Technological Minimalism

Builds Upon: The Obsolescence of ‘Conventional’ Military Operations,
Extreme Competition Reduces Adaptibility

The year 2010 has come and gone without either hoverboards or moonbases.
What is the meaning of this?

There’s something that novelists and screenwriters either forget, or overlook for the sake of including cool stuff in the plot.

Just because a technology becomes possible doesn’t mean its implementation is economically desirable or feasible.
Perhaps modern technology could turn lead into gold, but the intensive process of nuclear bombardment would be a huge net economic loss.
We can go to the moon now, but getting there remains fantastically expensive. Meanwhile Earth still has an entire uncolonized continent. Until millions of people are willing to live in Antarctica, until space travel becomes exponentially less expensive, until there is some significant incentive to establish a presence in space, moon bases will remain a staple of speculative fiction.

Even now there are a number of technologies presently in use that are unsustainable in the long term. Far from colonizing space, humanity is already technologically overextended, operating at a huge energetic net loss.

Many of these technologies don’t even do their jobs significantly better than plain human labor. Consider leaf blowers vs. rakes!

A technology is an asset when it makes the necessities humans must accomplish easier.

A technology becomes a liability when it becomes a necessity itself.

Whether an hour commute is made by car or by horse and buggy, it matters little how far of a distance is covered. It still takes an hour to get to work. Between these two scenarios there is no change in the quality or nature of the worker’s life. The only difference is that the car is more dangerous, expensive and energy intensive.

Yet one can not go back to a horse and buggy. The suburbs spawned by car cultures are often miles from the nearest place of work. Most roads can be used only by cars. Getting to work by any other means is unthinkable. A technological improvement is nullified once it becomes a necessity. For more energy and effort, it merely replaces the function of its predecessor.

-As a car allowed people to travel further to work, the workplace became further away.
-As house appliances and freezer food freed up time for housewives, housewives ended up entering the workplace and staying as busy as ever.
-As cell phones became affordable, it soon became socially and professionally impossible to live without them.
-Internet access that gave us the freedom to work from home now obligates us to work at home in addition to regular work hours.

Once any useful new technology becomes a common standard, it ceases to be an improvement. Thus our lives in the 21st century are not unlike those of the first city dwellers 6000 years ago. We merely accomplish the same tasks through more elaborate means to in order to keep up with more elaborate requirements. The struggle for survival and prosperity is constant. There are perhaps more prosperous people now than long ago, but as ever, the wealthy are few and the poor a teeming desperate horde.

Technological progress remains locked in a cycle of escalation that contributes little meaningful improvement to the lives of individuals in the long term. All the while it has expanded beyond the limits of sustainability by relying on energy stores that will take many millions of years to replenish themselves.

Technology clearly has the power to improve the quality of human life. It’s just never to date been used in a measured way that allows it to produce assets rather than a long list of liabilities. Without some kind of plan, new technological developments quickly become just another typical characteristic of the same oppressive agricultural society.

In order to maintain a technology as a net benefit to a given society, and to do so effectively possible, considerations of technological minimalism become necessary:

If automobiles were to be invented again, a society could keep the local traveling distances manageable by a horse and buggy or even by foot. If traveling distances are kept shorter within a smaller area, it takes fifteen minutes to get to work by car instead of an hour. When the area in which people live is smaller private vehicles are not a necessity and public transport becomes a more attractive option. Thus people can share the costs of transport and eschew the risks and exorbitant expense of individual vehicle ownership. Not only does everyone gain continuous benefit from the motor vehicle, no one needs own a horse and buggy any more either. In this scenario, the society accomplishes a strong gain in both efficiency and overall quality of life for its citizens…

Technological minimalism at the fundamental level is about trying to accomplish a task as easily and effectively as possible, with the smallest possible expenditure of energy. Not just fuel energy,
-The cost of equipment and raw material required to construct the technology,
-The amount of human effort required to make it work.
-The amount maintenance required to keep it working reliably.
-The amount of skill required to use it properly.

A society that observed technological minimalism would as a whole look much more than our own like a single living thing. It would do its best to make the most of every single scrap of energy. It would run vigorously on a level of effort and energy that would not sustain a modern society for an instant…

I was impressed when I saw a movie called The World’s Fastest Indian about an eccentric New Zealander, Burt Munro, who makes the world’s fastest motorcycle in his own garage. When Munro arrives at the Utah salt flats to try for the record, he’s almost laughed out of the competition. Everyone else has sleek cutting edge vehicles designed for them by major automotive and military technology corporations.
This crazy old man’s home made contraption is a complete joke. When the judges inspect the interior of this vintage motorcycle they find odds and ends such as a doorjamb and a brandy cork serving critical functions.
Yet the humble man working in his garage has a superior grasp of all the principles involved in creating his speed machine. He knows exactly what sorts of materials are required to do the job. He knows when a chunk of metal taken from a door will serve just as well as the latest professional grade parts.
Burt Munro had a fine grasp of technological minimalism.

He is a real life example of how a solid understanding underlying principles yields minimal, elegant solutions to large and/or complex problems. Imagine the ethic that produced Munro’s motorcycle applied to an entire society!

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2 responses to “Technological Minimalism

  1. The world really needs more thinkers like you. Unfortunately, individuals who think for themselves are unlikely to get into a position where they can actually implement any of their ideas.

    • I think part of any solution is to restart small. A mass system is highly resistant to deliberate change. Even if different sorts of thinkers get into power, other oligarchs won’t necessarily go along with their plans. Even the most enlightened reforms have multiple unintended and disastrous consequences in a highly complex system. One contrary person won’t change the nature of a system, even if they can shift it a bit for time. One might build an impressive sand castle to spite the sea, but the tide will wipe it away nonetheless.
      Our present system has grown in a state of nature and any attempts at deliberate engineering have been mere belated reactions to natural, spontaneous phenomena.
      Until human societies can move beyond merely reacting to nature, there’s little difference between our hives and those of insects.

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