Sunday, July 29, 2018

Broken Bridges

     Apologies for the lack of a piece yesterday, Gentle Reader. I was too consumed by the sense of loss to write intelligibly.

     In pondering how best to memorialize my friend Joe, about whom I wrote here, I decided that a subject to which he returned often – one that animated many of his own efforts to learn and to master new fields and skills – would be my choice. That subject is the severance of the bridges of knowledge and skill that link contemporary civilization to the preceding ones that brought it forth.

     Virtually everyone with an interest in freedom and the economics thereof – capitalism, free enterprise, and the free market – is familiar with Leonard E. Read’s classic essay I, Pencil. This simple yet piercing essay about the division of labor illustrates better than many a Nobel laureate’s lecture what the uncoerced cooperation of free men can achieve: improvements to our common lot that no single individual could possibly replicate.

     Yet, as inspiring a vision as that is, it’s equally a warning. It addresses the “horizontal” division of labor: the distribution of specialties among men at a given point in time, which when combined can produce something no individual could make unaided. But it also points silently to the vertical division of labor: the aggregate of knowledge, skills, and effort that, as time has passed, has advanced our technologies to the betterment of all.

     Consider, if you will, the transistor. This indispensable device required extensive knowledge of physics to envision. It required still more knowledge of materials science to evolve a practical concept for it. And it required great skill at fabrication to produce it reliably, and to ensure that it would be reliable in operation.

     Today, we make transistors out of small clumps of molecules and pack many millions of them onto a single integrated circuit. We can thank such multi-million transistor ICs for our computers and much else that we use, freely and without thought for their provenance, every day. But the knowledge and skills that gave birth to the transistor are much harder to find.

     I could not bring this essay to you without the transistor. Before the transistor and the “solid-state revolution” it enabled, computers were huge, unwieldy devices that could do very little. It was unthinkable that an individual would own one. Were some atavistic millionaire to purchase one, he’d find that a word processing program for it was unavailable.

     Today, the knowledge and skills required to produce a transistor from a standing start are so rare as to be essentially unavailable. Let’s not even think about the personal computer.

     That’s not all. The conditions that allowed John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley to converge and to produce the first practical transistors rested on a technological foundation of great depth and complexity. The transportation and communications capabilities that brought them together had to be invented by prior generations of visionaries and innovators. Those earlier ones had to know a great deal, too. Even if we omit consideration of the electrically powered starter motor, the automobile unites a huge amount of knowledge and innovations based upon it. As for the telephone, parts of that story are well known. However, they don’t address the range of bits of knowledge Alexander Graham Bell had to master to produce it.

     Much of that foundation of knowledge is no longer taught anywhere. Neither is the knowledge that preceded it. Those who mastered it are steadily dying off. Their deaths are breaking the bridges to the world that gave birth to the one in which we live.

     In the event of a major catastrophe – global nuclear war; impact by a “world-killer” meteorite; virus of 99% lethality; election of Bernie Sanders to the presidency; take your pick – the reproduction of the technological base that gave rise to the above items, each of them critically important to the civilization of 1968 would be problematic, to say the least...and that, for the arithmetically averse, was fifty years ago and innumerable innovations before today.

     “We'll be saying a big hello to all intelligent lifeforms everywhere, and to everyone else out there, the secret is to bang the rocks together, guys.” -- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

     The world of Idiocracy was doomed before Joe Bowers climbed out of his suspended-animation pod. Not all the electrolytes in a million gallons of Brawndo could have saved it. The critical knowledge he restored to that world had been lost.

     It’s not possible for any one individual to know enough to recreate civilization as we know it from a standing start. But not even by searching the whole world could we amass the knowledge and skills that produced the first transistor, the first automobile, the first telephone, the first lead-acid battery, or much else upon which we rely without a moment’s appreciation. That bothered Joe greatly. His lifelong effort to acquire more knowledge and more skill at more things was in part powered by the realization.

     Joe Flamini might not have been able to reproduce the technologies of 2018 singlehandedly. He’d have been doing phenomenally well to recreate the technologies of 1948. Nevertheless, I think that even if he couldn’t have done it all, he had what it would take to do quite a lot of it. He’d certainly have given it one hell of an old-school try. With his passing unto the next life, one more reservoir of knowledge and skill – to say nothing of the optimism and energy that powered them – is lost to us.

     How many more remain?


Pascal said...

Turn on your Progressive-speak translator.

What does Sustainability really mean?

Coincidence. /translator off

No doubt.

Maddog said...

Ode to Joe!


To take this another step, how many Joe's, great inventors, prescient scientists, or technologists are wasted and lost due to our horrific public schools mainly in the inner cities. How much progress have I missed because the young man or women who could understand and develop it into something valuable dies in a drive-by shooting, failed out of school because of the hellish conditions of the local public schools, or we consumed by the drug culture? How many never had the opportunity to become Joe?

Mark Sherman

Differ said...

I've often pondered the knowledge gap of which you write. A discontinuity in our ability to build such tech would probably put us back to early 19th Century tech; which seems also to be the conclusion of e.g. Joss Wheedon with his Firefly series. The recently settled planets in the show resemble the US Midwest/West of the early 1800s.

Linda Fox said...

I want to say something about the role of the traditional mothers, fathers, and grandparents in the transmission of knowledge to the young. Even before a child entered school, they generally could:
- perform a variety of household chores with reasonable competence.
- for brief periods, watch and corral young children, freeing up mother to handle other chores.
- know their alphabet, how to count, their colors, shapes, etc.
- know how to sit quietly without having to be entertained every moment.
- interact with adults respectfully, and be in groups of children without bullying or feral activity. Take care of younger children in play/sports situations. Teach the younger the rules and tricks of the games. Referee fairly.

So much has been lost in the breakup of the family.