I don’t (yet?) agree with what is to follow, but it is a model of the world I have been trying to flesh out, if only for the sake of curiosity. Here are the main premises:
1. For a big breakthrough in some area to come, many different favorable inputs had to come together. So the Florentine Renaissance required the discovery of the right artistic materials at the right time (e.g., good tempera, then oil paint), prosperity in Florence, guilds and nobles interested in competing for status with artistic commissions, relative freedom of expression, and so on.
2. To some extent, but not completely, the arrival of those varied inputs is random. Big breakthroughs are thus hard to predict and also hard to control.
3. A breakthrough in one area increases the likelihood that further breakthroughs will come in closely related areas. So if the coming together of the symphony orchestra leads to the work of Mozart and Haydn, that in turn becomes an inspiration and eases the path for later breakthroughs in music, not just Mahler but also The Beatles, compared to say how much it might ease future breakthroughs for painting.
4. Some breakthroughs are very very good for economic growth, such as the Industrial Revolution. But most breakthroughs do not in any direct way boost gdp very much. The Axial age led to the creation of significant religions and intellectual traditions, but the (complex) effects on gdp are mostly lagged and were certainly hard to see at the time.
5. Even if Robert Gordon is right that we will never have a new period of material progress comparable to the early 20th century for improving living standards, the next breakthrough eras still might be very important.
6. One possibility is that the next breakthrough will be some form of brain engineering. People might be much happier and better adjusted, but arguably that could lower measured gdp by boosting “household production” in lieu of market activity. At the very least, gdp figures may not reflect the value of those gains.
7. Another candidate for the next breakthrough would be institutional changes that make ongoing international peace much more likely. That would have some positive effects on gdp in the short run, but its major effects would be in the much longer run, namely the prevention of a very destructive war.
8. Judged by the standards of the last breakthrough, the current/next breakthrough is typically hard to see and understand. It almost always feels like we are failing at progress.
9. When a breakthrough comes, you need to ride it for all it is worth. Arguably you also should embrace the excesses of that breakthrough, not seek to limit them. It is perhaps your only real chance to mine that mother lode of inspiration. So let us hope that Baroque music was “overproduced” in the early to mid 18th century, because after that production opportunities go away. For that reason, “overuse” of the internet and social media today may not be such a bad thing. It is our primary way of exploring all of the potential of that cultural mode, and that mode will at some point be tamed and neutered, just as Baroque music composition is now dormant.
10. Progress in (many forms of) science may be more like progress in Baroque music composition than we comfortably like to think. But I hope not.