The End of the Information Age

One of the repeated lessons I’ve learned over the three years since The Archdruid Report began appearing is the extent to which many people nowadays have trouble grasping some of the most fundamental facts about the crisis of our times. I had yet another reminder of that a few days back, when the comments on last week’s post started coming in.

A point made in passing in that post was that railroads, while they are much more efficient than automobile or air transport, still require relatively large amounts of concentrated energy, and so may become uneconomical for many uses at a certain point well down the curve of fossil fuel depletion. One of my readers took rather heated exception to this comment. Only America’s backwards railroads, he pointed out indignantly, relied on fossil fuel; since European and Japanese railways used electricity, they would be unaffected by fossil fuel depletion and could keep rolling along into the far future.

This kind of logic is common enough these days that it’s probably necessary to point out the flaws in it. Electricity isn’t an energy source; it has to be generated, using some other energy source to do so. The electricity that powers the European and Japanese rail systems is mostly generated by plants that burn coal, with significant help from nuclear reactors and a rather smaller assist from hydroelectric plants. Of these, only the hydroelectric plants are a renewable energy source; the others are poised just as firmly on the downslope of depletion as the diesel oil that runs American locomotives.

Coal is turning out to be much less abundant than the cozy estimates of a few decades ago made it sound, and of course there’s the far from minor impact of coal burning on an already unstable global climate. Fissionable uranium is well down its own depletion curve, and it’s worth noting that the enthusiastic claims sometimes made for breeder reactors, the use of thorium as a nuclear fuel, and other alternatives to conventional fission plants are very rarely to be heard from people who have professional training in the fields concerned. Thus my reader was quite simply wrong; the European and Japanese rail systems that so excited his admiration are just as dependent on nonrenewable fuels as the American system, and are also just as vulnerable to the economic implications of supply and demand as energy supplies dwindle.

Now of course there are other reasons why railroads may be kept in service, at least for certain uses, long after they become economic liabilities. Many of the world’s larger nations – the United States and Russia among them – grew to their present size only after rail transport made it possible to exert political and economic power on a continental scale, and future governments may well keep long-distance rail links going as a matter of national survival. That likelihood, though, does nothing to counter the point central to last week’s post: that in a world with much less energy, older and more energy-efficient transport methods such as canal boats may turn out to be much more economically viable than their more recent and more extravagant replacements, and those cities and regions well positioned to take advantage of waterborne transport may therefore thrive in the 21st century as they did in the 19th.

The same logic can be applied usefully to many other aspects of the future taking shape ahead of us right now. Probably the best example is the looming impact of a future of energy constraints on the ways that modern industrial cultures store, process, and distribute information.

It’s hard to think of a subject that has been loaded with anything like as much hype. Our time, the media never tires of repeating, is the Information Age, an epoch in which economic sectors dealing with mere material goods and services have been relegated to Third World sweatshops, while the economic cutting edge deals entirely in the manufacture, sales, and service of information in various forms. As usual – can you think of a short-term trend that hasn’t been identified as a wave of the future destined to rise up an asymptotic curve to infinity, or at least absurdity? I can’t – the standard assumption is that the future will be just like the present, but even more so, with more elaborate technologies providing more baroque information products and services as far as the eye (or, rather, the webcam) can see.

This is hardly a new vision of the future. In his 1909 novella “The Machine Stops,” which should be required reading for anyone who buys into the Information Age hullabaloo, E.M. Forster provided a remarkably exact dissection of contemporary cyberculture’s idea of its destiny most of a century in advance. It’s a great story on its own terms, but it also puts a finger on the central weakness of an information-centered society: information does not exist without a physical substrate, and if the physical substrate goes, so does the information.

In Forster’s story, that substrate was the Machine – an interconnected technostructure that spanned the globe and provided the necessities and luxuries of life to uncounted millions of people who spent their lives in hivelike cells, staring into screens and tapping on keyboards like so many of today’s computer geeks. Adept at manipulating abstract ideas, the inhabitants of the Machine lost touch with the fact that their universe of information only existed because the physical structure of the Machine kept it there, and their attitude toward the Machine gradually evolved into a religious reverence devoid of any reference to the practical realities of the Machine’s workings. The skills needed to apply physical tools to pipes and wires dropped out of use, and the consequences – minor malfunctions snowballing into major ones, and finally into total systems failure – followed from there.

Now of course fiction is fiction, and the events that cause the Machine to stop are unlikely to be repeated in the real world. The central concept, though, demands attention, because our Machine – the internet – depends just as much on a physical substrate as the one in Forster’s novella. In our case, that substrate is the global network of communications links and server farms, and the even vaster economic and technical infrastructure that keeps them funded, powered, and supplied with the trained personnel and spare parts that keep them running.

Very few people realize just how extravagant the intake of resources to maintain the information economy actually is. The energy cost to run a home computer is modest enough that it’s easy to forget, for example, that the two big server farms that keep Yahoo’s family of web services online use more electricity between them than all the televisions on Earth put together. Multiply that out by the tens of thousands of server farms that keep today’s online economy going, and the hundreds of other energy-intensive activities that go into the internet, and it may start to become clear how much energy goes into putting these words onto the screen where you’re reading them.

It’s not an accident that the internet came into existence during the last hurrah of the age of cheap energy, the quarter century between 1980 and 2005 when the price of energy dropped to the lowest levels in human history. Only in a period where energy was quite literally too cheap to bother conserving could so energy-intensive an information network be constructed. The problem here, of course, is that the conditions that made the cheap abundant energy of that quarter century have already come to an end, and the economics of the internet take on a very different shape as energy becomes scarce and expensive again.

Like the railroads of the future mentioned earlier in this post, the internet is subject to the laws of supply and demand. Once the cost of maintaining it in its current form outstrips the income that can be generated by it, it becomes a losing proposition, and cheaper modes of information storage and delivery will begin to replace it in its more marginal uses. Governments will have very good reasons to maintain some form of internet as long as they can, even when it becomes an economic sink – it’s worth remembering that the internet we now have evolved out of a US government network meant to provide communication capacity in the event of nuclear war – but this does not mean that everyone in the industrial world will have the same access they do today.

Instead, as energy costs move unsteadily upward and resource needs increasingly get met, or not, on the basis of urgency, expect access costs to rise, government regulation to increase, internet commerce to be subject to increasing taxation, and rural areas and poor neighborhoods to lose internet service altogether. There may well still be an internet a quarter century from now, but it will likely cost much more, reach far fewer people, and have only a limited resemblance to the free-for-all that exists today. Newspapers, radio, and television all moved from a growth phase of wild diversity and limited regulation to a mature phase of vast monopolies with tightly controlled content; even in the absence of energy limits, the internet would be likely to follow the same trajectory, and the rising costs imposed by the end of cheap energy bid fair to shift that process into overdrive.

The waning of the internet will pose an additional challenge to the future, because – like other new technologies – it is in the process of displacing older technologies that provided the same services on a more sustainable basis. The collapse of the newspaper industry is one widely discussed example of this process at work, but another – the death spiral of American public libraries – is likely to have a much wider impact in the decades and centuries to come. Among the most troubling consequences of the current economic crisis are wholesale cuts in state and local government funding for libraries. The Florida legislature was with some difficulty convinced a few weeks ago not to cut every penny of state support for library systems – roughly a quarter of all the money that keeps libraries open in Florida – and county and city libraries from coast to coast are cutting hours, laying off staff, and closing branches.

Some of the proponents of these budget cuts have been caught in public insisting that with the rise of the internet, nobody actually needs public libraries any more. (The fact that many of these people call themselves conservatives proves, if any additional proof is needed, just how empty of content today’s political labels have become; what exactly do they think they’re conserving?) Now of course public libraries provide many services the internet doesn’t, and it also provides them to all those people who can’t afford internet access. The point I’d like to make here, though, is that the public library will still be a viable information technology in a postpetroleum society. When Ben Franklin founded America’s first public library, it may be worth noting, he did it without benefit of fossil fuels.

If public libraries can be kept open during the waves of economic crisis that punctuate the decline of civilizations, then, everyone will likely be the better for it. I am sorry to say that this is probably not the most likely way things will fall out. The current wave of library downsizing is probably a harbinger of things to come; pressed between too many demands and too little funding to go around, library systems – like public health departments, for example, and a great many other institutions that make community life viable – are far too likely to draw the short straw. Exactly this sort of short-term thinking has driven the loss of vast amounts of information and cultural heritage in the collapse of past civilizations.

As we move into the penumbra of the deindustrial age, then, it’s crucial to start thinking about the options open to us – individually and collectively – with an eye toward their long-term viability and to the hard reality of a world of ecological limits. When today’s data centers are crumbling ruins long since stripped of valuable salvage, and all the data once stored there has evaporated into whatever realm magnetic patterns go to when they die, the thinking that led politicians to gut viable library systems on the assumption that the internet will take up the slack will look remarkably stupid. Still, the habits of thought instilled by the age of cheap abundant energy are hard to shake off, and from within them, such mistakes are hard to avoid.