Shots Across the Bow

A Reality Based Blog

 

The Technological Tragedy

I went to see Serenity last weekend and enjoyed the movie thoroughly. I never got the chance to see Firefly while it was on the air, but I did rent the DVDs, and I was impressed with the series. As anybody who's been reading me for a while knows, I am sympathetic to the Confederacy so I had no problems identifying with the lead character, Malcolm Reynolds. The key issue was the balance of power between the individual and the state. Mirroring the fate of the Confederacy, Reynold's side lost the war, and the Alliance took over everything, with less than satisfactory results for those who valued individual freedoms. Whether that outcome is a commentary on modern times is left for you to decide; how I feel about it should be intuitively obvious to even the most casual observer.

But there's another theme in Serenity that intrigues me, simply because it's one that most folks seem to miss entirely. I've read many reviews of the movie (Incidentally, any reviewewr who refers to spoilers, even obliquely, during a review should be bashed repeatedly over the head with their keyboard until it breaks. And I'm not talking about the keyboard.) and one of the common themes has been Joss Whedon's surprising juxtaposition of Western and Science Fiction elements. The truth is that Whedon is making good use of what in practice would be inevitable. Any time a society expands rapidly, the technology available to a settlement will decrease in direct relation to the distance they travel. In effect, the frontiers of the expansion will move backwards to a level of technology that their population and energy systems will support. Consider for example our own westward expansion. Conditions on the frontier were always behind those back east. Why? Because a frontier society does not have the infrastructure to support a higher level of technology.

Now, why is this? Well, let's look at what is required to support a high level of technology.
  1. First, you need a surplus of labor. If the workforce is fully engaged in surviving, there will be no time left to develop or support a higher technology. Now then, in order to achieve this surplus of labor, you need a surplus of food so that the society can afford to support non productive labor in the short term.
  2. Next, you need people in the group with technological competence. Without people who know how to create and run the technology, it doesn't matter how much food you have, you'll still be stuck in the Stone Age.
  3. Next, you need an abundant source of cheap energy. Labor saving devices are actually misnamed. The same amount of work gets done whether it's done by hand or machine. The difference is the source of energy that does the work. For example, plowing a field takes a given amount of energy, whether it's done by a man, a mule, or a tractor. And of the three, the tractor is the least efficient, requiring scads of energy to do what a single horse could do. Technology reduces human energy input into the system, but that energy must be replaced with something else, and since mechanical systems are always less energy efficient than biological ones, you'd better have energy to burn.

You must have all three of these to maintain a high tech society, lack of any one will automatically reduce the society to a lower technological level.

Ok, so we have the requirements to maintain a high tech society. Now, let's look at the pioneering process and see whether there is any way we can meet these requirements.

First, we have to deal with transport costs. Expansion is expensive, and shipping enough machinery out to the frontier to allow a high tech society will be prohibitively expense. Imagine for instance trying to pack up the entire city of Knoxville and moving it, say, a couple of thousand miles away.

Next, we have to deal with support costs. Shipping food and fuel to a colony is just as expensive as machinery. It is the job of the colony to achieve self sufficiency as quickly as possible, and it is far easier to achieve with a low tech colony than a high tech one.

Now, some folks might want to argue this point, so let's take a minute or two to look more closely at it.

Let's compare a high tech and low tech solution to the same problem and see which is easier to support. We'll go with transportation and compare a car to a horse. Both will get you around, but which will be easier to support in a colony?

A car needs fuel. A horse eats grass.
If a car breaks, it must be repaired, requiring spare parts and specialized knowledge. If a horse gets hurt, it heals.
If you need another car, you have to manufacture one or have one shipped. If you need another horse, find a mare and wait.
A car requires specialized roads. A horse goes anywhere.
A car requires extensive modifications to be used for another purpose, say, plowing a field. A horse just needs to be harnessed.
A car requires constant attention to perform properly. The horse always knows the way to the barn.

OK, point made. The low tech solution is also most likely the low maintenance solution. For those unconvinced, consider a blacksmith's shop vs. a steel factory.

When you stop and think about things like this, it begins to make sense that the best chance for a colony to survive is to move a maximum number of people along with the bare minimum of equipment they will need to survive. And that measn a lower tech society, at least for awhile.

Now then, there will be exceptions, certainly. If the technology is light, and easily maintained, it will spread just as rapidly as the pioneers. But in the main, low tech will rule the day.

So, why am I thinking about things like this? I'll give you one reason.

Katrina.

And another.

Al Qaida.

Remember one of the keys to maintaining a high tech society is an abundant supply of cheap energy. What happens if we lose that? The effect would be the same as if we'd moved towards the frontier. Our technology would degrade to the point where our new energy supply could support it. And then our society would adjust accordingly.

That doesn't sound too bad when put like that, but what does that mean in real terms?

Riots. Starvation. War. Famine. Pestilence.

In general lots of nastiness.

You see, that surplus of labor thing that allows us to develop technology is a double edged sword. Yes, it means that we can make all kinds of wonderful gadgets, and watch Lost on TV, and take long vacations, and retire when we're 65. It also means that most of us would starve if we had to provide our own food. And even if we could farm, hunt, or gather enough to support ourselves, the vast majority of our neighbors couldn't. And they would starve.

And if you don't think your starving next door neighbor would hurt you and take your food, then you've never been really hungry. Stop and think just for a minute. What if your kids were starving, and you knew that Joe down the block had a pantry filled with food, but refused to give you any.

What would you do?

We've come a long way from talking about a simple science fiction movie, haven't we? I guess thoughts like these are why I'm usually still up at 2:30AM.

Aren't you glad I decided to share?
Posted by Rich
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