Special Issue 01: Lost in Stagnation
Dude, where is my flying car?
We were promised flying cars, and instead all we got was instantly accessible archives of all the knowledge and art the world has ever produced. But still, in 2022 – George Jetson’s birth year, apparently — where are the flying cars?
In his 2021 book for Stripe Press, J. Storrs Hall asked the same question. Attempting to answer it led him to a much larger puzzle: why do we seem to have stagnated more broadly? He considers the question from every angle: culture, economics, politics, regulation, and more. Since the book has come out, the stagnation he identifies has seemed to become even more urgent. Are we stagnating? Why? And if we are, what can we do? Some of our favorite authors answer these questions in our first Special Issue of Works in Progress: read it here.
Maybe it all comes back to energy. Storrs Hall revealed in his book that per capita energy consumption has basically flatlined since the 1970s. So maybe it’s no coincidence that the ‘Great Stagnation’ seems to have set in around the same time. Our lead essay, by Ben Reinhardt, imagines a world of energy abundance – a ‘fusionpunk’ vision of what might be if energy was too cheap to even meter.
The illustration of the man and his not-yet flying car connected to the piece was created by Joshuah X. Miranda, a designer at Stripe Press. It was an early cover for the Press edition of the book. You can find more of his work here.
Storrs Hall describes nanotechnology as being one of our highest potential technologies – something completely transformative that might already be affecting almost every element of our lives today if it had not been snuffed out. Eli Dourado writes that nanotechnology should be no more thought of as science fiction than artificial intelligence now is – not least because organic nano-scale technology is already ubiquitous in the natural world.
Dying in a plane crash is pretty costly, and most of us are happy to pay a bit in terms of economic output to minimize that kind of danger in our lives. But how much poorer does regulation really make us? Is it possible that Americans could have incomes three times higher if government regulation hadn’t exploded since the 1940s, as Storrs Hall argues? Economists Ryan Murphy and Colin O’Reilly argue it isn’t, in their piece Anti-growth safetyism. As the title suggests, it is the societal tendency they term ‘Anti-Growth Safetyism’ might be holding us back anyway, even if it is not making us a full three times poorer.
But what’s so good about flying cars anyway? Would you really prefer to have one if it meant giving up the internet, and all the access to knowledge, culture and communication that that’s given the world? Adam Hunt questions whether we really have slid into stagnation, or whether it’s the measurements that are wrong.
We once lived in a caveat emptor world. If you bought snake oil, drank the snake oil, and it made you sick, you only had yourself to blame. But nowadays we hold businesses liable for the damage their products do to their customers. Seems fair enough – but did this kind of product liability strangle flying cars at birth? Brian Potter argues that, actually, litigiousness probably isn’t at fault, even if it did lead to some oddities (like DIY airplane kits replacing pre-built planes, so the liability fell with the purchaser).
Finally, Stripe Press’s Tamara Winter interviews J Storrs Hall. Among other things, they discuss the ‘Machiavelli Effect’, where established figures in a field resist change because it threatens their positions and status. He reckons that this is a more or less unavoidable pathology of a wide range of institutional types, not just universities and scientific journals. If that’s true, then some kind of general solution to it, that would work across lots of different domains, could be pretty valuable.
We experimented with small animations throughout the pieces in this issue. They were created by Venus Krier. You can find more of her work here. Let us know what you think of them too, and if you would like to see more in the future.
We’ll be back next month with the next regular issue of Works in Progress.
Notes on progress
Since you are a subscriber of this newsletter, hopefully you have seen our new Substack exclusive releases, Notes on Progress. Notes on Progress are first person, diary-style reflections where a practitioner explains an idea and gives a bit of insight into what it is they do. There have been six posts so far:
First, Stuart Ritchie described the process of doing a preregistered scientific study, and argued that we’re doing science backwards by only interrogating research methods when the research is already done.
Then there was a case for showing the ugly bits of history, including shrunken heads, from William Buckner.
After that, Rosalind Arden explained how understanding dog brains better could save us from Alzheimer’s Disease.
Next, Our World in Data’s Hannah Ritchie wrote a viral post on why our brains make us bad environmentalists.
Ellen Pasternack wondered whether we could breed chickens to be less upset by being farmed and killed.
Most recently, Samuel Hughes reflected on his time in New York City
Stay tuned for more.
What we’ve been up to
Saloni laid out the power of human challenge trials to speed up medical research.
Ben started researching crime. He began with a simple question: How bad is it? It turns out that crime is really, really bad.
Sam wrote about the divide between political “Boosters” who think growth is easy with the right policy reforms, and “Doomsters” who believe we’re stuck with low growth almost no matter what.
Around the web
Stripe Press’s latest film, We Are As Gods tells the story of the inimitable Stewart Brand's life and work. You can find it on Apple TV. See also his piece in Works in Progress and keep an eye out for more from Brand in the future.
Eric Gilliam discovers that in the 1920s, researchers believed there was a third way of academic science funding, as well as funding individuals and funding projects: funding departments. This may seem like a small difference, but may actually have quite profound effects on how science is done.
So much plastic “recycled” in Britain is sent to places that dump it in the sea that it’s actually better to just bin it.
There are different kinds of economic externalities, and we should only care about some of them.
Isn’t it a coincidence that political moderates happen to believe what is the centre-ground view today, and not twenty years ago or in the future?
Adam Hunt has started a new podcast on evolutionary psychiatry.
Houses are being built by pumping cement into giant walls made of balloons.
An imaginary lab-grown meat restaurant exists in the Netherlands. You might want to try the knitted steak, and finish with some meat-flavoured in vitro ice cream.
Jeremy Driver argues that studied ignorance actually makes people more effective thinkers about politics.
Full genome sequencing for $200 is close (it was $10,000 ten years ago, and the first one cost $3 billion in 1990s money).
If you enjoy this issue, please do tell your friends about Works in Progress, and tweet, post, email and otherwise share your thoughts. We have some exciting plans in the works for 2023.
– Sam, Ben, Nick and Saloni
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