The moon landing. Birth control. Civil rights. The cultural and technological achievements from 1945 to 1971 represent a “Golden Quarter” in human progress, according to science writer Michael Hanlon in a new article over at Aeon. Since then, Hanlon insists, we’ve stalled out. But he really couldn’t be more wrong.
Encouragingly, Hanlon’s piece actually opens by injecting some much needed scepticism into the myths of accelerating change. I’ve picked apart a few of the myths in this way of thinking myself.
“Yet a moment’s thought tells us that this vision of unparalleled innovation can’t be right, that many of these breathless reports of progress are in fact mere hype, speculation — even fantasy,” Hanlon writes about the futurism hype machine of 2014.
And he’s absolutely correct. People are too quick to believe that technological progress is exponential. But then Hanlon overcorrects. The article quickly descends into a romanticisation of the postwar era; a bizarre fantasy world wherein no real progress has occurred in the last 45 years — be it social, cultural, or technological.
“Yet there once was an age when speculation matched reality. It spluttered to a halt more than 40 years ago,” Hanlon writes. An age when speculation matched reality? Tell that to every Baby Boomer still waiting for a flying car or jetpack or 20-hour work week.
Hanlon may have legitimate concerns about specific areas of progress (or lack thereof) since he was a kid. But that doesn’t mean we’ve stopped innovating since 1970. The suggestion that we have is just about the oldest complaint in history. And it negates the significant progress we’ve made in so many areas here in the 21st century.
Hanlon insists that the period between 1945 and 1971 was a “true age of innovation,” and since then, social and technological progress has been merely incremental. The major problem with his assertion? Progress has always been incremental. Even in this supposed “Golden Quarter” as he calls it.
Hanlon writes in Aeon:
Just about everything that defines the modern world either came about, or had its seeds sown, during this time. The Pill. Electronics. Computers and the birth of the internet. Nuclear power. Television. Antibiotics. Space travel. Civil rights.
He goes on to name even more areas where he thinks that no real progress has been made since 1970:
There is more. Feminism. Teenagers. The Green Revolution in agriculture. Decolonisation. Popular music. Mass aviation. The birth of the gay rights movement. Cheap, reliable and safe automobiles. High-speed trains. We put a man on the Moon, sent a probe to Mars, beat smallpox and discovered the double-spiral key of life. The Golden Quarter was a unique period of less than a single human generation, a time when innovation appeared to be running on a mix of dragster fuel and dilithium crystals.
But here’s the problem: The beginning of something does not mean that work in that area has finished. Do you have any idea what computers and the Arpanet looked like in 1971? What about consumer tech? As I’ve explored before, TV’s rise was indeed rapid. But it simply depends on how you measure it. A television set of 1950 and the quality of programming and transmission is entirely different than that of 2014. They’re not even the same species.
So what about feminism? Or gay rights? Look at just the last two decades of LGBT rights in the United States alone. Within a single generation we’ve gone from it being illegal to be gay in so many states to most Americans living in states with marriage equality. There’s still plenty of progress to be made, but there’s absolutely no comparison to what so many gay people endured in 1960s America. Not to even mention 1940s America!
I only need to look at my own lifetime (I was born in 1983) to see the tremendous progress that has been made in just over 30 years. With everything from the internet (again, an entirely different beast than it was in 1995, let alone 1975) to life expectancy (71 for men and 78 for women in 1983, compared with 76 and 81 today) there’s just no doubt that things are relatively better for most Americans. Even if it’s incremental.
Let’s look at health. Where’s the cure for cancer? Where’s the cure for the common cold? When it comes to medicine Hanlon bemoans the fact that we haven’t yet developed revolutionary cancer treatments. But he has to concede that most people are both living longer and are much more educated about health than they were 50 years ago.
“And most recent advances in longevity have come about by the simple expedient of getting people to give up smoking, eat better, and take drugs to control blood pressure,” Hanlon writes, trying to downplay the progress.
But that’s progress! Public health programs successfully making people more aware of what generally makes you healthy is its own progress! Just because we don’t yet have an Alzheimer’s cure doesn’t mean we haven’t improved the living conditions of so many people in the world. Again, there’s so much work to be done. But ignoring the last 40 years of advancements in public health education (not to mention those blood pressure drugs he somehow dismisses) is just downright silly.
Hanlon also seems to take issue with Silicon Valley and all the money being spent on trivial start-ups that only offer tiny technological changes. It’s an easy target for sure, but there seems to be more revisionist history going on here.
“In the 1960s, venture capital was willing to take risks, particularly in the emerging electronic technologies,” Hanlon writes. “Now it is more conservative, funding start-ups that offer incremental improvements on what has gone before.”
Venture capital of the 1960s? On the private side, it was hardly in existence. Yes, people are investing in plenty of vapid, worthless technologies today. But there’s simply more private money flowing in this area. That doesn’t mean that private 1960s venture capital models that existed are the way to move forward in the 21st century.
The 1960s innovations in telephones were happening in large institutions like Bell Labs, while advanced networking problems were being solved at the behest of the Defence Department. Smaller firms were instrumental as vital contractors, for everything from the internet to personal computing, but the majority of technological progress we’re talking about during Hanlon’s “Golden Quarter” wasn’t a result of venture capital firms investing in some plucky startup. Postwar technological development relied on massive institutions with plenty of weight and money to throw around.
I think that Hanlon largely understands this, even if some of his details are misleading. For instance, the money that financed the Arpanet (the precursor to our modern internet) was coming from ARPA, which is to say that it was coming from the military, not the University of California as he says in his article. Sure, all that military money was flowing through the University, but it was still military money that bankrolled the programs.
I certainly agree with Hanlon on many of the finer points about what stifles innovation in the 21st century. Scare tactics about genetically modified crops used by uneducated activists are harming innovation. Public investment in research needs to be seen as valuable in the popular imagination. Our aversion to nuclear power is indeed stifling our ability to combat climate change.
But to draw conclusions that there was some mythical golden age from 1945-1970 and we haven’t seen any real innovation over the past 45 years flies in the face of reason. Yes, it was a tremendous time of American progress on many fronts. But again, it doesn’t mean that progress stopped in the 1970s.
And what about the dozens of areas where we’ve made real, if incremental, progress that Hanlon doesn’t mention? One perfect candidates is pollution. Remember when a thick blanket of smog hung over LA and New York? Incremental progress has improved our air quality, recycling is now mainstream, and cars are now much more efficient.
Yes, people are still hurting and we have a long ways to go. Income inequality is absolutely abysmal in the United States and wages are stagnant. It’s hands down one of the greatest barriers to technological and social progress. But that doesn’t mean that society as a whole hasn’t improved for more Americans in the last few decades. If you’d rather live in Hanlon’s “Golden Quarter” than the 21st century there’s a good chance that you’re a white man from a wealthy country.
Women, gay people, and people of colour weren’t really living in a golden age of innovation and progress in the 1960s. Progress is always achieved in baby steps — hard fought baby steps that often require tremendous sacrifice on the part of tireless activists and innovators.
It’s so easy for those of us living in the 21st century to look back at the past and romanticise an earlier era when people got things done. Hanlon is British, but Americans are especially notorious for it.
The funny thing is that we might very well be living in someone else’s golden age. It’s not hard to imagine the people of 50 years hence romanticising our decade for one reason or another. And of course, those people will be ignoring all of the terrible things to fit their conception of an idealised past.
The truth is that the future is never as great as the techno-utopians promise, and never as bad as the apocalypse-mongers warn. It’s generally somewhere in the middle, and that doesn’t make for very sexy headlines.
Picture: Smokestacks of the 1970s via Getty