Can Science End Decadence?

Or does a decadent society get the technological progress it deserves?

Some forms of decadence are in the eye of the beholder, but the technological disappointments in the last fifty years of Western history can be usefully quantified in in several different ways. Here’s one such quantification, via Eli Dourado and the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, showing what productivity trends look like in our world over the last fifty years, compared to a world where the pre-1970s trend continued — or the pre-Apollo trend, I should say, since the moon landing is the symbolic breakpoint that opens The Decadent Society:

Next, here’s a different kind of visualization, which illustrates a point that Robert Gordon makes in his account of economic and technological stagnation. What changed after the 1970s, he suggests, wasn’t so much the end of innovation as its concentration in just a few sectors, tech above all, after a long period when progress was happening across a much wider range of fields and industries. Thanks to a new NBER paper, you can see that insight illuminated via patent data, showing how we went from an economy with a wide spectrum of “breakthrough” patents to one where everything novel was in electronics and information technology:

So that’s where we’ve been: No flying cars, no “Jetson’s stuff,” no vibranium or cold fusion, just really sleek and speedy delivery systems for pornography, video games and (God help us) political commentary.

But where are we going? Maybe somewhere better, faster, newer. As I noted in the first post in this series, if you’re looking for paths out of decadence, there’s enough technological work coming to fruition to make the 2030s and 2040s look, if not quite like an age of wonders, at least more like what preceded the Apollo program than what has happened since.

A number of people have been writing on these possibilities, some of them prophets of stagnation a decade back; even Gordon is willing to venture that the next decade will be a little better than the last one. Dourado has the best overarching look, covering a lot of territory: mRNA vaccines for HIV and mRNA cancer treatments; therapeutic plasma as an anti-aging treatment; primary care replaced by continuous monitoring by wearable health sensors; next-generation geothermal energy; baby steps in compact fusion; bigger steps in sustainable alternative fuels; the triumph of the electric car; the emergence of the self-driving car; a new era of supersonic flight; a new era of local flight (light planes, not flying cars but …. basically flying cars); small hyperloop prototypes; space exploration paid for by new satellite networks; Mars! (probably not, but not definitely not); augmented-reality glasses (Google Glass, but actually adopted); vertical farming; etc. etc.

For a narrow, deeper cut, here’s Razib Khan on the promise of CRISPR-based genetic engineering to possibly eliminate Mendelian disease and launch a GMO-based green revolution 2.0. And my fellow AEI fellow James Pethokoukis has a new techno-optimist Substack that promises to be a good place to keep track of these trends as well.

I’m not competent to assess the state of the science across all these arenas, but it does seem plausible that we’re nearing a point where real-world applications will accelerate across multiple fields, on a scale and breadth we haven’t seen in my adult lifetime apart from the hopeful dawn of the internet era. In which case it’s worth considering a couple of possibilities for what this might mean for the larger phenomenon of decadence.

The first possibility is suggested by an aside in Dourado’s survey, when he mentions the potential impact of various alternative-energy breakthroughs on international affairs:

… there may be very interesting geopolitical consequences in the decade ahead to America’s newfound energy independence. I could easily see, for example, the US deciding we actually don’t need an alliance with the Saudis after all, considering they are journalist-dismembering savages. If the US pulls out of Saudi Arabia, war between the Saudis and the Iranians becomes likely. Which means oil shipments to Asia get disrupted. Which means global chaos.

This is a good specific example of a general point that I tried to stress in the late-middle chapters of The Decadent Society: When it comes to possible endings for a decadent era, none are likely to feel comfortable. This is clearly true of apocalyptic scenarios, the plague and comet endings, but it’s true of any plausible renaissance as well. There was nothing particularly relaxed about 16th-century Europe, nothing peaceable about Renaissance Italy or Reformation-era Germany, nothing particularly chill about the 1780s or the 1960s or for that matter the original rise of Christianity. Yes, one might hope for a brief post-Covid Era of Good Feelings in the 2020s, borne out of a Biden boom and a politics of abundance. But the last politics-of-abundance period gave us the cultural revolution of the ‘60s, and overall you would expect a more dynamic epoch to produce novel geopolitical disturbances, political turmoil of which the populist era has only been a foretaste, new forms of social instability (maybe the long promised revolt of the long-haul truckers against self-driving freight), unexpected cultural and religious rebellions … all manner of developments, in other words, that will inspire a certain nostalgia for, say, the Romney-Obama debate about “binders full of women” back in the peak-decadence year of 2012.

So that’s one reality worth keeping in mind. But another is the fact that expanding technological possibilities aren’t necessarily enough to cancel decadence on their own. At the simplest level, that’s because decadent institutions and cultural habits can often prevent new technologies from being adopted at scale. NIMBYism and regulation for regulation’s sake and bureaucratic force-of-habit and political gridlock are all obvious impediments to any technological change that requires, say, a deregulated airspace or a big change to the built environment or a substantial public investment in new infrastructure. And a version of the late-modern complacency that Matt Yglesias wrote about here, in the context of the weird public indifference to the slowness of the vaccine approval process, is at work alongside and within all these structural impediments. In a wealthy, aging society, there may be a constant deficit of the sort of public discontent over specific problems (as opposed to a general sense of disappointment and malaise) that you need to generate the political required to just improve on existing transportation infrastructure, let alone build Elon Musk’s hyperloop.

But then there’s also a more subtle and speculative point, which is that you might expect a decadent society to adopt some technological breakthrough … but in ways that end up deepening decadence, even if the breakthroughs themselves are innovations that in a different context might spark renewal instead. Indeed, something like this seems to have already happened with the internet. If you go back and read the early utopian hopes for online life, they don’t seem inherently implausible — more civic and democratic engagement, more creativity and independence, the end of monopolies at home and the fall of authoritarian regimes abroad, and all kinds of new forms of community and personal connection. But so far the the way we’ve actually used the internet has created more gridlock and polarization, more alienation and anomie, stronger power centers and weakened peripheries, plus a springtime for authoritarianism in China and elsewhere around the world.

Was this inevitable? Maybe. (Or maybe it’s just a transitional phase and soon telecommuting and Substack will create the decentralized utopia that were promised initially.) But maybe, like a doomed character in some fable, we were given a technological gift that could have been used for great good, but at a time in our civilization’s life cycle when it was easier, so much easier, to let it become a kind of lotus plant (with certain deranging side effects) instead.

Now imagine that happening again. Imagine, say, a near future where one of the life-extension treatments on Dourado’s list comes to fruition, and extends life, healthy life, beyond the old four score and ten. Not the Singularity, not immortality, just a plausible leap to a different, longer life cycle for lots of human being.

This could be a spur to dynamism: More time, more healthy time, for human minds and bodies to think and work and create, to deepen their knowledge within their chosen field, to experiment more radically, switch careers more boldly, to go for it and write that novel, have that extra child, go back to college, open that business, plant that church.

Or it could be … something else. Not an extension of adventurous youth, but an extension of unimaginative, risk-averse late middle age. Or an extension of both, but in the dreariest sense — with young people putting off the risks and choices and responsibilities of full adulthood ever-longer, enjoying slackerdom because there’s so much time, while society’s overall age distribution tilts ever more toward the sixties, seventies and eighties, with different consequences for different classes. At the top, we would be governed (like today but much, much more so) by a rich, change-averse older generation that seems to live forever and never gives their power up. For the middle classes, you would have a cruise-ship culture, in which (to steal a line from Sam Kriss’s appreciation of J.G. Ballard) “life and love fade into a vague soup of placid entertainment and digitised violence; self-care, compulsory leisure, the gently administered spa resort at the end of time.” And at the bottom you would have the proles who reject the gift of life extension entirely, in favor of synthetic drugs, sporadic violence, falling life expectancy, and political impotence.

Adding more years to a civilization already sinking into decrepitude, in this scenario, would only deliver its rulers to the fate of the long-lived lords of Gondor, as adumbrated by their successor Faramir:

Kings built tombs more splendid than the houses of the living and counted the names of their descent dearer than the names of their sons. Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry or in high cold towers asking questions of the stars. And so the kingdom of Gondor sank into ruin, the line of kings failed, the white tree withered and the rule of Gondor was given over to lesser men.

Though for heraldry and astronomy you’d want to swap in whatever forms of virtual entertainment entrance our long-lived decadents. And for the white tree withering, perhaps, substitute the slow decay of real-world spaces, a San Franciscan endgame where the white city crumbles while its Eloi retreat into the Cloud.

Of course this dark scenario assumes that virtual entertainments, simulated realities and dream palaces can’t themselves become the site of a renaissance, the place where creativity takes off and America reinvention happens once again.

But I’ve written enough here; that’s a subject for a later post.