The declining marginal return of research and development

The decreasing benefits from specialized, derivative work, viewed from the perspective of the overall history of science, are acquired at substantially greater cost. The costs to societies of early support of science tended to be minimal. Generally, as in the ancient Mediterranean or Medieval Europe, it consisted of little more than the support of individual naturalists or mathematicians and their students, or the support of religious specialists who also performed scientific inquiry. Science today, in contrast, is a costly process involving complex institutions, sophisticated technology, and large, interdisciplinary research teams.

This costly science certainly produces astonishing results, but these cannot be claimed to be more valuable than the generalized knowledge of earlier, less expensive science. As impressive, for example, as modern travel technology is, it is hard to argue that it is of greater consequence than the development of the wheel, or of water craft, or of the steam engine. As astounding as it is to put human beings on the moon, this is not of greater import than the principles of geometry or the theory of gravity. However valuable may be genetic engineering, the benefits of this complex process must always be attributed in part to the nearly cost-free work of Gregor Mendel. (…). Exponential growth in the size and costliness of science, in fact, is simply necessary to maintain a constant rate of progress.

Quoted from: “The Collapse of Complex Societies“, Joseph A. Tainter, 1988 (Amazon link). Excerpts.

One Day We Will All Be Writing and Revising Code

“Computers tend to replace one category of worker with another. There are two ways to get something done. You can find one group trained to accomplish things the old-fashioned way. Or you can pay another group to set up and maintain machines and systems that will do the same work with fewer employees – of the older category of worker. You are not really replacing people with machines; you are replacing one kind of person-plus-machine with another kind of machine-plus-person.

When IBM persuaded corporations to modernize their bookkeeping in the 1950s, businesses were able to get along with far fewer accountants, as they expected, but they had to hire more programmers than they had anticipated. Automatic teller systems also require programmers and technicians paid four times as much as bank tellers.

If things go well, banks need less than a quarter of the staff, and they come out ahead. But it is notoriously difficult to predict all problems, or their levels of difficulty, in advance. And one mark of newer technology is that while it is cheap in routine operation, it is expensive to correct and modify.”

Quoted from: “Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences“, Edward Tenner, p.245 (Amazon link).