The future of growth

Or, “among the many reasons I love Paul Krugman.”

Krugman reviews a Robert J Gordon book, “The rise and fall of American growth.”

I’ve just put this book on my library queue, so bear in mind I haven’t yet read it, but Krugman describes Gordon’s argument as essentially “recent-ish historical growth was due to the industrial revolution, we shouldn’t expect this to continue.”

Or in other words, if the grand narrative of human history is “hunting-gathering, 100,000 years of slow growth, agricultural revolution, 10,000 years of slow growth, industrial revolution” the next item up ought to be “slow growth.”

I’m deliberating phrasing things differently because in my view, this immediately raises the next question: “What’s the next revolution?” As near as I can tell not yet having read it, Gordon’s argument appears to be completely oblivious to the idea that there could be one coming.

Krugman doesn’t dwell on it much though:

Of course, Gordon could be wrong: Maybe we’re on the cusp of truly transformative change, say from artificial intelligence or radical progress in biology (which would bring their own risks).

But he still nails it. Modern futurists spend much blathering on AI, of course. But the real revolution is lurking the other suggestion.

If we look at what it takes to have a revolution up to the same standards as the industrial and agricultural revolutions, we have a pretty damn high bar to meet. You need to change pretty much everything about life. Where we live, what we do, where all the material things around us come from, how our society is organized.

Even fictional imagining of the future with AI (such as Iain M Banks, our lord and savior) still assumes a basically industrial society. To actually make it futuristic, you need to take absurd liberties with physics to imagine doing things differently than today. (Um, essentially free energy from nowhere. Also, FTL. Oh, magical remote manipulation, somehow!)

Synthetic biology could actually have that civilization-changing impact, someday, but futurists don’t seem to pay it enough attention. (Narrow applications to human genetic manipulation excepted, thanks to transhumanists.)

The future is living in a custom genetically engineered tree house where steakfruit grows in your pantry.

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