the future of ambition

I’m not sure this essay by Michael Hanlon on the lack of technical and scientific progress over the past 40 years adds much to other recent speculations on the same theme: Tyler Cowen’s book The Great Stagnation, talks by Neal Stephenson on our lack of visionary imagination, and so on.

But it’s an indication at least of a growing awareness that, despite the determined efforts of the advertising world to suggest that everything is getting better all the time, our society is stuck in something of a technological rut, especially with regard to travel and, more important, medical care. Flying is a more frustrating experience than it has ever been and is only getting worse; only Google and Elon Musk are even trying to innovate in automobiling; and, as Hanlon points out, a person getting cancer today will receive treatment not fundamentally different than he or she would have received in 1970, and doesn’t stand a much greater chance of beating the disease.

So why aren’t we doing better? Hanlon offers a few fairly vague suggestions, as does Cowen, but this is an inquiry in its early stages. Let me just offer my two cents — precisely two.

Cent number one: Litigiousness. Every technological development in every field, but especially in health care, is hamstrung by the need to perform due diligence, and then beyond-due diligence, and then absurdly-over-the-top diligence, before putting a product on the market lest the developing company be sued by someone unhappy with their results. How many times have you read about some exciting new cancer treatment — and then never hear about it again, as it disappears into the endless Purgatory of tiny clinical trials that dying people beg (usually unsuccessfully) to be allowed to participate in?

Cent number two: Self-soothing by Device. I suspect that few will think that addition to distractive devices could even possibly be related to a cultural lack of ambition, but I genuinely think it’s significant. Truly difficult scientific and technological challenges are almost always surmounted by obsessive people — people who are grabbed by a question that won’t let them go. Such an experience is not comfortable, not pleasant; but it is essential to the perseverance without which no Big Question is ever answered. To judge by the autobiographical accounts of scientific and technological geniuses, there is a real sense in which those Questions force themselves on the people who stand a chance of answering them. But if it is always trivially easy to set the question aside — thanks to a device that you carry with you everywhere you go — can the Question make itself sufficiently present to you that answering is becomes something essential to your well-being? I doubt it.