This piece originally appeared in American Affairs.
Do we live in a world of “ever-increasing change” characterized by “disruptive innovation”? Is “technology moving faster than ever before”? Are these, in fact, “unprecedented times”?
Contra the bromides of TED-talkers and Davos men, a growing chorus of contrarian scientists, scholars, and investors hold that the pace of innovation has slowed, not increased. They argue that the explosive growth and spread of digital technology has misled the public (and many policymakers) about the state of affairs in every other area of scientific progress. If we look up from the extraordinary virtual worlds depicted on our screens, we see that the future is receding before us.
But among the contrarians, there is a critical division. One camp, championed by Peter Thiel, holds that there are no physical or scientific reasons why we could not increase the pace of innovation, that technological stagnation is ultimately a social problem. The bureaucratization of science, the explosion of the regulatory apparatus, the demise of meritocracy, and any number of other social factors have slowed the pace of innovation, replacing actual technological magic with a digital simulation thereof. As Thiel famously summarized: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” Call this the social theory of stagnation.