I'm not sure if I completely buy the argument, but it's interesting to consider Bruce Charlton's thesis that human capability is declining.
I suspect that human capability reached its peak or plateau around 1965-75 – at the time of the Apollo moon landings – and has been declining ever since.
This may sound bizarre or just plain false, but the argument is simple. That landing of men on the moon and bringing them back alive was the supreme achievement of human capability, the most difficult problem ever solved by humans. 40 years ago we could do it – repeatedly – but since then we have *not* been to the moon, and I suggest the real reason we have not been to the moon since 1972 is that we cannot any longer do it. Humans have lost the capability. ...
The fact is that human no longer do - *can* no longer do many things we used to be able to do: land on the moon, swiftly win wars against weak opposition and then control the defeated nation, secure national borders, discover ‘breakthrough’ medical treatments, prevent crime, design and build to a tight deadline, educate people so they are ready to work before the age of 22, block an undersea oil leak...
But... I'm not sure we could drill for oil 5000 feet below the surface 40 years ago. Still, Charlton's point isn't directly about technology as much as it's about will and bureaucracy.
But since the 1970s there has been a decline in the quality of people in the key jobs in NASA, and elsewhere – because organizations no longer seek to find and use the best people as their ideal but instead try to be ‘diverse’ in various ways (age, sex, race, nationality etc). And also the people in the key jobs are no longer able to decide and command, due to the expansion of committees and the erosion of individual responsibility and autonomy.
By 1986, and the Challenger space shuttle disaster, it was clear that humans had declined in capability – since the disaster was fundamentally caused by managers and committees being in control of NASA rather than individual experts.
It was around the 1970s that the human spirit began to be overwhelmed by bureaucracy (although the trend had been growing for many decades).
I agree that we've lost the capability to go to the moon, largely because of bureaucracy. However, even if our maximum capability as a civilization has dropped, I'd still argue that the advance of technology has led to an increase in our median individual capability.
Will this increase in individual capability eventually defeat the forces of bureaucratization? I sure hope so. I'd love to live in a civilization that is constantly reaching new heights.
(HT: The Corner.)