Bottlenecks to Progress in the Internet Age

I have been reading A New History of Western Philosophy by Anthony Kenny and it resurfaced thoughts that I have often had when learning about historical figures and everyday life in prior eras. In particular, how these figures were able to overcome the dual problems of censorship of political and religious elites and the limited availability of information will always fascinate me.

The lack of access to crucial historical texts was perhaps the major bottleneck which prevented philosophical progress in medieval Europe. In fact the capture of Constantinople by Ottoman forces in 1453 ended up being critical for the Renaissance. This is what forced the Greek scholars, who had kept the philosophy of Plato and other ancients alive, to flee to Italy, where Scholasticism (the rigid fusion of Christianity and Aristotelianism) dominated. The spark of new classics was enough to light the flames of new philosophies that burned the Scholastic tradition to the ground.

Think about that. Works of Plato, lingering somewhere in Byzantine libraries for hundreds of years, simply needed to be transported across the Meditteranean and communicated by the scholars who kept them to unleash a wave of progress the world is still reverberating from. Obviously there were many factors behind the Renaissance, but it is a remarkable feature of this time that a relatively small set of books could cause such massive intellectual changes. In part, this is because there simply wasn’t that much new stuff to read. Something coming out was a big deal. Even if it was a re-release. In fact, it wasn’t really until the 19th Century that it became impossible to read everything worth reading in most subjects.

Beyond the scarcity of written material, religious and political persecution has been another persistent feature of the Western Philosophical tradition’s opposition to progress. The political turmoil in the lives of almost every major Medieval and pre-Modern philosopher is striking. Each writer had to self-censor, and in many cases were forced to flee or outright killed. To name a handful:

Boethius (tortured and killed by the Ostrogothic King Theodoric)

Giordano Bruno (denounced and burned at the stake in Rome)

Baruch Spinoza (excommunicated and exiled from the Jewish community in the Netherlands)

John Locke (fled England to the Netherlands to avoid political persecution before returning)

In stark contrast to this is the extraordinary availability of information today and the ease with which new ideas can be articulated. This is perhaps the most remarkable fact about our era (and what makes you reading this possible at all). It also opens the question, why, since the invention and wide scale adoption of the internet, productivity and economic growth haven’t sped up more? One theory (articulated by Tyler Cohen), is that we have already taken much of the low hanging fruit that yielded the massive economic progress of the 1900s. Science, likewise, is using more people to make less progress than it did in the past. 

If this is true, then it seems that we hit a sweet spot for GDP growth and scientific progress somewhere in the 20th Century. Our intellectual and political climates were just good enough to unleash discoveries and inventions just out of reach of previous generations, but much easier to find than those to follow.

On the personal side, it might be hard to relate to GDP figures. But the relationship between personal productivity and economic productivity is a topic that still sometimes crosses my mind (despite how differently they may be defined). For myself, having been born in an age and place where the internet was nearly ubiquitous, and my capacity for distraction by it nearly endless, I wonder what its overall effect on our productivity has been.

On the one hand, learning has been unquestionably easier. Writing papers often includes of cycles of: typing, opening a new tab, searching Google, finding crucial information, and switching back to type my findings and analysis mere seconds later. This would have taken orders of magnitude longer in the pre-internet age but is now a seamless feature of student and writer’s lives. Educational content producers and random helpful figures on the internet are easily found and often filtered by how useful their information is. Finally, Wikipedia (which yesterday turned 20!) is always there to provide an overview on just about anything.

But that is helpful only when I am working. An expression which I have found most apt in describing my personal productive capacity is Parkinson’s law: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. The shorter the deadline, the more productive I will be to finish it. A longer deadline gives me time to slack off and fuel procrastination. And while procrastination has existed since the day man began working, the magnitude of its influence has grown larger than ever before.

The attractiveness of distractions has particularly grown as our attention has been commodified with a profit motive attached to our eyeballs. Devices and applications are extremely efficient, not at improving your overall well-being, but guiding your attention in whatever way software engineering teams see fit. This is a uniquely modern curse. 

To bring this back full circle, I must clarify that I would unquestionably submit to the current challenges of slowing growth and hyper-distraction rather than those of intellectual scarcity and persecution. We have traded away the incredibly cruel world of the past for good reason. 

However, we must think harder about the questions posed by the information age. How should one deal with the experience of information overload and the increasing complexity of decisions (particularly major life decisions)? How should we design our relationship with our technology to leave us well informed, more in control, and less distracted? How should we think about the economy and our role in it — particularly if much of the low-hanging fruit has been plucked, and humans (with the same brains and bodies) are demanded to jump higher than before in order to achieve the same GDP growth achieved in the past?

The curses of the past have been traded away for lesser, and in some ways opposite, curses of the present. Acknowledging them, and answering the questions they raise is something I will continue to attempt. Luckily, the internet has shown me that I am not alone.

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