Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A world built by hands, and machines

Authors Note:  I am sick today, and rather bored, so I am trying to keep myself busy with tea, lemonade, and frequent urination.  This article is an effort to do something minimally useful while my fat old body fights off the nasties.
Anyone who has spent time reading my ravings knows about my love-hate relationship with Mr. Kuntsler and my unseemly adoration of the Archdruid.

I realize that I have to get a grip on these, but right now the tension between these two and their worldviews provides me with an excellent set of ideological lenses with which to view the world.  As usual, I cannot thank them enough for their hard works and their insights.

When you spend a bit of time thinking about their writings, you start to fill in the gaps between the time frames that they write their readings of the crystal balls and their distaste for the way that the present is structured.  They both agree that the present structure of American life is an unsuccessful attempt, but they focus on different timelines for the collapse.  Mr Kunstler, in his writings and fiction focuses relatively short -term (around 5-20 years), while Mr. Greer brackets Mr Kunstler by going very near term (in his prescriptions for the present) and distant future (post-industrial America circa 2400 in his fiction)

Both of them appear to believe that electronics is gone for good.  But even Mr Greer has radio in the distant future.  Both of them seem to be enamored with the mystique of hand tools and the primitive nature of technology in the pre-mass market oil extravaganza.  I think that this is somewhat a healthy attitude, but it kind of reeks of overshoot.

I think that there will be a place in the future for fairly serious electronics.   They are just too good at being controllers and communicators to think that they will slip away to nothingness.  What will slip away will be the fatuous and self-indulgent uses of electronics.  The constant upgrades of technology will go away, probably to be replaced by a serious consolidation and rationalization of function to fit decreased access to resources.

I really don't see this kind of thing as a huge problem.  Being able to write something like this attempt at rational thought is just as easily done using WordPerfect 4.2.  Rather than the instant gratification of writing online using blogger's front-end, it would be just as easy to batch send things around using a fidonet interface with a once a day pickup.   Rather than using dual-core, high end high energy consumption processors, perhaps a 80386 equivalent with low power draw and low-bandwidth access could provide enough communication for almost anyone.

Cell phones could be easily made smaller and cheaper, take away the "streaming" functions and the apps and you have a system easily capable of handling all the voice traffic that one could hope for for very low cost.  Take out the intrusive monitoring of GPS systems, the pathetic desire to watch movies, and the truly sad need of young women to text incessantly and you have a global communication system for pennies on the dollar compared to current systems.

But where I see electronics having a long term impact is in localized manufacturing.  Arduino makes a great little board that is currently limited only by imagination and too-big desires.   These things are very simple and can be made to do some pretty amazing things.  What they will never do is to make people obsolete.  They can extend human capabilities, not replace them.

I guess what I think is that some maturity will be coming our way soon in the way that we look at things.  Constant increases in complexity are the problem.  Going back to semi-primitive systems will not be the answer.  Part of maturity is knowing when something is good enough.


NoHype said...

Electricity is one of the few natural phenomena that has been recently (in the past couple hundred years) harnessed to the exclusion of all previously known history. Nuclear fission is another one, but hardly worth discussing in the context of accessible tech.

This makes it a unique technology. Chemical reactions, metallurgy, heat-expansion drives, mechanical transmission systems and wheels, gears and levers are all quite old (at least 2,000 years old). The only modern difference is the discovery of excess energy to drive them.

It does, however, take an immense amount of energy to create printed circuit boards en masse. So, it's probable that electronics will be reserved for the very wealthy -- who can command the labor of others -- or become very large again, with the attendant application limitations.

My take on Greer is that he is speaking to the vast majority of us who don't have the ability or will to exploit the labor of others. Kunstler? Well, he needs to sell books and doesn't seem to embrace the level of intentional poverty that Greer does.

Might be the Archdruid commitment.

russell1200 said...

There is a difference between being simple to use and simple to create. I did a post on a guys attempt to make a cheeseburger with all the fixings from the output of his small holding farm. Sounds easy enough, but the timing issue makes it very difficult. Cheeseburgers are easy if you can transport around “in season” items at will.

Kunstler’s fiction is a collapse scenario. Given the collapse scenario he uses, he is too optimistic to my mind. The 19th century is much more high-tech than we realize. They tend to read a little bit like wild west settler yarns with a little new age fantasy mixed in.

I read John Michael Greer’s blog. He seems more broadly knowledgeable than Kunstler, but I had not seen any of his far future scenarios to know what you are referencing.

russell1200 said...

O.K. I found JMG's fiction. It is a seperate website. Looks like he does about a chapter a month.