The Great Stagnation – my review

The Great Stagnation is a book(let) that discusses (Amongst other things) how we’ve run out of innovation steam in America. The theory is – we have used up all the low-hanging fruits in our country: our land, our natural resources, etc. And we’ve used up all the low-hanging fruit of innovation – electricity, steam power, gasoline motors, etc were all things that could be discovered by ‘just about anyone’ and now, innovation is a much more expensive and professional endeavor.

My respect for Tyler Cowen is extremely deep, and whenever I find myself disagreeing with him, I feel compelled to step back and think ‘Are you sure you’re right logically, or are you being emotionally committed to your existing opinions’.

So I will say that I think that Dr. Cowen is right about the present, but I think what we’re seeing, instead of a ‘great stagnation’ is a ‘deep breath’. Here’s why:

  • The book itself – ‘The Great Stagnation’ is a relatively short book, priced at a very easy $4. This is an example of the economies of scale that we have wrought with the Internet, that we can sell small amounts of valuable things inexpensively, and still everyone in the value chain benefits.
  • Nanotechnology – there is a ton of experimentation and investigation in nanotechnology. Not enough of it has been productized. But the ongoing innovation here is mind-blowing. I am certain we’re going to see some seriously life-altering improvements here in the next 5-10 years
  • Power – we’re seeing a lot of ongoing experimentation in solar power, in fusion, in fission. And in storage as well. As these technologies mature, they pay dividends on our ability to innovate like nothing else.
  • Robots – the ongoing development of robotics is a bit disappointing – I was expecting more by this point
  • Quantum Computing – the primary benefit of QC is, IMO, solving logistics problems. It is proceeding well, although I don’t know that it will ever be the model for mainstream computer architectures.
  • Superconductors – there’s some very interesting stuff going on here, but it does seem to move at a fairly slow pace, overall.
  • AI – IBM is producing a computer that can play Jeopardy. There are apps on iPhones that can identify songs based on ‘listening’ to them, and can translate words in real-time by ‘looking’ at them. There is a lot of opportunity here, but it is a time-consuming process

Just as an aside – many of these innovations that are moving along nicely would not be possible in the timeframes they are if it weren’t for the Internet’s ability to let people collaborate and share information, data and ideas cheaply.

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