Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Limits of Physics and Time Out for Humanity

In reaction to a paper by Igor Markov published in Nature, John Timmer at Ars Technica asks,

Let's assume for a moment that the answer is "yes" (because it is). This simply begs the more important question,

"So What?"

I don't ask this facetiously. We've recently been through a period of technological upheaval, and I've been privileged that the bulk of it happened in my own lifetime. We are so used to constant change that we now feel that this is the normal state of affairs.

Well, it isn't. Before the Industrial Revolution, the world continued on pretty much unchanged for thousands of years. Horses and oxen pulled carts. People walked. They ploughed. Fashions changed a bit, but all in all, change was gradual, and slow, and people expected this to continue as surely as we expect change. Look at a timeline of humanity and highlight the periods of rapid technological change vs. those of stagnation, and you'll find that most of the time... the vast majority of all of history... we maintain a status quo. But don't get the idea that all of history until modern times was a gradual incline, with a graph of "progress" looking like a hockey stick. That's not true either.

6,000 years and still going
This isn't the first age of upheaval and rapid change. Humans were hunter-gatherers for millennia before they became farmers. Almost the very moment they became farmers, the concept of a "city" was born. Specialization happened almost literally overnight. Industry was invented, albeit the manual sort of industry performed by carpenters, masons, bakers, tailors, farriers, and the like. All this happened in the blink of an eye, not unlike the rate of change in our own information age.

Afterward, there was a plateau, and occasionally a decline when the reason for a technology dissipated, as with megalithic works. This has happened at several times and places in history. In Western culture, an indication of this is in our names. Surnames are treated as being quite abstract today, but once there was a time when you met a man named Cooper, you expected him to be able to make a barrel, which he'd likely sell to a man named Brewer who used it to make beer. And a man named Farrier would shoe the horse that transported the beer on Mr. Carter's wagon. And so on. These became family names because the stability of the culture was such that these talents and tasks were passed on from one generation to another within a family business. And the perfectly logical and reasonable naming convention of that lost time survives as an anachronism long after the stability that birthed it became a memory.

I see no reason to expect that we will not reach another technological plateau in the relatively near future, and nearer than you might think. The expectation that "smaller and faster" can continue indefinitely seems to me to be completely unwarranted and logically unsupportable. Nevertheless, we in the "developed world" are already so accustomed to constant change that the mere thought of a year without "advancement" is trauma-inducing... so much so that people delude themselves into believing that a white iPhone is an improvement over a black one. It is now enough to simply have change for the sake of change, which has nothing whatsoever to do with substantive technological improvements. The physical limits of technology, coupled with this irrational desire for change for change's sake, leading to an acceptance of the mere appearance of change, will eventually and paradoxically lead to the impending plateau.

Certainly we still have some breakthroughs to make... for instance, as continued miniaturization is stymied by the laws of physics, computers will nevertheless continue to grow in power through networking, becoming in function (if not form) the giant behemoths of Asimov's imagination... but this isn't an advancement of technology; rather, a continued application of existing tech. But if people even now get excited over a mere change of color, it won't be long (as ages are measured) before they're excited over nothing at all. To be clear, I think the biggest changes 500 years from now... 1,000 years from now... will not be technologies that are incomprehensible to us. However, the uses to which those technologies put may be mind-bogglingly bizarre, as social change is shaped by psychology and not by physics. I challenge you to find any pundit of even 50 years past who could have predicted that, once humanity was given ubiquitous access to instantaneous face-to-face conversations, millions of people would voluntarily eschew it in favor of tiny telegrams they type with their thumbs.

Yes, I know... "limits of human imagination", yadda, yadda, yadda. Once, thousands of years ago, our ancestors invented stories in which they could climb a high mountain and meet the gods. Today they invent stories about using warp drive to meet aliens. Is one any more naive than the other?  Not really, though if you're like most people, it almost certainly irks you that someone is awake enough to say it outright.

To be perfectly frank, humanity needs a breather now and then. We haven't yet perfected the use of those cities that were invented way back in the Agricultural Revolution thousands of years ago. We are enslaved and weakened by technologies that were intended to free and empower us. We've allowed that tech to be used to confuse us to the point where we wouldn't know true freedom and power if it bit us in the ass. We've thrown tech on top of tech, very little of which we've demonstrated that we have the competence to use. Thus far the most prevalent product of the Information Age is a generation of cat-video-watching couch potatoes who play at loving science without even knowing what science is.

Humanity is better than that.

We could use a long time out.

History being my guide, I think we're going to get it.

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