Tuesday, September 13, 2011

life in the time of the great kludge

Today on the quad at my university there was a kind of showcase by potential employers, designed to lure the many brilliant, technically and scientifically minded students we have here. These firms are among the leading innovators in the world, giant tech, aerospace, and communication companies that create incredible tools for our age. You have young students who are quite literally the future of digital and technical innovation being wooed  by companies that represent the present. And they brought toys-- lots of attractive, impressive, cutting age digital toys to show off.

Yet I was struck by a glaring contrast: many of the tents were being powered by a loud, smelly generator, belching out black smoke and making the immediate area rather unpleasant. It probably wasn't meaningfully different from one you could find a quarter century ago All of these near-miraculous modern technologies, produced by companies with massive resources and engineered by people who understand things I couldn't if I spent the rest of my life trying, are still tied to the burning of dirty fuels which pollute our air, warm the planet, and perhaps are coming close to depletion. You can stick as long of a power cord on there as you want; sooner or later, the chain leads to fossil fuels and pollutants. It has me thinking back to the central question of near futurism: do we have the tools necessary to end our dependence on fossil fuels? There's a great faith out there that, well, we'll think of something. We always innovate when we have to. But it's remarkable when you observe how much of the innovation of the last several centuries was made possible by incredibly abundant, incredibly cheap energy. Those invested in the idea of the singularity sometimes point out that, in their view, human progress is exponential. But is that because of some magical property of progress, or because of a uniquely powerful but dangerous set of technologies?

In the era of cheap fossil fuels, we've enjoyed the fruits of what might prove to be the ultimate kludge. Many people writing on the Internet have faith that a long term, better solution is coming, and that it will be one that won't call for great sacrifice and great hardship for a species that has grown used to cheap energy. Only time will tell. Maybe they will prove to be right. This post is all just conjecture, really, and you know what that's worth. I do believe our lives as they exist now are lived on borrowed time.


Josh said...

Strongly agree.

Praj said...

Interesting post. Depending on who you read and believe, we already have most of the technology available but don't have the will and self-sacrifice necessary to deploy it. Others think we're not even close and so we better hope we can innovate our way out of the mess either w/ carbon-free energy or infrastructure that can withstand some pretty bad weather.

On a somewhat unrelated note (and what really prompted me to leave my first comment on your blog)...can you humanities/social scientists folks gain some confidence and stop giving techies so much damn credit? Yeah they are smart, but I seriously doubt they're any more impressive than top lawyers, English professors, and some education PhD students at state universities. I'm fairly certain you could understand "these things" in a lot shorter time than the rest of your life.

As a former space physicist, I assure you scientists and engineers already think they're smart enough. I also assure you that their work is often less impressive than they (we!) make it sound. There's no reason to be intimidated. You can respect their work without the gratuitous compliments.

Sorry for the rant. That is all.

Freddie said...

Sorry Praj. You have to understand: because of the ubiquity of the "two cultures" viewpoint, many English people are afraid of appearing disrespectful towards or uninterested in the STEM fields.

prajwalk said...

I hear you. The two cultures paradigm is unfortunate. It's especially unfortunate that English folks are afraid of appearing uninterested in STEM fields. As I said, I have gotten that impression before.

Frankly, I think a lot of our (i.e. STEM folks) rhetoric and bravado masks a fair amount of insecurity that people don't really care about what we do. If it weren't for the national security/economic growth angle we can leverage, you would probably hear scientists defending their work the way humanities profs always seem to be doing.

banflaw said...

How about an 'If oil disappeared tomorrow' thought-experimen: if 'tomorrow' means today's tomorrow, multiple western institutions would cease to function. So the question is, on what future day will we be able to say 'If oil disappeared tomorrow, tomorrow would be like today'? How far off is that?

banflaw said...

And is it later than the day on which oil becomes impracticably scarce?

bensix said...

It's amusing how people with boundless faith in scientific innovation will often also hold the view that science is a corrupted and corrupting field, in thrall to dogma and self-interest. It just depends on whether the subject is resource depletion or climate change.

North said...

Well the nuclear field is capable of providing base load electricity reliably and cleanly (albeit not as cheaply as fossil fuels). So it's not like the lights will go out when the fossil fuels run low.

Josh said...

@North: Assuming we have sufficient petroleum to make any plastics we need to make nuclear power work, not to mention to transport all the necessary materials cost-effectively.

ballgame said...

Marvin Harris called this back in the 1970s (Cannibals and Kings). One of his major points was that the effects of oil depletion would be felt long before we ‘ran out’ of oil. The question is not when we run out of oil, the question is when we run out of cheap oil.

Keep in mind that “cheap” here doesn't just refer to immediate transaction costs, but also to the numerous “externalities” that are encountered when we start going after the ‘non-cheap’ oil. (See “Gulf oil blowout,” “tar sands,” “fracking,” etc. etc. — not to mention “global warming.”)

His major point was, “the sooner the Third World industrializes, the sooner the West will need to shift to a new mode of production.” His point was echoed by numerous subsequent analyses which suggest that several planet Earths would be needed to supply the resources necessary to sustain the world’s populace at the then-industrialized nations’ middle class standard of living.

“Well the nuclear field is capable of providing base load electricity reliably and cleanly (albeit not as cheaply as fossil fuels).”

North, are you referring to some hypothetical future fusion-based nuclear industry? Because the notion that our current fission-based nuclear industry is providing electricity “reliably and cleanly” is somewhat absurd, no?