Technology: How To Get Where We Need To Be

TECHNOLOGY: How to Get Where We Need to Be
Leane Roffey Line c. 2008

To the average observer, the history of technology seems composed of two basic processes: Fits and Starts. I mean this only half humorously, of course, because like many human endeavors, technological advances seem to stem from dire need, go through a coalescent phase, cohere and propel human life forward (with sometimes backward consequence), reach new and more resistant forms of equilibrium on modern levels, go into stagnancy, and then suffer the slings and arrows of yet one more revolution. The cycle begins again to compensate, of course. In between, we have things spring out of nowhere to help inventors invent new and better toothbrushes, or even better items on sale for only $19.95 (buy now and you get two), people and things obstructing progress, spin machines playing tired old songs, etc. etc.

Somehow, eventually, the swarm manages to get where it needs to be, or at least make an attempt — like bloggers do by just consolidating information and making new centers for coherency. I have faith in technology and engineering, basically, and faith that humanity’s spirit (if you believe in such things) will now begin to analyze problems which are hurting humanity as a whole, and do something about them. Call me silly, perhaps, but I’m not ready to write the human race off as a whole just yet, in spite of the neocons & religious extremists that seem to permeate the very atmosphere I’m breathing lately, sending air alerts into the deep orange. I’m not interested in a better world after I die, I’m interested in a better world while I’m still alive to see it.

There is no point in wasting a lot of time on moral relativism when people are still starving and dying, and killing each other usually for ridiculous reasons having only to do with a discharge of imperialistic testosterone. We are on the verge of yet an even greater technical revolution, entering into the no-man’s land of a global world, and it would work well for all of us if we just stopped for a moment and took a look at what we think we are doing here.

We may not all agree on the stuff of ideas, but we are all, as a swarm, pragmatic, and it is pragmatism that will eventually rule the day. Things, and by that I mean, “all things in your universe, John and Jane”, are collapsing. When they hit the point of collapse where your local “upper middle class” such as it is, whatever your country, loses their “things” (read house, money, job, stuff) because one structure or another has unbalanced the swarm (in this case it will be super-strong corporations and pressure from multinationals), and the phrase “this shouldn’t be happening to us, we’re God’s chosen!!!” is on everyone’s lips, look then for the awareness of dire need to come creeping into the hearts and minds of the denizens of podunk towns everywhere. After that, it’s only a short hop to non-local awareness. Oh, others are worse off than we are! We maybe don’t have it so bad! And so forth, and so on through the cycle of rationalizations that occurs when things begin to go to whatever their idea is of “hell”. When enough pressure builds up, as it is doing now, and enough misery is generated, the swarm begins to self-correct. No matter how tight your political grip, how “sweet” you are or morally in the right in your own opinion, how draconian your behavior toward your fellow man, the swarm will begin to, well, SWARM. And from that movement, great engineering, and great engineering projects, emerge (along with philanthropists — the two seem inexorably twined). It is research and development, and technology, NOT religion, but engineering plain and simple, that will shift elements in the physical world into positions where new things will happen. (I’m with Conan the Barbarian — Crom will not help you here).

So how do we use tech to get us where we need to be? The oldest historical example in the world might be useful here:

For as many problems as mankind has caused for itself in it’s growth through the ages, there have been innovative and effective solutions as well. Some have worked better than others, true, but sometimes you have to take the good with the bad, analyze the bad, and just forge ahead. So it’s been with agriculture.

For thousands of years, for example, agriculture (of all things) was the great industry of mankind. The history of the technological revolutions in this field are inevitably lumped in the same basket as the prehistory and history of the industrial revolution. The technology of agriculture has been slow to evolve, but has been a technology of with far-reaching consequences. From the improvements in land-clearing, to planting, to irrigation, to building dykes, sooner or later, there had to be engineers. What really provided the impetus to drag humanity out of the stone age, was population growth, and to some extent, previous weather changes. Transformations in agriculture have always required new techniques which had to be invented, adapted, and further refined. I’m struck now by the play-out of the development, for example, of hybrid corns to be used for biofuels. New plants have always marked great turning points in history: In China (maize, ground nuts, sweet potatoes), in Europe (maize, potatoes and beans), in America (plants carried over to the Old World made a big difference to cuisine) — all these plants needed new techniques. It starts slow, but in the end it’s all about massive momentum. It can be (and no doubt has been) said that no innovation or invention has any value except in relation to the social pressure which creates, maintains, and improves it. And so it is now with CORN.

Corn is, without a doubt, a totally engineered plant. From the time the first agriculturalists began coaxing the predecessors into producing “ears”, that plant has been mankind’s baby. Corn is a glorious thing, in my opinion. So many hybrids, so many uses. And, with it’s short growth cycle, given the right climate, it can produce wonderful products, from “dent corn” to the kind we like to eat as “sweet corn”. The type of corn that will produce optimum biofuel perhaps has yet to be hybridized, but when it is, balance between the corn used for food and the corn grown for fuel has got to be achieved. Why? Because it all comes down to this: you can’t drive anything if there is no one left alive to drive. Starving your population group really isn’t the best idea. That goes for producing food for them to eat, to artificially driving up market and futures prices to “corner” the market — again another one of those nasty little “fits” perpetrated by those who want cornsilk linings in their clothing. For every boulder thrown into the path of the stream of the global river, I promise you the water will eventually wear it down to a pebble. To those who made this “moral relativism” possible, I also promise that eventually the situation will flip, because entropy is working against it.

Plants like corn, which for every hybrid, really is a NEW thing, hold promise for biofuels, also for food, and I give high marks right now to the USA Corn Belt, all 12 states, farmers, developers, engineers, researchers and associated companies and universities (this is a SWARM after all) for projects under development in this area.

That is only one example.

Technology is really not a technology in itself, but an idea. Ideas like this can often benefit from people exploring outside the box. In learning about types of technology, applications of brainstorming and things such as TRIZ made a tremendous difference in opening perceptions. This is all about perceptions after all, and the pressures which motivate them.

Science and technology united at various times in history past to dominate the world as it was, but the global world demands new effort and new cooperation between these two. Progress is encouraged and restrained by other elements, stemming in part from the current “moral relativism” at the time and in larger part from the macroeconomics. Eventually the former breaks down. In our case for the present day, the latter will be rendered inert as we struggle to support 6.6 billion people on one small planet. Eighteenth century attitudes (where science was little motivated to concern itself with practical solutions and applications and engineering was done at the whim of Machiavellian princes) will have no place in the coming decades. Where technology was once just a collection of tricks of the trade, and meandered along spurred only by military matters, it now must “grow up” and assume it’s place at the world’s nerve centers: food production, health issues, and getting roofs over people’s heads. Economies cannot grow and societies will not flourish unless basic concerns are met and addressed. Sooner or later, everything will depend on technological intervention. We are bumping up against the ceiling of the possible. Forces which stand in the way will succumb to the same pressures they have always succumbed to: pressures from the swarm, in particular the one that breaks through the obstacles and opens the doors to different, and hopefully better futures.

Recession, and its cousins, combined inflation and unemployment, and the nagging realization that oil as a source of energy will BE EXHAUSTED sooner than later no matter what the increase in offshore drilling, production from shale etc. has to offer, has now stimulated more than renewed interest (ala the 1970s, which went into hiding shortly thereafter) in new alternatives. These alternatives, too, are not new, most research areas (solar, geothermal, etc.) were well known before 1970 for example. These things fell, at that time, into neglect. Now it will not be so easy to dismiss them, no matter how hard politicians work at it.

Here it is: innovation, death, or stagnation. The last of these, by the way, is no different from death, just less immediate a consequence.

No doubt, in my mind, it will take major general crises confronting the developed economies to spur the world to action as a whole unit. Nothing like fear of disaster to really get the planners working and the swarm moving. Just ONCE, I’d like to see proactive response BEFORE things go to hell in a handbasket and some idiot starts babbling about “collateral damage”. Technology, with its obvious limitations and circumstantial problems (and I’ve avoided those discussions because they are everywhere on the blogosphere), still seems to be the best shot we’ve got to get where we need to be. So let’s just skip the equilibrium and stagnancy part this time ’round and move forward because we need a shot that when fired, “will be heard around the world”.

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