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Culture and technology
13 November 2012

The decline of human civilisation: The first forty years

Next month marks the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 17 mission, at the end of which the last men on the moon packed up, flew home and never went back.

In certain significant ways, the Apollo missions represented the pinnacle of human achievement. Human beings have never travelled so far, before or since – but nor, as Jason Pontin reminds us in an essay for MIT Technology Review, have we ever travelled so fast:

  • “…progress seemed to possess what Alvin Toffler dubbed an ‘accelerative thrust’ in Future Shock, published in 1970. The adjectival swagger is pardonable: for decades, technology had been increasing the maximum speed of human travel. During most of history, we could go no faster than a horse or a boat with a sail; by the First World War, automobiles and trains could propel us at more than 100 miles an hour. Every decade thereafter, cars and planes sped humans faster. By 1961, a rocket-powered X-15 had been piloted to more than 4,000 miles per hour; in 1969, the crew of Apollo 10 flew at 25,000.”

Measured against the awesome power of the Saturn 5 rocket, the last four decades can only be described as a damp squib:

  • “Since Apollo 17's flight in 1972, no humans have been back to the moon, or gone anywhere beyond low Earth orbit. No one has travelled faster than the crew of Apollo 10. (Since the last flight of the supersonic Concorde in 2003, civilian travel has become slower.)”

Nor is this sense of stagnation just about spaceflight:

  • “Blithe optimism about technology's powers has evaporated, too, as big problems that people had imagined technology would solve, such as hunger, poverty, malaria, climate change, cancer, and the diseases of old age, have come to seem intractably hard.”

As we’ve noted before on the Deep End, the gadgets and gizmos of the internet age don’t really make up for the non-arrival of the space age – a judgement which many internet entrepreneurs appear to agree with:

  • “The motto of Founders Fund, a venture capital firm started by Peter Thiel, a cofounder of PayPal, is ‘We wanted flying cars—instead we got 140 characters.’
  • “…Thiel is caustic: last year he told the New Yorker that he didn't consider the iPhone a technological breakthrough. ‘Compare [it] with the Apollo program’ he said. The Internet is ‘a net plus—but not a big one.’ Twitter gives 500 people ‘job security for the next decade,’ but ‘what value does it create for the entire economy?’”

Thiel and his allies argue that the problem is that “venture capitalists lost their appetite for risky but potentially important technologies.” Jason Pontin, however, is sceptical that venture capital can ever do much for technologies such as “biotechnology and energy, whose capital requirements are large and whose development is uncertain and lengthy.” He therefore emphasises the need for political leadership and government intervention.

The trouble with this argument, though, is that political decisions often result in the misallocation of investment on a spectacular scale – and, arguably, there’s no better example of that than the Apollo programme, which threw countless billions at a dead-end technology.

If mankind ever does make it to the stars, it won’t be by sitting on top of a giant firework.

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