Contra Smith, I Guess

It’s taken 5 months, but Noah Smith is finally done with his ”epic” four-part saga “answering the techno-pessimists” in response to my initial post back in December.

A critical point of clarification: there is no such thing as a techno-pessimist, at least not in the context of this debate. Across the entire series of posts, I’m literally the only critic cited as a techno-pessimist, but none of this even describes my beliefs.

Take, for example, this accusation from Part 3:

Many of the Applied Divinity Studies blogger’s arguments rely on TFP as the fundamental measure of technology.

It’s difficult to understand how Smith could plausibly interpret this as my view. Throughout my entire post, “TFP” is mentioned exactly one time, and it’s not even my words! It’s in a quote from the Cowen/Southwood paper, the middle of a laundry list of other items, hardly a notable keystone of my thesis:

the disparate and partially independent areas of productivity growth, total factor productivity, GDP growth, patent measures, researcher productivity, crop yields, life expectancy, and Moore’s Law we have found support for this claim.

I do also cite the Bloom paper which mentions TFP, but it is not their central argument either. The bulk of the argument is about agricultural outputs, semiconductor development and life expectancy. My own treatment of the paper deals exclusively with the latter two of these issues.

Actually, let me make a more basic claim. I am not even a techno-pessimist, and have never claimed to be. From the original post:

The problem is not even that the ideas [of techno-optimists] are wrong. The problem is the blatantly imbalanced and isolated demands for rigour.

And even more explicitly:

To be clear, none of this is to say that The Great Stagnation is not over! Maybe yes, maybe no, maybe the whole thing was an illusion…

I planned to write a more substantial rebuttal, but reading through the rest of Noah’s post, the most notable thing is how little I disagree with his object-level claims. Rather then substantial, our differences seem to be primarily aesthetic. He likes anime; I prefer science-fiction. In the words of physicist-magician Suravaram Vidyasagar:

You are reading things that I have not written. You are having an argument, but it’s with somebody who isn’t me.

…that’s not to say that there aren’t also disagreements.

Concluding his latest post on scientific stagnation, Noah writes “U.S. business has done its part, but federal government R&D funding has really fallen off… In other words, business is running fast enough to stay in place in terms of R&D”. As evidence, he cites this chart from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation:

This is an erroneous interpretation on several accounts:

  1. Business has hardly “stayed in place”, it’s more than doubled from ~0.75% to nearly 2% of GDP! Additionally, real GDP is up around 10x since 1956, meaning real business investment has actually increased around 20x since 1956.
  2. Critically, this is only a measure of financial input, not of scientific output. Without accompanying evidence of actual innovations, growth in spending is evidence of stagnation (“less bang for its buck”), not of progress.
  3. Finally, we can’t conclude that “U.S. business has done its part” without understanding where that R&D spend actually goes. Note that since R&D expenditures result in tax breaks, firms push as much as possible under that umbrella. Amazon’s 40 billion in R&D spending is less impressive once you realize that it includes the development and acquisition of streaming content, alone an $11 billion line item. Amazon Studios may win awards, but it’s still not doing science.

So sure, I have plenty of details to nitpick. We could go back and forth like this for years.

But who cares?

Launching his new blog back in November, Noah originally wrote:

Twitter has become a dumpster fire of contentiousness, performativity, negativity, stupidity, and misinformation, and one solution is to go back to blogging. Blogs give readers time to digest and think about ideas, without being interrupted by random shouters with little context and lots of agenda.

That was a promising purpose, but Noah’s blogging has quickly devolved into the thing it aimed to replace. Arguing against a critic who doesn’t really exist? That’s nothing if not performative. You don’t get to escape the Twitter ethos just by joining an additional platform. Until you delete your account, you’re part of the hellscape and subject to its demands.

The performative aspect of feuds is only part of the issue.

But the real problem is that they’re profitable! Noah has a couple of orders of magnitude more followers than I do. The cost to my reputation is far lower than the benefit of being mentioned at all. C’est le succès du scandale. Noah has less to gain than I do, but since he writes on a monetized substack, he gets to profit in a more literal sense.

As usual, I’m just here to “raise or lower particular individuals in status”. The only problem with Noah is that he has the same incentives, but won’t admit it. So instead we’re here debating totally pointless questions, pretending to have a dog in the race. Maybe there is something for him, but as I said, it’s purely aesthetic.

If this all makes you feel pessimistic about the utility of blogging, you’re right.

Which is precisely why I don’t spend much time on it anymore.

Noah: Steins;Gate is overhyped, but I like FLCL and my email is always open if you want to talk.