One of the worst of the booby traps built into the contemporary mythology of progress, it seems to me, is the notion that the way out of any difficulty is to keep moving the way we are already going, and do it faster. It may seem obvious that if you’ve gone down a blind alley, the only way out begins by shifting into reverse, but it takes very little attention to the current political scene to notice that this bit of common sense is far from common just now.
For a case in point, listen to the pundits – a sizeable chorus of them just now – who insist that the only way to bring soaring prices of oil, food, and other commodities back to earth is to push forward with the project of economic globalization. The problem here is that globalization was never more than an artifact of the final blowoff of the age of cheap oil, and as that age ends, so do the economic factors that made globalization work.
During the quarter century from 1980 to 2005, the cost of transport was so close to negligible that it seemed to make sense – and certainly made profits – to arbitrage labor costs by building sweatshop factories in Third World countries and shipping their products around the globe to markets in the industrial world. Far from being the wave of the future, as so many of its promoters claimed, or a malign conspiracy, as so many of its enemies insisted, it was simply the most profitable solution of an equation in which fuel costs, prevailing wages, and the relative strengths of various currencies were the most significant factors.
That equation is changing now. A recent news article noted that the cost of shipping a container of freight from China to Europe is now three times what it was before the current oil price spike began, and US companies that had offshored their production lines to distant continents were beginning to reopen long-shuttered domestic factories to cut transport costs. As the age of cheap oil dwindles in the rearview mirror, companies that choose the same strategy will prosper at the expense of those who cling to the mirage of the global economy.
The same sort of reversal, I’m coming to think, may affect many more aspects of life in the near future, as a great many apparent waves of the future turn out to be temporary adjustments to the short-term aberration that sent energy prices plunging down to levels that, in constant dollars, they never reached before – and almost certainly will never reach again. Any number of examples come to mind, but the one I’d like to discuss here is technology.
Few aspects of contemporary life are as heavily freighted with mythic significance as the way that technologies change over time. It’s from this, more than anything else, that the modern myth of progress draws its force – and yet there are at least two very different processes lumped under the label of “technological progress.”
The first, progress within a particular technology, follows a predictable course driven by the evolution of the technology itself. The first clumsy, tentative, and unreliable prototypes are replaced by ever more efficient and reliable models, until something like a standard model emerges; thereafter, changes in fashion and a slow improvement in efficiency supply what variations there are. Compare a sewing machine, a clothes dryer, or a turboprop engine from the 1960s with one fresh off the assembly line today, and in the underlying technology, the differences are fairly slight.
The difference lies in the control systems. The sewing machines, clothes dryers, and turboprops of the 1960s used relatively simple mechanical means of control, guided by the skill of human operators. Their equivalents today use complex digital electronics, courtesy of the computer revolution, and require much less human skill to run effectively. On a 1960s sewing machine, for example, buttonholes are sewn using a simple mechanical part and a great deal of knowledge and coordination on the part of the seamstress; on a modern machine, as often as not, the same process is done by tapping a few virtual buttons on a screen and letting the machine do it.
Changes of this sort are generally considered signs of progress. This easy assumption, though, may require a second look. It’s true that the primitive computers available in the 1960s would have had a very hard time sewing a buttonhole, and the idea of fitting one of the warehouse-sized mainframes of the time into a home sewing machine would have seemed preposterous; computer technology has certainly progressed over that time. Yet the change from mechanical controls and operator skills with digital electronics is not a matter of progress in a single technology. It marks the replacement of one technology by another.
It’s at this point that we enter into the second dimension of technological change. Mechanical controls and home economics classes did not gradually evolve into digital sewing machine controls; instead, one technology ousted another. Furthermore, both technologies do an equally good job of making a buttonhole. The factors driving the replacement of one by the other are external to the technologies themselves.
In the case of the sewing machines, as in so many similar technological transformations of the last sixty years or so, the replacement of one technology by another furthered a single process – the replacement of human skill by mechanical complexity. What drove this, in turn, was an economic equation closely parallelling the one that guided the rise of the global economy: the fact that for a certain historical period, all through the industrial world, energy was cheaper than human labor. Anything that could be done with a machine was therefore more profitable to do with a machine, and the only limitation to the replacement of human labor by fossil fuel-derived energy was the sophistication of the control systems needed to replace the knowledge base and nervous system of a skilled laborer.
For most people today, that equation still defines progress. A more advanced technology, by this definition, is one that requires less human skill and effort to operate. The curve of progress thus seems to point to the sort of fully automated fantasy future that used to fill so many comic books and Saturday morning cartoons.
One of the major mental challenges of the near future, in turn, will consist of letting go of this image of the future and retooling our expectations to fit a very different reality. Behind the clever robots who populated the collective imagination, and the less clever but more tangible bits of household automation marketed so obsessively to the middle classes in recent decades, lies the replacement of human energy by mechanical energy derived mostly from fossil fuels. During the age of cheap abundant energy, this made economic sense, because the energy – and the machines needed to use it – were so much cheaper than the skilled labor they replaced. In the decades to come, as energy stops being cheap and abundant, that rule will no longer hold. What looked like the wave of the future, here as elsewhere, might well turn out to be a temporary adjustment to a short-term phenomenon.
It’s hard to think of an aspect of modern life that will not face drastic reshaping as a result. The collapse of American education, for example, was a consequence of the same economic forces that put computers into sewing machines; for the last few decades, it was more cost-effective to hand over bookkeeping chores to computers and equip word processors with spell checkers than it was to teach American children how to do arithmetic and spell correctly. In the future, this will very likely no longer be true, but the sprawling bureaucracies that run today’s education industry are poorly equipped, and even more poorly motivated, to deal with the need to teach the skills that will be needed for humans to replace the machines.
Now of course not all the machines will need to be replaced at once. Many modern technologies, however, demand very large energy inputs that will not be reliably available in the future. Many more cannot be repaired when they break down – during the age of cheap energy, it was more cost-effective to throw a machine away when it broke, and buy a new model, than it was to pay a repairman’s wages. Furthermore, the extraordinary levels of interconnection that pervade today’s technology mean that the failure of a single component that cannot be replaced or repaired can render an entire system useless.
It’s probably too late to avoid the future of systems failure the choices of the recent past have prepared for us, but quite a bit can be done to mitigate it. The first priority, it seems to me, is precisely to break free of the dubious assumption that the kind of technology that was more cost-effective in an age of cheap abundant energy will be well suited to the age of scarce and limited energy now dawning around us. The second is to redirect our attention and efforts to those technologies better suited to the new realities of our future.
Among the most useful resources in this context, in turn, are precisely the technologies that fell out of fashion in the last extravagant decades of the age of abundance, and the skills necessary to use them. As a culture, we’ve pursued cutting edge technologies for so long that shifting attention to trailing edge technologies may seem almost willfully perverse. Nonetheless, those older technologies that work effectively with relatively modest energy inputs, and rely on human hands and minds in place of energy- and resource-intensive electronics, may turn out to be much more viable in the long run.
That 1960s sewing machine – designed to allow for maintenance and repair, built of easily replaceable parts, and relatively easy to convert to foot pedal power if electricity becomes scarce – is likely to have a much longer working life in an age of decline than the computerized models filling showrooms today. In the same way, a great many trailing edge technologies – and the skills needed to use them, many of which can still be learned from living practitioners today – are worth preserving. The question, of course, is how many people will do that while the opportunity still exists.