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  • damariszehner

The Future of Technological Society: Will They Really Think of Something?

Updated: Jan 31, 2020

Judging by the comments on our most recent discussion board (you can review them here), most of you have mixed feelings about modern advanced technology. You see the great benefits in medicine, communications, and other areas, but you wonder about privacy, economics, and society. It may be, though, that future questions about uses of technology will not be ethical but practical.

As part of the college freshman composition class that I teach, I have students survey each other to understand their audience better. I’ve joined in the activity since I’ve been working on this blog. My question recently was about how my students expected the world to be in one hundred years. Their answers were mixed, although pessimism predominated, but one thing they all believed was that the trajectory of technological innovation would increase at the same speed and in the same direction as it had in the past.

Onward and upward!

At this point, I did what I always have to do, which is try to make them define technology. They use the term lightly but consistently to mean only cutting-edge electronic applications, usually ones that enhance mental capacity or so-called leisure as opposed to the ones that increase our physical abilities – so cellphones and self-driving cars they consider “technology,” but bulldozers and container ships they don’t. Technology to them means edgy, sci-fi stuff; they take bulldozers and container ships – and pick-up trucks, central heating, ballpark lighting, spoons, and all the unnoticed paraphernalia of our lives – so much for granted that they don’t see them as technological innovations. And because their “technology” has been expanded and (apparently, at least) innovated during their short life times, they expect the trend to continue until we are all living like the human blobs in Wall-E. They worry about that, in a vague way, but they also think it will be cool to have space travel and go to other planets – “will be,” not would be or would have been.

Is this inevitable?

I believe, from what I read and hear, that the majority of Westerners agree with my students. The challenges of the future, as they see it, are the ethical choices that must be made between helpful and harmful high-tech applications. I agree that every choice we make, now and in the future, has an ethical component, but I also believe that the laws of economics and thermodynamics will determine which choices we’ll be able to make. Rather than asking whether we should colonize other planets, for example, we’ll be left asking if we can.

There is a fundamental truth that these prophets of cutting-edge technology are not considering: fossil fuels are running out. It was inevitable that they would. Nothing that could only be created under unique conditions over millions of years can be expected to renew itself during the brief span of the Industrial Revolution. While there is legitimate argument about when coal, oil, and gas will run out, nonetheless there will come a point that they must.

But they don’t even need to run out to have an overwhelming impact on our whole civilization. They only need to become too expensive to mine, process, and transport. No mining company can stay in business if it is spending as much producing its product as it can make selling it. We have already found and extracted the cheap stuff, and that’s what we’ve built our expectations on. The electricity and transportation we demand will inevitably become more expensive and less available. As a result, we can anticipate greater inequalities of access to the gains of the Industrial Revolution as well as the inevitable social tensions that will follow.

The usual response at this point in any discussion is, “They’ll think of something.” I will suppress my urge to insist that “they” be defined and just move to the main point. Yes, humankind is a creative species. But consider these points: our species was around in its present evolutionary form for hundreds of thousands of years without having made many innovations at all, at least in the way modern people would see them; our ancestors remained hunter-gathers for millennia, slowly inventing pots, baskets, clothes, and dogs. Innovation was happening, but the pace was glacial.

Inventing pots

The timeline people use to support their claim that technological innovation presses ineluctably onward and upward usually begins only a few thousand years ago, for the well-read; most others begin with their grandparents. But regardless, for most of our time on this planet, we did not innovate rapidly; we lived in a steady state.

And even then, as the pace of innovation picked up over time, the sorts of things that were invented – while hugely important for our species and our planet – wouldn’t even be considered “technology” by my students and those like them. Inventions like the compass, the moldboard plow, and the caravel are emphatically not what they are thinking of when they say, “They’ll think of something.” If we can’t afford container ships and combines, these optimists are not anticipating that the technological innovations that we’ll come up with in response are going to be sailing ships and sophisticated horsedrawn farm equipment; they’re picturing drones and space-shuttle farms.

A technological innovation

When you think about it, it’s obvious that the “technology” my students and others are talking about was a result not just of human ingenuity but of the Industrial Revolution. The easy, concentrated energy of fossil fuels made possible the lockstep progession of technological and population explosion that has created the modern world. Can we assume that the things “they” will think of will keep us on the same trajectory once that energy source runs out? I don’t think so.

Of course there are alternative forms of energy that are becoming more efficient and affordable every year, and that’s a good thing. But ironically the alternative energy sector as it now exists relies entirely on fossil fuels. We need to recognize that fossil fuels are essential in the whole supply chain of a windmill or a solar panel, in mining the raw materials, shipping them, manufacturing them, transporting the manufactured products, even the advertising and government subsidies – will this process still be affordable when the Industrial Revolution reaches the bottom of the barrel?

How were these made?

We need to have longer memories than we do. The last two hundred years are not representative of the life of our species. They were built on a foundation that is not sustainable, and when it crumbles, our capacity for innovation may need to be replaced by our capacity for renovation. Old technologies that were designed with the limits of economics and planetary sustainability in mind will once again become valuable, and our lives will have to change drastically as a result.

That’s not all a bad thing, although the transition will be pretty awful, I imagine. All of the sane reforms I and others write about will become, maybe not inevitable, but certainly desirable options once we view the world and ourselves without the distortion of the fossil-fuel lottery pay-out. Some day soon we will have to go back to living on our yearly income. We will still be inventive when that day comes, but our inventions may look more like clever PTO shafts on horse-drawn farm equipment and less like space travel. There will be solar, wind, and water power, and maybe there will be things we haven’t thought of. But there is nothing we can anticipate that will allow us to live in perpetuity as the richest Western countries currently live. Fossil fuels are limited; nuclear energy has never been economically viable; and the pollution and waste that our technology has produced have guaranteed that our future will be unimaginably different from our recent past. So while in one way yes, “they” will think of something, it will not be something that will enable us to live the same extravagant lifestyle that even the poorest of my students take for granted.

I make this point about the end of the Industrial Revolution as we know it to clarify my assumption that the increasing inaccessibility of resources will force an end to the current trajectory of technological complexity. Although I think it’s essential for sane living that we recognize the limits imposed on us by the universe – in fact, that may be the single best definition for the word “sane” – none of the human-shaped institutions and practices I’d like to see are reliant on the collapse of the fossil-fuel society. Whether you accept as I do that we will soon be forced to live a simpler life or whether you expect the snowball of technological civilization to keep rolling, it still makes sense to carve out for ourselves a comfortable way of life, in balance with our resources and surroundings, that gives us the space to become truly human.

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Aug 24, 2019

"Some day soon we will have to go back to living on our yearly income."

Or perhaps quite a bit less than our yearly income. Just as the energy future is closing in, the ability of the federal government and American consumers to borrow and spend is closing in, too. Even if the nonexistent "they" conceive of a great energy solution, the US will be hard put to build anything on any kind of grand scale.

US government debt is now $22 trillion, and it hasn't been spent on the future. A vast part of it has been straight transfers from the future to current consumption by old people (vacations, second homes in Florida, etc). They joke, "I'm spending my…


Aug 24, 2019

As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa during the 80s, I worked with a group of six young Liberian men. Our job was to communicate information from UNICEF and the government health ministry and other sources of help. Sometimes we rode motorbikes to the villages and presented the message with a workshop. Sometimes we broadcast it on the low-wattage AM radio station the US had built for them.

One day, one of my colleagues turned to me and said, "Andy, there are old men in my village who can go up into the hills and find certain rocks, and then work them in fire and make a cutlass!?!"

We were surrounded by machinery made of steel, and were…


Aug 24, 2019

awilliam: Great points. You say, " It is hard to blame them, given the torrent of cash that constantly flows into marketing that vision." How hard it is for wealthy moderns to accept that money isn't really anything! That all the marketing and investment in the world won't do any good if real wealth isn't there -- real wealth being topsoil, clean air, clean water, human health, lumber, iron, etc. Demand doesn't always create supply.

You also point out, " I find there to be much greater openness to the necessity of adaptation in the mid-Gen-X and younger." I agree, and it's a hopeful sign. Unfortunately, as it becomes harder to ignore climate change, some of the Boomer generation a…


Aug 23, 2019

> they all believed was that the trajectory of technological innovation

> would increase

It is hard to blame them, given the torrent of cash that constantly flows into marketing that vision.

> And because their “technology” has been expanded and (apparently, ...

Emphasis on "apparently", as it hasn't in any measurable sense. The change in TFP (Total Factor Productivty) has been pretty gloomy since the 1970s.

> I believe, from what I read and hear, that the majority of Westerners

> agree with my students.

Hmmm. It is hard to know; how to quantify the ratio between Techno-Optimism and the Vague-Pessism.

> I also believe that the laws of economics and thermodynamics will

> determine which choices we’ll be…


Aug 23, 2019

I suspect that the ways in which future technology is used will be under 'human' rather than 'humane' judgement sometimes, and in the end, after the result is so harmful we as 'humans' can't even justify it,

then perhaps the destructive will be moderated and made more 'humane' . . . . hopefully.

The track record out there historically with 'technology' is a bit grim. But there is always hope for good to come. :)

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