The Open Loop of Industrial-Technological Civilization
14 November 2013
In my post The Industrial-Technological Thesis I proposed that our industrial-technological civilization is uniquely characterized by an escalating feedback loop in which scientific discoveries lead to new technologies, technologies are engineered into industries, and industries produce new instruments for science, which results in further scientific discoveries. I have elaborated this view in several posts, most recently in The Growth of Historical Consciousness, in which latter I noted that I would call this cyclical feedback loop the “STEM cycle,” given that “STEM” has become a common acronym for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics,” and these are the elements involved in the escalating spiral of industrial-technological civilization.
Elsewhere, in Industrial-Technological Disruption, I considered some of the distinctive ways in which the STEM cycle stalls or fails. In that post I wrote, in part:
Science falters when model drift gives way to model crisis and normal science begins to give way to revolutionary science… Technology falters when its exponential growth tapers off and its attains a mature plateau, after which time it changes little and becomes a stalled technology. Engineering falters when industries experience the inevitable industrial accidents, intrinsic to the very fabric of industrialized society, or even experience the catastrophic failures to which complex systems are vulnerable.
The last of the above items — failures of engineering and industrial accidents — I have further elaborated more recently in How industrial accidents shape industrial-technological civilization.
This is not at all to say that these are the only ways in which the STEM cycle falters or fails. As I noted in Complex Systems and Complex Failure, complex systems fail in complex ways, and industrial-technological civilization is by far the most complex system on the planet. (Biological systems are extremely complex, but industrial-technological civilization supervenes upon biological complexity, and therefore, in the most comprehensive sense, includes biological complexity in its own complexity.)
In several of my posts on what I now call the STEM cycle I have called this cycle driving industrial-technological civilization a “closed loop.” I now realize that the STEM cycle is only a closed loop under certain “ideal” conditions (I will try to explain below why I put “ideal” in scare quotes). The messiness and imprecision of the real world means that most structures that we impose upon the world in order to understand it are simplified and schematic, and my description of the STEM cycle has been simplistic and schematic in this way. The actual function of science, technology, and engineering under contemporary socioeconomic conditions is far more complex, and that means that the STEM cycle is not a closed loop, but rather an unclosed loop, or an open feedback loop in which extrinsic forces at times enter into the STEM cycle while much of the productive energy of the STEM cycle is dissipated into extrinsic channels that contribute little or nothing to the furtherance of the STEM cycle.
Not every scientific discovery leads to technologies; not every technology can be engineered into an industry; not every industry produces new scientific instrumentation that can be employed in further scientific discoveries. Industrial-technological civilization produces epiphenomenal scientific knowledge, epiphenomenal technologies, and epiphenomenal engineering and industry — but enough science, technology and engineering participate in the STEM cycle to keep the processes of industrial-technological civilization moving forward for the time being.
I noted above that the STEM cycle is a closed loop only under “ideal” conditions, and these “ideal” conditions for the STEM cycle are not necessarily the “ideal” conditions for anything else — including the development of the features we value most highly in civilization. Pure science often results in little or no technology, and only rarely does it produce technologies in the near term. Many if not most technological innovations emerge from a long process of technological development that has scientific research only as a distant ancestor. The purest of the pure sciences — mathematics — has recently shown itself to have important applications in computer science, which has a direct impact on the economy, but it would be easy to cite numerous branches of mathematics which seem to have little or no relation to any technology, now or in the future.
Many perfectly viable technologies remain as mere curiosities. The history of technology is filled with such “hopeful monsters” that never caught on with the public or never found an application that would have justified their mass production. An interesting example of this would be the Einstein-Szilárd refrigerator, designed by Albert Einstein and Leo Szilárd. Both were to have much more “commercial” success with the atomic bomb, though I suspect both would have rather been successful with their refrigerator.
A great many industries, perhaps most industries, fulfill and respond to consumer demands that have little or no relationship to producing new scientific instruments that will lead to new scientific discoveries. And when industries do change science, it is often unintentional. The mass production of personal computers has profoundly affected the way that science is pursued, and has greatly stimulated scientific discovery (as has the internet), but little of this was the direct result of attempting to produce new and better scientific instruments.
It is entirely possible that a shift in social, economic, cultural, or other factors that influence or are influenced by the STEM cycle could increase the amount of epiphenomenal science, technology, and engineering, thus decreasing the efficiency of the STEM cycle. A permanent or semi-permanent change in social conditions (i.e., the social context in which the STEM cycle is played out) could introduce sufficient friction and inefficiency into the STEM cycle to retard or cease development and thereby to induce permanent stagnation (one of the categories of existential risk) into industrial-technological civilization.
There are, today, no end of prophecies of civilizational doom and stagnation, and it is not my intention merely to add one to their number, but it is an occupational hazard of the study of existential risk to consider such scenarios. The particular scenario I contemplate here is based on a particular mechanism that I believe uniquely characterizes industrial-technological civilization, and therefore demands our attention as it directly bears upon our viability as a civilization.
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