Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Technological Triage

One of the major blind spots that gets in the way of trying to anticipate the shape of a deindustrial future in advance is the habit of thinking of technology as a single monolithic thing. Like so many mistaken habits of thinking, this one gets its strength from the fact that it’s by no means entirely mistaken. In today’s industrial society, certainly, most technologies depend on other technologies, forming an intricate web of interconnections that has to count among the central features of what Lewis Mumford called the neotechnic phase of history.

One of the most widely cited apocalyptic writers of my teen years, Roberto Vacca, argued in his book The Coming Dark Age that this extreme interdependence would prove to be the Achilles’ heel of industrial society. His argument that too much interconnection among unstable systems would lead to cascading systems failures and the collapse of industrial civilization impressed the likes of Isaac Asimov, who contributed an introduction to the book. In retrospect, it proved to be embarrassingly wrong. Like so many others at that time, Vacca put the cart before the horse; the rising tide of interdependence and interconnection he saw moving through the industrial world was a reaction to improvements in information processing, not a force in its own right, and further developments along the same lines – especially the explosive growth in computer technology – proved more than adequate to keep the process moving.

Still, Vacca was right to see the web of interconnections that unites today’s industrial technology as a critical vulnerability. It’s just that the vulnerability comes into play further along the arc of catabolic collapse. Many of today’s technologies depend so completely on the support of an intact industrial system that they cannot operate without it. Many more could operate without it, at least in theory, but have been designed in a way that maximizes their dependence on other technologies and will have to be reengineered in a hurry as the fabric of the industrial system comes apart. A final set of technologies are largely or wholly independent of the system and can be expected to carry on without a hitch while industrial society comes apart around them.

These three classes have an uncomfortable similarity to the three categories used by battlefield medics in the process known as triage. Triage — the word comes from French and means “trying” or “testing” – is a care-rationing process used when the number of wounded overwhelms the people and resources available to treat them. Incoming wounded are sorted out into three classes. The first consists of those who will die even if they get care. The second consists of those who will survive even if they receive no care. The third consists of those who will live if they get help but will die without it. In a triage situation, all available resources go to the third category. When the need for care outruns the available time and resources, this harsh but necessary logic maximizes the number of survivors.

The coming of deindustrial society will require us to approach technology in much the same way. Technological triage requires more complex judgments than the battlefield variety, however. Not all technologies are of equal value for human survival; it won’t do us any good to preserve video game technology, let’s say, if by doing so we lose the ability to grow food. Some technologies necessarily depend on other technologies—firearms, for example, presuppose a certain level of metalworking ability. Finally, technological triage involves four categories, not three. Alongside technologies that can’t be saved no matter what we do, technologies that are certain to be saved even if we do nothing, and technologies that will be saved if we act and lost if we do not, there are technologies that have gone out of existence but could be brought back and put into use if action is taken now.

Another difference, of course, is that we can begin the triage process on current and past technologies right now – and it’s of very high importance that this process start soon. The more work people preparing to deal with the predicament of industrial society put into understanding the issues and sorting through potential technologies in advance, the less wasted effort and missed opportunities there are likely to be. In the case of technologies that have to be brought back from the heap of discarded tools our civilization has left behind it, starting now – when information and, in many cases, working examples of old technologies can still be located – could easily make the difference between success and failure.

What sort of questions, then, need to be asked before technologies wounded by peak oil, global warming, and the other consequences of industrial society’s suicidal penchant for short-term fixes start showing up at our imaginary triage station? The following list might do as a starting point for discussion.

1. How long can it be fueled and maintained in a deindustrialising world? The imminence of peak oil makes this point obvious, but even so there are twists that many people in the peak oil community may not have recognized yet. Declining production and rising costs of petroleum cut into the supply of lubricants, solvents, and plastics as well as fuels, and anything that needs any of these things in order to operate must either find an alternative source or land in history’s junkyard. These same factors affect the whole supply chain for fuel, maintenance supplies, and spare parts, just for starters.

2. How long can it be manufactured or replaced in a deindustrializing world? This represents a much higher threshold than the previous question, since the capacity to manufacture complex technologies—for example, most of today’s electronics—will likely be lost much higher on the curve of technological decline than the inputs needed to keep them running. A whole class of technologies – call it “legacy tech” – falls between the two thresholds; these are machines that can be kept running for years or decades after they can no longer be made. The struggle to control various items of legacy tech may become a fruitful source of conflict as the deindustrial age proceeds down the curve of catabolic collapse.

3. How long will it be useful in a deindustrializing world? Many of the technologies we have today aren’t useful even now – I defy anyone to give me a meaningful definition of “useful” that includes, say, dancing mechanical Santa Claus dolls – but many more have value only because they provide services to other technologies that will not be viable in an age of limits. When rising fuel costs, for example, bring down the curtain on the age of mass air travel, whole constellations of technologies currently needed to keep airlines and airports running will lose their reason for existence. Unless they have other uses, saving them would be pointless.

4. How long will it take to become useful in a deindustrializing world? The flip side of question 3 is that many technologies that survive today only as hobbies or museum pieces are likely to become valuable and even essential further down the curve of catabolic collapse. Consider the technologies needed to build, rig, and sail square-rigged wooden ships. Right now, they survive only in relic form, preserved by our society’s fascination with its own past, but a century or two from now they could easily become the foundation of maritime trade networks like the ones that linked the continents in 1800. Steps taken now or in the near future to keep this “outdated” maritime technology viable on the downslope of Hubbert’s peak could pay off big later on.

5. How broad a set of human needs and other technologies can be supported by it? Some technologies fill narrow niches, some fill broad ones. Organic agriculture, to name an example from the broad end, can be used to produce food, herbal medicines, oil crops for fuel and lubricants, and a dizzying assortment of raw materials for craft and small-scale industry. This puts it in a different category from, say, lens grinding, which can make lenses and not much else. Both have value in their own contexts, but might reasonably be given different priorities in times of resource scarcity.

6. How important a set of human needs and other technologies can be supported by it? Some needs and technologies are more important than others. The basic human essentials of food, drink, shelter, and safety outrank most other considerations, and technologies that provide these efficiently belong at the top of the triage list. This is another reason why organic agriculture deserves special attention in sorting out potential technologies for the deindustrial age – it can provide the raw materials for most of the core necessities. Beyond the basics, priority lists differ, as indeed they should. Is the capacity to print books more or less important than the capacity to treat illnesses that herbs won’t cure? Such questions need to be taken seriously as people begin the process of deciding what to save.

7. What commitments follow from investing in it? All technologies without exception have consequences and entail commitments. By investing in automobile technology nearly to the exclusion of all other transportation choices, America committed itself to maintaining the flow of cheap abundant oil at all costs – a commitment that has landed it in a no-win situation in Iraq and made its national interest hostage to centuries-old religious and ethnic quarrels in a dozen different corners of the globe. Few other technologies are likely to entail commitments so disastrous, but every choice of technology closes some doors as it opens others. As people in the peak oil community consider different models for the deindustrializing societies of the near future and the fully deindustrialized cultures further off, attention to the consequences and commitments of proposed technologies might keep us out of a variety of blind alleys.


Akira said...


With your use of the term "triage" you are cutting to the chase. But restricting the concept to technology diverts attention from the real triage - human beings. This, too, will have to be contemplated and sooner or later will be thrust upon every living being on this soon to be doomed planet. Also your criticism of Vacca's thesis of the coming dark age (recently revived by Mark Widdowson) as a failed prophecy is unfair. Vacca, along with Malthus, Marx and a host of other doomsday prophets were simply victims of premature prognostication. In other words they were ahead of their times. At this critical conjuncture of world history, there is a high probability that all of these past doomsday prognostications will all come together in a thunderous cascade to render a melange of forces that will be unprecedented. The catalysts will be peak oil and chaotic climate change, the concomitants will be political and socio-economic breakdown, and the ultimate consequence will be an existential crisis that will test the mettle and the soul of every thinking human being.

tRB said...

Mr. Greer, it just so happens that I have also been asking myself similar questions. I have some ideas and resources that you and your readers might find useful.

Questions 1,2, and 3. I think one good starting point would be to document and learn the techniques of technologies that we relied on prior to the Industrial Revolution (including its 18th century iteration). From there, we can identify newer technologies and processes that would have also been feasible in such circumstances but simply had not been developed yet. (I think permaculture and electrical-genaration by wind turbines or waterwheels would be examples.)

I have already been looking into what kinds of technologies to preserve. I even have a list in progress, if anyone would like to see it. I based it on the list at "The Medieval Technology Pages", but added many of my own ideas.

The most-current thing I would like to keep is simple radio-telegraphy with spark-gap transmitters. I would like to continue fast communication over vast distances, even if by Morse Code, for such things as news reporting, weather observations, cultural exchanges, and international scientific cooperation.
Yes, I know that's a lot of copper, but I still think it's worthwhile.

4. Who do readers know in the SCA? Who do readers know who was worked at a Medieval or Colonial or other appropriate reenactment museum? Those contacts are already plugged in, and have experience, access to manuals and materials, etcetera. Many of these museums are centered on demonstrating daily life with simpler technological systems, so I would look there.

Also, sailing ships are not merely relics or mementoes of bygone days. The U.S. and many European countries still use square-rigged sailing ships in maritime training, and in at least one case, such a vessel was built as recently as the 1950's. It is my understanding that many of the principles used for sailing ships are still applicable and worth teaching, even though most of the students will eventually work on craft powered solely by diesel engines. As for passenger sailing ships, they still exist, but seem to be limited to the "tourist cruiseship" niche (unfortunately).

We'll also have to re-learn how to build accurate marine chronometers, for determining longitude under sail.

5. Oh, but a microscope will come in handy when reading a Norsam disc.

6. I would say that it isn't a simple trade-off. Book-printing and distribution is important for preserving and distributing knowledge, including medical knowledge. If my local doctor doesn't know how to cure my illness, it doesn't do me much good if the cure is still stuck in some dusty book far away in the Great Library. We will also need to maintain a culture that favors wide distribution of information.

7. Regarding technological commitments, how do we deal with nuclear waste in a deindustrializing society? Unfortunately, people from last century have already committed us to this issue, for numerous generations.

On a related note, what weapons technologies are worth preserving? (I don't expect an answer, but we should still think about it.)

Other recent finds that are relevant to this discussion include:
James Lovelock, "A Book for All Seasons"
Robert Dalling Ph.D., "The Story of Us Humans, From Atoms to Today's Civilization"

Aric McBay, "In the Wake: Tools for Gridcrash" (more survival oriented, but tries to make use of “legacy tech” and introduces some useful theory, such as sanitation, from a natural-disaster-recovery orientation)

Dan Gambiera said...

It may be your Western philosophical background and orientation that predisposes to linear history and the "End of the World" scenarios which encompass two and a fraction out of the last three entries here.

Being more the soulless minion of the Deity-killing Demon Science I take a more integrated systems science view of the whole thing. We may well have overshot the population and level of consumption which is sustainable for the available resources. Unless population stabilizes relatively quickly - it is stabilizing, but nobody knows if it's quickly enough - or we increase the carrying capacity of the system there will be instabilities.

Right now we don't know how they will behave, an oscillation around the new equilibrium, a catastrophic decrease and oscillation around a new equilibrium or any of a number of other scenarios.

What is certain is that "technology" will not disappear. The choices available will change in a number of ways. With reduced surpluses choices will be made, but the engineer's outlook and the scientist's methods will continue to be applied to problems. And they will continue to provide better results for questions involving the physical world than magical thinking of any sort. So they will continue to be used in those domains.

Put more bluntly, all it takes is one little smallpox epidemic.

John Michael Greer said...

Akira, you're still stuck in the Hollywood model of overnight collapse. I've pointed out elsewhere that we can expect slow decline, not the sort of "thunderous cascade" you've suggested and so many people seem to look forward to so eagerly. "Soon to be doomed planet"? You might want to lay off the SF reruns a bit.

As for Vacca, his theory was plausible enough; it just didn't happen to be correct, and he made specific predictions that have been proven false with the passage of time. It may be true -- in fact, I expect it to be true -- that a dark age is coming; his theory as to how and why it will happen, however, didn't work.

TRB, you've made a series of very good points. As a former ham radio operator, I can certainly see a role for low-tech radio in the deindustrial future -- one of the few really flexible communications technologies we've come up with in the last century or so.

Dan, you haven't been reading the posts very closely if you think I'm talking about linear history and the end of the world. As for the rest of your comments, of course there will be technologies -- plural -- in the deindustrial age, just as there have been in every previous human society. Flint knapping is a technology, after all, as precise and demanding as many of our current equivalents. One of the standard concomitants of the myth of progress is the devaluing of every past technology that does not happen to fit the model of ours, and this needs to be outgrown.

One point you might consider is that most of our current technologies are made possible by the lavish use of cheap fossil fuel energy, not by any notable increase in rationality in our society over others. Another point is that the modern faith in progress is itself a variety of what you call "magical thinking" -- a misnomer, BTW, as it's not the kind of thinking that practitioners of magic actually do. Available resources, I would suggest, play a much larger role in determining the level of technology in a society than the purported virtues of one worldview over another. But all this is raw material for another post.

Óskar said...

One problem in this discussion is the common person's perspective on human technology. The more I think about our technology in the context of nature the more overrated our human technology seems to me. It seems to be a commonly held belief that we're able to improve on nature and that technology is somehow inherently superior to it.

Consider the seed of a plant. It may seem small and mundane to us but from another perspective it's like a miniature automated nanotech factory able to construct a sophisticated structure with efficient solar panels to harvest the sun's energy and store it in a the form of fuel (sugars). The whole process can be carried out using common resources available in the plant's immediate environment and furthermore, all the "blueprints" for this sophisticated industry are stored inside the tiny seed.

Compared to this our industry is actually quite clumsy and primitive. Even if we could design and produce something as compact and efficient for the task of harvesting solar power and converting it into fuel as a small plant, the artificial plant device would still have to be made in a huge factory using exotic materials gathered at great expense from various corners of the earth. The information needed to organize the production needs a whole infrastructure by itself - data stored on computers, educated professionals, and specifically designed and programmed machinery for manufacturing.

I guess my point is that all the technologies attempting to do something that nature already does are really futile and stupid. Artificial intelligence, solar panels and "bio-fuels" immediately come to mind.

It made sense to develop the petroleum-powered combustion engine because nature didn't have any organism able to digest petroleum. To then feed "bio-fuels" to this combustion engine when the petroleum runs out seems like a bad case of amnesia and blindness to me, because the true and tested way to make use of bio-fuel is with domestic animals. Unlike cars, animals aren't made of exotic metals and don't require a centralized industry for reproduction.

In the same way we're now developing solar panels because we're so committed to our electrical technology that we badly want our solar energy source to be compatible with it.

bryant said...

Actually Óskar, nature does appear to have a way of "digesting petroleum" There are several species of bacteria which appear to eat oil, as well as some fungi. In addition, one theory suggests that Mississippi Valley-type base metal deposits appear to form when deep basinal brines encounter reduced sulfur left over from bacterial consumption of buried oil deposits.

Sorry this is off-topic but I think it reinforces your point.

Atheist said...

One thing that we can do now is make good choices in what we purchase.

For example:

1. Buy heavy duty leather shoes, not canvas lightweights.
2. Buy "how to" books about simple technologies.
3. Buy tools, tools, tools, and more tools.
4. Buy a sturdy bicycle (not a lightweight).

Another thing that we can do now is get our own house in order. Plant fruit trees, dig a well, insulate, improve your soils.

Another thing that we can do right now is learn a basic skill such as shoe repair, or saw sharpening, or knitting.

I'm doing all of these things and I have a few neighbors who think I'm nuts and a few neighbors who are working right along with me.

The hard part for me is maintaining my respect for people who who continue to think that buying worthless junk and gas-guzzlers is still okay.

I am determined to be kind to these folks even as my respect for them wanes. Who knows? maybe they have some redeeming qwalities that will shine in the future and I will grow to respect them once again.


John Michael Greer said...

Oskar and Bryant, good points. In many ways, industrial technology is just a noisy, clumsy way of getting as quickly as possible those things that nature is entirely capable of providing us if we just take the time to learn. As Ernest Thompson Seton used to say, there are two ways you can do things; you can either use up a lot of money and resources, or you can know what you're doing.

Atheist, this is great. All of these are points I've suggested in earlier posts here, and they're all things I do. It's good to hear from others that are making the simple, sensible, necessary changes in their own lives that have to be made. That's where real change is going to happen, after all.

Óskar said...

Bryant, thanks for correcting me - I was aware that petroleum can be broken down by bacteria so what I meant to say in my post is that there wasn't any large petroleum-digesting animal obviously useful to humans, so they had to go and make one out of steel, rubber and wood.

To recap my point I feel that for people to be able to talk sensibly about technology they need to first break the spell it has on their mind. Modern people are enchanted by the "magic" of industrial technology but at the same time they fail to appreciate the magic of nature and learn to dismiss it. Thus an industrial process getting the exact same result as a natural process is applauded as inherently superior, no matter how much costlier it is.

John Michael Greer said...


"Modern people are enchanted by the 'magic' of industrial technology but at the same time they fail to appreciate the magic of nature and learn to dismiss it."

Exactly! One of the things that motivates the modern Druid movement is precisely this sense that the pursuit of ever louder and more elaborate technological gimmicks doesn't add anything of enough value to human life to compensate for the damage it inflicts on the living Earth on which we depend for survival and meaning.

Mauricio Babilonia said...

There's an interesting related post over on Kurt Cobb's Resource Insights.

"[Joseph] Tainter likes to say that resource depletion is not the direct cause of societal collapse. It is the inability of social and political institutions to adapt to resource depletion that leads to collapse. As we approach the peak in world oil production--whether now or sometime a decade or two down the road--we will certainly test whether one more round of technical fixes will work."

Arabella said...

JMG said:
"This puts [organic agriculture] in a different category from, say, lens grinding, which can make lenses and not much else."

Ouch. A few posts ago, when you were writing about health care (specifically how those with chronic conditions such as diabetes will ... vanish), I realized that I, my husband, and many of my friends are highly dependent on 'glasses' (which are all plastic these days) that enable us to see well enough to function.

I have long thought that had I been born into a hunter/gatherer tribe with these eyes, I would have either died early, or the other tribe members would have to go to great lengths to aid me in my survival. It never occurred to me that such a fate might be in my future, though.

I'm really enjoying reading your posts, JMG. I especially liked 'Immanentizing the Eschaton'. (I didn't have anything to add so didn't post on that one.)

I really appreciate that you've been so consistently posting here, and so generously sharing your wisdom.

Thomas Mazanec said...

Vacca might be right yet. Moore's Law has kept his computer collapse at bay for half a century, but it appears to be on its last legs.