30 November 2005

Technology and History

It's interesting to observe why people study history. Usually we insist that we study history to understand the future; there's merit to that. But we also study history for polemical reasons. Civil and criminal proceedings in law, for example, use history on a micro scale to establish guilt or entitlement. And of course, these two motives are intertwined: a society metes out punishment or restitution based on anticipated future benefits an individual brings to society (i.e., polemics serves to anticipate the future), while studies of case histories are used to establish the merit of a particular ideology (i.e., political campaigns sometimes avail themselves of historical references).

With the introduction of technology to history, we link motive to possibility. For example, was the use of nuclear bombs in WW2 justified by military necessity? This actually is a technological question, since available technology imposed limits on the alternative courses of action open to policymakers in Washington. Additionally, development of technology applied to processes and to human capital usually requires a case study. Technology, likewise, is held culpable in historical research (as, for example, by Rachel Carson). The analytical discipline of technology allows a more rigorous examination of history as an organic force rather than a "Black Legend" versus a "White" or "Rosy Legend."

However, technology also is like a whip applied to civil society. Ahead, on the other side of the whip, is progressive social change; behind are the consequences of those who fall behind in technological accomplishment. Ahead lies the conquest of souls for a genuinely good life; behind, the loss of souls to penury. Social injustice is not an especially glaring issue for hunter-gatherer tribes; for pastoral communities of sheepherders, society can be cruel (with captives serving as slaves until they are of no use, when they are abandoned without resources); but the potential for massacres and empires is slight. The first societies to master the technology of agricultural surpluses probably were the ones that launched wars of conquest against thoses that had not. Today, the relationship of the developed world towards the mostly-agrarian economies of the south is well-called Silent Violence by Mr. Watts. The desertification of the Sahel, Central China, and Pakistan, is a calamity that occurs in an absence of mind.

Technology's whip likewise falls on the developed world; the USA, and even the member states of the EU, are desperate to assure their labor force adequate job opportunities. But technological innovations are, here, the enemy. Job creation is uneven and unsuited to the demographics. The developed economies of the West must struggle heroically to educate their populations not only in how to produce, but the consequences of production: ecological ignorance is dangerous to the human species, if not to individuals. And it is here, in the "developed world," that the problem of production is actually the most urgent: here, in the West, dependence on fossile fuels for agriculture and industry is dire. This must be overcome swiftly; the technological vulnerablity of the 3rd world, while more important, is less urgent.

As a historical force, then, technology has been decisive. It is the crucible of free will, and hence, of responsiblity.


29 November 2005

Ecological Redemption

Ecological redemption is where land and water are "recovered" for industry; for example, if a forest is felled and tilled, and the water in the creek captured for irrigation. In areas outside or on the peripheries of the TEP, some or most of the population is either IN THE WAY OF, or THE TARGET OF, or A POTENTIAL RESOURCE IN, the process of ecological redemption.

Imperialism begins for several reasons, but usually develops into a campaign of ecological redemption. One of the more obvious examples is the transformation of the Caribbean and Southeastern USA from high density forests into a zone of high density cultivation. This is the subject of a fairly important book entitled Late Victorian Holocausts (Michael Davis, 2001; link is to review by Amartya Sen), which assembles research by several scholars on the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) system and its early manifestations. According to Davis, et al., the ENSO's effect on the global as a recurring natural disaster began with both the civil pandaemonium of high imperialism and the ecological impact of mass territorial transformation. The cultivation of huge new regions of North America for wheat, for example, altered weather patterns of the Northern Hemisphere in ways that no one could possibly have predicted. The affect, having occurred, became a permanent feature of the climate zones that I'll bring up again in a moment.

The impact of civil violence (imperial conquest, liquidation of the political system with its imbedded social structures, and establishment of a rival economy) is described by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen:

The distinction between the effects on overall food supply and those on family incomes is important in explaining why some people are so severely affected by a natural disaster whereas others -- living in the same society and facing the same supply of food -- are hardly touched at all. It helps explain, too, why famines cannot be averted simply by opening up markets, or by making transportation easier (for example through the establishment of railways), so that food can physically be moved to the affected people. Davis rightly presses the question: ''How do we weigh smug claims about the life-saving benefits of steam transportation and modern grain markets when so many millions, especially in British India, died alongside railroad tracks or on the steps of grain depots?''
The problem lies in the fact that disaster victims do not have the means to buy the food that the market can deliver and the railways can fetch. Indeed, sometimes the very opposite happens, as when food is moved out of the famished area, pulled by the greater purchasing power of more prosperous regions (well illustrated, for example, by the persistent shipment of food from starving Ireland to affluent England during the Irish famines of the 1840's). It is, therefore, a mistake -- common though it is -- to expect an automatic solution to famines and hunger through the development of markets and the establishment of transport arrangements. This effect, I think, was understood by "the man on the spot," although what I find very disturbing from the contemporary accounts of colonists was the same sense of expanding into a terra nullus emptied of occupants. Conquering a territory occurred in phases, with progressively more intensive control over a territory; settling, hiring labor (or enslaving it, and importing it), and exporting produce were usually carried out by people who came from different, even alien and hostile, walks of life. To the natives, likewise, the experience was varied depending on who encountered which phase. So imperialism, rather than being a single, massively parallel, act of individual cruelty, was instead a conveyor of quiet intimidation or manipulation of "Whites" as well as more obvious victims.

The second part, the massive alteration in the flow of water through a landscape, or the cultivation of alien species in it, was of course, the real impact humans have had on the planet; it was also the most lasting and potentially dangerous effect of imperialism. Our planet is governed by cycles, such as in the levels of CO2 in the air, or the interaction of ocean currents with air currents. These can sometimes lead to catastrophes, of course; but like any system, these cycles tend towards stable, harmonic repetition. However, these cycles can sometimes be so influenced that they are changed into a new rhythm. Simple examples include the spring that is pulled so far that the metal is bent, and thereafter has a different oscillation rate when it is released, than before it was bent; or the balance between predator and prey in a habitat, where the wolves eventually become so numerous they reduce the rabbits to an evolutionary bottleneck; the rabbit population, which has had peaks and valleys for centuries, now cannot recover to its former level because this one time it was pushed too close to extinction. These are examples of hysteresis.

Hysteresis in the environment is common, and in the example of the wolves and rabbits, can occur without human intervention. However, it is a potentially massive force in the climate and understanding the risks of human hysteresis is both demanded by ecological redemption, and made possible by it. After it happens, the cycles continue, but at either a different applitude or frequency. This is the ultimate bad of imperialism, and yet the crucial matter to understand about it is that imperialism is a system and an event that the system inflicts. It is recurring. It continues, and it transcends the interests and the very existence of the imperial power. And its main impact is a new climate, with new landscapes and new resident populations.

Those in the way of the project of ecological redemption have at sundry times been exterminated, either by dispossession (as, for example, the Indians of North America) or systematically rounded up and massacred, as Darwin described in The Voyage of the Beagle.1 Examples of these are quite numerous. Those who were a target of the TEP include, again, the Indians of North America: after the War, Lt. General John DeWitt (who had earlier organized the relocation and internment of Japanese to concentration camps), organized the relococation of American Indians to urban areas.2

On the other hand, there are peoples who are targets of the TEP; they are to be transformed into industrial workers and consumers. Readers will either be skeptical of (or hostile to) my distinction between "in the way" and "a target of"; the latter implies that the Europeans, confronted with an "inert" Native population, sought to transform them as if they were a passive resource. Partly this was to resolve the sins of the past, which could not reversed; partly it reflected normative goals of democratic capitalism, in which economic inertia is unacceptable:
In a proposal for the new relocation services, Kent Fitzgerald outlines the economic need for relocation; he asserts that the growing Indian population can no longer be supported by the reservation economy. In The Relocation of Indian People away from Indian Reservations, ... he writes about the Winnebago tribe in Wisconsin which does not have a reservation but whose community is scattered throughout twenty counties across the state. He notes that in this particular instance “this procedure, which had as its purpose keeping the members of the tribe apart and forcing them to associate to a larger extent with their White neighbors has had no such effect. They are still a distinct group and are ekeing out a miserable existence in rural slums which should be a source of shame to both the Federal Government and the State of Wisconsin.”
[Op. cit., p.33-34]
Altering this was a matter of national honor and the legitimacy of the republic. I must hasten to add that the bourgeois and Communist governments of Central Europe republics likewise wrestled with the surviving Roma population, seldom with success.3

North American and Europe have minorities who are "targets," such as certain cohorts of the African American community, or les beurs of France (or the Roma everywhere). However, outside of the project of ecological redemption, we often encounter elites who are entirely preoccupied with the transformation of their societies into industrial workers (most spectacularly, Communist countries4). The early years of the Saudi monarchylikewise featured an attempt to transform the population into a sort of Sparta.

There were also societies whose populations were a potential resource in colonialism: most obviously, Africa, with the transatlantic slave trade, but after 1834, also China and India (with the trade in indentured labor).

Finally, there are countries whose populations have been easily sidestepped or ignored by colonialism. These are outside it and only recently have come under significant pressure to transform their societies in conformity to the colonial endeavor. These are, of course, areas that are difficult to reach.

(Cross-posted at Hobson's Choice)

1 The place was Patagonia; the perpetrator was General Manual Rosas, who was ousted in 1852 and moved to England.

2 The one source on this subject is "The Spatial Dispersion of Native Americans in Urban Areas: Why Native Americans Diverge from Traditional Ethnic Patterns of Clustering and Segregation" (PDF; rightclick and select "download link," then open in Acrobat), Shannon Louise Roberts, May 2004; doctoral dissertation, Columbia University, NY, NY. When I write "Op. cit.," this is the opus. Caveat: Ms. Roberts recommends Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown. The subject matter in this book is far more successfully treated in The Patriot Chiefs: a Chronicle of American Indian Resistance (Alvin Josephy, Jr., 1958); The Long Death (Ralph Andrist, 1964); The Roots of Dependency (Richard White, 1983; for a sociological-economic perspective). Dee Brown's book set back the field several decades.

3 Isabella Fonseca, Bury Me Standing. References are distributed throughout the book.
4 Edward H Carr, Foundations of a Planned Economy or The Interregnum.

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15 November 2005

Fujitsu Siemens Launches GPS PDAs

A while back I mentioned some PDA manufacturers are looking to incorporate global positioning system [access-GPS] into their offerings. Now Fujitsu has released what it insists is "irst handhelds with fully integrated GPS functionality."
Digital Life-Styles: Delivered with Microsoft Windows Mobile 5.0 and optional NAVIGON MobileNavigator 5, the new LOOX models offer an integrated SiRFStar III GPS Receiver for GPS functionality...
I'm curious to know how "fully integrated" is different from the "somewhat" [?] integrated GPS of the HP hv6500 mobile messenger. Location-specific applications? Suggestions?


10 November 2005

Wireless Assistance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

Navigating Beijing can be a nightmare for Westerners, who presumably will provide the bulk of attendance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.* Unlike countries where an Indo-European language is spoken (i.e., the vast majority of previous olympiads), in China the writing system is entirely different, public transportation is inadequate, and the city has been almost entirely rebuilt in the last 15 years. In order to help the influx of foreign guests cope, Capinfo (HK) is essentially filling in the gap left by the city's city services:
Vnuenet: Capinfo, a Hong Kong-listed software and services company, is developing a mobile application called Cityguide to help tourists find their way around the Chinese capital.

The application, which will be downloadable to various handheld devices and mobile phones, will use a ubiquitous wireless network being deployed across Beijing for the Games.

The system accesses a database of travel and tourism content for the city, as well as providing a tool that can translate English text into spoken Mandarin, using text-to-speech technology.

The application will be capable of playing back thousands of phrases in Mandarin, such as directing taxi drivers to any hotel or restaurant listed in the guide....

Following the Games, Capinfo will build similar services in other Chinese cities, beginning with Shanghai, before taking Cityguide into the global market. Capinfo is also developing an emergency response service for the Games, similar to the 999 service in the UK, that will use the wireless network.
(Via Textually)

* Westerners... presumably will provide the bulk of attendance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, because movement inside China is costly and requires internal passports for Chinese citizens.


09 November 2005

Town in Switzerland holds election by SMS

The town of Bülach, Switzerland has reportedly been the first to hold a municipal election using SMS voting. According to the article in Swissinfo, 11.6 percent of the electorate cast their vote from a cellphone, while 25.7 percent voted over the internet. Bülach is an extremely small town (445 voters) near Zurich.

Internet voting is likewise a recent innovation in Switzerland. In January '03 it was introduced in Anières, near Geneva. SMS and internet voting involve essentially identical technologies: the voter logs into an "account" with a personal identification number (PIN) which ensures only one vote per online voter (via Textually).

About 22,000 Swiss now have the option of voting online (AP). The AP story was posted in Sep. '04, when only a tiny share of Swiss had this option; about 90% of voters at that time preferred to vote by mail. This is mainly because of Switzerland's system of direct democracy, in which people vote several times a year for a variety of different proposals. Authorities have been worried that turnout is slipping to 50%, so the fact that it this one particular town something like a third of voters used the new technology suggests that at least some voters may have been drawn back into the process.

08 November 2005

Epilogue: So We're in AGREEMENT?

Having just vented my spleen on an essay I found at Bill Totten's blog, I noticed another essay by someone who practically said the same things I was trying to in my four posts ("Cataclysm," 1, 2, 3, 4). "Economics in a Full World" (Herman E Daly) declares that "developing an economy that can be sustained within the finite biosphere requires new ways of thinking," i.e., new technology. Prof. Daly proceeds to analyze the breakthroughs in thought and expectation that would constitute a sustainable economy. Daly, in my view, writes something that is totally correct and constructive in regards to the concept of the sustainable economy. I appreciate the fact also that he doesn't take a stance of arrogant scorn towards the society he wants to reform.
So far I have described the "sustainable economy" only in general terms, as one that can be maintained indefinitely into the future in the face of biophysical limits. To implement such an economy, we must specify just what is to be sustained from year to year. Economists have discussed five candidate quantities: GDP, "utility", throughput, natural capital and total capital (the sum of natural and man-made capital).
He recommends natural capital on the grounds that
They can be measured and bequeathed. In particular, people can measure ...the rate at which the economy uses them, taking them from ...the ecosystem, transforming them into useful products, and ultimately dumping them back into the environment as... wastes...
Many of the ideas he explains really shed light on the possibilities of sustainable economic organization.

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07 November 2005

Formats & Monopolies

Formats are technology that must be adopted by many to be useful to any; for example, VHS versus Betamax videocassette systems; SI versus imperial weights and measures; 97-octane gasoline versus all the other possible inflammable formulations of hydrocarbons; gauges of railroad track; 525-scanline television sets (USA) versus much higher image quality in the UK, EU, and Japan. In fact, virtually all mature industrial design is thoroughly dictated by format, even when the result is a far less efficient product. The Microsoft Windows operating system is a famous example; there are numerous OS's that are superior to Windows for many if not all applications, but the vast corpus of available software is written for Windows, Intel microchips used in most computers are designed for Windows, and in the USA, most workers are trained in Windows.

The presence of formats makes for discontinuous technological change; the adoption of a new format requires large monopoloid firms with a high degree of vertical integration or collaboration, and the new technology must (a) be significantly superior to the old, either in quality or in ease of supply, and (b) it must increase the demand for the category of product. To make my point, I'd like to get something off my chest about "Moore's Law".

Gordon Moore, an engineer at Fairchild who later founded all-mighty Intel, wrote "Cramming more components onto integrated circuits" (PDF, 1965) in which he described a trend in semiconductors:

For simple circuits, the cost per component is nearly inversely proportional to the number of components, the result of the equivalent piece of semiconductor in the equivalent package
containing more components. But as components are added, decreased yields more than compensate for the increased complexity, tending to raise the cost per component. Thus there is a minimum cost at any given time in the evolution of the technology. At present, it is reached when 50 components are used per circuit. But the minimum is rising rapidly while the entire cost curve is falling. If we look ahead five years, a plot of costs suggests that the minimum cost per component might be expected in circuits with about 1,000 components per circuit [....] In 1970, the manufacturing cost per component can be expected to be only a tenth of the present cost.
In other words, the optimal number of components per circuit would double every 14 months, while that same optimal cost per component would itself halve every 14 months. Of course, over time, clock speed increased while component cost fell, so computing power per constant dollar grew faster than that. Moore's law has continued to hold and is expected to hold for at least another decade (see "Nanotechnology for High-Performance Computing," PDF, Chau & Radosavljevic).

In the late 1990's I became curious about Moore's Law: why did it continue to apply? Part of the reason, of course, was constant cross-spillovers in production and design: semiconductors are produced by a complex industrial process, and improvements at any point in the process reduce the log of costs of the final product. This is quite different from, say, the production of aircraft where costs are additive; if General Electric were to suddenly cut the cost of the GE90-115B engine in half, the cost of the Boeing 777-300 that uses it would not decrease by 50%; it would decrease by about 12%. The GE90-115B itself has to be combatible with other aircraft engines

Also, chip production has a low marginal cost relative to fixed costs. Usually the classic example of such an industry is rail transport, but of course an additional 100 Km of railroad costs about as much as the previous 100 Km; whereas there is a restricted range of traffic possible over a given distance of track.

However, there is another important reason Moore's Law has been remarkably durable: expenditures on electronics have grown faster yet.

There's a concept in economics called "expenditure elasticity of demand," seldom used in the monographs I've read. It's the proportion by which expenditures on a thing decline as the price goes up. Usually students of economics are accustomed to unrealistic models in which the amount one spends on a good is unreasonsive to the price of that good. Certainly one expects demand to decline if it does, but in a realistic model, expenditures will decline as well. And indeed, if we look at the semiconductor industry, we see that sales have grown exponentially over the last 30 years; worldwide, they have roughtly doubled every ten years (see figure).

Moore's Law represents a virtuous cycle in technology: increasing demand drives increasing innovation, which drives improvement, which drives demand.

This will end, of course; the amount of capital investment required, the accumulating constraints of formats on semiconductor design, diminishing marginal revenue product in semiconductors, perhaps even the development of post-semiconductor technology-will put the brakes on this virtuous cycle. In the meantime, the locus of the semiconductor industry will continue to change nationality and specialization.

(To return to the referring post at HC, click here)


06 November 2005

Chindogu: "Weird Tools"

A long time ago I heard on the radio about the concept of chindogu, which the speaker explained was a Japanese word for not-very-useful inventions. Quite naturally I forgot this word but thanks to Cheshire Cat, my memory has been jogged. What are chindogu? They are humorous parodies of ingenuity, examples of technology that are patently absurd. Examples include:
  1. Back Scratcher's T-Shirt: The friend (or partner) who offers to scratch your back is a friend (or partner) indeed. Except it all goes horribly wrong when they just can't seem to locate the maddening itch. For those who are fed up of saying, 'left a bit... up a bit... right a bit... damn!' comes a very special T-shirt, complete with Battleships style, itch-locater grid. The scratchee is also equipped with a hand-held miniature corresponding grid-map, for accurate communication. So when the scratcher says, 'I'm scratching F5, ' the scratchee can say, 'try G7'.

  2. Commuter's Helmet: "the Commuter's Helmet sports a message to fellow travellers, reading, 'I'm having a short nap. Could you please wake me up when I reach the stop printed below. Many Thanks.' But since it depends entirely on the co-operation of fellow passengers for success, this Chindogu has also been designed to maximize their finer communal instincts and sense of goodwill. The suction pad on the back of the helmet keeps the head firmly in place, thus preventing the sleeper's head from lolling intrusively on the shoulders or laps of his or her neighbours. This courtesy will no doubt be appreciated, and the reciprocal favour of a timely awakening is more likely to be achieved."
  3. The Hay Fever Hat (a headband that supports a toilet paper roll, with the paper falling forward over the sufferer's face); this ensures that the wearer is unlikely to run out of facial tissue. (Hattip: Chindogu)
  4. (My Hands-Down Favorite) 10-in-1 Super Gardening Tool, an enormous Swiss-Army knife featuring a shovel, a rake, a set of pruing shears, and so on. The photo of a little Japanese oo-baa-san gardening with a shovel as big as herself, is hilariarious. (same source as above)

Some other links about chindogu:
  1. a history of useless inventions (design boom)
  2. chindogu (Wikipedia)
  3. The International Chindogu Society
  4. Chindogu for the Masses
  5. The Chindogu Champion (Japan, Inc)


(Part 1, 2, 3)

Technology is simply the accumulation of practical knowledge. This includes economics, political science, earth sciences, and so on. It happens to include stuff like monitors and PDAs (and nuclear bombs, assault rifles, and catherine wheels). However, it also includes alternatives to these things. Torture is a category of technology; so is extracting information from people forcibly; so is law enforcement; so is intelligence & counter-espionage. These are separate categories of technology, although torture is often adopted as a strategy of "managing incompetence" by practitioners of the other technologies. Technology not only includes methods of social coercion; it ALSO INCLUDES ALTERNATIVES TO SOCIAL COERCION.

In these essays I've talked a bit about technologies that take the form of behaviors; legal systems, for example, or pedagogy, artistic disciplines, languages, or organic farming. I've done so because it's natural for people to visualize technology as tiny gizmos that can do cool stuff, or terrifying weapons that do uncool stuff very effectively, and I want to explain how limiting, and indeed, how destructive, that misapprehension can be. Heinberg speaks for a huge number of industrial dissenters when he attacks the expansionist imperative of modern capitalism; but equating this imperative with technology itself is very wrong.

It's arrogant and destructive to declare that "the only hope" for survival is a "scaling back of the entire human project—in terms both of human numbers and per-capita rates of consumption," and then behave in a manner identical with everyone else in Heinberg's income bracket. Is Heinberg proposing to live like a Bengali, on a income of a $2 per day? No, he is proposing to live in the Northwest in relative isolation, a landbased Captain Nemo. In other words, the other 6.5 billion humans had better get themselves crammed into a sustainable lifestyle or a casket, because he says so (from the comfort of his internet-connected home ). It would be one thing to admit that he has not yet thought of a way in which humans can live sustainably in a way that is not degraded, fearful, brutish, and short. That's not blameworthy, not at all. But to insist that no such problem exists—there is no way, and each human (other than himself) had better get herself reconciled to living in unwashed, disease-wracked squalor, and anyone who doesn't like this idea is welcome to kill himself—makes Ebeneezer Scrooge's diatribe about "the surplus population" sound like the epitome of compassion and humanitarian solidarity, by comparison.

This sort of thinking puts Bill Totten's environmentalist concerns at violent odds with his principles of humanitarian compassion. There's no way to reconcile the two, which is tragic because a true understanding of the matter would indeed reconcile them. You see, the economic system under which we live suffers from organization technology that is flawed; it requires rapid expansion to sustain a constant level of poverty. If (and only if) the rate of expansion goes up, poverty declines. This simple fact is the link, and a very mutable link it is. Totten then cites Cuba favorably as a model of the way nations ought to be, which is another mistake: judging a regime (Castro's) by [some of] its enemies (e.g., Tom Delay and the US State Department). While I would certainly agree that the official condemnation of Castro's regime is overblown and hypocritical, readers need to understand that the island's "solidarity" is actually regimentation, and regimentation by a would-be state capitalist. The country has, for example, remained utterly devoted to cash crops, needlessly exposing it to immiseration as the global price of sugar fell. And Totten is now stuck with the burden of defending not only a Stalinist ideal of economic development, but also statist repression. Hence, clashing with a third ideal he happens to cherish, that of individual liberty.

(I'm not linking very much because most of my knowledge of Cuba's socialist economy is based on interviews with one-time residents, such as an Indian professor of economics. My contacts were not especially hostile, although they did say that Cuba has a highly invasive, regimented society; and it is littered with the detritus of an attempted industrial economy, a la Stalin. My impression of the early Soviet economy is based on readings of E.H. Carr.)

The problem, of course, is indeed one of technology—the choices of technology we make. We are looking forward to a future of capital investments, investments that can be made either in gadgets or in institutions. If in institutions, we need to establish which ones we trust and cherish; this means the progressive, freedom-loving, environment-cherishing, egalitarian Bill Totten (and the rest of us) need to accept that humans are actually quite intelligent and sensitive about the choices we make—even if we're (gasp) US nationals. This will erase the violent clash between solidarity and freedom, anarchy and contempt for observed preferences, concern for humanity and the desperate wish that most of them would drop dead.

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05 November 2005


(Part 1, 2)

Some readers might wonder why I broke with my usual custom by criticizing another blog post. There are so many blog posts out there, and so many are riddled with misleading or silly arguments, that it's a disgraceful waste of time to attack them unless both the original and the response are likely to be widely read. I very much doubt that applies here. The reason is that the essay by Richard Heinberg I'm discussing actually addresses some extremely important, yet overlooked, issues:
Some techno-critics have sought to explain this recent explosion in the power and variety of our tools by tying it to developments in philosophy (Cartesian dualism) or economics (capitalism). Strangely, few of the critics have discussed at any length the role of fossil fuels in the industrial revolution. That is, they have consistently focused their attention on tools' impacts on society and nature, and on the political conditions and ideologies that enabled their adoption, rather than on the fact that most of the new tools that have appeared during the past two centuries are of a kind previously rare - ones that derived the energy for their operation not from muscle power, but from the burning of fuels.

...In assessing technology and understanding its effects on people and nature, it is at least as important to pay attention to the energy that drives tools as to the tools themselves and the surrounding political-ideological matrix.

This is getting somewhere. Likewise, E.F. Schumacher (1970's) uses this reliance on depletable fuels as the core of his argument. He uses it to illustrate the failure of the industrial system to solve, legitimately, the "problem of production." It is, and was when I first read it, the one thing that really made me sit up and take notice.

Heinberg classes tools into four groups: (1) those made and used with human effort; (2) those made with non-human energy and human energy for use; (3) those made with human effort, and using non-human energy for use; (4) those that require non-human effort for both, like electic tools. Peak oil, he reasons, will end the use of all but category (1) and (3) tools (the latter as post-oil artifacts, like hammers produced in the age of oil).
In early civilizations, agricultural workers sought to capture a surplus of solar energy on a yearly basis by plowing and reaping. It always takes energy to get energy (it takes effort to sow seeds, build a windmill, or drill an oil well). For agricultural societies, the net-energy profit was always moderate and sometimes nonexistent ...in most cases about ninety percent of the population had to work at farming in order to provide enough of a surplus so as to support the rest of the social edifice - including the warrior, priestly, and administrative classes. The extraction of coal, and especially of oil and natural gas - substances representing millions of years of accumulation of past biotic energy - has often provided a spectacular net-energy profit, sometimes on the order of 50 to 100 units obtained for every one invested. As a result, with fossil fuels and modern machinery, only two percent of the population need to farm in order to support the rest of society, enabling the flourishing of a growing middle class composed of a dizzying array of specialists.

This is a problem because when fossil fuels are no longer available (as cheaply) as they are now, then the human population heretofore sustained by industry will have to cope with tools that require neither electricity nor gas.

Heinberg is driven along by a definite hierarchy of causes: technology drives social institutions, which drive people. This is certainly a handy way of explaining economic history—it's how I would do it—but it's important to realize that it's not the only way to do it. It's important because Heinberg professes to find this chain of causality insidious. It's also supposedly ineluctable: the outcome of the Reformation, in which Europe north of the Maine River became largely Protestant, everywhere else wound up Catholic, is the result of institutions that are themselves the result of different technology-energy relationships. What about feedback? What about, for example, the organic relationship of the European congregations to their clergy? To their princes? Yet the Reformation altered the lives of everyone dramatically, well before the advent of coal. This was not a "rearrangement of deck chairs," and the relationship of human agency to events and vice versa is complex.

But it's also true that humans shape institutions. An institution that ignores its members' sexual urges, or that despises the people it proposes to lead, is doomed to failure. Moreover, some institutions work well because of individual preferences form "a tipping point," or widespread disappointment with material success, or artistic taste. Even very major changes in economic structure Heinberg dismisses as "rearranging deck chairs." This totters on the brink of tautology: only changes driven by technology matter (sic), and since this is means technology is telling humans what to do (sic), humans are "enslaved by technology."

I've encountered this line of reasoning before, and for personal usage dubbed it "the tyranny of the obvious": human will is cruelly thwarted by objective conditions. This "tyranny" is more "acute" as opportunities proliferate; add a bus service, and it imposes a schedule on commuters. Introduce checking accounts, and now people must follow the rules and guidelines on writing checks. Introduce paper money and national governments worry about inflation.

But the peak oil concern is real. While Richard Heinberg seems to believe the Hubbert Peak Oil (HPO) theory features a cliff (rather than a slope), the whole point of contention in the theory is what the industrial impact would be if output could not increased to accommodate growing demand. If the answer is, "cause a depressionary spiral" then the HPO is but one of many theories explaining the end of the fossil fuel economy. If it causes a gradual market adjustment, then the global economy will merely evolve into a new, non-fossil industrial system.

Could the outcome be a revival of the nation-state and world war three? Perhaps, but so could some other things. Too many other things.

Heinberg's scorn for human institutions is grating; it reminds one that he is a dilettante in the social sciences. The entire evolution of the industrial economy, with its stupendously complex turns and twists, its rivalries and its citizens' private pursuits, are supposedly the result of a single colossal act of stupidity: "...within the minds of society's managers and policy makers, faith in technology and markets supplanted previous religious faith in the hallucinated agricultural and herding deities that had presided over Western civilization for the previous couple of millennia."

This is disturbing because of its monumental disregard of the thoughts, efforts, planning, and problem-solving of tens of millions of people; their entire mental effort is eclipsed in merit by that used by Heinberg to compose the essay. This is a cosmic arrogance that most people outgrow in college. Moreover, it is a pretension to superior virtue to which the author is not entitled; he has no coherent alternative. Logically, an anarchist should be expected to trust the autonomous decisions of the polis or the household; if you believe society needs a philosopher-dictator with a state that can liquidate basic human impulses, you are not an anarchist.

Peak Oil will be a fundamental cultural watershed, at least as important as the industrial revolution or the development of agriculture. Yet few mainstream commentators see it that way. They discuss the likelihood of energy price spikes and try to calculate how much economic havoc will result from them.
This is dogmatic: in fact, the entire significance of HPO lies in precisely this. If the global economy can respond gradually to price spikes , then human institutions are likely to respond successfully. If not, then the outcome is war, and not some global one-child/one-bike policy. People interested in this are not silly.

But technology cannot solve the underlying dilemma we face as a result of our application of fossil fuels to every human problem or desire: we are growing our population, destroying habitat (and undermining global climatic stability), and depleting resources in ways and at rates that are incapable of being mitigated by any new tool or energy source. The only way forward that does not end with the extinction of humanity and millions of other species is a scaling back of the entire human project - in terms both of human numbers and per-capita rates of consumption.
At this point, Heinberg has completely equated "technology" with fossil-fuel based industry. He has gone far beyond past negative-predictors, who declared the impossibility of most widespread inventions. He has insisted that humans have no solution at all. Even if inventions cease entirely from here to eternity, the mere application of new state or economic institutions based on shrinking GDPs, represents a new technological endeavor.

Nor is this "mere semantics" (as if that were unimportant). Having made so many blunders about freedom by arguing in tautologies ("Tools enslave us..."), he then repudiates any organic relationship of human society to objective conditions. Only preparation for total cataclysm makes any sense, because humans are too stupid to be governed and too stupid to think for themselves.

Beware of people who argue that human history is nothing but a droll succession of stupidity. They often deceive themselves with long rants based on a single worthy fact. Everything rests on this fact (here, HPO), which they themselves don't quite understand. Faced with a hopeless, and manifestly pointless insight, they are left with the self-validation of despair. The world that neglects them does so out of folly, and will be served a bitter coin. Too bad it makes no difference.

(Part 4)

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(Part 1)

When we left, Deianira had stashed away among her personal effects a vial of centaur's blood. Herakles was overwrought—the bastard!—with fear that he might have been cuckolded (as opposed, say, to anguish that he had slain his friend, or compassion for his bride's late ordeal). And sure enough, very soon after this episode he went off on another mission, during which he fell for a girl named Iole, and "for love of her" [sic] seized her home town. Soon after he received a tunic from his wife, which was unusually appealing. She always had such good taste, he thought. He put it on and was soon in unbearable agony. In order to end his torments, he threw himself into a fire and was incinerated.

This was an early example of a poorly understood technology having unintended consequences. It also revealed the need for ethical testing on human subjects, or rather, that ethnical behavior in this regard would forever pose a huge obstacle to technical progress. It revealed some other aspects of technology as well.

One was that a hero like Herakles could so decisively affect the outcome of a war. He could take a city, presumably with the help of an unscrupulous prince. Even the most brilliant, courageous, and tough military man of today cannot do that; as a consequence, the soldier replaced the warrior. Another was that the choice to implement a technology was often driven by the impulse of a single person, but stimulated the response of all mankind. Deianira, whose life as an ancient woman was mostly void of choices, had chosen to implement a technology that, if successful would alter the balance of power in Greek society, even before the origins of the state! The reader can imagine how long a patriarchical ordering of civilization would have survived, if centaur's blood had the magical properties Nessus said his had. Likewise, the implementation of military technology like the bow (ironically, the weapon with which Herkules slew Nessus) and the phalanx destroyed the role of the military hero. In the Iliad, all engagements hinge on the heroic merit of a single man; in The Pelopponesian War, none do.

Bill Totten posts a lengthy essay by Richard Heinberg about the burden of technology. Heinberg quotes with praise a number of authors who might be surprised to learn they were all admired by the same person.
During the past century, books by Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, Kirkpatrick Sale, Stephanie Mills, Chellis Glendinning, Jerry Mander, John Zerzan, and Derrick Jensen, among others, have helped generations of readers understand how and why our tools have come to enslave us, colonizing our minds as well as our daily routines.
I'd hesitate to characterize Mumford's overriding theme as "how and why our tools have come to enslave us," which in fact strikes me as a stunningly asinine statement. Enslave? How does a machine exploit? No, not a man with a killing machine—how does a machine exploit? Where is the surplus value alienated by the laws of thermodynamics? This is gibberish.
These authors reminded us that tools, far from being morally neutral, are amplifiers of human purposes; therefore each tool carries its inventors' original intent inherent within it. We can use a revolver to hammer nails, but it works better as a machine for the swift commission of mayhem. . .
The only tool used to illustrate this point is the gun. There is little correlation between the presence of "technology" in a society and the presence of handguns. Afghanistan, which lacks the industrial capacity to manufacture glass, is nevertheless swimming in assault rifles. Japan has a very tiny number of handguns in private use. Likewise, I would argue battles over technology are rare. Battles are decided by technology, not the other way around.

Heinberg uses a quote by Lewis Mumford:
The inventors of nuclear bombs, space rockets, and computers are the pyramid builders of our own age: psychologically inflated by a similar myth of unqualified power, boasting through their science of their increasing omnipotence, if not omniscience, moved by obsessions and compulsions no less irrational than those of earlier absolute systems: particularly the notion that the system itself must be expanded, at whatever the eventual cost.
(quoted in Questioning Technology, edited by Zerzan and Carnes)
This is a rebuke of an ideological system, not the concept of improved technique. Why are nuclear bombs (an offspring of warfare), space rockets (a propaganda and military tool), and computers (then, of very specialized application), the only valid senses of "technology"? What about educational technologies? What about innovations in law enforcement that replace incarceration with creative alternatives? What about substitutes for pesticides in agriculture? What about the replacement of huge plants with smaller, cheaper ones? Improvements in the rule of law? Indeed, supposedly "low-tech" farming techniques adopted by organic farmers actually substitute technology for capital outlays. If you have a lot of expensive machinery or chemicals your staff cannot use well, and you replace it with cheap tools and few chemicals that your staff can use more productively than before, you have actually increased the measurable volume of technology in use. That's what "technology" means.

(Part 3)

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Perhaps it needs to be propounded as a law of philosophy that any assessment of the human condition seems utterly unsustainable. In recent months I keep stumbling across self-identified "anarchists" who believe the entire human experience with technology since the before the development of language, is a mistake that ought to be swept away. To my inaugust mind, the fact that humans have dilligently chased after technology for 40,000 years, is prima facie evidence that humans like it. The fact that humans have pursued technology as diligently as we have, suggests that preference for it plays an organic role in human will. The only state to reject technology on a significant scale was that of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. And even there, qualifications abound. The KR movement was, so far from being an anarchist one, the most coercive and intrusive totalitarian society to exist in history.

This is an endemic problem of anarchist movements; the anarcho-primitivist one, for example, argues that the only real freedom is freedom from human order. There are obvious ironies to some philosopher praising a preter-linguistic, preter-social world from a blog, but I'm hoping I needn't spend too much time on that.

Instead, I'll talk a little bit about the painting above. It's of a mythological figure, Deianira. This woman was the bride of Herakles (Hercules); after their marriage, they came to a river and were greeted by Herakles' friend, Nessus, who lost his head with desire for Deianira when he was carrying her across. So, instead of returning for the groom, he instead ran off with the bride. Herakles shot the centaur with an arrow and he was slain. As he lay dying, with Herakles struggling to swim across the river, Nessus gasped his remorse to Deianira. He told her that his blood had magical properties, and that if she ever though Herakles' love for her was subsiding, she could win him back by having him wear a cloak dipped in it.

Deianira, like so many women of ancient civilizations, was quite enthusiastic about this amazing new technology. The notorious dangers of men losing interest in their post-adolescent wives was no frivolous matter to the female residents of a preter-technological society. In ancient Greece, women were considered to have reached sexual obsolescence past the age of about 30, if we are to believe Aeschylus. Without stern social constraints on men deserting their wives, men of an ambitious character often did. I can only speculate on how Nessus must have felt as Deianira pragmatically yanked the arrow shaft from his neck and cradled his weakened upper body to drain into some receptacle. Did he still ache with love for a woman harvesting his life to make a philtre? Did Deianira hesitate? Did she dab up the blood discreetly, or was she blatant about it? If it worked, it no doubt would spawn an industry of herding and slaughtering centaurs, and make Deianira into a tycoon.

(part 2)

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