The Misanthrope’s Guide to the End of the World

“Garbage eschatology (I claim credit for this neologism) is based on the premise that our technological infrastructure has acquired too much complexity for us to fix. It will kill us not by turning sentient and (for whatever obscure reason) wanting to kill us, but by stupidly and dumbly collapsing on top of us, like a gigantic Windows Vista, while we watch, powerless to prevent our impending accidental death. Technology will kill us by collapsing into a pile of rubble, turning the planet into a gigantic landfill. (…).

My view is based on the idea that the entropy of a software system (broadly defined to include the civilization-ware that runs the planet, including the mechanically embodied computational intelligence of such things as sewer systems) inevitably increases with time, past a point of no-return. Beyond that, we cannot stop it from collapsing under its own weight, and cannot marshal the resources to reverse the aging process either. The best we can do is hide and then emerge from the rubble and build ourselves Mad Max or Waterworld civilization resurrections. And don’t waste your time agonizing. We probably crossed that threshold in the 14th century, by my calculations.”

Venkatesh Rao = Joseph Tainter with a sense of humour. Read the whole thing. Via Ran Prieur.

Characteristics of Modern Technique (1)

polygraph duplicating device

“The one best way”: so runs the formula to which our technique corresponds. When everything has been measured and calculated mathematically so that the method which has been decided upon is satisfactory from the rational point of view, and when, from the practical point of view, the method is manifestly the most efficient of all those hitherto employed or those in competition with it, then the technical movement becomes self-directing. I call the process automatism. (…).

A surgical operation which was formerly not feasible but can now be performed is not an object of choice. It simply is. Here we see the prime aspect of technical automatism. Technique itself, ipso facto and without indulgence or possible discussion, selects among the means to be employed.

The human being is no longer in any sense the agent of choice. Let no one say that man is the agent of technical progress and that it is he who chooses among possible techniques. In reality, he neither is nor does anything of the sort. He is a device for recording effects and results obtained by various techniques. He does not make a choice of complex and, in some way, human motives. He can decide only in favor of the technique that gives the maximum efficiency. But this is not a choice. A machine could effect the same operation.

Quoted from “The Technological Society“, Jacques Ellul, 1964 / Original work: “La technique ou l’enjeu du siècle”, 1954 / Picture: polygraph duplicating device.

Characteristics of modern technique (2)
Characteristics of modern technique (3)

The declining marginal return of research and development

The decreasing benefits from specialized, derivative work, viewed from the perspective of the overall history of science, are acquired at substantially greater cost. The costs to societies of early support of science tended to be minimal. Generally, as in the ancient Mediterranean or Medieval Europe, it consisted of little more than the support of individual naturalists or mathematicians and their students, or the support of religious specialists who also performed scientific inquiry. Science today, in contrast, is a costly process involving complex institutions, sophisticated technology, and large, interdisciplinary research teams.

This costly science certainly produces astonishing results, but these cannot be claimed to be more valuable than the generalized knowledge of earlier, less expensive science. As impressive, for example, as modern travel technology is, it is hard to argue that it is of greater consequence than the development of the wheel, or of water craft, or of the steam engine. As astounding as it is to put human beings on the moon, this is not of greater import than the principles of geometry or the theory of gravity. However valuable may be genetic engineering, the benefits of this complex process must always be attributed in part to the nearly cost-free work of Gregor Mendel. (…). Exponential growth in the size and costliness of science, in fact, is simply necessary to maintain a constant rate of progress.

Quoted from: “The Collapse of Complex Societies“, Joseph A. Tainter, 1988 (Amazon link). Excerpts.

City Life – Lessons in Vanity

“Already in the western world and Japan millions of city-dwellers and suburbanites have grown accustomed to an almost hermetically sealed and sanitized pattern of living in which very little of their experience ever impinges on non-human phenomena. For those of us born to such an existence, it is all but impossible to believe that anything is any longer beyond human adjustment, domination, and improvement. That is the lesson in vanity the city teaches us every moment of every day. For on all sides we see, hear, and smell the evidence of human supremacy over nature – right down to the noise and odor and irritants that foul the air around us. Like Narcissus, modern men and women take pride in seeing themselves – their products, their planning – reflected in all that they behold. The more artifice, the more progress; the more progress, the more security. We press our technological imperialism forward against the natural environment until we reach the point at which it comes as startling and not entirely credible news to our urban masses to be told by anxious ecologists that their survival has anything whatever to do with air, water, soil, plant, or animal.”

Quoted from (again): “Where the Wasteland Ends“, Theodore Roszak, 1972. (Amazon link).

Good Question

“How much of what we readily identify as ‘progress’ in urban-industrial society is really the undoing of evils inherited from the last round of technological innovation?” Quoted from: “Where the Wasteland Ends“, Theodore Roszak, 1972. (Amazon link).

Why Paper Is Eternal

“There are modes of learning and thinking that at the moment are only available from actual books. There is a kind of deep-dive, meditative reading that’s almost impossible to do on a screen. Without books, students are more likely to do the grazing or quick reading that screens enable, rather than be by themselves with the author’s ideas.” Read: Welcome to the library. Say goodbye to the books (via). See (and print…) also this 75-page essay: “Hamlet’s Blackberry: why paper is eternal“.