Nov 25, 2023Liked by Freddie deBoer

Please file this away as a topic for a future column: "I know there’s a lot of criticism of the “crisis for boys” narrative, but it’s often hard not to believe in it."

Expand full comment

You wrote this entire article and completely failed to mention the astounding advances we've made in air fryer technology.

Expand full comment

This is a reasonable argument about the current state of consumer tech—and your description of AI aligns broadly with what most actual AI engineers and researchers think (I touched on this a little yesterday in https://dansitu.substack.com/p/power-technology-and-love).

But most technology isn't consumer tech, it's boring stuff that makes other things work better. The "Green Revolution" was an accumulation of fairly boring incremental improvements to agriculture that happened over the course of the 20th Century. Together they produced an astonishing increase in yields, especially in the developing world, that has enabled literally billions of additional human lives.

The same dull incrementalism has borne multiple agricultural and industrial revolutions that have taken human beings from a tiny ecological niche to a space-faring species. And the pace of incremental improvement is increasing. Minor improvements in manufacturing yields, cost-reduction, and supply chain technologies really add up. At a fundamental level, technology IS incrementalism—and though things may seem flat from the perspective of a lifetime, we've been living on an ultra-steep gradient for the past few hundred years.

While I do think some amazing consumer tech is in the pipeline (https://dansitu.substack.com/p/furby-is-the-future-of-ai), consumer gadgets have always been pretty unimportant compared to our shunting around of matter and energy with ever-increasing skill.

Expand full comment

If focusing on AI means they’ll stop trying to “improve” other stuff, i’m all for it.

Compare the usability of Microsoft Word now to the version we had ten years ago. It used to have nice little words at the top of the screen for the different menus. Now, it’s mostly just a bunch of indecipherable fucking icons without names that make no sense whatsoever. Seriously. Why? Did the AB testing lab decide it causes too much “friction” to read words instead of unintuitive icons? Do they think Word users can’t read? It’s not even a cost thing. The subscription fee is annoying, but I would happily pay extra to have the old version back.

And Microsoft Windows. I can’t even.

Expand full comment

I wonder if the reason that higher education is now dominated by young women, except in some fields, is because society has pushed hard for girls to get college educations and careers rather than relying on marriage and housekeeping which was the norm in the early to mid 1900s?

I understand the push for girls to be economically independent. I'm in my 60s and knew many women who married young, had kids and were totally unprepared when divorce hit them in their 30s and 40s. There were even more of my mother's generation, whose lives centered around home and family. They found themselves scaping a living in their 40s and 50s without a credit history or retirement.

When I was looking for summer activities for middle-school boys twenty years ago there were plenty of things for minorities and girls, nothing for boys. If they weren't into sports they were SOL.

Perhaps we as a society have forgotten to tell our boys that it isn't a good idea for them to sit on their asses all day playing video games, supported by indulgent parents and girlfriends. It's too easy for parents and grandparents to support idle kids. It's easier than kicking them out to sink or swim. But what happens when Grandma dies? When mom can no longer support them? When their girlfriend gets fed up with doing it all? What are we doing when we have childhood extending into the thirties? These boys are being set up the way women were in 1950s when they relied on a husband.

Work is more than making money. Work gives people a purpose, it proves they are of use.

Expand full comment

For me the biggest example of all smoke with no fire has been the tablet. It surprises me how many people will argue with me about it. To me, it’s a classic example of consumers being persuaded that we need The New Thing. It’s midway between a phone and a laptop, and does neither thing well. But the hype, oh the hype. I taught in a school board that gave an IPad to every student. It went as you would expect.

Expand full comment

My two cents: I don't give a fuck about AI but its less glamorous cousin language translate technology will change the world. Just the dumb old Google translate app is already good enough that you can communicate with anyone on earth. Yeah sometimes it mistranslates "street" into "horse" or whatever but then it's really funny when you try to suss mistranslations. There's also tech where you can attach a translator to your phone and it operates even without internet, but that's still too expensive.

Expand full comment

This may be true (and I share your skepticism about a lot of this stuff, particularly VR) - but it also reminds me of discourse at the end of the 19th century:

- Lord Kelvin on the "Utter Impracticability of Aeronautics" (https://zapatopi.net/kelvin/papers/interview_aeronautics_and_wireless.html).

- Philip Von Jolly, Planck's teacher, told him to not go into physics as "a highly developed, almost fully mature science which, now that the discovery of energy has crowned it, so to speak, will soon reach its final stability would have taken shape."

- The head of the US patent office wrote in 1902 "In my opinion, all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared with those which the present century will witness. I almost wish that I might live my life over again to see the wonders which are at the threshold."

Like I said, I'm skeptical about VR, AI, and so forth - but I'm more skeptical of promises of the end of history, or the end of technological growth. I think it's very tempting to look at something like space travel and say "a world where that happens is indistinguishable from a world where it doesn’t, for the average person." This isn't a new criticism of space travel; people have said this for the last 60 years. But communications satellites, GPS, etc. *have* been enormously significant inventions that have improved the lives of the average person, not just through direct use, but also through, e.g. allowing better automation of farm equipment which increases ag productivity.

Expand full comment

Not life changing...but I love my plant and bug identification apps

Expand full comment

This is a topic that a number of tech industry commentators, most notably including _Peter Thiel_ of all people, have been pushing on for a long time: revolutions in information technology, while nice, simply do not have the same level of impact as revolutions in the material world. Coal and steam power, the railroad, the assembly line -- these all had far more impact to everyday wealth and prosperity than the Internet ever will.

We're definitely seen a slowdown in innovation and change in the physical world. My understanding is people who study this see two big reasons for this:

1. We've simply run out of easy scientific advances and applications in the physical world; the low hanging fruit have all been plucked.

2. Changes to regulations, safetyism and a general aversion to changing the physical environment has made large scale improvements to the physical world much harder than previously.

My POV is that as a combination of 1 and 2, the _return on investment_ of innovation in physical devices is much lower than the ROI in software, and as a consequence our entire technology culture focuses exclusively on software. Everything else follows from that.

Expand full comment

"There is nothing at present that these systems can do that human being simply can’t."

Just to get this out of the way, even with the help of your big blue ox you can't fill hundreds of thousands of art commissions per minute. Just for the easiest and most obvious answer to this question.

As for the rest, there are things you probably want to read up on that are empowered by what spacex is doing and can have massive effects on life on earth.

1) starlink allowing people to access a network with no government controls, thus bypassing copyright laws or other content controls.

2) decreasing cost per pound to orbit will eventually allow economically viable asteroid mining. The amount of resources available in just the asteroid belt is so mind boggling that you can't even grasp how much you can't even grasp it. Imagine harvesting a rock and permanently crashing the price of gold. That's what is coming.

3) you can do some very dirty power generation in space and beam the power to earth. If you harvest the raw materials from asteroids it's even more viable. Pass certain breakpoints and it effectively becomes boundless energy so cheap it might as well be free. Making an expensive resource cheap upends everything (making bandwidth nearly free brought us the modern internet).

4) zero G research has been extremely limited. Space telescopes cost billions. Look at what jwst has done to cosmology. Now imagine access to space cheap enough that middle rich high schools can put a space telescope in orbit.

Stepping away from space, you mention CRISPR but don't seem to fully appreciate what we are looking at. With the increased access to cheap compute and now some AI assistants you'll be able to spend some money and mod your genes at home. This is going to be both amazing and horrific.

MRNA vaccines are a game changer too. With how easy they are to develop (the moderna vaccine they went with was ready in _days_, it just needed months of testing and approvals) and the confluence of AI and cheap biotech I guarantee you're going to see those upper crust crystal yoga mommies start bootleging their own vaccines, and other similar crazy stuff.

Probably one of the best use cases for AI will be curation. You can ask the AI to find cool shit you'll like. If it can't find anything, you can ask it to make something up. In a world with loneliness epidemics you'll have a computer bud who gets you and doesn't judge you and is always available. This also means you can practice social skills in a safe environment and be more comfortable when talking to real people.

And I'm just scratching the surface. What does small capacity public transit using driverless electric cars (powered by free infinite energy) do to the suburbs? Does that make them easier or harder to live in? Especially if the car can safely drive at 100mph in most weather? If you live as long as your affluence class, you'll know the answer before you die.

Read some old science fiction from the 50s-70s, before science fantasy started to take over. Niven, Brin, Pournelle, Heinlein. Check those out. That should kick start some ideas of what will be possible in just the next few years.

Expand full comment

I have been saying this same thing for years. I work as an engineer in an area that spans software and hardware and I'm always struck somehow by the...minorness, the relative obviousness of the internet compared to major developments like residential electricity. And even in my career of 12ish you can see how palpably the developments in internet technologies have slowed. Years ago there were constant new tools coming out for developers--it seems like you always needed to move to new frameworks, new infrastructure, new hardware because everything was always becoming so much better. A decade ago I would think to myself, 'wow, am I going to have to keep up like this for 30 years?' But quickly it kind of all settled into a place of stability, with little disruption and just a few major vendors in most categories.

It's interesting to me in the comments that many commenters want this article to not be true, that it seems too boring. But I'm rather fine with a world of small incremental improvements, where society isn't in constant churn. If I could be offered the universe from Star Trek, I'd think differently. But if the most amazing thing we can imagine is living on Mars, no thank you.

Expand full comment

I think Freddie is right in that our next leap is waiting on fusion. From what I understand the physics says fusion can totally work. The issue is that the engineering represents the hardest task mankind has attempted. Once that breakthrough happens then various world changing technologies will race forward.

Oh and fusion and AI will bring about luxury gay space communism about which we will tease Freddie endlessly.

Expand full comment

"I know I’m never going to convince most people that AI is not coming to rescue them from boredom and disappointment and let them live forever and bring back their beloved childhood dog Rusty and allow them to get kinky on the Holodeck. "

LOL. Well done.

I think homesteaders are going to be the new upper class by then end of this century. The global order started after WWII by the US and maintained by the US since then... the one that provided the world such marvelous advancement, peace and prosperity... the one that those same classroom kids and their older peers are demanding be expanded and destroyed at the same time... well it is coming to an end.

It is simply breathtaking the benefit and harm dichotomy of this common human tendency to always want more. My mother, God rest her soul, after being raised a poor country bumpkin that bought her clothing at Montgomery Wards and suffering a terrible first marriage with a man that could not keep a job, marries an enterprising second husband who provides an upper-class lifestyle for her. I remember her being so upset that her housekeeper was quitting (after all they had done for her) because she would have to do house work until she trained another. The poor housekeeping girl had to go back to Mexico to care for her sick mother. I remember being so disappointed in my mother at that point for becoming one of them. Thankfully it was only a temporary moment of her weakness... she was 95% above all the classism.

But everyone eventually has to rewrite the chapters of their life book to match their new reality. They eventually get pissed and resentful getting stuck in a chapter... they always want to turn the page. One problem is when their obsession to turn the page overwhelms their good judgement (they feel the need to do something different, and pick something bad). Another problem is that they forget the path they took to get where they are, and the lack of perspective makes them waste historical wisdom and thus repeat unnecessary mistakes.

I hire young people to work for me. I have been astounded that I have to teach them how to handle a cordless drill.... how to change a toilet paper role, and how to handle constructive criticism. Yes, they are witty, brilliant, educated and quick. They can communicate in binary semi-language and images with their peers in ways never seen before. But they are hugely ignorant in common sense and everyday life-skills. They are probably the least prepared generations for dealing with the coming collapse.

Not my kids though... I made sure.

Expand full comment

I don't think I agree that advances in materials/energy tech around the turn of the last century have more of a "real" impact on people's actual lives than the changes in communication and information technology from around the turn of the 20th.

My husband's father (who is still alive) grew up in a rural mining town where no one had plumbing in their homes. They used an outhouse and brought in and boiked water for cooking and bathing. Yes, not having to do that anymore is a huge change and so much more convenient and nice than having to freeze your buns off in an outhouse in the winter. However, bc of changes over the last 20 years, this same man can communicate, virtually for free, on a daily basis with all of his relatives who live all over the country. He can (and does) send group texts to all his grandkids. He video chats with us 3000 miles away and we can show him everything in our house. He can look up and read information and news about virtually anything in the world, from any location, instantly. Those are also enormous and huge changes to his actual daily life. When he was a child and now, in both instances he never really left a 5 mile radius from his house. But as a kid that meant he knew nothing other than the people around him or the few books at the library and one local newspaper. Now he's in real time contact with people all over the world and can find out what's going on in Thailand or the answer to any questions he might have in an instant. 30 years ago he might've done a once a month long distance phone call carefully timed and written letters and have almost no connection to or knowledge of his grandkid's lives. Now he chats with them almost daily and can see photos and video. I think that's a radical change.

Also, the work world has transformed enormously bc of email. Not really for the better. But the work I do as a lawyer bears little relation to the work that the older lawyers who were practicing pre-80s did. I handle more matters, topics, and have more communications in a week than they did in several months. Every day I'm in instantaneous communications with people all over the world. There is no longer such thing as taking the time to think deeply about things, or real vacations. Everyone all over the world is always available unless they're asleep or in the hospital. Looking through my firm's historical archives from the 60s and 70s is actually hilarious bc the slower pace is so extreme (things were dictated, then typed by someone else, then mailed, people went to an actual library to do book research that took 100 times as long and you could still easily miss things).

Also I think the information and communications tech has changed people emotionally and psychology far more than the other changes you reference. Everyone is exposed to SO MUCH information, so many types of people, so many perspectives and conflicting opinions and values. It has made people much more anxious, less provincial, simultaneously more "tolerant" to the extent of not being shocked by anything and taking things in stride, but far more distrusting and hostile and envious and paranoid, more impatient, way way way more self conscious, less religious, more exhibitionist, and much more cynical.

I perceive a radical change in people's demeanors and disposition towards the world, over the past 20 years, and I'm not sure there's actually a more radical fundamental change for humans than that.

Fwiw is you took someone from 1900 and time traveled them today, I bet they would be far more shocked by the level of sheer vulgarity, public sexuality, casual and sloppy attire, desensitization to spectacle, acceptance of homosexuality, and status of women and racial minorities than they would be by any of our tech. But the tech precipitated all those changes. If you watch a show like "the Gilded Age" (awful show) the shocking difference from the past isn't that people used horse drawn carriages, it's the social norms were so fundamentally and radically different.

I think maybe you and other people who want to say we're in stagnation are just focusing on certain factors that you find personally more impressive or interesting but that isn't actually an objective fact. I guarantee most women would find the changes from 1960 - 2023 to have a FAR more profound impact on their daily lives...quantitatively and qualitatively ... than those from 1860 - 1923.

I'm interested to hear more about these slacker boys. Back when I was in school, they were equal participants in class.

Expand full comment

I appreciate the techno skepticism, but isn’t there a large body of evidence and thought that goes further by pointing out that the tech we have now is regressive in terms of once cherished human values? Loss of social connection. Loss of common knowledge of a shared culture. One can agree or disagree with the techno pessimists but are their opinions no longer worth even considering like those who want to return to horse driven transportation?

Expand full comment