[R-G] [BillTottenWeblog] Trailing Edge Technologies
shimogamo at attglobal.net
Wed Jul 16 08:10:07 MDT 2008
by John Michael Greer
The Archdruid Report (July 09 2008)
Druid perspectives on nature, culture, and the future of industrial society
One of the worst of the booby traps built into the contemporary
mythology of progress, it seems to me, is the notion that the way out of
any difficulty is to keep moving the way we are already going, and do it
faster. It may seem obvious that if you've gone down a blind alley, the
only way out begins by shifting into reverse, but it takes very little
attention to the current political scene to notice that this bit of
common sense is far from common just now.
For a case in point, listen to the pundits - a sizeable chorus of them
just now - who insist that the only way to bring soaring prices of oil,
food, and other commodities back to earth is to push forward with the
project of economic globalization. The problem here is that
globalization was never more than an artifact of the final blowoff of
the age of cheap oil, and as that age ends, so do the economic factors
that made globalization work.
During the quarter century from 1980 to 2005, the cost of transport was
so close to negligible that it seemed to make sense - and certainly made
profits - to arbitrage labor costs by building sweatshop factories in
Third World countries and shipping their products around the globe to
markets in the industrial world. Far from being the wave of the future,
as so many of its promoters claimed, or a malign conspiracy, as so many
of its enemies insisted, it was simply the most profitable solution of
an equation in which fuel costs, prevailing wages, and the relative
strengths of various currencies were the most significant factors.
That equation is changing now. A recent news article noted that the cost
of shipping a container of freight from China to Europe is now three
times what it was before the current oil price spike began, and US
companies that had offshored their production lines to distant
continents were beginning to reopen long-shuttered domestic factories to
cut transport costs. As the age of cheap oil dwindles in the rearview
mirror, companies that choose the same strategy will prosper at the
expense of those who cling to the mirage of the global economy.
The same sort of reversal, I'm coming to think, may affect many more
aspects of life in the near future, as a great many apparent waves of
the future turn out to be temporary adjustments to the short-term
aberration that sent energy prices plunging down to levels that, in
constant dollars, they never reached before - and almost certainly will
never reach again. Any number of examples come to mind, but the one I'd
like to discuss here is technology.
Few aspects of contemporary life are as heavily freighted with mythic
significance as the way that technologies change over time. It's from
this, more than anything else, that the modern myth of progress draws
its force - and yet there are at least two very different processes
lumped under the label of "technological progress".
The first, progress within a particular technology, follows a
predictable course driven by the evolution of the technology itself. The
first clumsy, tentative, and unreliable prototypes are replaced by ever
more efficient and reliable models, until something like a standard
model emerges; thereafter, changes in fashion and a slow improvement in
efficiency supply what variations there are. Compare a sewing machine, a
clothes dryer, or a turboprop engine from the 1960s with one fresh off
the assembly line today, and in the underlying technology, the
differences are fairly slight.
The difference lies in the control systems. The sewing machines, clothes
dryers, and turboprops of the 1960s used relatively simple mechanical
means of control, guided by the skill of human operators. Their
equivalents today use complex digital electronics, courtesy of the
computer revolution, and require much less human skill to run
effectively. On a 1960s sewing machine, for example, buttonholes are
sewn using a simple mechanical part and a great deal of knowledge and
coordination on the part of the seamstress; on a modern machine, as
often as not, the same process is done by tapping a few virtual buttons
on a screen and letting the machine do it.
Changes of this sort are generally considered signs of progress. This
easy assumption, though, may require a second look. It's true that the
primitive computers available in the 1960s would have had a very hard
time sewing a buttonhole, and the idea of fitting one of the
warehouse-sized mainframes of the time into a home sewing machine would
have seemed preposterous; computer technology has certainly progressed
over that time. Yet the change from mechanical controls and operator
skills with digital electronics is not a matter of progress in a single
technology. It marks the replacement of one technology by another.
It's at this point that we enter into the second dimension of
technological change. Mechanical controls and home economics classes did
not gradually evolve into digital sewing machine controls; instead, one
technology ousted another. Furthermore, both technologies do an equally
good job of making a buttonhole. The factors driving the replacement of
one by the other are external to the technologies themselves.
In the case of the sewing machines, as in so many similar technological
transformations of the last sixty years or so, the replacement of one
technology by another furthered a single process - the replacement of
human skill by mechanical complexity. What drove this, in turn, was an
economic equation closely parallelling the one that guided the rise of
the global economy: the fact that for a certain historical period, all
through the industrial world, energy was cheaper than human labor.
Anything that could be done with a machine was therefore more profitable
to do with a machine, and the only limitation to the replacement of
human labor by fossil fuel-derived energy was the sophistication of the
control systems needed to replace the knowledge base and nervous system
of a skilled laborer.
For most people today, that equation still defines progress. A more
advanced technology, by this definition, is one that requires less human
skill and effort to operate. The curve of progress thus seems to point
to the sort of fully automated fantasy future that used to fill so many
comic books and Saturday morning cartoons.
One of the major mental challenges of the near future, in turn, will
consist of letting go of this image of the future and retooling our
expectations to fit a very different reality. Behind the clever robots
who populated the collective imagination, and the less clever but more
tangible bits of household automation marketed so obsessively to the
middle classes in recent decades, lies the replacement of human energy
by mechanical energy derived mostly from fossil fuels. During the age of
cheap abundant energy, this made economic sense, because the energy -
and the machines needed to use it - were so much cheaper than the
skilled labor they replaced. In the decades to come, as energy stops
being cheap and abundant, that rule will no longer hold. What looked
like the wave of the future, here as elsewhere, might well turn out to
be a temporary adjustment to a short-term phenomenon.
It's hard to think of an aspect of modern life that will not face
drastic reshaping as a result. The collapse of American education, for
example, was a consequence of the same economic forces that put
computers into sewing machines; for the last few decades, it was more
cost-effective to hand over bookkeeping chores to computers and equip
word processors with spell checkers than it was to teach American
children how to do arithmetic and spell correctly. In the future, this
will very likely no longer be true, but the sprawling bureaucracies that
run today's education industry are poorly equipped, and even more poorly
motivated, to deal with the need to teach the skills that will be needed
for humans to replace the machines.
Now of course not all the machines will need to be replaced at once.
Many modern technologies, however, demand very large energy inputs that
will not be reliably available in the future. Many more cannot be
repaired when they break down - during the age of cheap energy, it was
more cost-effective to throw a machine away when it broke, and buy a new
model, than it was to pay a repairman's wages. Furthermore, the
extraordinary levels of interconnection that pervade today's technology
mean that the failure of a single component that cannot be replaced or
repaired can render an entire system useless.
It's probably too late to avoid the future of systems failure the
choices of the recent past have prepared for us, but quite a bit can be
done to mitigate it. The first priority, it seems to me, is precisely to
break free of the dubious assumption that the kind of technology that
was more cost-effective in an age of cheap abundant energy will be well
suited to the age of scarce and limited energy now dawning around us.
The second is to redirect our attention and efforts to those
technologies better suited to the new realities of our future.
Among the most useful resources in this context, in turn, are precisely
the technologies that fell out of fashion in the last extravagant
decades of the age of abundance, and the skills necessary to use them.
As a culture, we've pursued cutting edge technologies for so long that
shifting attention to trailing edge technologies may seem almost
willfully perverse. Nonetheless, those older technologies that work
effectively with relatively modest energy inputs, and rely on human
hands and minds in place of energy- and resource- intensive electronics,
may turn out to be much more viable in the long run.
That 1960s sewing machine - designed to allow for maintenance and
repair, built of easily replaceable parts, and relatively easy to
convert to foot pedal power if electricity becomes scarce - is likely to
have a much longer working life in an age of decline than the
computerized models filling showrooms today. In the same way, a great
many trailing edge technologies - and the skills needed to use them,
many of which can still be learned from living practitioners today - are
worth preserving. The question, of course, is how many people will do
that while the opportunity still exists.
John Michael Greer has been active in the alternative spirituality
movement for more than 25 years, and is the author of a dozen books,
including The Druidry Handbook (Weiser, 2006). He lives in Ashland, Oregon.
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