Two steps forward, two steps back.

Is progress possible?

I’m not sure the answer is so obvious… Social, political, or moral “progress” seem to be moreso different examples of cycles,i but what about our beloved technological progress? Like, aren’t NFTs a more advanced form of art than, say, sculpture? While it’s true that increasing material control over resources and environments seems to be possible, given that everything is a bubble – even the universe as we know it – over what timeline can our “control” really be said to exist? I mean, given the relatively static nature of a possible human lifespan throughout history – call it 80 yearsii – over how many lifetimesiii do we need to demonstrate technological stability in order for a new development to be considered a “success”?

Toyota EV 2030I think we can agree that the relatively non-existent stability of Einsteineum or any of the other actinide row elements on the periodic table are only barely scientifically constructive and neither politically nor commercially valuable, but where does that leave the rest of the “live like kings” “advances” such as smartphones, smartwatches, smartdoorbells and, dare we whisper it, the “inevitable” world of electric cars.

This is all too pertinent of a question as my personal electric vehicle has been rendered inoperable for over a month now due to a high-voltage electric heater that decided to give up the ghost just as the mercury plunged to -30ºC.iv I wish this was just one of those rarest of rare cases where I was actually unlucky for once in my short life but this heater issue appears to be all-too-common despite a lack of formal recall. Thankfully, I have other means of getting from A to B but none as comfortable, quiet, and pre-heated as Sparky. I miss him, even if I appreciate that living towards the leading edge of the risk curve means that systems and infrastructure are rarely as polished as they ultimately become later on. Still, this level of on-road (un)reliability is now on par with my dear old friend Saddam, the 30-year-old rust-bucket of a dad-mobile that was constantly in the shop to repair yet another leak or squeak. Not exactly the kind of dependability that most people need! And yet that’s exactly the level of dependability I’m now experiencing with “the future.”v

All of which just means that if we get the “black swan” event between the descending and ascending world powers that many expect (even if they don’t want), then we could be looking at a future automobile landscape closer to that of Cuba than Minority Report. In such a world, “right to repair” won’t be as much of a legal issue as much as a sine qua non operating requirement. Indeed, this is the barrel of the gun we’re all staring down as China takes over manufacturing of more and more electronics, including those going into cars, regardless of where the cars are ultimately “assembled.”

To quote Simon Sarris:

The archives of human cleverness are filled with blunders. When read in a good mood, history is a blooper reel. But it should not be lost on us that history never repeats, and modern technology enables ever more leverage. The more technology you can harness to commit an idea, and the faster your idea can spread, the greater the magnitude of something going wrong with a single decision. Scale is a capricious beast, one that becomes easier to summon and harder to predict. Be very careful when you let it in the house.

This certainly applies beyond mere consumervi electronics and comes back to the fragility and sustainability of our core infrastructure, which is of particular concern in our fading western society and not to be dismissed nor supplanted by hand-wave-y “metaverses.” Indeed, while most local utility companies are installing high-speed electric car chargers for these new marvels of modern technology, there are simultaneously power outages in half our cities that throw everyone and everything into disarray,vii however temporarily. Similarly, we can’t even get steel to build bridges and we have roof leaks in brand-new $50mn community buildings, including the one I frequent.viii

It’s also not obvious that any of this is about to turn around any time soon. With increasing strains on supply chains, most industries are looking for ways to commodify more rather than less, mistakenly imagining that their shortcomings stem from a lack of cheaper and faster (Asian) suppliers rather than a lack of local suppliers with intelligent hands. To quote from Simon Sarris one more time:ix

That which is unique, breaks. When finished objects become commodities they break too, but they are easily replaced. When you break a chair, you buy another chair. We know well how to make one thousand chairs. They sit in boxes, lining the warehouses, ready for two-day shipping.

But when the unique breaks, we might mend.

To learn the skill of mending is to also gain unconsciously the skill of building, to understand the very urge to build. If we never mend, we not only risk building less but building in perverse ways.

To mend is to comprehend a human scale problem, and without this understanding our creations become strange creatures. […]

When the unique is created, it also creates the creator.

The more finished goods become commodities, the fewer opportunities an individual has to generate new creation. The ability to mass-produce removes the opportunity for the great many to learn to produce at all. From such a thought, a future full of consumption-only hobbies might come as no surprise.

If you commoditize toys, you remove the toymaker. If you remove the toymaker, the toy is only an object of consumption. It ceases to be an object of wonder.

And yet with this clear trend towards commodification and wonderlessness, can it be any surprise that civilisation is much, much older than we think?x It would for all the world appear that our social and physical technologies are much, much more fragile than we generally believe. This makes our first visit to the Moon in 1969 feel all the more incredible but our prospects for visiting Mars this century substantially less certain.

The question then becomes, in this world of bubbly bubbles, is it even possible to just ride the expanding bubbles while sidestepping (or shorting) the declining bubbles? Nevermind longevity of file formatsxi (even though that’s very important too), what happens to our beautiful jpegs when the lights go out? That is, once we’ve traded all our jobs making physical things for “knowledge economy” jobs.xii What will keep us cozy then?xiii More than dancing?

___ ___ ___

  1. Per Plato’s Republic, which hasn’t yet been surpassed.
  2. Yes, Methuselah was much older than 80 years, but not so much younger than anyone else alive five millennia later in the “advanced” world as we now know it.
  3. Assuming that fractions of a lifetime aren’t much of a “success story,” which I think we can mostly agree on.
  4. You’ll have to excuse most of the tone of this article – it’s not nearly as rosy as I typically aspire to be – but I’m quite ready to chalk this up to Seasonal Affective Disorder actually being a thing. It’s been six brutal weeks of it being too cold and/or too icy to walk outside, combined with barely 6-7 hours of daylight, combined with cancelled NYE parties, combined with leaky gym roofs, combined with broken cars, combined with just a general blueness. I presently feel such an astonishing degree of malaise that I shit thee not I have a peppermint + eucalyptus candle burning next to me as I write this on a Friday evening after the kids are asleep in some sordid attempt to aromatherapy myself out of this fucking ditch. The candle isn’t hurting either, if I’m honest, but it really isn’t enough. The sunny beaches beckon…
  5. It’s really too bad that the anti-fragility of the Chevy Volt never caught on with buyers.
  6. Isn’t it fairly atrocious that we so regularly call groups of westerners “consumers” instead of “citizens” or even “producers?” We get nothing for nothing in this life, so if we’re consuming, who’s producing? And what will they want in return for our consumed goods? Our paper credit will only pass muster for so long, so we’ll eventually have to trade us for our natural resources, farm land, and lord knows what else.
  7. The Government of Canada even has the gall to run TV ads that try to make “being prepared” look cool, instead of, y’know, tragic.
  8. This roof leak was the straw that broke the camel’s back last week. Between that and the month-long descent into coldness and darkness so typical of this corner of the world, I was tilted af. Wen beach ser?
  9. Simon’s whole blog The Map is Mostly Water is well worth a deep dive.
  10. Archived.
  11. Archived.
  12. To quote Sarris one final time for today:

    The act of creation causes imagination, not the other way around. To understand this is to understand the ecology that fosters the unique. Agency is precious because the lucidities that purposeful work and responsibility bring are the real education. The secret of the world is that it is a very malleable place, we must be sure that people learn this, and never forget the order: Learning is naturally the consequence of doing.

  13. I obviously have some ideas for keeping cozy, including blankets and manufacturing sustainable building materials, but what about you?

One thought on “Two steps forward, two steps back.

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