Sunday, September 17, 2017

Technological Toxicities

     "I wish the old man had remembered something about the fall of the old Ring society. I had an idea …" And he told the puppeteer his theory of a mutating colonic bacterium.
     "That is possible," said Nessus. "Once they lost the secret of transmutation, they would never recover."
     "Oh? Why not?"
     "Look about you, Louis. What do you see?"
     Louis did. He saw a lightning-storm developing ahead; he saw hills, valleys, a distant city, twin mountain peaks tipped with the dirty translucency of raw Ring flooring…"Land anywhere on the Ringworld, and dig. What do you find?"
     "Dirt," said Louis. "So?"
     "And then?"
     "More dirt. Bedrock. Ring floor material," said Louis. And as he said these words the landscape seemed to alter. Storm clouds, mountains, the city to spinward and the city dwindling behind, the edge of brilliance far away on the infinity-horizon, that might be a sea or a sunflower invasion…now the landscape showed as the shell it was. The difference between an honest planet and this was the difference between a human face and an empty rubber mask.
     "Dig on any world," the puppeteer was saying, "and eventually you will find some kind of metal ore. Here, you will find forty feet of soil, and then the Ring foundation. That material cannot be worked. If it could be pierced, the miner would strike vacuum — a harsh reward for his labor.
     "Give the Ring a civilization capable of building the Ring, and it must necessarily have cheap transmutation. Let them lose the technology of transmutation — no matter how — and what would be left? Surely they would not stockpile raw metals. There are no ores. The metal of the Ring would be all in machines and in tools and in rust. Even interplanetary capability would not help them, for there is nothing to be mined anywhere around this star. Civilization would fall and never rise."
     Softly Louis asked, "When did you figure this out?"
     "Some time ago. It did not seem important to our survival."
     "So you just didn't mention it. Right," said Louis. The hours he'd spent worrying that problem! And it all seemed so vividly obvious now. What a trap, what a terrible trap for thinking beings.

     [Larry Niven, Ringworld]

     Ringworld is an imaginative tour de force, arguably the best “hard” science fiction novel ever written. The passage above concerns the collapse of the civilization that built the Ringworld, a section of a cylinder, made from every scrap of material in its solar system, that rotates around its primary star. The fate of that civilization, which had eliminated the basis for its rise, speaks a phrase of warning to us of human technological civilization, though we’re nowhere near to building a Ringworld of our own.

     It is possible for a civilization to burn its bridges behind it.

     There’s a chance that we’re in the process of doing so:

     When cellphones first appeared, they gave people one more means of communication, which they could accept or reject. But before long, most of us began to feel naked and panicky anytime we left home without one.

     To do without a cellphone — and soon, if not already, a smartphone — means estranging oneself from normal society. We went from “you can have a portable communication device” to “you must have a portable communication device” practically overnight.

     Not that long ago, you could escape the phone by leaving the house. Today most people are expected to be instantly reachable at all times. These devices have gone from servants to masters.

     [Unabomber Theodore] Kaczynski cannot be surprised. “Once a technical innovation has been introduced,” he noted, “people usually become dependent on it, so that they can never again do without it, unless it is replaced by some still more advanced innovation. Not only do people become dependent as individuals on a new item of technology, but, even more, the system as a whole becomes dependent on it. (Imagine what would happen to the system today if computers, for example, were eliminated.)”

     You might not think of this as a problem...yet. But a serious stroke against the technologies we employ ubiquitously today could reveal something truly terrible: not a paucity of resources with which to regain those technologies, but the widespread loss of the abilities for which we’ve substituted them.

     “Use it or lose it” has more than individual application.

     Think for a moment about Homo Neanderthalensis. The technology available to him was exceedingly low. He could make a fire. He knew how to use a sharp-edged stone as a knife and an antelope femur as a club. In theory, his entire species could have lost those technologies, throwing him back into tool-less helplessness before the cold and the dark. However, the recovery of those losses would have been rather straightforward. It would probably have occurred within the generation that forgot them, precisely because they’re so low – that is, there’s no sub-technology that enables them.

     Americans of the Twenty-First Century are more vulnerable. There are many technological levels beneath the one we enjoy today. Should one prove vulnerable to some natural occurrence, the United States and the other highly technologized countries would be thrown into the same civilizational pot as the Third World...if not lower. Most of us need our tech tools. Few would be able to do without them.

     This is a common motif in dystopic fiction. John Barnes’s recent Daybreak trilogy exploits it by postulating a terrorist attack that wipes out plastics and semiconductors. With that one blow, Mankind is reduced to the technologies of the early 1800s...and not only are there very few people who know how to use them; they are grotesquely unequal to the support of a population of seven billion.

     Our ability to sustain so many lives, a goodly fraction of them in essentially toil-and-pain-free comfort, lies entirely in our technology.

     Perhaps there’s no point in worrying about such things. Perhaps they should be relegated to the darker imaginings of science fiction writers. However, even entertaining the possibility involves confronting an unpleasant fact about Mankind, particularly First World Mankind: There aren’t many of us who are good for much.

     Consider anyone who makes his living by exploiting a technology he lacks the capacity to comprehend. Consider op-ed writers. What fraction of them could contrive a subsistence living for themselves and their dependents without the technology that keeps our supermarkets stocked, even if we were to furnish them with zeroed-in .30-06 rifles and an inexhaustible supply of ammunition?

     Consider entertainers.
     Consider “public” school teachers.
     Consider college academics and administrators.
     Consider the occupation of journalists and newscasters.
     Consider elected officials, policy analysts, aides, and their “gophers.”
     Consider bureaucrats...and do your damnedest not to chortle at the thought.

     Then consider yourself. The odds are fairly good that you make regular use of some medicine to protect your health, perhaps even to keep you alive. As you get older, that probability will rise. For my part, if I were deprived of my hypertension medicines, I’d be dead within the week.

     Technology has elevated Mankind to a dizzying height. Not all of its effects have been completely benign, but without it there would be far fewer of us, all of them living lives that are “nasty, poor, brutish, and short.”

     Now consider our contemporary Luddites: they who rail against technology, who extol the “pastoral life,” and who ardently hope for a cataclysm of the sort John Barnes’s characters and the builders of Larry Niven’s Ringworld suffered.

     Feeling homicidal yet? It didn’t take long, did it?

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