This Century and the Last One: A Report Card for the First 10 Years

When we look back at the sweep of history, the 20th century stands out. It stands out as a time of immense progress in our knowledge, a time of great carnage, and the time when the great debate about socialism and the market economy ended. I think it was Arthur C. Clarke who said that one of two things will come next: either we will look back at the 20th century as the most amazing time when everything happened, or the pace of change will further accelerate thus making the 21st century even more incredible than the one that went by. (Does someone know the exact quote?).

Economists have been arguing that the creation of knowledge responds to the inputs going into it. And there is no question that the number of people engaged in knowledge professions today is greater than ever before in human history. Information technology has added strength to this pursuit, amplifying what a puny unaided human mind could do on its own. Earlier, the West dominated the production of knowledge; now we have phenomena like R&D labs in India giving a new kind of low cost production of knowledge, and increased opportunities for risk-taking in research. These factors should increase the pace of progress of creating knowledge. It should take us closer to the scenario where the 21st century will be even more exciting than its predecessor in terms of creating new knowledge.

I find myself nervously looking around, in 2010, and wondering if we are actually doing that much better.

From 1900 to 1910, here are a few of the great things that happened:

  • In 1900, Max Planck proposed quantum theory, Hilbert posed his 23 problems, and Louis Bachelier was the first researcher in finance.
  • In 1901, Marconi did the first wireless trans-atlantic transmission.
  • In 1902, the first car ride from San Francisco to New York took place, and the Wright brothers flew the first plane.
  • In 1903, construction of the Panama canal began.
  • In 1905, Einstein wrote four papers.
  • In 1906, Mahatma Gandhi coined the phrase satyagraha, and the first `vitamins’ were discovered.
  • In 1908, the first oil was extracted from the Middle East, and Henry Ford sold the first Model T.

I’m sure there were many interesting things going on, but these were the big things of that period that meant a lot to me. When I look back at 2000 to 2010 and … what cool things can we remember which would change the world?

Or is that all sorts of wonderful things have been going on and it is my lack of knowledge? E.g. if I had lived in 1905, I might not have heard about Einstein’s four papers.

If it’s not just me, and the pace of progress has slackened: Why did we not get amazing progress from 2000 to 2010, despite the expansion of inputs into the systematic quest for new knowledge? Are we hitting diminishing returns; are we in the sad stage of adding decimal places to fundamental constants? Is our production function faulty?

1 comment to This Century and the Last One: A Report Card for the First 10 Years

  • Hi Ajay,

    One decade does not necessarily define the progress of a society in the long run, but one thing that is a factor is that we now have government science, government education, government economics, government charity, and government manipulation in just about every area of the economy. That is true for most countries in the world. Government bureaucracies are not well known for their creativity, innovation, and imagination.

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