Will the Industrial Revolution end not with tranformation but a truce?
This is a question I've considered here before, noting that the true 'accelerando' of the Industrial Revolution peaked about a century ago, and that technologies in general alternate between rapid transformations and much longer periods of maturity and incremental progress.
This subject was lately taken up by Tyler Cowen at his blog Marginal Revolution, and in expanded e-pamphlet form, and as a quick google will show, he has stirred up a hornet's nest of discussion. One reason Cowen has a 'big' blog while this is a 'small' one is that he came up with a snappy title for the phenomenon he discusses, The Great Stagnation.
In a nutshell, argues Cowen, we have already picked much of the low-hanging fruit of technical progress, making what remains harder to come by and thus more expensive. As I noted last fall, the speed of human travel increased in a rather Moore's Law fashion from about 1830 until 1960. In the 50 years since then it has stalled; our jet planes travel at the same speed as first generation jetliners.
More broadly, while we do have the Internet, we don't have household robots, or aircars, or all those other things we were supposed to have in The Future. Nor do we have substitutes or counterparts for most of them. Broadly speaking, except for the mobile phones, a middle class neighborhood of 2011 is broadly similar to one of 1973, the year Cowen picked as reference point (just before the first 'oil shock' and some other trends that made the later 1970s a rough patch).
Some important provisos. A lot more people have the industrial age basics. In 1973, as I am old enough to remember, famine was still an endemic threat to much of the world's population. Now it endangers only the poorest and most marginalized people: a dreadful exception, not a norm. At least half a billion people in China and India alone have, broadly speaking, joined the global middle class in the last decade or so, and probably a similar number in other countries. This is a stupendous increase in human material well-being. But it has to do with the spread of existing technologies, and the institutions that support them. It is an extension of the achieved, not of the possible.
Of course there is the Internet. For sheer coolness it is awesome, and of course it has made this blog possible. But is it really as economically transformative as, say, motor transportation was? In particular, the Internet economy is curiously limited. It has created nothing like the vast pool of fairly well-paying jobs that the auto industry did. It has created a few spectacular fortunes, a few thousand or tens of thousands of impressively well-paying careers, an (unpaid) opportunity for me and the commenters to hold forth to an audience, and allowed millions to either read this blog or - vastly more likely - watch pets and their people do silly things.
Turning from technology and economics to the underlying fundamentals of science, the picture is rather similar. We still don't have a Grand Unified Theory; our physics remains, broadly speaking, a mashup of relativity and quantum mechanics, as it was for most of the past century. Our cutting edge not infrequently cuts right through into metaphysics, offering conceptual possibilities such as bubble universes that we cannot test even in theory.
Space speculation and space SF show much the same trajectory. In 1861 neither one existed. By 1911 they both existed, and Tsiolkovsky had already outlined the principles of multistage, liquid fuel rockets. In 1961 Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth, and the original rocketpunk era of Realistic [TM] space speculation was already being overtaken by events. In 2011 we are still very much within that same framework; alternative techs remain nearly pure speculation.
On the flip side ... there is an oft-repeated story - alas, it seems to be apocryphal - that a mid-19th century patent official recommended closing the patent office on the grounds that everything that could be invented already had been. (The linked blog tartly observes that this involves two improbabilities: that a tech geek would believe such a thing, and that a government bureaucrat would recommend abolishing his own job.)
Inventions are very unlikely to cease, but 'big' ones might well become less common.
Presumably there is some point at which we could know, in broad outline, how the universe really works, leaving nothing truly fundamental to discover. A recent comment thread considered this question, not without some contention.
I am not suggesting anything so sweeping - only that a punctuated equilibrium may be giving way to a new equilibrium. We may have worked our way through most of the broad outlines of science-as-we-know-it, and its major technical implications.
In much the same way, the technological revolution c. 1400-1500 that gave rise to the full-rigged sailing ship gave way to a maturity of more gradual refinement. A seaman of 1400, time-shifted to 1500, would have found ships nearly unrecognizable. A seaman of 1700, shifted to 1800, would have found many improvements but few real surprises.
If so, this has some important social implications. What happens if economic growth rates in this century, at any rate in the most industrialized countries, are markedly lower than they were in the last one? Dividing up the economic pie becomes a much more fraught issue if the pie is no longer getting larger, or only at a glacial rate. 'Creative destruction' will become the exception, not the rule.
The image is a vintage 'muscle car,' a 1966 Pontiac GTO.