Friday, May 21, 2010

Being Realistic

The well written post in the NY Times titled Doomsayers Beware, a Bright Future Beckons states that in the end, all will be well regarding tech and the future of man. This may be so according to John Tierney, but to me, the most interesting part of the piece centers on how trading became the catalyst for tech,  something worth considering even though war also advances tech just as much as seen by the arms race all conflicting parties wage in attempting to win on the battlefield.

"What made Homo sapiens so special? Dr. Ridley argues that it wasn’t our big brain, because Neanderthals had a big brain, too. Nor was it our willingness to help one another, because apes and other social animals also had an instinct for reciprocity.

“At some point,” Dr. Ridley writes, “after millions of years of indulging in reciprocal back-scratching of gradually increasing intensity, one species, and one alone, stumbled upon an entirely different trick. Adam gave Oz an object in exchange for a different object.”

The evidence for this trick is in perforated seashells from more than 80,000 years ago that ended up far from the nearest coast, an indication that inlanders were bartering to get ornamental seashells from coastal dwellers. Unlike the contemporary Neanderthals, who apparently relied just on local resources, those modern humans could shop for imports.

“The extraordinary promise of this event was that Adam potentially now had access to objects he did not know how to make or find; and so did Oz,” Dr. Ridley writes. People traded goods, services and, most important, knowledge, creating a collective intelligence: “Ten individuals could know between them ten things, while each understanding one.”

While I agree trade (and war) were instrumental in enabling man to develop technology, there seems to be too great a belief tech will continue apace without too much difficulty, something I find somewhat specious given the current situation society finds itself in. i.e.

Oil - To replace this energy source is difficult to say the least. Oil is incredibly efficient. Portable, energy dense and easily processed and distributed, oil has all the prerequisites needed to sustain man as long as one doesn't care about pollution. As it becomes scarce, (Peak Oil), the stress on civilization will grow. When it's gone, the impact on civilization. if there is no substitute, goes beyond words.

Other factors:

  1. The Environment - Global warming is real no matter what the ultra right says. The magnitude of same is the 900 pound gorilla man has no answer for save that fossil fuels use must be radically curbed if we are to avoid the coming catastrophe which, if we continue on the path we are currently on, could push us to the edge of extinction.
  2. Racism, Religion & Nationalism - The troika of prejudice,  ignorance & hubris hinders progress in ways that boggle the mind. 
  3. Population - There are too many of us yet we continue to procreate at excessive levels. See China and India as prime examples along with poor countries like Bangladesh. Thomas Malthus, unfortunately, lives when peak oil, pollution and climate change are factored into the equation.
  4. The Lab vs. The Real World - What looks great in the lab can be blown away by the vagaries of the real world, something researchers know all too well when trying to create something of real value.
  5. Power - It's easy to make tech work when low power is the watchword. (smart phones, net books, etc.) but it's another thing all together to build cheap, environmentally safe and reliable power sources able to  drive a car for at least 100 miles or power an average home in the US for 20-30 years. At this point in time, systems able to do the job are years away from having any significant impact on how society conducts business.
  6. Money - The financial system is corrupt and broken. Just look at the US and Europe to see why. Fiat money backed by nothing and controlled by interests separate from tax payers no longer works. It took almost 100 years for central banking to achieve the noble goal of rendering the world and the US financially destitute but it's now here, something not factored into the tech equation in the Doomsayers article. Without money, there is no tech. (Save for war, a happenstance that trumps everything.)
  7. Lack of natural resources - Only Russia & Brazil have most if not all the materials needed to remain viable. Most other players are in a world of hurt, especially China and India, facts conveniently ignored by most when talking about finance and its relationship to essentials like oil. 
  8. Solar will eventually rule. The idea of cracking water sounds terrific in theory for powering cars but dealing with Hydrogen and Oxygen at the quantities needed to drive society is a stretch but solar could pull it off regarding H20 spitting now that the entire process of photosynthesis has been mapped out. Fusion is another option for powering civilization but it will take decades for it to make any difference. (If indeed fusion can ever be made to work.) More exotic forms of energy creation (dark energy/antimatter) are too far off to even consider at this point in time though keeping an open mind as to what is possible is vital to make breakthrough tech happen.
  9. Double Exponential - In the lab, tech is accelerating at double exponential rates but scaling it up and building an infrastructure to support it in order to meet the needs of the world is a far more difficult task. (see power as example)
  10. Black Swans - The impact of quantum computing, robotics, AI, nanotech and biotech on society cannot be predicted as the future cannot be foretold. (quantum & chaos theories rule).
  11. War & Empire - The US is becoming Oceania, something economically not sustainable in this era of no money & peak oil. (Afghanistan, Iraq + 1000 military bases all over the world) 
  12. Pollution and over harvesting the oceans - The sea is slowing dying as we continue to pollute and over fish. If something is not done, we're done. (BP disaster, the Georges Banks & the Great Pacific Garbage Patch)
  13. Governance or the lack thereof - Governments lack the vision and courage to do what's right. For example, the US needs light rail, not high speed rail. Ask CA how much it will cost to build a high speed system from San Diego to Sacramento ($33 Billion) and then ask if CA has the money to pay for it. (They might if they pass the pot bill in Nov.) This lack of vision extends into every aspect of life as government, like finance, is broken. We the people in the US have no say, only the banks and significant others have the say and we know the end result on that number.
  14. Endgame - I don't believe civilization will collapse but changes, in the short term, will be unforgiving as we move toward a different way of making a living. (The web holds the key to making this happen.) I really hope Doomsayer is spot on in every way but I harbor no illusions about just how hard it will be to make the changes needed if we are to survive as a viable species on planet earth. 
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