Peak of Our Civilization

  1. russ_watters

    Staff: Mentor

    So first off, I know the title is a paraphrase from "The Matrix" but just relax: this is not yet another philosophy of The Matrix thread. This is a thread about where the world is and where it is going in terms of development and increasing standard of living. I don't intend it to be political, but I do forsee some political implications, so we'll just have to see where that goes. And I do have some starting premises that you can feel free to challenge:

    1. I don't forsee energy production to be a big, big picture/long term issue. Transitions may be painful, but there are ways to power our needs for centuries if not millenia.
    2. I don't forsee a population crisis or food production issue being a limiting factor. Rather, I see certain areas of the world that are going to have major problems until they become developed and control their populations. Eventually, the world population will have to level-off one way or another.

    So, what I forsee is a gradual leveling-off of the current first-world standard of living, with it advancing not much further than it is today. The main reason is technology: I think it is getting to the point where it is mature, where large advances will become less and less likely.

    Some history and background to my argument: The industrial revolution is typically listed as being from the 1790s to 1860s and is cited as, on its own, revolutionizing how people live their lives. And certainly many inventions made huge changes in how people did things (particularly the steam engine itself). But it was more fundamental than even that. It was a re-organization or re-purposing of society from on that put the vast majority of its effort into just staying alive into one where people suddenly had time and money to spare to use to make their lives better. In short, it made the focus of society advancement of itself rather than just sustaining of itself. Contrast that to the preceding centuries or millenia where little in the way of sustained advancement happened.

    To make that advancement happen was the rise of engineering (yes, I know what I am...). The rise of engineerng had a complimentary effect on science, helping it advance even more rapidly the century after the industrial revolution than during the scientific revolution a century earlier. Engineering gave scientists the tools they needed to do their jobs better. Other applied sciences (such as medicine) followed.

    The working-together of pure and applied sciences in the 20th century led to some truly remarkable advances, such as moving from figuring out how to fly leading to a mature global air travel industry in some 60 years.

    But I see science as having a hyperbolic trajectory that is leveling off. Sure it will continue to advance, but that advancement seems to me to be a closing of error margins. Perhaps I lack vision, but I don't see much chance of what we learn in the future having as profound an impact on society as what we learned in the 20th century. I see evidence of this in the leveling-off of the advancement of those technological marvels in the 20th century. The Boeing 707 came out in 1958 and since then we've doubled the time since Kitty Hawk with little fundamental change in air travel. The average life expectancy of westerners about doubled in the 20th century, but the human body seems built to last 90-110 years and now we're spending more and more money on smaller and smaller improvements in health (a trend that has a profound impact on the current political scene of course). Computers were one of the last major advances of the 20th century, but now computing power has plateaued and computers are everywhere, to the point where we'd have trouble figuring out where else to put them!

    So I have trouble seeing how we're going to advance much further than we are today. Sure it is possible that I just lack vision, but consider life expectancy, for example. Prior to the maturation of medicine, life was a minefield, riddled with things that might kill you that today are only minor inconveniences. Even if the average life expectancy was 40, if you were one of the lucky ones to navigate that minefield (and it was pretty much entirely a matter of luck), you could live to 80 or beyond. Fast forward to today and the average life expectancy is 80. But it isn't 80 because we've actually extended the potential lifespan of humans - no one lives to 160 today - it is 80 because we've removed most of the mines from the minefield. If in the next 20 or 30 years someone invents a nanobot that swims throughout your body identifying and killing cancer cells, it would be listed as one of the all-time greatest achievements in the history of applied science. But it wouldn't come anywhere close to the true impact of the invention of vaccines and anti-biotics. It would tick-up the average life expectancy perhaps 5 more years, but that's about it. Removing the first half of the minefields has a big effect on life expectancy. Removing the next half has a much smaller effect. That's a hyperbolic trajectory.

    For another example, consider what most of us now tend to think of as pretty mundane: heating and air conditioning. I think that for quality of life, there can be scarcely be more profound an advancement than a little box on your wall that ensures that the environment you spend most of your time in is exactly the perfect temperature for you (yes, I realize what I do for a living...). Quality of life-wise, there is nowhere else to go with that. All the future holds for HVAC is to make that most mundane and profound of quality of life enhancements all the more forgettable by reducing how much it costs to have it.

    So where do we go from here? I think the only major remaining quality of life challenge is toward equality. Not so much for developed nations - I think as the plateau is reached, more and more people get on it and quality of life differences are already pretty small as it is. I recognize that that that is somewhat of a political opinion and many disagree, but considering that development is a hyperbolc curve, plotting inequality on it yields people not very far from each other in development in a first world nation. Consider that even most poor have plenty of food and refrigerators in the first world (in the US it is over 99% of the poor who own refrigerators). But a former boss of mine adopted a couple of Vietnamese kids and could not get them to stop opening the refrigerator. This cold box filled with food may as well have dropped from an alien spaceship. And forget Disneyland - seeing a fairy-tale land of make-believe wonderfulness just took a trip to the nearest supermarket. Flush toilets? Bill Gates has several, but so do I! Those Vietnamese kids had never had access to. That reality - the one devoid of supermarkets and refrigerators and toilets - is the reality that somewhere around a third to half the world's population still lives in. So the big challenge for the next hundred years plus is getting the rest of the world up to our standard of living -- I think our standard of living isn't going to change much more.
  2. jcsd
  3. Ryan_m_b

    Staff: Mentor

    I agree with this. Energy prices may rise dramatically and there may be shortages but we have the capacity to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels. Earlier I happened across this article that mentions the dramatic decrease in solar panel cost over the last few years; costs are a quarter now of what they were in 2008 and they halved in 2011 alone.
    The cost of raising a child dramatically increases in a developed world, on top of this we have the obvious effect of medicine reducing the need for children. A big often overlooked factor in this issue is rights for women; in a developed country where women have equal rights and equal status in society (or near equal) they tend not to spend most of their adult life pregnant and instead pursue their own careers and lives for a longer time before having children.
    Here I disagree and agree. Partly I think many areas are becoming mature and are moving into the realm of efficiency and economics over "betterness". There are also many factors other than technology that affect use of technology, you mentioned planes and how commercial liners haven't changed that much (indeed the latest Dreamliner has little improvements in speed but is far more fuel efficient). We have had the technology to run super-sonic commercial airlines for decades but we don't because there is no economic argument for us all to fly in Concordes and there's the problem of noise pollution, instead the trend has been for small short-haul no-thrills flights. I don't envision this changing in the future because of the economics (I don't count the possibility of super-sonic bizjets here).

    However I think there are many new fields of technology that are just beginning that offer major paradigm shifts. For example molecular manufacturing via synthetic biology, 3D printers, bespoke-over-net etc all have huge potential to revolutionise manufacturing and materials science. I think there are major fields that could drastically change things in the same way the advent of the internet did but it is hard-impossible to predict them now.
    The problem with life extension is that beyond ~40 years old the ability to maintain and self-repair dramatically decreases. This is due to a complex series of metabolic changes that occur as we age. Things like antibiotics work because they eliminate the thing that is causing harm and allow the body to repair the damage however if the body lacks the ability to repair then there's nothing that can be done (yet: there are some interesting therapeutics in the pipeline that could boost wound healing in those with impaired wound healing). Whilst I might be a bit biased towards the field I feel that regenerative medicine will drastically change medicine in the 21st century, it wont be as simple as the introduction of antibiotics or vaccines but the ability to direct cell behaviour for tissue engineering purposes and the ability to synthesise tissue both in vitro and in vivo will change everything. Nanotechnology has a big part in this (though not robots!) allowing far more precise control of biology. It may be that we manage not only to boost life expectancy further but we significantly increase the period of life spent fit and healthy. Old lungs beginning to pack in? Replace them with fresh ones. Cancer? Get it genotyped and have a tailored medicine delivered via targeted drug delivery mechanisms. Metabolic problems? Gene, protein and antisense therapy will get everything ticking over again.
    Whilst Moore's law might tap out the difference will be what we do with these computers. Computers of the future might not be that much faster but they could be a hell of a lot smarter (I don't mean anything as science fiction as strong-AI but something along the lines of software intelligent enough to learn behaviour, respond in natural language etc).
    Something I would like to see in the future (and I think this is happening with the BRICS amongst others) is wealth more evenly spread across the world rather than having one or two superpowers taking the majority. Hopefully this will extend into the countries with wealth disparity amongst the population being very low. Something we are going to have to deal with is the economy and employment. Increasing automation and specialisation of the workforce removes a lot of demand for work, especially amongst unskilled workers. Adjusting our attitude to work towards a leisure economy where maximum work hours are capped and wage supplemented by something akin to a basic income would allow for productivity but decrease unemployment.

    Lastly focus on metrics like Gross National Happiness would be a great way of monitoring and increasing quality of life, at the moment I think the focus purely on economic growth is damaging to the quality of life in many countries.

    My 2 cents there :wink:
  4. OmCheeto

    OmCheeto 2,239
    Gold Member
    2014 Award

    Well! Here I've been a socialist marxist commie rat fink my whole life(according to someone, who's name shall remain unspoken, lest he reappear), and now that I've decided to spend the rest of my life being the penultimate capitalist, you've pulled the proverbial Persian rug out from underneath my feet before I even got started.

    Thanks a freakin' lot.

    You didn't happen to fall asleep while logged in, with your girlfriend in the house, did you?
  5. russ_watters

    Staff: Mentor

    I think my opinions are sometimes misunderstood and in this case I think the logic should be pretty straightforward (and I think political logic is often twisted and wrong, but people get too used to it): Since I don't think that the actual standard of living is very unequal in the west, I don't think there is much to be gained from re-distribution. But the other side of the coin is that though there isn't much to be gained, standard of living-wise in going from $20K in salary to $20M in salary, that doesn't mean we should confiscate the rest of the money.

    What I'm looking for in terms of "equality" isn't leveling-out the incomes in the west at $60k, it is moving most of the rest of the world from $20 to $20K.
    She's pretty uninterested in politics, but what little interest she has appears conservative.
    Last edited: Feb 4, 2012
  6. russ_watters

    Staff: Mentor

    We agreed on a lot, so I don't have a lot to respond to at the moment, but would like to expand on...
    I think that the way people approach life has already changed in the west from a focus on day-to-day survival to happiness. But I worry that that may carry with it a loss of motivation to do one's job and I'm concerned that losing our competitiveness could cause a reversal of some of our advancement for some. I see things that I perceive as symptoms of that.

    I agree with reducing working hours and increasing leisure time, but I also worry about how we can still generate the income to afford leisure time with less work. It doesn't make sense to me, but it does seem to be working out ok in Europe.
  7. Ryan_m_b

    Staff: Mentor

    Hmm if anything I see us moving away from increasing societal happiness (though there are recent programs in the UK by the government to outline how we could measure quality of life). I think a lot of the time emphasis is put on economic success over quality of life but that could just be because the economic crisis of the last few years has changed people's focus.
    Productivity could be sustained by spreading out the jobs so that part-time work becomes more common. Regarding income there are various ways of dealing with it like lowering taxes for low paid jobs or introducing some sort of basic income guarentee.
  8. AlephZero

    AlephZero 7,248
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    I think you missed a huge change that happened mostly in the 20th century, and mostly caused by the development of electronics. To oversimplify it into a bullet point, "nobody knows how anything works any more", and even if they do know at a theoretical level, most people can't do much with that knowledge in practice.

    I would speculate that homo sapiens has a built-in drive to "make stuff", left over from when that was a necessary attribute for survival, and many of the problems of the "first world" stem from the fact that for whole sections of society, there are few meaningful ways to satisfy that drive.

    This was not an issue at all before the industrial revolution, since almost everybody was involved at first or second hand in the business of survival. Even those with servants/slaves to do the actual work for them had to be capable of managing them. Before the "electronic revolution", it didn't require much specialist knowledge to understand at least in a general way how machinery worked, from direct observation. But nobody is ever going to figure out how a cellphone works just by looking at it.

    My two cents: the next sea-change comparable with the industrial revolution will happen if and when that issue is resolved somehow, and not before.
  9. Ryan_m_b

    Staff: Mentor

    A secondary effect of that is whilst a pre-industrial revolution society could take something like a plague that get's rid of a significant portion of society and then just continue as normal we can't. Because we have a hugely specialised work force it would take minimum millions of specialised workers to keep us ticking over. (This is also something that science fiction usually ignores, it's a common troupe for a crew of a few thousands to rebuild a high-tech society but that wouldn't even be enough people to fill every medical/engineering/manufacturing speciality).
    Barring some huge leaps in artificial intelligence, augmented intelligence or education (to the point where we can roll out PhDs like a factory assembly line) I doubt this issue can be solved.
  10. Unfortunately, I think we're going to see a leveling of productivity and regression of standard of living (in the West) - given the entitlement mentality of Western popultions. This of course will open the door of opportunity to others to achieve a higher standard of living and wealth accumulation.
  11. Everything that can be invented has been invented.
    Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. patent office, 1899 (attributed)

    "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."
    - Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943
  12. Ryan_m_b

    Staff: Mentor

    "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind"
    -- Neil Armstrong, first man on the Moon: July 20th 1969

    "It's our destiny to explore. It's our destiny to be a space-faring nation"
    -- Eugene Cernan, last man on the Moon: December 19th 1972

    My point being that whilst some predictions laughably underestimate the future others laughably overestimate. Just because things have gone well and improved in the past is no evidence that this will be true of the future. Note that I'm not arguing either way, just making the observation that predicting the future up or down is notoriously flawed.
    Last edited: Feb 9, 2012
  13. Who knows - maybe time will prove him correct? The military/space agency, finance/commerce, Government, medical/science, and research/engineering?
  14. Ryan_m_b

    Staff: Mentor

    Not only that but technically he was right: he didn't qualify that he meant only five computers.
  15. You missed gaming and pornography!
  16. That probably falls under Government - an approved (union benefit) lunch room activity in the future.
  17. Dotini

    Dotini 752
    Gold Member

    Is gaming and pornography a typical attribute of a civilization at its peak?

    Respectfully submitted,
  18. Ryan_m_b

    Staff: Mentor

    You could argue that a significant portion of time devoted to leisure is a typical attribute of a civilisation at its peak.
  19. Well, actually that proves Russ Watters point - such full of laziness and gluttony life used to accessible only for depraved nobility, now it's possible for masses. ;)

    However I doubt that these social changes can seriously change the direction (they would merely make the path there more bumpy.

    I agree with the rest of the world catching up the first world and that difference disappearing.

    I see that law of diminishing returns also viable for technological innovation, however there are plenty of tech improvements that would change our lives which weren't mentioned so far:
    - cars not needing driver; (Think how that would improve satisfaction from parties ;) , more seriously kid could be sent to kindergarten with such a car)
    - lot's of work done by civil servants or by bureaucracy of big companies actually does not require any thinking (or even thinking is implicitly banned by regulations which require strict sticking to them). If there were standardized electronic documents with electronic signature the whole process could go without any human involved. Quicker and reducing need for human work.
  20. Physics Monkey

    Physics Monkey 1,363
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    I suspect that within 100 years we will have constructed artificial beings that have cognitive powers far surpassing our own.

    I don't mean to imply that these entities will be our enemies or anything (since we're avoiding matrix silliness :tongue: ), but it will fundamentally alter the nature of our civilization.
  21. Ryan_m_b

    Staff: Mentor

    This would be very interesting for a number of reasons, not least in how public transport would be affected. Perhaps large buses with fixed routes would be replaced by smaller buses who pick you up if you are on the way e.g. a commuter types into their smartphone their destination which get's fired off to all the autobuses in the area. One who is already taking a couple of passengers that way will divert to pick them up. ETA based on standard travelling behaviour at that time added to real time updates though perhaps a function to pay more to speed up the journey (standard ticket will get you there, fast track will get you in guaranteed time, express will not pick up anyone else). Also the idea of owning a car would largely fade IMO. Cars spend most of their time sitting somewhere waiting to be driven, either in a car park, garage, side-of-road etc which is a waste of space. Especially if you live in a very congested city that was built hundreds/thousands of years before the invention of the car! Perhaps a transition to shared ownership/subscription to taxi service would be more common.
    These two are fairly linked together. Personally I highly doubt we'll be building conscious beings any time soon, not just because of technological limitations but also because we have no need to. Rather software (again IMO) will continue to get more capable continuing to take on tasks that previously were restricted to conscious beings. It's the classic AI effect.
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