After the Prosthetic Society

It's often said that generals prepare to fight the last war rather than the next one, and the same thing deserves to be said at least as much of societies in general. In every age, most people believe that the current state of affairs can be counted on to keep on going forever, and they plan for the future on the assumption that it'll be just like the present, only more so. Political, economic, and cultural institutions do the same thing, and too often spiritual traditions -- which exist to point out inconvenient realities -- get swept up in the consensus. Then the future comes along and does something different, and everyone who thought they knew what was coming ends up sitting in the wreckage wondering what happened.

Prophecies of the future made on the basis of conventional wisdom just don't wear very well. When I was growing up in the suburban America of the 1960s, everyone knew that by 2000 we'd have manned bases on the Moon and a Hilton hotel in orbit, while back here on the ground our homes would be run by nuclear power that would literally be too cheap to meter; you'd just pay a monthly hookup fee and use all the juice you wanted. The decaying inner cities would be replaced by huge terraced megastructures or Paolo Soleri's gargantuan arcologies, while Sealab -- does anybody remember Sealab any more? -- was going to be the prototype of whole cities under the sea. It was quite a world, but somehow it got lost in the 1970s energy crises and we ended up instead with SUVS, metastatizing suburban sprawl, and the short-term political gimmicks that papered over fossil fuel depletion for twenty years and lost us our best bet of getting through the next century without some form of collapse.

So it may not be out of line to suggest that current ideas about where we're headed are as misplaced as the atomic Utopia of 1960s futurists turned out to be. One trend usually pointed out as the wave of the future seems particularly likely to end up in this sort of debacle, and that's the replacement of human abilities with electronic and mechanical devices.

It's a huge trend, especially but not only among the middle classes of the industrial world who set fashions for the rest of the planet. Think of something that people used to do, and the salesman at your local mall can probably sell you something to do it for you. My favorite example is the breadmaking machine. A hundred years ago nearly every family baked its own bread; it's a simple, enjoyable task that can be done with Stone Age technology. Now, though, you can drop as much money as you want on a countertop machine with buttons and flashing lights that will do it for you. Similarly, people used to entertain themselves by singing and playing musical instruments, but we have CDs and iPods for that now. They used to exercise by taking walks in the park, but we have treadmill machines for that. In place of memories, we have Palm Pilots; in place of imagination, we have TVs, and so on. At the zenith of the trend came that bizarre figure of the late 20th century, the suburban couch potato, whose sole activity outside of work hours and commuting was sitting on a couch clicking a baroque array of remote controls while delivery drivers came to the door with an endless supply of consumer products ordered, bought and paid for online.

In effect, the 1980s and 1990s witnessed the creation of a prosthetic culture. A prosthetic is an artificial device that replaces a human function, and they're valuable technologies for those who have lost the use of the function in question. If you've lost a leg via accident or illness, for example an artificial leg that lets you walk again is a very good thing to have. Still, when a society starts convincing people to saw off their own legs so businesses can sell them artificial ones, something has gone wrong -- and that's not too far from the situation we're in today.

There are at least two drastic problems with our prosthetic culture. The abandonment of human abilities in favor of mechanical replacements has no little impact on who we are and what we can be. As E.M. Forster pointed out in his harrowing 1909 short story "The Machine Stops," it's hard to imagine that anyone's highest potential as a human being can be achieved in a lifestyle that consists solely of pushing buttons. On the other hand, Forsteresque remote-control dystopias are about as likely now as those undersea cities I grew up reading about, because the basis for the couch potato lifestyle is trickling away as I write these words.

The driving force behind the prosthetic culture of the 20th century's last decades was the final hurrah of the age of cheap oil. The manipulations that crashed the price of petroleum in the early 1980s made energy cheaper than it has ever been in human history. At several points in the 1990s, oil dropped to $10 a barrel, its lowest price ever once inflation is factored in. As the single largest component in the industrial world's energy mix, and the "gateway resource" that gave access to all other forms of energy -- the machines that mine coal, drill for natural gas, build hydroelectric dams, and so on are all powered by oil -- the plunging price of oil pulled the bottom out from under the cost of energy as a whole, and put the world's industrial societies into a historically unprecedented situation: for the first (and probably only) time in history, it was cheaper to build a machine to do almost everything than to have a human being do it.

In some ways, of course, that was simply the culmination of a process that got started at the beginning of the industrial revolution, and went into overdrive with the birth of the petroleum economy in the years before the First World War. Earlier efforts to replace human skills with machines had to deal with much more limited and expensive energy supplies, which forced a reliance on economies of scale; machine-made bread, for instance, had to be made in big factories, rather than home bread machines, to keep costs within reach of most consumers. The pinnacle of the age of cheap oil made energy so abundant and so inexpensive, at least in the more privileged industrial countries, that it was briefly possible to ignore economies of scale and make each middle-class person the center of a microfactory designed to produce, or at least deliver, whatever goods and services were wanted.

All that, though, depended on cheap energy, and with today's plateauing of world oil production and the approach of inevitable declines in the near future, the prosthetic culture of the last few decades is headed for the recycling bin of history.

This means that current visions of the future, and policies based on them, are in desperate need of a rethink. The decades to come will see many things that are now done by machines handed back over to human beings, for the eminently pragmatic reason that it will again be cheaper to feed, house, clothe, and train a human being to do those things than it will be to make, fuel, and maintain a machine to do them. How many things? That depends on how much renewable energy capacity gets brought online before production rates of oil and natural gas start slipping down the steep slopes of Hubbert's peak. In a worst-cast scenario in which nothing significant is done until crises start to hit -- and in the US especially, we're uncomfortably close to that scenario right now -- energy shortages could be severe enough that everything but the most essential services will have to get by on human labor.

In any realistic future, a lot of old skills are likely to be in high demand again. Professions that involve doing useful things with one's hands, brains, and a relatively simple toolkit are high on my list of hot career tracks in the 21st century. Some completely forgotten arts may see revivals; the old Art of Memory, a Renaissance system of mnemonic methods that allowed people to file and retrieve huge amounts of information at will, may be worth a second look when the energy cost of making and powering a Palm Pilot soars out of sight.

Spirituality, finally, has a good deal more obvious relevance in the future we're moving toward than it's seemed to have in the decades just past. The sort of skilled professions I've just mentioned are those that treat human potential as means; spirituality treats the fulfillment of human potential as an end in itself, the proper goal of human life. In a future when the prosthetic society is fading into memory, ways of life that focus our attention on goals we can reach without trashing the planet are likely to prove more relevant and more sustainable than a belief system that treats the accumulation of consumer gewgaws as the ultimate goal of life.