Was there a Great Stagnation in technological development? Definitely maybe! Are we still in one? Definitely maybe not! Am I the correct person to adjudicate such things? Absolutely not.
When we talk about stagnation, we focus on the sort of innovation that is most pertinent to economic growth, which means technology as it relates to production. More than just important, with any small amount of reflection on the human condition and how far we have come as a species, in a certain light the technology underlying production is very nearly the only thing that matters.
Only, in a far more comfortable and modern way, it’s not. With all due respect to the protests of those who used to hike 10 miles to three jobs, uphill all 4 ways, every day through the snow, our lives are about consumption. And before you cast me into The Pit of a Thousand Shopping Malls, I mean consumption in a very broad sense. Consumption of time with family and friends; consumption of the 5 senses; of active introspection and passive entertainment; of every new Zelda game they can possibly create.
And all I’d really like to do today is cheer you with a delightful reminder that there will never be a great stagnation of consumption goods. There really won’t be! Not because human genius is unlimited (though maybe it is, if you include exponential AI learning). Rather, it is because our wants are infinite, and from those wants we can fabricate a cheery synthesis of Say’s Law and the unrelenting optimism of Endogenous Technical Change – that Demand Creates its Own Innovation.
That might be overly cute, but I’m not taking the “infinity” in play here lightly. That infinity of wants is not a product of our imagination or the broad dimensions in which we can consume. That infinity is born of our capacity for niche refinement, for variation. If you don’t believe me, go a farmers market. Go a Wegmans. Go to your local Asian grocery store. Google “heirloom tomatoes.”
Our consumptive lives will never stop improving because each new good brings with it the infinite possibilities of small changes, of bigger/narrower/weirder/quieter/redder/hotter/faster/easier/drowsier/friendlier/adjective/adjective… And with each new variation comes a roll of the dice that just might send us down forking paths of inspiration and radical departure from past convention, toward that new way of living our lives that no one had thought possible before.
There was a time when we didn’t have enough calories, so we innovated ways to make more calories. Once we had enough calories, we invented better calories. Then we invented foods. Then meals. Then experiences. Then stories. Then identities. Each stage of innovation brings with it not the disappearing of low-hanging fruit, but an expanding horizon of all the possible ways our life-sustaining caloric consumption goods might evolve, and the infinite stories they might help us tell through the lives we live. And we will never run out of stories to tell.