Sunday, November 23, 2014

"Techno-Utopianism Can’t Deliver Techno-Utopia"

Contrary to the hallucinations of anarchists, who are self-deluded leftists, we will always have government. The problem is that it always grows too big and turns into a monster.

I figure if government had not gotten out of control, we'd be more advanced by at least 2000 years, if not more. Social capital is always destroyed by government, and social capital is as fragile as hell.

This is from the site Henry Dampier and was written by him.


In the U.S., people tend to either have either a Utopian or an apocalyptic outlook, with little in between.

I prefer to stay away from stupid pronouncements that the ‘truth is somewhere in the middle,’ but in this case, we do have to go between two positions which are absurd to make intelligent statements about the future of technology. Technological advance is not an inevitable, magic process which is predictable v

If you’ve worked at all in any field involving the development of a new technology, you know that it’s an incredible amount of work to get anything functioning in a way that’s actually useful to customers when they’re capable of supporting the improved way of doing things. Sustainable technological advance is much less about developing a great invention and more about developing a great invention at the time during which all the sub-components can be assembled in a timely and efficient fashion.

The contemporary progressive mentality towards technological advancement tends to be that it’s an inevitable process: it’s this idea that no matter how terrible the management of the government is, geniuses in lab coats will develop new technology, often with government money, regardless of whatever happens in the rest of society.

Nassim Taleb dismantled this view in Antifragile, but although the book has been widely read, its insights have not been broadly shared, in part because our written media has stopped being book driven, and is now more driven by television. Additionally, because Taleb took a nuanced view towards Silicon Valley culture, and because Silicon Valley workers rarely read anything that’s not published by O’Reilly or some other technical manual publisher, its criticisms were not widely discussed.

It took hundreds of years before many of the inventions of Leonardo da Vinci became even feasible at the prototype level. The reason for this is just that the materials involved were all too expensive or unavailable, or otherwise unfeasible due to better practical alternatives being available at the time. This is also the case for countless inventions today, many of which are entirely reliant on improved conditions outside the control of the team developing the new technology. . Leonardo died in 1519, but the tank only became widely used during World War I.

You can teach a robot to dance, but that doesn’t make it useful

You can make a dancing, agile robot, but until it has a miniature battery which is also affordable, it’s merely an expensive branding stunt, no different from an Animatronic figure at the Epcot Center. The big cord attached the dancing machine is what makes for the problem: the limiting factor is the battery, much more than the flexibility of the robo-legs.

There is this popular notion that any contemporary problems that we face, like unbearable long-term government obligations, can be overcome by technological advance. The trouble is that technological advance only becomes useful at the applied level when social conditions can support it. There are millions of prototypes that would represent a meaningful advance over current technologies. Many of those are not possible to implement until the world as a whole is wealthy enough to support it.

Part of the reason for the gun-shy attitude towards criticizing the government is that many of the investors who focus on technological innovation are reliant on deploying government pension money into their funds. It’s politically difficult for an investor to simultaneously put to work the savings of government workers and to decry the innovation-squashing policies supported by the same workers who are paying his management fees. Further, the government can and does retaliate against companies that don’t tow the Progressive line.

You can’t create durable technological advance if you’re serving a broader society of decreasing overall quality. The quality of the society is what makes technological advance feasible, more so than the genius, who will often come up with useful designs hundreds of years before his time. The genius is critical, but his ideas are mostly inapplicable without the accumulation of social capital.

Technology is feasible when you have a large proportion of the people in a civilization working towards highly productive purposes. It isn’t feasible when most of the people in the civilization are moochers. Innovation stops being sustainable when the feedstock, which is a hard-working population of law-abiding people, begins to diminish.

Although do-gooders like Bill Gates hope that Africans and low-caste southeast Asians will fill the gap posed by diminishing Northeast Asians and Whites, history and biology suggest that this is a vain effort.

The ‘inevitable’ mindset leads people who would otherwise be taking a leading position to lean back as it regards to critical issues, because they just assume that a future invention will deliver them from their duties. They use the inevitability excuse as a reason to disengage from civic life, or instead to incompetently flail at the disconnected strings of democratic maneuvering, which is much worse.

Doomers have the wrong attitude

On the other side of the spectrum, you have people who believe that technology has run its course, and that there are no possible future inventions, and that we should all accept diminished expectations in light of this realization.

This is a defeatist mindset, even if it’s been a sensible mindset to hold for most of history. Part of why the Western world and the areas that have copied it have done so well in material terms relative to the historical standard of the hunter-gatherer is that it has rejected that mindset. Instead, we take the position that mankind can advance itself as far as it can go, and that the human mind is capable of breaking through many (but not an infinite number of) barriers placed by the natural world.

If the doomers are correct, it’s because everyone else has failed. But success is not possible if you don’t shuck the mentality that people who hold the mentality that civilization is inevitably doomed to collapse hold. To avoid collapse, you have to have a somewhat unrealistic, perhaps insane, attitude towards the feasibility of technological progress.

The two delusional outlooks feed into one another to create a dilemma that isn’t easily resolved. Both of them tend to sap motivation from people who might otherwise be able to work towards stop-gap solutions: the utopian will tell himself that the problems will solve themselves, and the doomer tells himself that the problems can’t be solved, so despair is a better choice.

To generate technological progress, civilization needs to be capable of supporting the the conditions that make it possible. No technological advance that’s implementable in a foreseeable time frame can replace the social preconditions for civilization.

8 comments:

Omega Man said...

Hero of Alexandria 10-70 AD built a proto-typical steam engine. Hero built on the work of Vitruvius 80 BC-15 AD and Ctesibius 285-222 BC.

It took literally 2000 years before society was capable of actually using those ancient ideas and build the world in which we live today.

p.s.
BC - Before Christ now called BCE (Before Common Era)
AD - Anno Domini - The Year of our Lord now called CE (Common Era)

Bob Wallace said...

Then there is the Antikythera mechanism

Anders said...

The quality of government is only as good as the people being governed. Hence, why multicultural shit holism destroys and homogenous nation states prosper.

Wraith said...

Funny thing: The head of the US Patent Office resigned, saying that there were no more things of use that could possibly be invented...in 1899. I laugh at the doomer mindset.

Peter Blood said...

Joseph Tainter laid out the case for collapse in "The Collapse of Complex Societies." It's complicated, and isn't just a matter of cool new technologies. Scale, complexity, and especially getting past the point of diminishing returns factor in. He addresses the role of technology in fighting against the point of diminishing returns--and that we invest more and more in technology (education, research) and get less return bodes ill.

DJF said...

Labor saying inventions are often held back by a ready supply of cheap labor combined with the high cost of introducing new technology.

Cotton picking machines had been trying to enter the US market for decades but only started being successful in the 1950's. It took a combination of WW2 and the post war boom sending workers to factories and Eisenhower deporting Mexicans to create a labor shortage which forced farmers into buying the machines.

Cheap labor is the enemy of labor saving inventions. If the US had its present immigration policy in place in the 1950’s the US would still be hand picking cotton just like it now hand picks many fruit and vegetables.

Mindstorm said...

Well written, Peter Blood.

Sam said...

I'm a doomer not because I don't believe in technology. I believe that energy problems are relatively simple to fix with molten salt reactors. Energy solves food and water problems. I'm a doomer because of 9-11. You may could make a case that buildings #1 and #2 fell because they were hit by planes but building #7 was not hit by a plane and fell the same speed as a bowling ball dropped in free air for roughly 108 feet. This is not improbable, it's impossible.

I'm a doomer because of the banking system using all the extra capital they were given to buy up EVERYTHING. The same thing was done in Germany many years ago.

I'm a doomer because all money created by the Fed is based on debt. So if we pay off all debt we have, no money, and any one can do the numbers and see if all money requires debt eventually the debt will rise to unpayable levels.

There's optimism and then there's stupidity. I'm optimistic about a lot of things but the trajectory of the US is not one of them. It's hard to make headway when everyone is cooking the books and lying.