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Options for the middle class May 20, 2010

Posted by olvidadorio in Earth, Economics.

Even though I study Cognitive Science, oftentimes I introduce myself as a computer scientist – as that is what I am  effectively. So I told this guy, while waiting in line at a state office that I study Computer Science. And he said “Good, you know that’s where all the money is.” My reply was kind of “um, well who knows how long..”. Here’s why:

Every Google search supposedly uses as much energy as burning a light-bulb for one hour (it makes sense that Google is getting into the energy-supply business). Computing devices are really the tip of the iceberg of a vast and complex, resource-hungry non-locally maintainable industrial complex that is geared towards constant growth and development, always making this year’s second coming next year’s plastic crap.
I don’t think this’ll go on forever. No bets when things will change, but this world of ever-expanding mass-computing won’t go on they way it is today; I am unsure what its state will be at the end of the great energy-shrinkage that I expect, because there’s no good idea what this energy shrinkage will look like, specifically when it starts and how long it will take.

In the mid-term (and possibly, partially long-term) the digital domain will actually expand in reaction to contracting energy supply, as virtual experience will still be cheaply reproducible and mass-marketed by centralized sources with costs lying mainly on overhead instead of on the individual unit (which will become scarce and expensive to transport without cheap oil). Stan James makes this argument, projecting  there to be a kind of mass-flight into virtual gratification, with experience in the real world becoming an upper-class matter, echoing the relationship of theater/opera and film nowadays. I would add that this willingness of lower-income consumers to go for electronic media is already a financial burden to them, which will turn into a substantial squeeze and further impoverishment.

Just a brief look into the long run: The internet is a fragile beast. It requires a high level of international cooperation. In the event of economic — and following it — social disintegration (i.e. war) I would expect the grand unified network to retreat to a limited group of interconnected ‘sanctuaries’, much like the medieval monastic scholastic tradition, whereas for widespread use ad-hoc local wireless networks would be the much more viable and practical architecture.

Whichever way things turn out in the long run, a simple midterm economic collapse, as seen in the former USSR or in Argentina in the 90s, would indicate that many research-intense efforts just die. People with engineering degrees sweeping the streets. Innovative industry gets replaced by fly-by-night and scavenging operations as society tries to adjust.

Contrary to all these doomsday-ideas, growing up in the 90s there was a sense of technological promise that inspired me as an adolescent to want to go off and build machines that can think. In hope that they – once intelligent – would solve our problems for us. In hindsight I dare say I was ignorant as to a fundamental portion of the basis of prosperity I grew up in: It is not solely the technology of automatization of production that has made a lordly lifestyle available to masses of people in select countries of the world (e.g. globalization moving to cheap manual labor) it is equally importantly the masses of (still comparably) cheap energy sucked up and lathered onto society by technologically-enabled plunder of fossil fuels.

At times I feel as if I’m in a predicament what do I do with this view. There’s substantial risk to our society and I want to prepare myself and stop contributing to their rise. It is an emotional, practical and ethical issue. While I really have no desire to forgo the pleasures and privileges endowed unto me, to a certain extent I should, because I am using up more resources and polluting more than my fair share. It may also be kind of wise to prepare in some manner. I would after all like to – quoting the Godfather – look back and be able to say “I’ve spent my life trying not to be careless”. We as a society are being very careless with our planet.

I have no idea exactly when, I just know, if we don’t develop controlled nuclear fusion real soon the consumer economy as we know it will fundamentally have to change and be replaced, possibly grinding to a halt for lack of resources. (And even if we were to develop fusion, we’d still have pollution, climate change and an ecological meltdown to boot).
You may say: “What about ‘green’ energy alternatives?” True, they will exist, but even they will get more expensive as the costs of building these various electricity-generating, storing contraptions (windmills, solar etc. oh – and batteries, very energy intensive, same goes for concrete used in windmills) will rise just as resource and transportation costs rise. But we’ll possibly still develop one or the other method to create reasonably priced power, one of my pet ideas is solar updraft towers. Really good for Arizona, not so good for Finland.

But probably the public will not immediately recognize the underlying shortage issues as causes of their hardship. Oftentimes catastrophe’s are mediated in society, you may not actually get to see what’s behind what hit you. You may think that what hit you was a war, or a coup d’etat. In fact it’s just the elites trying to retain their privileged lifestyle at the cost of all of us. And as there’s not quite enough funny resources to grease everyone, someone will have to go.

The political system of the American-dominated world empire will collapse within my lifetime, I am rather sure of that, even though I don’t know when, as the date seems to largely depend on policy decisions made in Beijing. With it the current nature of life in our style of industrial societies will fade (no trade deficit, no consumerland). What will it be replaced by?

Today a friend told us about his visit to New Orleans, specifically to the lower 9th Ward, most (and still) devastated by Katrina. He reported on the depopulation and the fact that there is none of the usual infrastructure in place such as grocery stores. One of the abandoned supermarkets has been converted to a church, outside of which residents hold a weekly farmer’s market, with children’s rides, and a happy, carnival atmosphere. He was moved to tears describing the sense of community he felt there.

I have the feeling that amongst the big fundamental problems outlined above there are quite a few waves that I’ll either have to ride or swallow, there’s no safe ducking, no stopping climate change or declining energy yields. So what will I do? Will I continue working in computing? Quite possibly I will, it’s just enjoyable, an acquired taste, it’s exhilarating to put ideas into a machine. Will I be involved in politics? I sure hope so. I haven’t yet found the niche I feel good in – at all, but maybe this will change when push comes to shove. And on the preparedness-side? I’m definitely pressuring my family to keep that large garden and the house, it may be a lot of work, but it’s just good to have. We might come to appreciate it. War and shortages are not a thing of the past.

A word on positivity: Many efforts to strikingly characterize the grave problems mentioned above are criticized as being ‘too negative’. I take issue with that; If I know that a tsunami is going to hit Honolulu with a 30% chance, it is important to negatively assess the danger, and get the hell out of there to higher ground. Positive thinking here would mean to believe you’ll make it into a higher story of a building, or be able to hang onto a palm tree so the backflow won’t rip you out to sea. That’s not the best option while you still have the time to actually do something about it. While you still have the time, thinking negative, pessimism is the way to go, to play it safe. The only situations in which optimism is the preferred survival strategy is when the potential threat is highly unlikely (hence just get on with your life) or very likely (you’ll probably die anyway, so why not do it smiling). And I, for my own part, am too optimistic to believe that we’re yet damned to die.

(Thanks to Jackie Griego for her input.)



1. jag - May 24, 2010

On optimism versus pessimism, have been trying to pinpoint the disagreement, as I’m fundamentally pessimistic regarding a market economy driven by irrational short term capitalization and profit taking. Hence, the view that optimism is a strong force to avoid global financial collapse–because the system seems overly vulnerable to arrogant policies of the few and the herd behavior of the many. “Where does money come from? Thin air! Where does money go to? Thin air!”

I just wonder if negative thinking mobilizes? Which is perhaps the disagreement? I think of the peeps living on the sides of volcanoes about to erupt who refuse to leave. In the face of likely negative events they stay.

From a systems level perspective, how far do we have to go before the planet no longer supports life? Is the rate our actions leading to our deaths (ie pollution and famine) too slow to reverse our damage on the system? That is, if enough of us are dead pollution and resource demand goes down.

For me the tech people carry the heaviest burden for a solution. Not only in the sense of expertise in creative solutions, but to forge a modern ethic sensibility based on doing the right thing, as opposed to the guilt and violence of religion. I see optimism as necessary fuel for commitment to action. Control should be wrested from those who choose to abandon stewardship. It’s time for modern heroes.

olvidadorio - May 24, 2010

I guess arguing about positivity and negativity is treacherous because it’s essentially void of content. It’s about attitude which is simply a matter of human existence, there’s what we might today describe as positive and there’s negative, and then there’s lots of other attitudes.
But fundamentally the only point that I see worth making is that it is not a valid counter-argument in any way against a factual argument, just to say “it’s too negative”. I believe this can reflect an unwillingness to face emotions, and I’ve seen it several times, and it makes me angry.

Yes. “How far can we go before the planet no longer supports life? Is the rate our actions leading to our deaths (ie pollution and famine) too slow to reverse our damage on the system? That is, if enough of us are dead pollution and resource demand goes down. ”

That must be in the future then, because at the moment population still is giddily growing. You can feel it all over the world. The place is packed. Most of the nice places are full of people. And overall they live grander lives, are continuously belching out more pollution, eating more fish, using more energy. So you’re asking, will we manage to kill off each other through whatever means before we make the place altogether uninhabitable for our species? (And maybe for larger mammals in general.) All it takes is that some ‘special effect’ of global warming eradicates agriculture. But I have no idea what the odds are and no idea if anyone does. There will be catastrophes, but I currently have no interesting predictions to make at the “eradicate our race” scale. On a side-note: Have a look at my 2004 article “Posthumous society http://www.mail-archive.com/nettime-l@bbs.thing.net/msg01780.html
as stated therein I would attach no value to our race’s survival, it’s more what happens to them chaps caught up in the catastrophe that troubles me.

In the last paragraph you talk about revolution. A tricky subject.

2. jag - May 26, 2010

Don’t see the word “revolution” in there…

Given the rising power of the internet in terms of economy and “cheap reality alternative” — in the short term, taking over from rape pillage burn business models, and in the long term, in the event of limited or large collapse, what you speak of here “I would expect the grand unified network to retreat to a limited group of interconnected ‘sanctuaries’, much like the medieval monastic scholastic tradition, whereas for widespread use ad-hoc local wireless networks would be the much more viable and practical architecture.”

I’m advocating organization and planning.

3. olvidadorio - May 26, 2010

OK. I’m sorry for my misinterpretation. I had been triggered by the wresting power business. OK, then let’s organize and plan!

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