Perpetual Sustainable Growth through Science and Technology
Few days ago I watched the latest Zeitgeist: Moving Forward movie after being linked to it by a Facebook friend about a week earlier. I watched it out of curiosity, and since I watched the previous two Zeitgeist films. I also watched it because they tend to be entertaining, intriguing and daring. If you ask me Zeitgeist gets a lot of things right when it comes to identifying the problems we find ourselves in, but slips when it comes to identifying the causes and prescribing solutions.
But why is this at all relevant on a technology web site? Well, first off, Zeitgeist promises to be a growing cultural phenomenon. If you have doubts about that look at the claimed statistics:
“On Jan. 15th, 2011, “Zeitgeist: Moving Forward” was released theatrically to sold out crowds in 60 countries; 31 languages; 295 cities and 341 Venues. It has been noted as the largest non-profit independent film release in history.” (This is from YouTube’s movie description).
Additionally, after barely a month from its release on YouTube it has been viewed 3.2 million times. Meanwhile, the Zeitgeist Movement web site claims to have over half a million movement members around the world.
Considering these statistics in a context of a shifting world, from ongoing economic disturbances to political instability most evident in the ongoing array of revolutions in Africa, with dominant sentiments being very much in line to what Zeitgeist masterfully plays on, I think we can at least concede that Zeitgeist should not be ignored.
But apart from its apparent cultural relevance what makes it relevant to any technology enthusiast is the huge role technology plays in their proposed revolution, and this is what I want to focus and expand upon.
Whatever our opinions may be regarding their desire to rid the world of money and markets I think they are right about few crucial things, and it would be foolish to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”. Namely they are right about the currently prevalent economic paradigm being unsustainable, and about the use of science and technology as primary methods of remedying this.
They are in my opinion gravely wrong about this involving a wholesale dumping of the entire concepts of money and free markets though, as they fail to differentiate them from their corruption. For example, the fact that our money is essentially worthless and can be arbitrarily printed out of thin air by central banks doesn’t mean that all forms of money are immediately invalid. Someone selling you a substandard item while claiming it to be of top quality doesn’t automatically make the very idea of “selling” an evil one. All that’s evil about this is the fraud involved with the act.
I don’t know at what point may I talk about the lack of sustainability to the way our civilizations currently function as if it was something commonly understood. Who else out there needs convincing? This isn’t about whether resources are scarce or not, or about whether we can fix the problem we have or not. It isn’t about being a pessimist or a doomsayer either. It is about recognizing the problem as what it is to begin with so we can proceed to the talk about solutions, and actions that would materialize these solutions.
So to get back to what they’re right about, I think whatever our solutions will be there can be no better place to look for them than science and technology. Science is after all, quite simply, the pursuit of knowledge about the world and universe we are living in, with the built in understanding that this knowledge is never complete and always evolving. Technology is science’s biggest proof of validity and utility. Technology puts science to work at solving real problems and providing real power.
So even if getting rid of money and markets is an unsound, even pseudo-scientific, idea, I do think that thinking in terms of solving all social and economic problems through science and technology is the right way to go. Zeitgeisters just need to try harder, look deeper, and fight off the tendency to be taken in by irrational sensibilities of the moment.
Technology Drives Decentralization
I think the most impressive part of the recent technological developments is a tendency towards decentralizing power, and doing so with little or no political pressure towards that goal. Abilities previously available only to the few become available to the many, or even everyone. Incumbents whose power and position depended on previous scarcity rarely even realize what’s going on before their position is already compromised. They then tend to lobby the government to sidetrack the development and productive use of these technologies in the name of various manufactured “risks” and “dangers”. Similar scenarios can be seen over and over again in multiple industries.
Previously only few could produce records of music, now everyone with a computer can copy, alter and share them effortlessly. Previously only the few could run respectable newspapers, radio stations and television shows, but now everyone with Internet access and an inexpensive camera can do so on the internet. Long time ago only the elites had access to clean water, proper plumbing, let alone electricity, and now most people cannot imagine life without these things. The list can go on and on.
Latest technologies promise to add new examples to this list very rapidly. Soon we may be able to produce our own food and water locally, within our own homes or communities, instead of relying entirely on the fragile and inefficient JIT system of delivery. Soon we may be able to all produce our own electricity from resources immediately available to us locally (from solar energy to various automated piezoelectric methods of producing and recycling energy from nearly any energy intensive activity). Soon we might all be able to create our own products effortlessly by just downloading or creating designs on our computer and printing them up in a 3D printer, cutting our dependence on a large part of the manufacturing industry, and marking the first entrance of mechanized manufacturing into people’s homes and out of corporate mega-factories. This list too can go on and on.
This tendency of technology to decentralize power is actually crucial to the achievement of sustainable perpetual growth because as power is decentralized so is responsibility. Problems such as potential resource depletion, malfunctions or mismanagement become immediately known to everyone affected, and the impetus to adapt and fix things is just as immediate. There is no situation in which at the brink of collapse most are still unaware of what is going on, and this is actually the very thing that can prevent any kind of a collapse. It is like having billions of sensors across the Earth naturally monitoring the ratio between consumption and recycling, instead of just a few specialized ones.
It all comes down to a time and time again observed fact that decentralized systems are always more durable, more adaptable, and more flexible than centralized ones.
In fact scientific observations of nature around us reveal the same thing. The universe is built from the bottom up. Molecules do not order atoms into position. Atoms are naturally attracted to each other to form molecules which in the same manner form materials, and so on.
Machines Take Over Reproduction while Humans Move to Creation
In addition to driving increasing decentralization as means of increasing sustainability, technology is also driving the increasing efficiency of material consumption. Of course, decentralization by itself already contributes to efficiency, but further technological means is what actually provides the bulk of “perpetual, but sustainable growth”, not just sustaining the status quo. So long as we can make more out of less, or be able to expand to use more resources we can continue growing and evolving, and this too is almost purely enabled by science and technology.
What is most interesting about this aspect of technological evolution is the tendency to have machines do what human laborers used to, simply because machines can do it faster, cheaper and often better. This makes sense in so far as everything that actually needs to be done repeatedly is naturally programmable. The real work here isn’t so much in the repetitive physical tasks it takes to accomplish something, it is in the design of the process. Therefore this increasing mechanization goes hand in hand with increasing digitalization of production. In other words the more things become automated and mechanized the more value shifts towards “information technology”.
Zeitgeist points out that 70% of currently held human jobs can be replaced by machines today, and that an increasing unemployment is in big part caused by machines taking over human jobs while the service sector is unable to absorb this. I would again point to the corruption of our money and markets as having something to do with the reason why this is so (rather than outright dismissing the very idea of money and markets), but I also think that the service industry isn’t the only one that should and can absorb all of these newly unemployed people.
There go the cooks, waiters and construction workers…
In a properly functioning free market economy increased mechanization, automation and digitalization, since it results in orders of magnitude greater efficiency, also results in lower prices and thus the ability to gain more from less. Simultaneously it shifts, as pointed out above, value from physical labor to intellectual labor. This literally means that creative jobs involving everything from art and design to scientific research and development get more and more demand the more automatization is in effect.
This leads us to a point where machines will be doing all of the work of mere reproduction of what was already created in our minds, from physical items to even some services (including in some cases robotic waiters and cooks in restaurants). Basically all work that is about doing the same thing over and over again, or just about following a particular procedure with nearly no creative endeavor necessary, get done by machines. All that humans would ever do at that point is create stuff. All human jobs become creative ones.
This frees up human capacity to think of ever more ingenious ways to squeeze more out of less or to expand beyond this planet and take advantage of resources from space, which helps the goal of sustainable perpetual growth.
How Can Things Go Wrong
Whichever way things go wrong it can be defined as either bad science (or pseudo-science) or a bad application of technology (which results from bad science). Bad science can either happen out of malice or incompetence. Malice can involve the use of the brand of science to convince others that your way is the right way, and incompetence can simply mean being misled towards the wrong conclusions, even if with good intentions.
In a nutshell the best way to combat these is vigilance, plurality and openness towards criticism and possibility of being wrong.
This is part of why it is a bad idea to ignore movements which are gaining traction and which contain the idea of using science and technology to solve social problems. Ignoring and dismissing them entirely makes it seem as if we’re dismissing science and technology as well, and that can easily earn us the label of irrationality. Instead of dismissing everything they we need to acknowledge what is good and point out what is bad, and incorporate the good ideas into our own paradigms.
The result, with respect to applying science and technology, is that many different groups and movements may end up promoting science and technology and its use in various different ways, but only some of them are actually right. Plurality and effective competition in the realm of ideas may result in the best ideas, those that actually apply true science and use technology in positive ways, winning out.
Suppose, however, that the bad science wins. Results could be catastrophic. For instance, Zeitgeisters advocate what is essentially a global computer system to manage the entire world’s economy and all of its resources, and they believe this solution to be consistent with what science shows us about human nature and the Earth’s resources. They believe this to be the most efficient way of managing Earth’s resources while providing for the needs of every human on the planet.
First of all, they are essentially describing a computer run global government without recourse other than random volunteer techies maintaining it and fixing its bugs. Secondly, it’s hard to imagine what would prevent a few administrators of the system from programming it to give them better treatment than the rest without this involving a whole new governmental structure with which we already have enough bad experience, and which pretty much precludes the need for a computer-government in the first place (if you’re still gonna have people in charge, then the computer is merely a tool a t their disposal, not the thing actually running the show).
Furthermore, how can such a system be invulnerable to constant attempts to hack it by numerous competent hackers around the world seeking an advantage or doing it just for fun?
Finally, there’s a somewhat fantastic concern of the system getting out of hand and developing a will of its own, or simply having a disastrous malfunction. This is still hard to imagine perhaps, and is in the realm of science fiction, but there is a number of serious scientists who believe that we may soon witness the birth of a new specie of AIs within computer systems as well as potentially robotic bodies (and it would be humans putting them there out of sheer curiosity and natural desire to create something new). If we have a new specie on our hands considering itself qualitatively different enough, and sufficiently conscious and intelligent enough to seek its own recognition, and somewhere along the way things between us don’t turn out so well, do we really want to have a global system which they can take over by effectively flipping a switch? Do we want The Skynet, Matrix, Galactica and other cheesy “machines will take over” scenarios actually being realized?
The saying, “that which we create to serve us ends up ruling us”, seems quite fitting here.
All of these threats point to natural weaknesses of centralized systems. There is a single all-important point of failure. Compromise that and you compromise the entire system. Not only that, but having a single point of failure actually invites all the positive and negative attention of the world to it. Anyone who has crazy dreams about running the world to anyone wanting to benevolently “fix” the system by taking it over to would be AIs accidentally or deliberately trying to have their way with it (and by extension, the lives of all humans cared for by this system) – everyone’s eyes are turned to that one point.
This is impossible in a decentralized system, and as I’ve pointed out above, it is not how truly stable, durable and flexible systems in nature and the universe as a whole operate. Those claiming to learn from science when trying to create a sustainable economy should know this, and thus know the foolishness of proposals such as this.
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