Decadent Technologies

4 June 2012


In several previous posts I have discussed how novel technologies will often display a sigmoid growth curve, starting with a gradual development, suddenly experiencing an exponential increase in complexity, sophistication, and efficacy, followed by a long plateau of little or no development after that technology has achieved maturity. The posts in which I described this development include:

The Law of Stalled Technologies

More on Stalled Technologies

Blindsided by History

Technological Succession

In Blindsided by History I wrote:

“Present technologies will stall, and they will eventually be superseded by unpredicted and unpredictable technologies that will emerge to surpass them. Those who remain fixated on existing technologies will be blindsided by the new technologies, and indeed may simply fail to recognize new technologies for what they are when they do in fact appear.”

The phenomena of one technology superseding another results in Technological Succession. In my post on technological succession I wrote the following:

The overtaking of a stalled technology that remains at a given plateau by another technology that fulfills a similar need (although by way of a distinct method) is an extension of a society with stable institutions that was able to bring to fruition a mature technology. With a mature technology in place, and stable economic and social institutions built upon this technology, there emerges an incentive to continue or to expand these institutions to a greater extent, at a cheaper cost, more efficiently, more effectively, and with less effort. This attempt to do previous technology one better is, in turn, a spur to social changes that will call forth further innovations. It could be argued that the Industrial Revolution emerged from just such an escalation of social and technology coevolution.

Technological succession, then, develops in parallel with the social succession of institutions capable of fostering further technological development by different means once a given technology stalls. In this post I made a distinction between mature technologies (another name for stalled technologies), which are technologies that have passed through their exponential growth phase and have plateaued at a stable level, and perennial technologies, which are technologies that do not experience exponential growth curves in their development — things like knives that have always been a part of the human “toolkit” and always will be. This distinction between mature and perennial technologies I then developed according to a biological analogy:

By analogy with microevolution (evolution within a species) and macroevolution (evolution from one species into another) in biology, we can see the microevolution and macroevolution of technologies. Perennial technologies exhibit micorevolution. No new technological “species” emerge from the incremental changes in perennial technologies. Technological macroevolution is the succession of a stalled technology by a new, immature technology, which latter still possesses the possibility of development. Mature technologies experience adaptive radiation under coevolutionary pressures, and this macroevolution can result in new technological species.

The coevolutionary pressures are those social institutions that make demands upon a technology to continue its development in the face of advancing social developments, which latter might include expanding populations, higher standards of living, raised expectations and soaring ambitions.

Even if another technology does not come along to further extend the social functions served by the mature and now stalled technology, the incentives to continue to go one better with technology remains, and this incentive drives the attempt to try to squeeze more performance out of mature technologies that would, if surpassed in the process of technological succession, remain stalled at a stable plateau of development. The result of pushing for more performance from a stalled technology is what I will call decadent technology (though I could just as well call this baroque technology).

The obvious examples that come to mind of decadent technologies are either of a humorous or theatrical character (or both). Steampunk and tubepunk are obvious examples of the intentional elaboration of a decadent technology for aesthetic and theatrical effect. As genres of art and literature, steampunk and tubepunk aren’t seeking to supply the wants of mass society (except for aesthetic wants, which respond to a different class of coevolutionary pressures).

Another example of decadent technology is that of race car engines. If you want to go really fast, it would make more sense to strap a jet engine onto set of wheels (which would look like a steampunk contraption), but racing mostly means specialized internal combustion engines — engines pushed about as far as the technology of the internal combustion engine can be pushed. It is obvious, from the thousands of photographs in car magazines, that the builders of racing engines can an aesthetic pleasure in their creations. However, these engines are not merely aesthetic exercises like steampunk, because by pushing the technology of the internal combustion engine to its limits, much more horsepower can be obtained. Thus a decadent technology can be effective, though it quickly begins to reach a level of diminishing returns, and further investment yields progressively less of a return. That is why these engines are not models of efficiency that the mass producers of automobiles look to for technological developments (though this is often used as an excuse for car manufacturers to sponsor drag racing) but rather they are expressions of mechanical ambition. Like I wrote above, if you want to go really fast, you can build a jet; the challenge is to build an internal combustion engine with the power of a jet, and this is a challenge in which both builders of racing engines and race spectators enjoy.

Most examples of decadent technology are not as theatrical and not as much fun as steampunk and race cars, but the principles are essentially the same. Microchip technology, following the social coevolutionary pressure of fulfilling the prophecy of Moore’s Law, is close to becoming a decadent technology. If some other technology for computing fundamentally different from silicone wafer technology does not emerge soon (like quantum computing, which still seems to be some way off), the producers of microchips will come under considerable economic pressure to drive silicone technology beyond its natural (i.e., physical) limits and transform it into a decadent technology.

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Decadent technology

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Grand Strategy Annex

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