This is the first generation in which, in many industrialized nations, people are worse off than their parents were. In USA for example, median income adjusted for inflation has not risen since the 80s. Among the members of this generation, there is frequently talk of disillusionment, since they have not been handed the future that was promised to them, and the economic crisis that we are experiencing only amounts to rubbing salt into their wounds.
But for me, the most serious problem is not that, for the first time, the current generation is on the whole economically worse off than their parents. My worry is that, regarding scientific and technological innovation, the creativity of this generation is slowing down and this slowing down of innovation only makes it less likely that future generations will be able to brake the cycle of stagnation. In the following article I will argue that the future that I and those born in the 60s was promised has not been delivered and what is worse, those of us born in the 60s are not delivering a better future for those as my children born in the 90s and 00s.
When my grandfather, David Varsavsky, was born, Einstein discovered the theory of relativity and the physics revolution was in full swing. When my father, Carlos Manuel Varsavsky, was a boy, antibiotics were discovered, and a giant leap forward in the fight against bacterial infections was made. The transistor, which is the base for all electronics, was invented, and valves gave way to chips, which paved the way for all hardware based computer science. When I was a boy, man landed on the moon for the first time, and supersonic planes were developed for commercial use. Then the cell phone came, and then the Net. But the future that I was promised in college during the 80s has never really come, and contrary to popular belief, I am convinced that progress is slowing down, and that someone born in 1945 witnessed more change during the first thirty years of his or her life than someone born in 1975.
When I studied biology in the 80s, it was believed that in less than twenty years a cure for the most serious diseases, like cancer, and viral infections like AIDS, would be found. But as it turned out, medical advances during that time period were dissapointing. Genetic engineering, recombinant DNA and monoclonal antibodies had already been invented in the 80s, and then we all hoped that in a few years there would be a whole new slew of magic bullets, or extremely targeted cures for cancer that would be based on their ability to take medicine precisely where it needed to go. But, once again, chemotherapy is just as brutal today as it was before and for most a cancer diagnosis is still a death sentence.
In terms of life expectancy, the improvement that has been made has more to do with early diagnosis, our nutritional intake, quitting smoking, and leading a healthier life in general than in medical advances since the 80s. Transplants were already commonplace thirty years ago. For now, the big surprise is that we have been cured of myopia. Sure, it is an uncomfortable condition, but certainly of secondary importance on any list of vital health needs.
On the energy level, in the 60s people were already talking about “controlling the hydrogen bomb” in order to generate inexhaustible energy. But that didn’t happen, and the innovations in the field of alternative energy, such as wind turbines and solar cells, would not seem too innovative to a scientist from thirty years ago. Our energy is generated the same way that it was forty years ago: we are still using nuclear energy and burning carbon based fuels. The only change is that we have spent forty more years destroying the planet, and we are now awarding Nobel prizes to those people that alert us to this phenomenon, and not to those that have actually found a solution to the climate change problem. When it comes to energy, we are like a smoker who has discovered that smoking is bad for your health, but continues to smoke nonetheless.
Cars on our streets are mostly the same. Piston engines continue to operate the same way. Nobody has invented a truly revolutionary engine that a mechanic from the 60s could not understand. This is why there is still a large market for planes that were built in the 80s for example, because with some slight modifications to the instruments they are practically the same as the planes being built today. And some absolutely fantastic planes, like the Concorde, are no longer in service. Supersonic commercial travel, an amazing experience, is gone.
During all of these years the only industry that seems to have truly evolved, that has given us the future that we were dreaming of, and that has been integrated into just about every product, is computer science. Computer science is perhaps the only field in which if someone were educated in it during the 80s and not brought up to speed with current technology, he or she would really not understand 80% of what is going on today. But the foundation of the computer age already existed when I graduated in 1985. PCs were already around in the 80s. They were simple, of course, but the principle was similar. We even had laptops and the first mobile phones. Still if I were to have to cite one area in which things have truly gotten much better since the 80s, it would be the Internet, thanks to the combination of Moore’s and Metcalfe’s laws (the first refers to the incredible speed of the development of chips, and the second one has to do with the network effects of the Internet). I made a career out of creating Internet companies, and I think that the Internet and networking field, also electronics, mobile telecommunications, and video game businesses are the only industries that could seriously challenge the idea that progress in general is slowing down. But in the rest of the fields, I believe that we can come to the conclusion that our creativity – which exploded for much of the 20th century – has been pretty stagnant during the past thirty years.
When I went to college (which in the United States is different than its European counterpart in that you can study many subjects for two years, until you choose a major), I went from one department to the next, studying a little bit of everything: chemistry, analytical math, biology, genetics, history, physics, psychology, anthropology and computer science. My curiosity was inexhaustible. I studied for eight years, (a BA and two MAs) and up until the end I took advantage of my electives to study everything from law to engineering.
Now my daughter studies at the same university, Columbia, and when I go to see her we spend hours looking at books together. She is studying chemistry, biology, analytical math, Eastern European history and the classics. And really, what I studied is no different from what she is studying now. Every now and then something that I have never heard of pops up – and I become fascinated – but this is not so frequent. As for the thirty years that separated my father’s studies at Harvard and my time at Columbia, that’s a different story. I remember my father repeating, fascinated, “when I was a boy we didn’t have television, when I was a boy we didn’t have space travel, when I was a boy we didn’t have jets, when I was a boy we didn’t have air conditioning, when I was studying we didn’t know what the structure of genes was like”. For him, life was a box full of surprises; he got to experience firsthand the era of innovation and discovery. But I did not and nor did my daughter.
When I compare the childhood of my and mine there is only one big difference: the Internet. And sixteen years passed between the birth of my oldest daughter, Alexa and the birth of my youngest son, Leo, who is two, and among them the only differences that I notice is that Alexa watched videos on TV, and Leo watches them on You Tube. Everything else, everything having to do with the inconvenience of babies, continues to be the same. Diapers are the same, children’s medicine is just as inefficient and yes, a new vaccine for hepatitis has come out, but hepatitis B has spread much further and some progress was made in genetic testing but other than abortion there is not much new that you can do with that information. Yes, some revolutionary things occurred between the births of Alexa and Leo, like the decoding of the human genome, but the truth is that although nowadays we are able to compile a list of the genes, the result is like a phone book in which the names are on one side and the numbers on the other. Companies like 23andme (I am an investor) are making a great deal of progress testing and mapping genes but unfortunately most of what we can still learn from genetic testing is a code without a Rosetta Stone. When I was studying, Watson and Crick were already history, and we knew how to combine nucleic acids. We knew that DNA makes RNA, which in turn makes proteins. We now have the human genome decoded, but we do not understand it. The genetic revolution that was talked about during the 80s, the ability to cure with genetics, has still not taken place. And aside from that, when I was at Columbia, it was predicted that in twenty years time we would come to understand something – even if it were just a little bit – about one of the most important problems in neuroscience: the relationship between consciousness and the brain. Yet we continue to conduct primitive experiments in which we treat the brain as if we were auto mechanics; we look at it piece by piece. What we do is we take out a chunk and we see what happens.
And the primordial soup theory that we were going to use in order to test how life arose? Thirty years have passed and scientists are still trying to demonstrate that life can be created from nonliving compounds, and they aren’t succeeding. We have already lowered our expectations, and it’s as if we don’t want to do anything really new in the field of biology. We try to use stem cells when in reality we don’t understand how they work. We use them like beasts of burden, so that they can do our job for us without us really knowing how they manage to do it. And as for heart disease, in the 80s it was thought that in a few years we would discover how to slow the biochemical process in which arteries become clogged at the biochemical level, but after twenty five years we still do not understand anything concrete about cholesterol, and the only advances that we have made have come from the most primitive point of view: the circulatory system’s plumbing. We have many new drugs, statins, but the principles that guide their behavior on a molecular level are uncertain. The end result is that the only thing that we have succeeded in doing is becoming better plumbers for our arteries. The sluggishness of medical advances was one of the reasons that, after founding Medicorp in 1985, I changed fields and moved on to telecommunications and electronics. It frustrated me to no end to watch as it took ten to twenty years before any great idea could finally result in a medically approved product.
If we move on to other areas, such as entertainment, in the 80s you could watch a movie at home on video; the picture was worse than that of a DVD, but it was for all intents and purposes the same thing. Music sounded much better on a vinyl record or a CD than it does compressed into an MP3 file or on a hard drive. Speakers were of a much higher quality than they are today. Only the screens were significantly worse than they are today, but only those in homes, and not the screens in theaters or of the TV projectors that already existed and were as good as those currently available. The advances are in electronics, not in optics. High quality optics appears to have regressed, and not advanced. Digital photography brought with it convenience, but not quality.
With respect to music itself, genres like House, Hip Hop, ambient, chillout, electronic and techno already existed, albeit with different names sometimes. The music I listen to now, from Ministry of Sound, Coldplay, Gorillaz, Fatboy Slim, Macy Gray, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Thievery Corporation, Eminem and Buddha Bar, is the same music that my children listen to. When I was a boy, my father listened to classical music and jazz, and I listened to Supertramp and Led Zeppelin; my father hated my music. But to me the music of my children doesn’t sound strange or different. I also don’t find the way in which they dress to be strange, and to me the current style does not seem any different from that of the 80s. Tattoos were all the rage when my mother was a little girl. What’s more, I’ve gotten Tom obsessed with the heavy metal of the 70s that I listened to at his age. Maybe the only reason that I envy their music…is because they don’t have to pay for it (yes, they have to do it, but they don’t).
With respect to fads, it seems as though in the 90s we decided to bring back the 60s, later the 70s and now we bring back the 80s which makes my visits to Columbia University even more of a deja vu. The style of wearing hats and ties that are too small is the same as in the 80s. No, broad backs and baggy pants are not in style, but if a person dressed for 2008 were to walk around in the 80s, he or she would not look out of place. Even those asymmetric haircuts have started to come back. And as for fabrics, we’re still using cotton, wool, and acrylics. Gadget clothing never really caught on. The only real novelty in this field that I can think of is GoreTex, which I use in my biking outfits. As for everyday gadgets, in the 80s we used the Walkman; now we use the iPod. My classmates at Columbia walked around just as disconnected from the world around them as Alexa’s do. I remember a friend of mine who was content as she strolled around listening to music on her Walkman, and then proceeded to fall into a pool. The same thing could happen today. Apple’s iPods fly off the shelves as if they were a great novelty, but aside from the way in which they store music, the product is a concept that has existed since the 80s and even Walkman is still a commercial name.
The manned space exploration of today is much less advanced than it was when I was a boy. During my childhood, man traveled to the moon, whereas today it is all about wasting millions orbiting the earth just so a space tourist can get an ego boost. The only real step forward has been made in the area in which my father, who was an astronomer, said it had to happen: unmanned space missions. We have sent spacecraft beyond the solar system, and we have succeeded in exploring areas that are much farther away, but we have also not discovered anything about the chemical composition of stars or the origin of the universe that we did not know in the 70s. During that decade, we were convinced that at this point man would have reached other planets, which is something that has not occurred.
When I was a boy my father built and managed a radio telescope near La Plata in the province of Buenos Aires. With a radio telescope we can “see” the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that, as The Little Prince said, is both “invisible to the eyes” and telescopes. Now we receive and are capable of processing more information due to the power of processors, but we still do not know all of those things that my father believed that we were going to be able to know. What’s more, a book called Life in the Universe, which my father wrote in the 70s, has recently been published again.
I grew up hearing theories like the Big Bang and I’m still hearing theories like the Big Bang. I grew up hearing talk of Super Colliders and I’m still hearing talk of Super Colliders. I grew up hearing about the paradoxes that exist when we talk about enormous distances in the universe, distances that can be traveled through in time; for example, we watched a man land on the moon on television only one second after his foot actually touched the lunar surface. But we have not found anything to improve the paradoxical situation. We live in a universe that began 5.5 billion years ago, and continues to expand, but our life is like a cosmic microsecond, and humanity has only been around for a few minutes. Even if there are others like ourselves in the universe, how are we going to be able to communicate with the rest of the civilizations that are thousands – or dozens of thousands – of light years away if we only live for a few short years?
My father wrote in the 60s that yes, it was probable that there was other life in the universe, but that if it were intelligent life, the slowness of light made it almost impossible for us to be able to communicate with these life forms. That if they said “hello” during the era in which human beings didn’t exist, we would respond as humans, and who knows to whom they would then be responding. That the universe and the evolution of animals are out of sync. And nothing has changed. What he said sounded new back then; now it sounds old and well-known, but there is nothing new.
That is why this Friday, as I sit next to my son Tom, watching a movie called Next, in which Nicholas Cage can see the immediate future, and all the while writing this article (multitasking, multitasking), I find myself disillusioned with a future that was never handed to me, and I wonder: could it be true that the rate at which we are discovering new things is slowing down? Or could it be that there are many more new discoveries, but they have not yet surfaced? I really don’t know. The rate of innovation is difficult to measure.
Yes, there are certain things that appear to evolve rapidly, but for me it is clear that in the 80s I could sit with a computer, listen to music, watch a movie, go out to listen to music, or go to a bar, or to a club that, by the way, was called Pachá when I first came to Madrid, just as it is now. And 25 years have passed, and nothing has really changed. I had the most boring video game in the world, Tennis, and my son has World of Warcraft. But I didn’t think that Tennis was the most boring video game in the world. And if virtual reality is the great discovery that we were waiting for, I’m going to keep on waiting for the future that was promised to me.
Maybe the problem is that in the 60s, 70s and 80s the idea of the future gave us an incredible rush. We were drunk on incredible optimism because we lived in a century during which it seemed everything that we used had been invented. But in this century it appears that the rate of innovation has slowed down quite a bit. Or maybe the problem is precisely that the generation responsible for the deceleration of progress is my own generation, that my father’s generation handed us a better world, and our generation is handing over one that is not only worse in social terms, given that the number of poor people on the planet is at a record level, but is also worse because it is not progressing at the speed that it used to.
Five years into the 20th century, Einstein was living his Annus Miarbilis. Where is our patent office today? Who is our Einstein? Are we the first generation in many years incapable of true innovation? And let’s not just talk about things as complicated as the theory of relativity. I remember complaining about the drill when I was young, and my dentist telling me that when I was grown up he would have to find another job because we would have a vaccine against cavities. Where is this vaccine against cavities? Where are the cures for catarrh and AIDS? Where is that future devoid of poverty in which robots were going to do everything for people and we were going to dedicate ourselves to art and culture?
Unfortunately, when I look around me today, during the end of 2008, I see humanity leading an unsustainable life based on technology that should already be obsolete. I believe that it is time for us to engage in some serious self-criticism and start to invest in science again, because the list of unsolved problems grows longer every day. If we continue on like this, not only are we not going to have a future, but we are going to end up without a present.
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