To Increase Progress, Increase Desire
The key to faster progress is increased desire for more. That’s my theory, at least.
In all the commentary on the “Great Stagnation”, much is written about the lack of progress in tech areas like transportation. Commercial airplane speeds, for example, have decreased on average since the ‘70s:
Since 1973, airplane manufacturers have innovated on margins other than speed, and as a result, commercial flight is safer and cheaper than it was 40 years ago. But commercial flight isn’t any faster—in fact, today’s flights travel at less than half the Concorde’s speed. (Airplane Speeds Have Stagnated for 40 Years, by Eli Dourado and Michael Kotrous.)
There are clearly many contributors to this. Regulation is cited in the above post and seems to be most common reason mentioned. Rising energy costs is another major one. The less-talked-about contributor is consumer demand.
Most things are “good enough”
Clayton Christensen’s theory on disruptive innovation shows that as average performance demanded goes up, the performance level supplied by products generally goes up faster, eventually surpassing the majority of the market.
As a technology improves, its performance surpasses most market demand, and things became "good enough" over time. Customers aren’t willing to pay more for better performance. This leaves the market open for disruptors — either on the low-end (good enough performance but cheaper), or by having better performance on a completely different metric.
Back to airline travel. Flying from NYC to LAX in 6 hours became good enough for most people. Sure, less would be better, but not at much more cost. Only high end, richer users truly needed more. So airplane makers moved on to other attributes that weren't good enough: safety, flexibility, price.
This was true for a lot of tech. Basically the market for that level of performance wasn't there.
So this was less of a tech problem or lack of ability, more a lack of desire. There is diminishing marginal utility for faster travel times. Cross-country travel in 4 hours instead of 6 doesn’t make a whole lot of difference to most people. (Throw in other issues like car traffic and TSA and the minimum door-to-door travel time is 2-3 hours no matter where you’re going, so a few extra hours over 3,000 miles isn’t a huge deal.)
As Tyler Cowen writes in Average is Over, consumers are more interested in convenience than speed. We don’t want to spend $20,000 on Concorde tickets just to save a couple hours.
Of course, everything moves in cycles and it’s possible that now, after 40 years, needs like safety and prices are oversupplied and speed is finally in demand again.
The U.S. has been pretty good at having a lot of desire for more. We're a nation of immigrants, a nation of people who are always looking for a better life. That desire has helped us create a lot of new things.
But it's hard to maintain that level of desire. As societies get richer, they tend to get more complacent. They don't want to rock the boat. They don't want to take risks.
We need to increase desire
When consumer demand shifts, capitalism is there to fill in the gap. I believe this is true even despite heavy regulation. If a majority of the population wants something, regulation can be overcome.
If we want more progress, we need more desire for it. If people want more, technology will deliver more.
How do we get more desire?
This is the tricky part. Increasing the demand of a majority of people is . . . hard.
Most entrepreneurial efforts don’t increase demand — they ride on the wave of existing needs, trends, or market arbitrages. Awareness and concern for climate change is one example of a trend that has increased demand over a wide range of technologies.
Some individual companies have pulled it off — Apple and Tesla are the first that come to mind for me. It feels like they truly pulled consumer demand forward much more than it would have been otherwise.
Progress needs better marketing
Increasing desire is well understood in the world of marketing and sales. But it’s also a key driver of innovation.
Marketing is manufactured desire; engineered discontent.
But “marketing” doesn’t just mean viral videos, making YouTube ads, buying Google AdWords, or promoting tweets. These usually only drive short-term desire and nudge someone to buy something they otherwise might not have. Even the most “friendly” marketing is permission-based, like Google AdWords, where the consumer is likely looking for a solution already and they are presented it at just the right time.
Larger, longer-term demand shifts are needed to truly push progress forward.
What does this entail? Some ideas:
More inspiration: Optimistic sci-fi visions of the future (or even the present). Sci-fi has a good track record of pushing (particularly young) people’s expectations up for what amazing things the future can bring.
Futurism: A more concrete vision of the future. See Eli Dourado’s “Why progress needs futurism” post.
Education: Yeah, sure, all marketers are liars. But we can still tell the truth to raise expectations. Help people understand what is possible and why we need it. Make it easier for people to see the potential for more. Show them what is possible with current or future technology.
Things can be so much better! For you, your family, your friends, and all those less fortunate in the world.
The world isn’t zero-sum. We can have our cake and eat it too!
We’ve done amazing things in the past, and we can do them again!
What's in it for me? People are selfish. If it’s not clear how something can directly benefit them personally or their family and friends, why care about radical improvement?
Progress memes: Solarpunk, Terrapunk, whatever. Even better if it’s totally exaggerated and unrealistic. It might just push the Overton window enough to drive actual change.
The De Beers diamond campaign is the best example I can think of for increasing desire on a massive scale, but this was accomplished mainly by convincing people of their rarity. It’s a little different than people wanting better performance from a product or service. Either way I highly recommend reading this article from 1982 on how De Beers did it.