Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Principles for Sustainable Tech

When I sat down to start work on the three narratives of the deindustrial future that featured on The Archdruid Report in the last months of 2006, I didn’t know the first thing about slide rules. In the school district I attended, they went out of fashion just before I reached the math classes where they had previously been taught. My only exposure to them was in the form of a 6-foot-long example, a former teaching aid, gathering cobwebs up near the ceiling in a forlorn corner of my junior high school math classroom. Pocket calculators were brand new and fashionable then. Like every other kid at my school, I learned how to make my TI-30 utter the one expletive in its limited vocabulary (punch in 7734 and look at the screen upside down) and blithely forgot about practicing arithmetic.

Curiosity is a powerful force, though, and once the slide rule surfaced as a bit of stage property in my stories, I decided that a calculator that didn’t require batteries or silicon chips might be worth investigating. A few inquiries revealed that most of my older friends still had a slipstick or two gathering dust in a desk drawer. That was how, last Saturday, I found myself being handed a solid aluminum Pickett N903-SE slide rule in mint condition. The Druid who gave it to me is getting on in years and has a short white beard, and though he makes a better double for Saint Nicholas than Alec Guinness, I found myself instantly inside one of the fantasies burned into the neurons of most of my generation:

”This,” Obi-wan Kenobi tells me, “is your father’s slide rule.” I take the gleaming object in one hand, my gaze never leaving his face. “Not so wasteful or energy-intensive as a calculator,” he says then. “An elegant instrument of a more sustainable age.” I press my thumb against the cursor, and...

Well, no, a blazing blue-white trigonometric equation didn’t come buzzing out of the business end, and of course that’s half the point. The slide rule is an extraordinarily simple, low-tech device that lets you crunch numbers at what, at least in pre-computer terms, was a very respectable pace. Even by current standards it’s not slow. I’ve only begun to learn the ways of the Force, so to speak, but after less than a week of practice I can already multiply and divide on my Pickett as fast or faster than I can punch buttons on a calculator.

Beyond its practical uses, however, the slide rule has more than a little to teach about what sustainable technology looks like. It is quite literally pre-industrial technology – the basic principle was worked out in 1622 by Rev. William Oughtred, though it took many years of evolution after that to produce the handy ten-inch device with multiple scales that played so important a role in 19th and 20th century science and engineering. Set a slide rule side by side with an electronic calculator and certain points stand out.

First, a slide rule is durable. By this I don’t simply mean that you have to use more force to break a slide rule than a pocket calculator, though this is generally true. More important is the fact that a pocket calculator has a limited shelf life. Over fairly modest time spans, batteries go dead, memory and processing chips break down, and many plastics depolymerize into useless goo. Even the cheap plastic slide rules once mass-produced for schoolchildren will outlast most pocket calculators, and a good professional model can stay in working order for something close to geological time.

Second, a slide rule is independent. You don’t need to rely on any other technology to make it work or do something useful with the output. Pocket calculators depend on a certain level of battery technology to work, though admittedly this puts them toward the independent end of the spectrum; for a more representative example, think of the number and extent of the technological systems needed to keep a car or an internet terminal functioning and useful.

Third, a slide rule is replicable. If you have one, it doesn’t take advanced industrial technology to make another, or a thousand more; a competent cabinetmaker with hand tools and a good eye can produce them as needed. Making a pocket calculator, by contrast, demands a mastery of dozens of extraordinarily complex and energy-intensive technologies, ranging from clean rooms through solvent chemistry to the manufacture of monomolecular metallic films. Once industrial technology falls below this level, a dead certainty in the deindustrial age, pocket calculators become a nonrenewable resource.

Fourth, a slide rule is transparent. By this I mean that it’s not difficult to work out the principles that make it function from the thing itself. This is crucial, because a transparent technology can communicate much more than its own output.

Imagine for a moment that the deindustrial age turns out much more severe than we have any reason to expect, and nearly all knowledge gets lost. A thousand years from now, a slide rule ends up in the hands of a scholar who knows how to read ancient numbers and can do basic arithmetic. A few minutes of fiddling would show her how the C and D scales can be used to multiply and divide numbers, and a few more would reveal that the A scale shows the squares of corresponding numbers on the D scale. Once she realizes that each scale shows a different mathematical operation, the device itself becomes a Rosetta stone of mathematics that can teach her all about fractions, decimals, squares and square roots, cubes and cube roots, reciprocals, and logarithms, because all the mathematical relationships are right there in plain sight.

If she gets a pocket calculator instead, none of this happens, because the algorithms that make a calculator work are hidden away in its circuitry. Even if the thing still works, it’s a black box that spits out numbers, and the relationships between the numbers would have to be worked out the hard way, by trial and error. Nor is it at all certain that our hypothetical scholar would realize that the calculator was a calculator rather than, say, a remote control or some other enigmatic ancient relic.

SF writer Arthur C. Clarke unknowingly pointed out one of the potential long-term weaknesses of our present technology in his famous Third Law: “Every sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” What makes a technology more or less advanced is a subtler question than it may appear at first glamce, but Clarke’s point is a valid one nonetheless: once a technology becomes complicated enough that it loses transparency, it can be very hard to recognize the technology for what it is, and very easy to turn it into a stage property for ritual use. (A respectable number of today’s technologies, for that matter, have already become ritual props in industrial society’s mostly unacknowledged ceremonial life; consider the way that computer s are used to justify official economic projections that simply mirror the ideologies and expectations of those who pay for them.)

This has to be avoided if the technologies we pass on to the future are going to be of any use to anyone once the fossil fuels run out and today’s industrial civilization becomes tomorrow’s scrapheap. For that matter, all four of the principles suggested by the humble slide rule – durability, independence, replicability, and transparency – make good criteria for technologies meant to endure into the deindustrial age. Too many of the technologies currently being touted as answers to peak oil fail one or more of these tests, and a good many fail all four. As people in the peak oil community move beyond debating the fact of fossil fuel depletion and start tackling the challenges of planning for a difficult future, a careful study of potential technologies in something like the terms I’ve outlined may be a good place to start.

As a postscript, it might be worth suggesting that since the slide rule itself passes all four tests, getting it back into circulation among people concerned about the future may be a step worth taking. The Oughtred Society (http://www.oughtred.org), a nonprofit group of slide rule historians and collectors, provides a good access point for slide rule information, and its website includes a listing of dealers in case your local Obi-wan surrogate doesn’t have a spare slipstick in his desk drawer.

17 comments:

Frank Black said...

Awesome.

I remember using a slide rule in my high school physics class. It is odd that you invoke the spirit of Obi-wan, because we wanted to duel with them more than we wanted to calculate. I couldn't use one today if my life depended on it.

I'm getting nostalgic for the "old ways" too. I'm actually trying to re-learn handwriting. I know it sounds odd, but I've been away from it as a lifestyle tool for so long, I can't manage to think and write in a meaningful way unless it is behind a keyboard. So, as a resolution, I decided to become familiar with a pencil again. I'm dedicating an entire blog to it, in fact. I think you should do the same for the slide rule. If we get enough people together, we'll have a tribe ready for the crash. ;)

jlpicard2 said...

Solar powered calculators do not rely on batteries. They will inevitably become a non-renewable resource, but it is one that only needs daylight. Still, they could be functional for probably over 100 years in storage. Long term, slide rules do sound like a possible surviving technology.

It's sort of sad. Eventually, our civilization will be a legend like Atlantis, only with ruins everywhere. A story of future bards, with the occasional magical technological artifacts.

Matt Cardin said...

Really interesting thoughts here. I especially liked your novel reinterpretation of Clarke's Third Law, which I had never really thought about in terms of its being a self-fulfilling prophecy. But yes, advanced technology in the modern sense does tend to generate the illusion of magic, doesn't it? And this is then tied closely to its alienating quality as explicated by the likes of Jacques Ellul, Robert Pirsig, Theodore Roszak -- and yourself.

Dawnpiper said...

Great... now you've inspired me to dig out my father-in-law's slide rule and figure it out. Thanks a lot... *g*

Erik

Steve said...

Thanks for the memories!

I went through undergrad chemistry with a slipstick, and it seemed pretty cool to me at the time. A few rich kids in the lecture hall had calculators, but they didn't really do any better.

I finally got a calculator at some point in the late 70's, some TI thing with red LED display. It went flaky and died on me, but then I got a Casio, and then a nice HP scientific model to power me through grad school.

In a parallel with your article, I actually did inherit my father's slide rule, the one he used to get through MIT in the 40's. I am going to get it out of its velvet lined leather case and take it for a spin this evening...

- sgage

PS - frank, I'm trying to remember "handwriting" as well. :-)

John Michael Greer said...

Many thanks for the comments! Frank, you might also consider a mechanical typewriter -- same keyboard, much more sustainable technology. I plan on picking one up in the near future. I'll leave a slide rule blog for somebody else -- not enough hours in a day! -- but I do enough math here and there that mine is going to get a fair amount of use.

Jlpicard, I'm not an expert on the longterm viability of electronics but from all I've read, integrated circuits don't have anything like a hundred-year lifespan, and neither do solar cells. My guess is that solar calculators will be defunct in a matter of a couple of decades at most. So beyond that, it's slide rules and abaci (another very sustainable math technology) or nothing.

You're right, though, that today's industrial society is headed into legend. One of the reasons I like to encourage people to take up slide rules is to help ensure that at least some of the intellectual legacy of the last 300 years gets handed down, not in the form of pseudomagical artifacts, but as living traditions.

Matt, I've been brooding over Clarke's law for more than a decade now -- as someone who's familiar with the uses and effects of traditional symbolic psychodrama (that works out to "magic," yes) I'm intrigued by the relationship between that and modern technology. The irony of our current situation, as you've suggested, is that technology produces the illusion of magic, and thus encourages people outside the technical professions to relate to it in a magical way...thus undercutting the entire movement toward the disenchantment of the world set in motion by the scientific revolution. But that's a topic for another post.

Dawnpiper and Steve, good for you! On one of the slide rule sites -- I think there's a link to it from the Oughtred Society website -- they've got a comprehensive slide rule textbook free for the downloading in pdf format. I've already launched into it.

FARfetched said...

I was the last student in my high school to use a slide rule, in the mid-1970s. My dad gave me his plastic slide rule and I did find that (at least for operations requiring no more than three or so digits of precision) it truly was much faster than a calculator.

I still have the slide rule, in its original case, hanging on the wall. I have toyed with the idea of building a wooden case for it with a glass front and a little hammer dangling from it. A small brass plate will read: "IN CASE OF COMPUTER FAILURE - BREAK GLASS"

By the way, my dad wound up getting my first calculator. He may still have it too. :-)

Akira said...

I remember buying a slide rule for my classes in Math Physics and Chemistry at the University of Toronto in the early 1960s. That era was an age of transition, for a machine called a comptometer, the forerunner of the desk clalculator, was slowly replacing the functions of the slide rule. By the end of the 1960s the slide rule was on its way out. I only used the slide rule in my first and second year and now I remember virtually nothing of it (although I later went on to work as a statistician for the canadian federal government.) Never used it for any practical applications.

But prior to the slide rule there was an instrument that my father used and that was the Japanese abacus. Far more simpler than a slide rule to construct (wood versus metal). It too should be considered as a tool for sustainable tech.

Dawnpiper said...

Akira,
I'm pretty competent with a soroban, at least for addition and subtraction, and we're teaching our 6-year-old daughter to use one as part of her homeschooling as well. It's a highly functional technological tood that can literally be made by anyone with access to sticks and clay!

Dawnpiper said...

make that "technological tool"...

John Michael Greer said...

Akira, you'll note that I mentioned abaci in my comment two above yours. It's an excellent tool as well -- I have one and have worked with it.

The interesting thing about the slide rule and the abacus is that they're complementary technologies. You can't add or subtract on a slide rule; it's for multiplication, division, squares and square roots, plus whatever trigonometric and geometrical functions the model you have is set up to do. The abacus isn't very well designed for geometry, but for basic four-function arithmetic it can't be beat.

But then the point of my post wasn't primarily to urge people to get slide rules rather than, say, abaci. It's to encourage people to think about the whole range of sustainable tech -- a class which certainly includes abaci, slide rules, and many other devices besides.

Dawnpiper said...

Have you seen this new blog about E. F. Schumacher's book "Small is Beautiful"?

Erik

Dawnpiper said...

OK, I *meant* to include the URL...
http://www.smallisstillbeautiful.com/

Philip Bogdonoff said...

Um, you can add and subtract with a slide rule. In fact, you can add and subtract with two 12" rulers.

RT said...

Can you speak to this at some point.
http://sepwww.stanford.edu/sep/jon/world-oil.dir/lynch/worldoil.html

greatblue said...

I don't know if anyone noticed that Durable, Independent, Replicable, and Transparent adds up to DIRT. Seems appropriate for sustainable technology....

reblekid said...

Interestingly, I've found that slide rules are being made and sold new again. They're being sold by thinkgeek, and they allege that with such low volumes involved that they are being made one by one.

Another mathematical tool that's worth looking into is a set of Napier's bones. These are a much easier to make (a board and sticks marked with numbers) and help out with multiplications and divisions.