This is a time of great acceleration. But acceleration of what
? Kevin Kelly recently analyzed Moore's Law
, the famous observation that the density of logic gates on computer chips is increasing exponentially. Since Gordon Moore's paper in 1965, microprocessor density has continued to increase exponentially, and his "law" has inspired a belief that technology in general is getting better faster and faster, and that this process is somehow built into history. Kelly argues that we could not stop Moore's Law even if we tried, and uses the word "better" 17 times in the context of technological change. He does not admit that he's talking about his own preference
applied to an increase in certain numbers. But he does reach a new level of precision in describing just which numbers are increasing.
Ths highest speed of commerical airline flight has dropped 57%, from mach 2.02 to mach .855, since the Concorde was retired. The rate at which NASA can send humans to the moon and back peaked in the early 1970's and dropped to zero. The efficiency of the American medical system, in improvement in human health per dollar spent, has been falling for decades. The amount of energy available for the average human on Earth to spend has flattened and begun to decline. The nutrient density of the average tomato is much lower than it was 50 years ago. Clearly none of these numbers are subject to Moore's Law. The numbers that are, according to Kelly's analysis, are in a surprisingly narrow range: they all measure speed of information processing, and they are all achieved through miniaturization. As information-processing widgets get smaller, we can make more widgets out of a given quantity of raw materials, and we can run the same quantity of energy through more widgets at a time, and the energy has a shorter distance to travel for each calculation. (Similarly, I drafted this essay in tiny handwriting which enables me to write faster.)
So information processing is accelerating... But what exactly is
information processing? Or, to ask the hard question, what is information? It is neither mind, nor matter, nor energy, but something like structure or order in mind or matter or energy. Suppose we take a crystal, and rearrange its molecular connections to encode Shakespeare's The Tempest.
Have we created information, or merely changed the crystal's structure from something we don't recognize to something we do? If a cloud happens to spell out "hello, world", has its information content increased? What if no one is there to read it? For any apparently random structure, is there a possible language or perspective that sees it as meaningful?
I can't answer these questions. But let's back off a bit and ask: What are we actually doing with our information-processing technologies? And what could we do? If one day we are throwing around petabytes like we now throw around gigabytes, what will we be doing with them? Well, what are we doing now that we weren't doing 20 years ago with weaker computers, or 50 years ago with telephones and mail, or 3000 years ago with spoken language?
We are downloading high-resolution porn videos, instead of looking at magazines or fertility goddess statues. We are learning about our world through a medium with moving talking advertisements, and instead of reading, we watch videos of people talking. Or, instead of reading stories, or telling stories around a campfire, or going out and living stories, we can watch impossibly beautiful renderings of stories on a screen. Instead of learning to ride a horse, or play a guitar, we can learn to push a button in just the right way so that we can view an animation of someone riding a horse or playing a guitar.
But at the same time, instead of looking at the night sky, we can look at an image on a screen that approximates what we would see if we were diving through the atmosphere of Titan, or floating above the Orion nebula with the ability to see into the infrared and ultraviolet. Instead fo squinting at a bug on a leaf, we can look at images based on what we would see if we were so close that we could touch the rainbow eyes of the smaller bugs that live on that bug. Instead of looking at the ocean and wondering what's on the other side, we can view images that closely match what we would see there.
Or would we? Isn't that what we think we're doing when we view images of beautiful Russian women on a porn site? When right wingers use the internet to visit Iran, they see Saddam's torture prisons and fanatical suicide bombers. Lefties see American torture prisons and civilians maimed by airstrikes. If you use the internet to explore the Earth's changing climate, you can see anything from catastrophic warming to cooling. For many people, the internet has become a powerful tool to go out and find facts that confirm what they already believe.
So, there are at least two ways we can do information processing, or two paths we can follow. On one path, you move your perspective with the goal of testing, expanding, or revising your present mental model of the world you live in. On the other path, you move your perspective with the goal of reinforcing your present model of the world you live in -- or you move it into a manufactured world that makes you feel good.
I'm avoiding the words "reality" and "illusion" because I don't know how to define them without circular logic. Instead, I'm defining the two paths in terms of the mental state of the person who chooses between them, and I'm calling them expansive
It may seem that watching TV is always contractive and going outside is always expansive. But suppose you're watching the documentary The End Of Suburbia
, and you find it so troubling that you go outside to take comfort in the continued presence of the suburban landscape. In some ways television is always contractive, but it also has the potential to be expansive -- or to fake expansiveness, as in the case of a news network that pretends to be a clear window on the world while reinforcing the biases of its audience. At the other extreme, good fiction pretends to be contractive, promising an entertaining made-up story, but is effectively expansive, showing you worlds that stretch your thoughts and feelings. For hundreds of years, people have used books to escape suffocating corners of "reality".
Also notice that "escape" has two meanings. If you just stay in the book, your escape attempt is a dead end. To continue your journey of expansion, you have to take what you learned in the sub-world, bring it out, and use it to change the surrounding world or your place in it.
Are we doing this more often now, or less? Fifty years ago, how many kids emerged from books with tools that they used to change the world or their place in it? And how many do so now with video games?
Of course, information technology has also increased our powers of independent learning. I appreciate that I can go on Wikipedia and learn something in seconds that used to take an hour at the library (and before public libraries, might have taken months). But after we emerge from the internet holding that information, how well do we apply it in the surrounding world?
Suppose they invent a bionic eye that can give us microscopic vision, telescopic vision, and vision beyond the normally visible spectrum. This would seem to be a powerful expansive technology... but suppose you're leaning in to kiss somebody, and you see the microscopic globs of grease and skin-eating mites on their face. If your sense of smell is strong enough to track a deer, you can also smell every fart in the office. What if your enhanced hearing picks up the screams of the pigs in a confinement feedlot you're passing on the freeway?
You would want to shut it off. And if you can choose when it's on or off, how do you make that choice? You know, you can go on the internet right now and find videos, covertly taken by animal rights activists, showing the horrible suffering of animals in slaughterhouses and factory farms and medical experiments. In a sense, you already have miraculously enhanced sight and hearing. How are you using it? How are other people using it? Do you think they would use it any more wisely if the technology were stronger? How would use of information technology change, if expansive I.T. enabled you to share every disturbing perspective in the world, and contractive I.T. enabled you to enter a world as apparently real as this one, where you could do anything? To what extent has this already happened?
Scott Adams has written that the holodeck will be society's last invention. If he was joking, it was only because the idea is too strong to take straight. In joke form, you can imagine a 1950's married couple watching TV, and a commercial comes on: "Yes, with the amazing new Holodeck, all your fantasies can become real -- or close enough! (wink)" They look at each other and raise their eyebrows. In the next shot, the machine is in their living room, with flashing lights and tubes and two chairs with helmets. They lower the helmets over their heads, smile blissfully, and the shot fades to their whitened skeletons, and pulls back to reveal the whole city turned into ruins full of blowing dust. Cut to Rod Serling.
If it happened to us, it would not be nearly so obvious. The first "holodeck" might only be a simple picture-and-sound box, not even interactive, but compelling enough that it would draw people's attention for hours a day. The first ones would be monochrome, and then color. Rich people would have them, and then the middle classes and poor. And when almost everyone was watching the "holo-vision", society would not suddenly collapse, and it would not be the end of invention. But with such a massive drain on human attention, technological innovation as a whole would inevitably decline. Technologies that pushed the limits of direct experience would suffer the most, as more human inventive power was focused on improving manufactured and mediated experience.
From the time of widespread use of the holo-vision set, you could make certain predictions: Flight would stop advancing while flight simulators advanced rapidly. Instead of sending humans to other planets, we would send cameras. As more and more of our experience was managed, filtered, enhanced, our entire culture would become saturated with artificiality: Every house would look like a mansion and be built like a shack. Food would improve in beauty and decline in nutrition. Medicine would focus on relieving symptoms. Economic activity would shift from making things to trading and accumulating symbolic wealth. More people would watch sports and fewer would play. Politics would be completely taken over by performance. I'm not saying an actor would be elected president, but at the very least, politicians would have to run on image over substance, and once elected, they could tell obvious lies and go unchallenged, if the lies were what people wanted to hear.
If the population sensed that they were slipping into a constructed reality, the holodeck industry would merely use this sentiment to feed itself, by producing inspiring holo-plays that told the story in reverse: a minor functionary in a soulless world becomes aware that he is living in a simulation, and by fully facing this troubling knowledge, he is able to wake up from the "holotrex", or break through the walls of the"human show", and gain authentic power.
So here we are. What's next? The most pessimistic scenario is the one I already mentioned, where we slide into fantasy so smoothly and quickly that we destroy our basis for survival, and die, without even noticing. More realistic, and equally bleak, is the scenario explored by E.M. Forster in his story The Machine Stops
, first published 100 years ago this month. Decades before computers and television, Forster imagined a global information network through which people exchange images and sounds and ideas. At the same time, the Machine takes care of all their needs, so that they become physically feeble and mentally lost in ideas about ideas, scornful and fearful of direct experience. Because they worship the Machine, they refuse to accept the evidence that it is breaking down. When at last all the lights and ventilation shut down, they "wake up", but it's too late.
I wonder if there were environmentalists on Easter Island who said, "If we keep cutting down trees to make giant stone heads, there will be no more trees to make boats, and when the boats are gone we will not be able to catch fish, and we will starve." And others replied, "But the stone heads are getting bigger and bigger, as predicted by Moorgawa's Law. This progress is destined to continue forever, so we will find other ways to keep eating." Later, when the starvation began, the head-building party was disgraced and the tree-saving party gained power, but there was nothing they could do, because the trees were gone.
There is now broad scientific consensus that human burning of fossil fuels is changing the climate, and governments are beginning to put modest limits on carbon emissions. But I have yet to see any climate-based limits on extraction
of fossil fuels, and anything extracted tends to get burned. Meanwhile, some scientists are saying that we have already passed the tipping point: that if industrial civilization ends today, there is already enough carbon in the atmosphere to drive a feedback loop in which a melted arctic absorbs more sunlight, and methane thaws from permafrost and seabeds and traps more heat. The worst case scenario is a repeat of the Permian mass extinction, in which the oceans fill with anoxic bacteria and belch clouds of toxic hydrogen sulfide gas, which drift over the land choking everything, and float up to dissolve the ozone layer.
Even if we're miraculously saved from climate catastrophe by a cooling sun, and we can burn all the oil we want, we can't burn it faster than we extract it, and global oil extraction has leveled off and will soon decline. The issue is not how much oil is in the ground, but how quickly we can get it out, and at what cost. Since American oil peaked in 1970, every major recession has correlated with high energy costs (chart)
. We imagine we can replace oil with other energy sources, but they are not being developed fast enough, and they all require a good portion of our limited energy stream to be diverted into new infrastructure.
The odd thing about energy projections is that they always assume the present rate of consumption will continue. Nobody talks about how long the oil will last if consumption keeps growing
at the present rate, because exponential growth could eat up a whole planet made of oil and covered with solar panels. But nobody says we must stop economic growth -- and nobody can explain how the economy of the year 2500 will be 1000 times bigger than ours while consuming the same energy.
In fact there is no precedent for even staying at the present rate of consumption. Global energy consumption has been increasing for the entire industrial age, and before that, agricultural societies were driven by increasing consumption of crops grown by depleting topsoil. If oil energy had not been pumped into agriculture in the mid-20th century, the global population would have peaked in an ugly way. Throughout history, whenever we see a local exception to increase, we generally see famine, war, economic collapse, or political upheaval.
This could be because all human systems, from computer operating systems to governments, find it easy to incrementally add complexity, and difficult or impossible to incrementally remove it. So there's a ratcheting effect in which systems become more and more complex, while new layers of complexity are less useful and more costly. Eventually the system is spending massive resources to adapt to new needs without giving up any features. And any system that can't remove complexity incrementally, must eventually lose a whole lot at once.
So, industrial civilization is in danger of collapse from climate change, energy depletion, compulsive increase, and the diminishing returns of complexity -- but it's not clear what this has to do with YouTube and Guitar Hero. Computer-generated worlds are not a big part of present energy consumption, and past civilizations collapsed without them. But take a few steps back... Suppose the first "holodeck" was something much more primitive than television, something that existed in ancient Babylon.
Our remote ancestors, in processing information, were almost completely expansive -- otherwise they could not have survived. They were equal players in a dangerous and ever-changing world, and they had to keep their attention focused on it constantly, and quickly revise their thinking and their behavior to fit new experience. If you saw a tiger and said "that's impossible", you got eaten.
Humans could not afford to be contractive until they shifted from being participants to being rulers. This would have happened to chiefs of authoritarian tribes, who could command subordinates to tell them what they wanted to hear. But it would not have become common until the invention of intensive grain farming, or what Daniel Quinn calls totalitarian agriculture
. Foragers, hunters, pastoralists, and even horticulturists are still adapting to a world they have found
. But when you completely clear a piece of land, and permit nothing to live there except what you planted, you have become a controller of a world you made
. Suddenly, instead of adapting your mental world to fit your experience, you are forcing the world you experience to conform to what's in your head.
From the time of widespread dependence on totalitarian agriculture, you could make certain predictions: Traditions of understanding the found world would decline, and be replaced by new traditions of conquering and managing made worlds. Those who followed the new paradigm with greater intensity would gain more power inside it. The best farmers would trade their surplus grain for better tools, more fields, slaves to do the field work for them, then middle managers to run the farms, so they could turn their world-making skills to luxurious houses completely sealed from the outside, to manicured gardens and temples and stone monuments, and laws to keep this new system working and expanding. As more people turned from finding to making, they would invent new tools, more efficient ways to trade, new means of transportation, new weapons.
Kings would fight kings to be the makers of larger and larger made worlds. Maybe a great military leader would conquer all known made worlds, and be said to have conquered "the world", because the found world was no longer considered real, just formless chaos to be conquered and shaped as a project for all of humanity.
Imagine thousands of years pass, and now the found world is nearly gone. People seeking their ancestral roots idealize machine-harvested fields of corn, and go camping in tree farms that they mistake for forests. The best wild places are preserved like museums, and the last scraps of free land are occupied by people who dream of going "back to nature" but don't know how, so instead they become the last conquerors. The suburbs originally promised country living for everyone, and now they don't have a single feature of country life except isolation.
Until now I never understood the 1950's saying, "A man's home is his castle." It means: "I want to be a king, a god, a shaper of worlds, so the least you can do is let me be a god over a crappy stick frame house and a patch of lawn."
With so little physical space to be gods, we have mostly gone back to being animals, creatures who adapt to whatever we find -- except our found world is now someone else's made world, so instead of being wild animals, we are pets. Instead of tending berry bushes and stalking deer, we sit in pale cubes decorated with pictures of mountains, doing work so far removed from our nature that we would riot if we were not so well entertained.
In a good society, usefulness and pleasure are one: every necessary activity is something that people find intrinsically meaningful and enjoyable, and everything people feel like doing feeds the whole system. When a society begins to depend on tasks that nobody feels like doing, it needs to fill the work motivation gap with extrinsic motivators: usually social pressure, physical threats, and rewards of money and status. Also it may need to fill the enjoyment and meaning gaps with activities that do not contribute to society on a practical level, and may even undermine it. In our civilization these include legal and illegal drugs, television, movies, and now video games and the internet.
I put "civilization" into the Google search box, and on the drop-down list of the most popular queries, ten out of ten were about the Civilization series of computer games. I've played them: you begin as an ancient king, building cities, turning wilderness into farmland, researching technologies, expanding your empire, fighting wars, and finishing in an imaginary future only a few years beyond where we are now. Thus the game avoids even acknowledging the issue of perpetual increase on a finite planet. In fact it doesn't deal with collapse at all: there are no ruined cities, and no way for an empire to disappear except conquest by a stronger empire. Historians have proposed dozens of theories about why civilizations collapse, and the game does not simulate a single one well enough to challenge the worst player.
Imagine you're on a ship, and you put "ship" into the ship's computer, and it draws your attention to a happy world where every ship that ever existed is still afloat, and soon new ships will blast off to the stars. To find evidence that the ship you're standing on is running out of food and fuel, taking on water and drifting into a storm, you almost have to already know about it, and you will find many assurances that everything is fine. The Civilization games serve civilization by retelling its core myth: that we are engaged in "progress", that history is a line that rises forever. But this confidence also undermines civilization by blinding us to its failures and vulnerabilities.
Now, in an ideal authoritarian system, you can get away with this. The elite know what's really going on, and they figure out what the peasants need to do, and tell them whatever story will make them do it. But this only works if the peasants have no power, and if the elite don't fall for their own stories. Both of these walls are down. Some of the elite have realized that industrial civilization is on the brink of collapse from resource depletion and climate change, and they're desperately pushing a new story about recycling and sustainability and ecology, but nobody wants to hear it. Most of the peasants, and many of the rulers, are still plunging ahead with the old story.
During the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, as far as we know, no Roman saw decline and fall. They saw every new crisis as a temporary setback in the eternal glory of Rome. And certainly none of them foresaw the Middle Ages. And yet they were building the foundation of the Middle Ages by fleeing to the provinces, by growing food and organizing defense locally, instead of depending on Roman roads and legions.
My point is, even when we don't know what we're doing, we are adapting. Lefties who ride bicycles to save the forests will be able to get around when trees grow through cracks in parking lots. Paranoids who catch rainwater and raise chickens to be independent of the global government will be able to eat and drink when the only governments are local and the industrial farms have turned to desert.