Interview: J. Storrs Hall on getting lost in stagnation

Words by Tamara Winter
12th October 2022
Special Issue 01

Stripe Press’s Tamara Winter sits down with J. Storrs Hall, whose book ‘Where is My Flying Car’ inspired this issue, to talk about stagnation and the possibility of progress.

Culture

As the commissioning editor of Stripe Press, I look for ideas that can advance scientific, technological, and economic progress. But having a keen understanding of why and how progress stalls is just as critical. That’s exactly what J. Storrs Hall’s book Where Is My Flying Car? does so brilliantly.

I first encountered Flying Car as a self-published e-book, recommended by Tyler Cowen. What starts as a practical explanation of the technical limitations of building flying cars evolves into an investigation of the scientific, technological, and social roots of the economic stagnation that’s plagued the world since the 1970s.

The book answers the questions on everyone’s minds (and Twitter feeds!): Why are we stagnating? What has gone wrong in science? Why is it so difficult to build basic infrastructure today? But it’s also a manifesto of sorts, an exhortation to view our current challenges as tractable – and to roll up our sleeves to address them. For all those reasons and more, we were thrilled to publish the book.

I’ve continued to ponder the book since Stripe Press released it in December 2021. This interview with Josh Storrs Hall is a product of those lingering curiosities. It’s been lightly edited for length and clarity.

In your book, the titular question of why we don’t have flying cars quickly becomes a question of why we have stagnated – scientifically, technologically, culturally. Did you come to believe we were in a period of stagnation while writing this book, or had you come to that conclusion earlier in your life? 

Storrs Hall: I had just started college when Gene Cernan left the very last human footprint on the moon. After a while it became fairly obvious that some of the great technological hopes of my childhood weren’t going to happen. Space travel is the strongest example, but flying cars, steadily increasing income, opportunities, life expectancy, accomplishments, and satisfaction with life are among them. 

On the other hand, I was somewhat shielded from the overall trend by virtue of being in computer science, which did in fact grow and increase in its capabilities at the rate the science fiction writers and futurists expected. So it took a while for me to come to the realization that there were a lot of technologies out there that were more like space than computers. Perhaps the most obvious ground-based example would be nuclear power.

You write about a number of factors, but what is your basic explanation for our stagnation?

You can capture the proximate cause in one word: energy. I was really kind of flabbergasted when I worked up the graph of energy intensity versus lack of fulfillment and realized how sharp the cutoff was. I had expected some general correlation but what I got was stark. 

Then of course you had to go back and at least try to explain why the people who had lionized, say, Edison a century before had so completely reversed their sympathies in essentially my own lifetime. 

The notion that people tend to quit working hard when they become rich, fat, and happy is hardly original. It’s right there in Wells’s The Time Machine, written in the nineteenth century – the Eloi. When you see something which is that prophetic that far out, you have to think that the author has got at least a bit of a handle on the way things work. 

So I adopted the idea and adapted it to what I saw my own generation doing, and it turned out to be a good fit to the timing of the Great Stagnation. 

Were you surprised by the strength of the economic evidence from Robert Gordon and Tyler Cowen that stagnation is occurring?

No, not really. I had been a fan of Cowen for some time, to begin with. And if you take something basic like the strangulation of the atomic age, you have to expect it to have serious negative repercussions throughout the economy. And remember the energy ‘crisis’ that was caused entirely by Nixon’s price controls. That happened while I was taking my first economics course and was keenly discussed in the class. 

When you write about cultural stagnation, you are highly critical of your own generation, the baby boomers, and particularly the hippie subculture. How did you feel about these movements at the time? 

My freshman roommate was the biggest stoner on campus and we got along fine! In broader life, the hippies were a target of opportunity as they obviously overdid the ‘tune in, drop out’ rejection of doing anything useful. But as far as the point of the book is concerned, it isn’t really a subculture, hippies or anyone else, that I’m critical of, though. It’s the mainstream,  which took a bad turn based on virtue signaling, and which worked hard at it. More than half of my classmates went on to become lawyers. Instead of inventing new things to build, they invented new ways to keep people from building things. A bohemian subculture by contrast is relatively benign. 

Do they look worse in retrospect?

Not the hippies, they were more or less a passing fad. The green supremacists, yes. Back in the seventies it was not at all obvious they would have had the major ill effects they did. The anti-nuke activists, for example, combined a profound ignorance of their subject with a religious zealotry of biblical proportions.

You theorize that we became less culturally invested in advancement of science and technology once our basic needs, like the provisioning of food, water, shelter, and security, were met. Instead, people pursued higher-order needs, in Maslow’s model, like self-actualization. What kind of mistake do you think is being made here: that we aren’t producing enough, even now, to provision basic needs? That science will be able to help us solve our higher-order needs?

I invoked Maslow to try to answer a very basic question: Why the hell can’t people be happy, given that they are surrounded by the easy bounty that their grandfathers worked so hard and sacrificed so much to provide? Of course I didn’t come close to giving a full, deep answer; that would take several more books! And it’s not even one I’m all that interested in. But you need to do a psychological study of the postures of the greatest, silent, and boomer generations to come up with a workable theory, I think. To some extent the sixties and seventies were a perfect storm of all the typical causes of social degeneration at once. 

Our current technological level is quite capable of providing a comfortable life for everyone on Earth, and it’s well on its way to doing it. The science we will have in another several decades to a century, which I call the second atomic age, will compare to ours as ours does to preindustrial times. With it, we will be capable of doing truly great things, such as becoming an interplanetary species and not hovering on the brink of extinction with each passing asteroid.

That’s the sort of thing that could provide a real, true, non-self-deceptive answer to the higher levels of the hierarchy. Let’s go pick on somebody our own size.

If we are able to generate much more energy, as you suspect we would be able to with a culture that supports science, what possibilities emerge that currently seem impossible/unlikely?

Energy is strongly correlated with overall wealth. If we had stayed on the Henry Adams curve, it is not at all unreasonable to assume the average American would be making over $100k. We would have flying cars, at least some of us. Remember that 2001: A Space Odyssey came out in 1968 and it was not unreasonable then to imagine substantial lunar colonies by now. We should have them. We should have washing machines that do your clothes in ten minutes instead of two hours. We should have 40,000 fewer people dying of cold every winter. 

The Henry Adams curve flatline has meant that energy use has been squeezed into the necessities and energy use as a luxury has been severely curtailed. Why can’t you take a long, hot shower with copious quantities of water in California? With plentiful energy you could not only heat the water without worrying, but get the fresh water itself by desalination, incidentally solving a host of actual problems at the same time!

You argue that the turn against nuclear power was perhaps the key cause of our failure to generate more energy. There’s some evidence to suggest that public support for traditional nuclear power is beginning to grow, and that fusion may be closer than ever. Are you optimistic?

I don’t think you can put your finger on nuclear power per se – there was and there remains a huge backlash against any fossil fuel as well. But yes, there are some signs of a thaw; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been rabidly anti-nuke for decades but there are indications they are shifting back to a more measured regulatory stance. People with a worry about climate change are being forced to reexamine their ancient antipathies to nuclear. Is it a new dawn? Who can say, but things do look more promising than they did a decade ago. 

There is definitely a new surge in fusion. This is primarily because new superconductors have appeared that might make a medium-scale reactor possible (e.g., the SPARC) where before it took a major multinational effort on the scale of ITER (previously known as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor). I wish them all the best, but would caution them to remember that the minute they look like they’re producing useful quantities of power, the ergophobes will come crawling out of the woodwork. 

One of the other technology areas you focus on is nanotechnology. If the path to transformative nanotechnology is clear, why don’t private companies attempt to develop it?

Oh, they will. It is instructive to reread my predictions of the course of AI research that I made in the 20-aughts in Beyond AI. Essentially it was the same question: Where was all the investment in AI, given how valuable and important it was going to be? 

The answer was that while there were a small group of true believers who understood that, the general population of investors didn’t believe it. Yet. But let it start getting results, and they would come, and pour money on the flame, and it would accelerate. Which is exactly what happened. Hence the AI boom of today.

Nanotech is going to work the same way, I think. It’s much harder to predict an exact time, but I think there’s some chance of it being around 2030 and a good chance of it happening before 2040.

Some economists, like Nicholas Bloom at Stanford, argue that we are stagnating because good ideas are getting harder to find. Your work seems to run contrary to that thesis: that there are plenty of good ideas, like nuclear and nanotech, that we are simply unwilling to pursue. But do you find arguments that we have ‘picked the low-hanging fruit’ at all compelling?

Not a chance. Why can’t we go back to the moon, given that the Artemis program has taken the same amount of time and money that the Apollo program did, and didn’t need to have any new ideas at all? It’s because the roadblocks, red tape, virtue signaling, and so forth have become the major proportion of the problem. You don’t need one good idea nowadays, you need a good idea, two schemes to involve the activists on your side, three favorable environmental-impact statements, four sympathetic judges, and 500 lawyers. 

One of the most intriguing ideas in the book, which ties closely into this debate, is that good ideas in science are stifled by what you call the Machiavelli Effect. What is that effect, and how have you seen it play out in your own career?

It comes from this quotation from Machiavelli’s The Prince:

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things; because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.

It’s a 500-year-old observation about the way people work, and it still holds true today as much as it did in Renaissance Italy. Any time there is a stratification in a given field, it could be money, it could be political power, it could even be merely accrued experience and influence therefrom – there will be both incentive and opportunity for those at the top to oppose and thwart attempts to change the way things are done.

In computer science, there really wasn’t that much of it, and that is one reason why the field advanced so much, both hardware and software, over the past half century. Start-up costs were low enough that you could do an end run around IBM and start a Microsoft or Apple in your garage. The federal research-funding apparatus was basically irrelevant to progress in the field. 

In nanotech it worked differently. The funding apparatus closed ranks and denied grants to anyone who tried to work in nanotech in its original conception, while redefining the word in such a way as to make it hard to see what was happening. But I was in the middle of that and saw how it did happen. 

It wasn’t until I sat down to write my reminiscences that I connected what had happened to nanotech to what appeared to have happened to cold fusion. So I went looking, and, lo and behold, it was an even more classic example of the effect. 

You tell two stories of the Machiavelli Effect in the book, in fusion and in nanotech. Do you imagine these instances happening rarely, but being highly destructive? Or do you suspect there are little bits of the Machiavelli Effect happening all the time in the academy?

No, the effect is endemic to any system where power can accrue to a group. It could be a medieval trade guild, a royal aristocracy, an established religion, a federal funding agency. It’s a basic law of human nature, and it happens completely naturally. 

In many cases it is as beneficial as otherwise, introducing an element of stability. Where it becomes detrimental is when it stifles innovation. 

Academia per se is not a guarantee of the effect, but it certainly is fertile ground for it. 

Why might the Machiavelli Effect be more prevalent now than in earlier periods?

Well, Machiavelli noted it in the Renaissance, but of course the Renaissance was a period of substantial innovation, so there were clearly countervailing forces. In the industrial revolution it probably operated on the Continent to the extent of allowing Britain, then something of a backwater, to take the lead in industrialization. Shogun Japan is a clear example of the effect on a national scale and affecting virtually every area of life. Nineteenth-century America is probably the best example of where it was more or less absent in technological innovation.  That disappeared over the twentieth century with the rise of regulatory agencies and federal funding of research and development.

Does this dynamic – which, in the examples you give, exists in universities – suggest that we would be better off doing more science in for-profit, industrial R&D labs?

Ah, for the halcyon days of the Heroic Age of American Invention, as L. Sprague de Camp called it! By the way, for anyone interested in the history of technology, I can highly recommend de Camp, not only a historian but a SF writer, with significant experience in real-life tech research. (He worked alongside Heinlein and Asimov at the Philadelphia naval labs during WWII). 

As I point out in the book, government funding for R&D has been found in practice to have a negative effect on GDP growth. I’m personally convinced that the Machiavelli Effect is one of the major causal dynamics. 

You know I have to ask: When are we getting flying cars? And what’s the latest status update on your flying car?

The answer to the first question is, when we want them. The technology is and has been there. Further advances in tech will make them better in many ways, but the regulation has to change in a big way and society has to regain its lost respect for energy and powerful machinery. 

I’m not, alas, building a flying car myself, just keeping an eye on developments in the field. There are some really nice designs being worked on by the eVTOL startups, which look like they might reasonably replace a personal helicopter. My main criticism of the field is that they won’t be economically competitive until they use something other than batteries for power. Travel theory tells us that it’s the long trips where the bulk of the value of such a vehicle lies, and a battery-powered design cuts that out of the craft’s capability. 

Tamara Winter is the commissioning editor of Stripe Press. You can follow her on Twitter here.