The Future is a Foreign Country

I’m pleased to note that the conversation about ephemeralization and catabolic collapse launched a few weeks back by futurist Kevin Carson, and continued in several blogs since then, has taken a promising new turn. The vehicle for that sudden swerve was a  essay by Lakis Polycarpou, titled Catabolic Ephemeralization: Carson versus Greer, which set out to find common ground between Carson’s standpoint and mine. In the process, to his credit, Polycarpou touched on a crucial point that has been too often neglected in recent discussions about the future.

That’s not to say that his take on the future couldn’t use some serious second thoughts. I noted in my original response to Carson’s post the nearly visceral inability to think in terms of whole systems that pervades today’s geek culture, and that curious blindness is well represented in Polycarpou’s essay. He argues, for example, that since a small part of Somalia has cell phone service, and cell phone service is more widely available today than grid electricity or clean drinking water, cutting-edge technology ought to be viable in a postpetroleum world. “If Greer is right that modern telecommunications is full of hidden embodied energy and capital costs,” he wonders aloud, “how is this possible?”

As it happens, that’s an easy question to answer. Somalia, even in its present turbulent condition, is part of a global economy fueled by the recklessly rapid extraction of half a billion years of fossil sunlight and equally unsustainable amounts of other irreplaceable natural resources.  It speaks well of the resourcefulness of the Somalian people that they’ve been able to tap into some of those resource flows, in the teeth of a global economy that’s so heavily tilted against them; that said, it bears remembering that the cell phone towers in Somalia are not being manufactured in Somalian factories from Somalian resources using Somalian energy sources. A sprawling global industrial network of immensely complex manufacturing facilities and world-spanning supply chains forms the whole system that lies behind those towers, and without that network or some equivalent capable of mobilizing equivalent resources and maintaining comparable facilities, those towers would not exist.

It’s easy to make dubious generalizations based on cell phone service, mind you, because all that’s being measured by that metric is whether a given group of people are within range of a bit of stray microwave radiation—not whether they have access to cell phones, or whether the infrastructure could handle the traffic if they did. That’s the kind of blindness to whole systems that pervades so much contemporary thinking. A microwave signal fluttering through the air above an impoverished Somalian neighborhood does not equal a sustainable technological economy; only when you can account for every requirement of the whole system that produces that signal can you begin to talk about whether that system can be preserved in working order through a harsh era of global economic contraction and political turmoil.

Polycarpou dodges this, and several other awkward points of this nature. He insists, for example, that nobody actually knows whether the early 19th century technology needed to lay and operate undersea cables is really less complex than a space program capable of building, orbiting, and operating communications satellites. Since the technologies in question are a matter of public knowledge, and a few minutes of online research is all that’s needed to put them side by side, this is breathtakingly ingenuous. Still, I’d encourage my readers to keep reading past this bit, and also past the ad hominem handwaving about the energy costs of the internet that follows it. It’s in the last part of Polycarpou’s essay, where he begins to talk about alternatives and the broader shape of the future, that he begins to speak in a language familiar to regular readers of The Archdruid Report.

What he’s suggesting in this final part of his essay, if I’m reading it correctly, is that the infrastructure of the modern industrial world is unsustainable, and will have to be replaced by local production of essential goods and services on a scale that will seem impoverished by modern standards. With this claim I have no disagreements at all, and indeed it’s what I’ve been suggesting here on The Archdruid Report for the last seven and a half years. The points at issue between my view of the future and Polycarpou’s are what technologies will be best suited to the deindustrial world, and just how much more impoverished things are going to be by the time we finish the transition. These are questions of detail, not of substance.

Furthermore, they’re not questions that can be settled conclusively in advance. Mind you, it’s almost certainly a safe assumption that the kind of computer hardware we use today will no longer be manufactured once today’s industrial infrastructure stops being a paying proposition economically; current integrated-circuit technology requires a suite of extraordinarily complex technologies and a dizzying assortment of raw materials from the far corners of the globe, which will not be available to village-scale workshops dependent on local economies. The point that too rarely gets noticed is that the kind of information processing technology we have now isn’t necessarily the only way that the same principles can be put to work. I’ve fielded claims here several times that mechanical computers capable of tolerably complex calculations can be made of such simple materials as plywood disks; I have yet to see a working example, but I’m open to the possibility that something of the sort could be done.

Polycarpou comments, along the same lines, that people in a variety of countries these days are setting up parallel internets using rooftop wifi antennas, and he suggests that this is one direction in which a future internet might run, at least in the short term. He’s almost certainly right, provided that those last six words are kept in mind. It’s vanishingly unlikely that anybody will be able to keep manufacturing the necessary hardware for wifi systems through the twilight years of the industrial age, but while the hardware exists, it will certainly be used, and it might buy enough time for something else, something that can be locally manufactured from local resources, to be invented and deployed. My guess is that it’ll look much more like a ham radio message net than the internet as we currently know it, but that’s a question the future will have to settle.

The same point can be made—and has been made here more than once—about solar photovoltaic technology. Lose track of  whole systems and it’s easy to claim, as Polycarpou does, that because solar cells have become less expensive recently, vast acreages of solar photovoltaic cells will surely bail us out of the consequences of fossil fuel depletion. All you have to do is forget that the drop in PV cell costs has much less to do with the production and resource costs of the technology than with China’s familiar practice of undercutting its competitors to seize control of export markets, and pay no attention at all to the complex and finicky technical basis for modern PV cell manufacture or the sheer scale of the supply chains needed to keep chip plants stocked with raw materials, spare parts, solvents, and all the other requirements of the manufacturing process.

Does this mean that solar PV power is useless? Not at all. Buy and install PV panels now, while Chinese trade policy and an inflated dollar make them cheap, and you’ll still have electricity coming out of them decades from now, when they will be hugely expensive if they can be purchased at all. Anyone who’s actually lived with a homescale PV system can tell you that the trickle of electricity you can get that way is no substitute for 120 volts of grid power from big central power plants, but once expectations nurtured by the grid get replaced by a less extravagant sense of how electricity ought to be used, that trickle of electricity can be put to many good uses.

Meanwhile, in the window of opportunity opened up by those solar panels, other ways of producing modest amounts of electricity by way of sunlight, wind, and other renewable sources can be tested and deployed. My guess is that thermoelectric generators heated by parabolic mirrors will turn out to be the wave of the future, keeping the shortwave radios, refrigerators, and closed-loop solar water heaters of the ecotechnic future supplied with power; still, that’s just a guess. There are many ways to produce modest amounts of direct-current electricity with very simple technologies, and highly useful electrical and electronic equipment can readily be made with locally available materials and hand tools. The result won’t be anything you would expect to see in a high-tech geek future, granted, but it’s equally a far cry from the Middle Ages.

This last detail is the crucial point that Polycarpou grasps at the end of his essay, and his comment is important enough that it deserves quotation in full:

“Putting these and other elements together – hi-tech, distributed communications, distributed energy and manufacturing, local sustainable food systems, appropriate technology and tactical urbanism among others – sets the stage for a future that looks quite a bit different than the present one. One might describe it as a kind of postmodern pastiche that looks neither like the antiquated futurisms we once imagined nor an idyllic return to preindustrial peasant society.”

The future, in other words, is not going to be a linear extrapolation from the present—that’s the source of the “antiquated futurisms” he rightly criticizes—or a simple rehash of the past. The future is a foreign country, and things are different there.

That realization is the specter that haunts contemporary industrial society. For all our civilization’s vaunted openness to change, the only changes most people nowadays are willing to contemplate are those that take us further in the direction we’re already going. We’ve got fast transportation today, so there has to be something even faster tomorrow—that’s basically the justification Elon Musk gave for the Hyperloop, his own venture into antiquated futurism; we’ve got the internet today, so we’ve got to have some kind of uber-internet tomorrow. It’s a peculiar sort of blindness, and one that civilizations of the past don’t seem to have shared; as far as I know, for example, the designers of ancient Roman vomitoriums didn’t insist that their technology was the wave of the future, and claim that future societies would inevitably build bigger and better places to throw up after banquets. (Those of my readers who find this comparison questionable might want to take a closer look at internet content.)

The future is a foreign country, and people do things differently there. It’s hard to think of anything that flies so comprehensively in the face of today’s conventional wisdom, or contradicts so many of the unquestioned assumptions of our time; thus it’s not surprising that Polycarpou, in suggesting it, seems to think that he’s disagreeing with me. Quite the contrary; there’s a reason why my most popular peak oil book is titled The Ecotechnic Future, rather than The Idyllic Peasant Future or some such twaddle.  For that matter, I’m not at all sure that he realizes I would agree with his characterization of the near- to mid-range future as a “postmodern pastiche;” I’d suggest that the distributed communication will likely be much less high-tech than he thinks, and that hand tools and simple machinery will play a much larger role in the distributed manufacturing than 3D printers, but again, those are matters of detail.

It’s in the longer run, I suspect, that our visions of the future diverge most sharply. Technological pastiche and bricolage, the piecing together of jerry-rigged systems out of scraps of surviving equipment and lore, are common features of ages of decline; it’s as the decline nears bottom that the first steps get taken toward a new synthesis, one that inevitably rejects many of the legacy technologies of the past and begins working on its own distinct projects. Vomitoriums weren’t the only familiar  technology to land in history’s compost heap in the post-Roman dark ages; chariots dropped out of use, too, along with a great many more elements of everyday Roman life. New values and new ideologies directed collective effort toward goals no Roman would have understood, and the harsh limits on resource availability in the radically relocalized post-Roman world also left their mark.

What often gets forgotten in reviewing the dark ages of the past is that they were not lapses into the past but gropings forward into an unknown future. There was a dark age before the Roman world and a dark age after it; the two had plenty of parallels, some of them remarkably exact, but the technologies were not the same, and Greek and Roman innovations in information processing and storage—classical logic and philosophy, widespread literacy, and the use of parchment as a readily available and reusable writing medium—were preserved and transmitted in various forms, opening up possibilities in the post-Roman dark ages that were absent in the centuries that followed the fall of Mycenae.

In the same way, the deindustrial future ahead of us will not be a rehash of the past, any more than it will be a linear extrapolation of the present. I’ve suggested, for reasons I’ve covered in a good many previous posts here, that we face a Long Descent of one to three centuries followed by a dark age very broadly parallel to the ones that followed Rome, Mycenae, and so many other dead civilizations of the past. That’s the normal result when catabolic collapse hits a society dependent on nonrenewable resources, but the way the process unfolds is powerfully shaped by contextual and historical factors, and no two passes through that process are identical.

That’s common enough in the universe of human experience. For example, it’s tolerably likely that you, dear reader, will have the experience of growing old, if you haven’t done so already.  It’s likely that at least some of your grandparents did exactly the same thing—but the parallel doesn’t mean that growing old will somehow transport you back to their era, much less to their lifestyles. Nor, I trust, would you be likely to believe somebody who claimed that getting old was by definition a matter of going back in time to your grandparents’ day and trading in your hybrid car for a Model T.

Some dimensions of growing old are hardwired into the experience itself—the wrinkles, the graying hair, and the slow buildup of physical dysfunctions with their inevitable end are among them. Other dimensions are up to you. In the same way, some of what happens when a civilization tips over in decline are reliable consequences of the mechanisms of catabolic collapse, or of the way those mechanisms interact with the ordinary workings of human collective psychology. The stairstep rhythm of crisis, stabilization, partial recovery, and renewed crisis, the spiral of conflict between centralizing and decentralizing forces, which eventually ends in the latter’s triumph; the rise of warband culture in the no man’s land outside the increasingly baroque and ineffective frontier defenses—you could set your watch by these, if its hands tracked decades, centuries and millennia.

Other aspects of the process of decline and fall are far less predictable. The radical relocalization that’s standard in eras of contraction and collapse means, among other things, that dark ages aren’t evenly distributed in space or time, and the disintegration of large-scale systems means, among other things, that minor twists of fate and individual decisions very often have much more dramatic consequences in dark ages than they do when the settled habits of a mature civilization constrain the impact of single events. Furthermore, the cultural, historical, and technological legacies of the former civilization always have a massive impact—it’s entirely possible, for example, that the dark age societies of deindustrial America will have such things as radio communication, solar water heaters, offroad bicycles, and ultralight aircraft—and so do the values and belief systems that reliably emerge as a civilization crashes slowly into ruin, and those who witness each stage of the process try to understand the experience and learn the lessons of its fall.

This is why I’ve spent most of the last year exploring the civil religion of progress, the core ideology of contemporary industrial society, and sketching out some of the ways it distorts our view of history and the future. There’s a pleasant irony in the way that Polycarpou ends his essay with the standard ritual invocation of progress, insisting that even though the future will be impoverished by our standards, it will still be better according to some other measure. That sort of apologetic rhetoric will no doubt see plenty of use in the years ahead: as progress fails to happen on schedule, it’ll be tempting to keep on moving the goalposts so that the failure is a little less visible and the faithful can continue to believe.

Eventually, though, such exercises will be recognized as the charades they are. As the worship of progress loses its grip on the imagination of our age, we’ll see sweeping changes in what people value, what they want to accomplish, and thus inevitably what technologies they’ll find worth preserving or developing. The court of Charlemagne could certainly have had vomitoriums if anyone had wanted them; the technical ability was there, but the values of the age had shifted away from anything that made vomitoriums make sense. In the same way, even if our descendants have the technical ability to produce something like today’s internet, it’s entirely possible that they’ll find other uses for those technologies, or simply shake their heads, wonder why anybody would ever have wanted something like that, and put resources available to them into some completely different project.

How that unfolds is a matter for the far future, and thus nothing we need to worry about now. As I wind up this sequence of posts, I want to talk instead about the roles that religion is likely to play in the near and middle future as the next round of catabolic collapse begins to bite. We’ll discuss that next week.