tend to come when you need them most, because that's when people experiment.

PS: Actually, I suppose we still have a ways to go in medical technology, but that's not the sort of thing that has an impact on the average person's everyday life. And therefor it's not a huge priority, unfortunately.

I remember reading a comment in Scientific American that went something like: Mankind has reached the end. We have invented all that there is to invent.

It was from the look-back section, circa 1900.

Who knows what great and wonderous things await! If nothing else, we can look forward to lasers on the battlefield - Star Wars in real life!

I agree with Morrolan. There is no necessity right now. And without the mother of invention around, it hard to get anyone excited and committed to coming up with new ideas.

Personally, I don't think it will be war that drives the next technological advance, but either disease or the environment or both.

I also predict that the next big advances will not some from a developed country. We are simply too comfortable to be creative. Look to the developing nations to find new ways to do things, they truly have needs. I read in a magazine that, based on current trends, within 30 years none of the top 10 most populated cities will be in First World countries.

Until I get robot ninjas, we haven't gone far enough.

Great article but I pretty much disagree. 100 years ago could people have predicted that this little thing called the electron would have such a profound impact on our lives? Before electronics and quantum theory, we were entering the end of yet another phase of technology - steam and combustion were pretty much where it was at...then BAM.

So my feeling is that we can't know what is right around the corner, because if we knew we'd be there already. There are already a lot of areas that show a lot of promise for serious changes in the ways we live: nanotechnologies, quantum mechanics, subatomic research, etc...

Nice thoughts there, Elysium- and good to have you back....

This reminds me to recommend Vernor Vinge's (SF author) essay on "The Singularity", to be found here:

His novel, "Marooned in Realtime" is very good,

It's a nice thought that "progress" is slowing down, if only because then I could believe that people are taking the time to think about what we've been doing. Unfortunately, a) it's waaaaay past time to be giving first thoughts to the consequences of an awful lot of civilization's actions at this point, and b) I doubt that lack of forward progression will point people's thoughts backwards.

There is such an inherent belief that technological change is a good thing, it's virtually impossible to discuss it without sounding like you agree. The very language used to talk about it prevents negative views; we talk about 'progress' and 'advancement' and 'moving forward'. It's very difficult to get any purchase when trying to suggest that 'progess' isn't necessarily a positive, or that the technological miracles that we've surrounded ourselves with don't by their very nature improve our lives. The fact is, we as a culture have created an awful lot of problems for ourselves and for the world by racing, racing, racing ahead to the next problem, pushing our limits without understanding our actions, and blinding bulling forward, secure in our assumptions that we knew what we were doing, and it was Right.

I, for one, would like to see a time where western civilization takes a step back from constantly pushing the boundaries of knowledge and puts some effort into seeing what should be done with what we have (not just what can be done). Maybe things like figuring out how to not destroy the planet, or why so many people are so unhappy even though they live in happy-wonderful, advanced places like North America, or Europe. There's a lot to be done; there just aren't many people who seem interested in doing what's necessary.

Your kid will be learning sh*t in middle school that you didn't learn until college, provided the schools can get fixed. Plus he'll be kicking your ass in JO by then too.

Great article Elysium and I have to say I agree with you. But this Ray Kurzweil guy doesn't. For those who don't know The Man I highly recommend reading about him. He's considered to be one of the smartest man alive and he's the inventor of more technologies than I care to post here. I read an article about him a few months ago where he stated that technological advancement hasn't reached its peak already. In fact, we haven't seen much yet according to him. The stuff he envisions 10 years from now is mind blowing, especially when considering his track record in the predictions department.

There's still a lot waiting to happen, and as Hubbinsd pointed out, we can't really predict future breakthroughs. For all we know, next week someone will have a revelation and create a usuable hyperdrive theory, changing life as we know it forever.

On a more realistic bent, medical/genetic technology is doing frightening things these days. Have you heard that a major university (I forget which) is proposing that they'll be able to grow entire new eyes for people using stem cells within the next 2 years?

10 years from now, who knows where we'll be? Organ replacements grown from our own cells could be commonplace. Computers the size of a wrist watch have the computing power of today's supercomputers, act as cell phones, home system remotes, car key/alarm, etc. All electric vehicles, all the time. Gene therapy cures cancer and a host of other diseases. Automation/Robots in a mobile, sophisticated form. Average lifespan increases to 100+. These are all things that are possible, and not science fiction. Doesn't mean they will happen, only that they might. The last 15-20 years have been very focused on computers (and behind the scenes, medicine), but we're now in the position to start reaping the rewards of years of rapid computing advances.

Good reply Chumpy.

The problem is, live is too short for people to do that.

Also, with free time becoming even more limited due to work loads increasing, it looks like that will happen even less.

Good article though. It is amazing when you see some of those old shows or pictures that show some of the advances we have not made.

I disagree, I don't think we are even close to slowing down. Sure, we got manufacturing down, the last 50 years have just been about making it more efficient. We got the internet/digital communications almost down over the last twenty years, we're in the stage where we flesh out the rest of the niche uses and make it more efficient.

But we're just getting started on robotics, biosciences, nanotech, AI and crazy stuff in physics like qauntum computing, etc.... The next one hundred years the big stuff today (internet, digital everything, etc...) will be a commodity we don't even think about, probably in the next 25. With the age of computers it is so much faster to create, research and refine new inventions and innovations, I think the rate of advancement increases in an almost race-like condition.

Totally disagree with you Ely, I think we're still just beginning. Discoveries in the middle ages were few and far between, and today, every couple of years there's something of note. Definitely check out Kurzweil's site.

Maybe check out more often

In agreement with Paladin.. most of the advancements that have been made in the last 10 years (and continue to be made) is in the medical/scientific industry. 20 years ago AIDS and cancer were virtual death sentences.. now Magic is going on 13 years with AIDS and cancer patients have lots of hope of surviving the experience. The Human Genome has been mapped and sequenced (and BTW.. it is now ~99 percent done.. they will never finish it as some sequence are impossible to discern), they are working dilligently on mapping all organisms genomes that labs can get funding for, and research into drugs and therapies are going along at an astounding clip.

It just seems that right now Western society has directed its research resources into medicine/molecular biology, and those advances are not as visible as the advances in physics that were done in the 20th century. (with Radio, television, atomic power, telephones, the computer all being applications of physics/mathematics).