In 1806 there are still pockets of magicians all over Britain. They don’t practice magic, but they read books about magic. They study the history of magic. A stranger walks into York’s Society of Magic and poses the question: Why is there no more magic done in England?

the learned members of the York society did not at all like hearing it asked and the reason was this: they were no more able to answer it than anyone else.

Thus opens Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, thereby completely inverting the usual mood we associate with the period.

19th Century Britain is dynamic, powerful, inventive, resourceful. It is the beating heart of the industrial revolution, the beginning of the flywheel leading to 2 centuries of unprecedented economic growth and improvement in human well-being. The entire field of economic history centers on the question of why the Industrial Revolution happened where and when it did because these scholars consider it among the most important events in history.

Clarke instead depicts an era in decline. There are no more fundamental advances in the magical realm. A little juice remains to be squeezed, but not much and even that is treated as a sort of curiosity. A time when people are so enamoured with social advancement and consumer trinkets that they neglect the source of their civilization’s power. An era, in short, much like our own.

I’m not sure I would have seen this concern quite so clearly if I hadn’t read the first two books in the Three Body Problem series, where this theme is much more prominent. There, humanity is prevented from making advances in fundamental physics, but can continue developing technology based on current knowledge. There is some disagreement between important characters about how bad this is, and it takes decades or centuries to resolve, but eventually it becomes clear that this matters a great deal.

Similarly, though I can’t recall the source, I remember reading a theoretical mathematician concerned about not having enough positive impact on the world. The reassuring conclusion was that he’s making tools which may be commonly used by engineers in another century or two.

Analogous, too, is Jonathan Blow’s theory of civilizational decline, which I recapitulated here. This is even more pessimistic than some of the others. Blow points out that not only will we stop advancing, but technology can move backwards: we’ll be surrounded by machines which we depend on but that we can barely maintain and cannot rebuild.

Underlying all of these is a model along the following lines:

  • There are different fields of human knowledge and practice, which depend on one another to advance.
  • If an “upstream” field stops advancing, it can take time to notice the downstream effects.
  • The rate of advancement in a field depends in part on the extent to which we resource it with both financial and social capital.
  • The allocation of resources tends over time to favor the “downstream” fields because the effects are more visible and they are closer to the market, making their practice more lucrative.
  • There is a vicious cycle where perceived value of the fundamentals declines, leading to lower resourcing, leading to even less investment in fundamentals and therefore reducing its percieved value. As above, the inhibitory force on this cycle (less technological progress) is too slow to counteract it.
  • The social effects can be large: many of the good things about human society now are dependent on continuing growth, on positive-sum games which don’t exist in the absence of progress.

There is a related movement going under the name “progress studies” which has noticed some of the same symptoms and aims for a rigorous understanding of the causes so they can be addressed. Patrick Collison, one of the leaders of this movement among his many other preoccupations, maintains a list of relevant sources on the topic for those who are interested.

Interestingly, Clarke’s book is from 2004, the first Three Body Problem was translated into English in 2014, and Patrick’s manifesto on Progress Studies (with Tyler Cowen) was published in 2019. I’d be curious about the flow of influence here.