Last month, one of my fellow columnists at the Daily argued that the cause of our generation’s alleged decline in happiness is due to the relentless onslaught of technology in our lives in a piece titled “Has Tech Gone Too Far?” Technology, Harrison writes (while offering little evidence), has “limited the depths of our relationships and created a society where individualism thrives while the collective suffers.” Furthermore, he argues, technology has allowed wealth inequality to proliferate and happiness to decline.
Harrison presents zero evidence to back up any of these claims; indeed, among teenagers and young adults (i.e., the generations most likely to make technology integral parts of their lives), the percentage of people saying they are happy has increased since 1972. To be fair, so have rates of anxiety and depression among young people, while suicide rates have decreased. But it is far more likely that people are anxious about the future because people in the Western world live in an era where an expensive college education is necessary for most future jobs, and where we are still recovering from the effects of the Great Recession. Add to that the effects of wage stagnation from the 1970s, and chances are you’re going to be less happy even if you can order marijuana to your doorstep and find someone to have sex with using a smartphone. Indeed, simplicity might be the key to happiness, but living a simple life isn’t cheap, and life is undoubtedly made simpler with technology, which also costs money, and so on.
However, one of the great paradoxes of our age of on-demand marijuana is not just our increased anxiety and depression, but also the nature of our science fiction. A time-traveler from the era of the Jetsons and Star Trek would be rather disturbed to see that some of our most popular stories of the future involve children fighting to the death in a zero-sum game for wealth and glory, humans leaving earth after obliterating the environment, and the establishment of a totalitarian theocracy in modern-day America. Forget replicators, warp drives and robot butlers — our future is expected to be a hellish scramble for resources, not an age of limitless prosperity. If Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber had proclaimed today that we would have more vacation than work days in thirty years, we’d tell him to quit being such a hippie and get back to work.
In his 2011 essay titled “The End of the Future,” billionaire tech investor and entrepreneur Peter Thiel argues that our exponential advances in computing power and information technology have disguised a troubling stagnation in more fundamental innovation. Life at its core, argues Thiel, has remained fundamentally unchanged since the Space Age. We do not zip across the planet at 2,000 miles per hour, we do not take vacations on the moon and increasingly, our economic system is becoming more and more of a zero-sum game. Today, Thiel writes, the Manhattan Project would not get off the ground, politicians do not have the courage to substantially increase research and development funding and people prefer to buy Victorian homes.
A quick look at America’s energy landscape confirms Thiel’s hypothesis. Almost 80 years after splitting the atom, nuclear energy only accounts for 20 percent of our electricity production, with coal and natural gas accounting for two-thirds of it and solar, wind and geothermal energy accounting for less than 6 percent. 92 percent of the energy we use for transportation comes from fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency does not see a radical shift away from our reliance on fossil fuels by 2040, even though renewable energy will play a much bigger role. Thus, our sources of energy will remain largely the same as they were in the Carter years.
This is a tremendous problem. For meaningfully improving standards of living and transforming our lives into something closer to the utopian dreams of Star Trek, we need cheap, abundant and clean (i.e., carbon-free) energy. Nuclear fission energy offers such a promise, yet mass public hysteria against the perceived dangers of this technology have significantly increased hurdles against its adoption. California, the largest state in the country and the world’s capital of innovation, still prohibits the construction of new nuclear plants due to a misguided 1976 referendum. In Thiel’s words, the hippies are winning this fight; the 1950s promise of limitless energy from the atom is now nothing but a passing thought.
Critics of nuclear power will argue that something that produces the potential for large catastrophe and non-trivial amounts of dangerous radioactive waste ought to be replaced by something better. Indeed, the so-called Holy Grail of the energy industry, nuclear fusion, offers the benefits of cheap, abundant, and clean energy without any of the current downsides. But like other moonshots, making fusion a reality requires immense amounts of dedicated research and development funding. Yet we spend less on research and development today than Richard Nixon did in 1972. Non-defense research and development constituted 6 percent of the federal budget at the height of the space race; today, it is less than 2 percent. While we have had several extraordinary breakthroughs in basic research since the space race, we also see fewer and fewer paths for this breakthrough science to reach the market and transform people’s lives — a phenomenon known cheerfully as the “valley of death.”
Fewer people live in extreme poverty today than fifty years ago. But truly conquering poverty, disease and other social ills while building a future we all aspire to means getting serious about technology and putting money where our mouths are. In Silicon Valley, it is too easy to conflate advances in tech with a new photo-sharing app and thus myopically make calls for less tech in our lives. We ought to be asking for more, not fearfully scrambling to extract every last bit of somniferous nostalgia from what already exists. Netflix ought not to be the final resting place of Star Trek.
Contact Arnav Mariwala at arnavm ‘at’ stanford.edu.