Thursday


STEM cycle epiphenomena 10

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.

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.

industrial technological civilization destructive cycle

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.)

industrial accidents

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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Tuesday


industrial accidents

In Industrial-Technological Disruption I tried to describe the systemic disruptions to the cycle that drives industrial-technological civilization — science inventing technologies that are engineered into industries that create new instruments for science, leading to further inventions. This cycle of escalation is impeded by counter-cyclical trends such as science experiencing model crisis, stalled technologies, and unintended consequences of engineering.

Among the unintended consequences of engineering I specifically cited industrial accidents. I explicitly discussed industrial accidents in Impossible Desires and Industrialized Civilization and its Accidents. I also discussed industrial accidents obliquely in Complex Systems and Complex Failure, which was concerned with the ways in which complex systems fail; it is a feature of industrial-technological civilization that as science and technology become more sophisticated, the systems that they produce become more complex and therefore exemplify complex failure when they fail. We like to think that we learn the lessons of our accidents and do better next time. And we do. We learn some hard lessons at the cost of lives, capital, and wasted time.

Learning our lessons, however, does not prevent future industrial accidents, because the cycle that drives industrial-technological civilization develops by continually revolutionizing production, and the continual revolutionizing of production means that there are always new scientific discoveries, new technologies, and new industrial processes. New and unfamiliar industrial processes mean new and unprecedented industrial accidents. And it is for this reason that industrial-technological civilization will always involve industrial accidents. One could say that industrial accidents are the natural disasters of industrial-technological civilization.

Thus while industrial accidents seem to be mere contingencies, ultimately irrelevant to the great project of industrialization, they in fact play a constitutive role in industrial-technological civilization, much as natural disasters play a decisive and constitutive role in agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization. It cannot be otherwise, living, as we do, in an accidental world, in which the importance of the uniqueness of the individual also attaches to the uniqueness of individual events, including accidental events.

There is another sense in which industrial accidents shape industrial-technological civilization that is perhaps even more radical than that outlined above because of the way that it ties in which the maturation of industrial-technological civilization, and therefore with its potential axialization.

Many observers of the regime of contemporary industrial civilization have noted that regulation almost always comes after there has been a major accident that results in multiple deaths. This is one of the ways in which the representatives of the institutions of industrial-technological civilization attempt to demonstrate to their constituents that they have learned the lessons of industrial accidents and are taking measures to address the problem. But, as observed above, industrial-technological civilization will always produce industrial accidents. This means that as industrial-technological civilization develops, it will always produce more accidents, these accidents will usually result in legislation and regulation to address the causes of the accident (ex post facto), and the regulatory burden on industrial will always increase even as new technologies are introduced — technologies which often make past dangers (and past regulations) irrelevant.

Thus the maturation of industrial-technological civilization becomes not an expression of the central idea of the civilization in mythological form — as with the axialization of the nomadic paradigm in the great cave art of paleolithic prehistory, or with the Axial Age religions delineated by Jaspers — but a legalistic compilation of regulations (and it could be argued that this formal legalism represents the essential idea of industrial-technological civilization). We have seen this before in civilization, as with the Corpus Iuris Civilis of the Byzantines, also known as Justinian’s Code.

The increasing legal formalism of mature industrial-technological civilization has significant consequences. In an early post, Exaptation of the Law, I argued that law has an intrinsic bias in favor of the past. In that post I wrote the following:

If we think of the common law tradition, in which there is no constitutional basis but only a history of case law, it is obvious that precedent plays a central role. A ruling in the past establishes a convention that is followed in later rulings preserves the past into the present. And we may think of the establishment of a constitution or formal statutes as a “re-setting” of precedent. Laws and constitutions are not written in a vacuum, and the legal history that precedes such an effort must loom large in the minds of those so occupied.

Industrial-technological civilization develops by continually revolutionizing production, and yet it is being driven by its own institutions in the direction of legalistic regulation biased in favor of the past. This tension comes dangerously close to institutionalizing permanent stagnation, which suggests that the development of industrial-technological civilization carries within itself the seeds of its own existential risk.

And we must not fail to see the central role of procedural rationality in industrial-technological civilization. In Capitalism and Human Rights I argued that the rule of law essential to the emergence of industrial capitalism was subsequently exapted by human rights advocates, and since a rigorous conception of property rights, rigorously observed, is a necessary condition of the development of industrialized capitalism, once these rigorous legal institutions began to be applied to human rights such claims could not be readily denied without calling into question the same property rights that made that civilization possible.

Thus we already have a reference in which industrial-technological civilization has been forced by its own institutions to accept principles that could be said to compromise the unconditioned pursuit of industrial capitalism. It is, then, not unprecedented to speculate that these same rigorous legal institutions of industrial-technological civilization may force that civilization into strangling itself with regulations and legislation that is feels compelled to observe even at the expense of its continued vitality. Indeed, in so far as the first signs of stagnation are social ossification and a de facto feudalism within industrial society, we can see that this growing legalism is perfectly consistent with the view that crony capitalism may be the mature form of industrial-technological civilization.

While this is not a happy prospect for me, the good news here is that, in so far as permanent stagnation is an existential risk of industrial-technological civilization, if we can understand the structures that generate this risk, we can employ our knowledge in the mitigation of that risk.

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Monday


In The Industrial-Technological Thesis I characterized industrial-technological civilization as involving an escalating cycle of science, technology, and engineering, each generation of which feeds into the next so that science makes new technologies possible, new technologies are engineered into new industries, and new industries create the instruments for further scientific research. I further argued in Civilization, War, and Industrial Technology that the only property more pervasively inherent in industrial-technological civilization than escalating feedback is war — since escalating feedback is characteristic only of The Industrial-Technological Thesis, whereas war typifies all civilization. Thus technological growth and war are both structurally inherent in The Industrial-Technological Thesis, so much so that to entertain the idea of civilization without either is probably folly.

Now I realize that in recounting the escalating spiral of science, technology and engineering, that I was recounting only the “creative” side of the “creative destruction” of industrialized capitalism, and that the creative destruction of capitalism as it is played out in industrial-technological civilization also has a destructive side that is expressed in a way entirely consonant with the distinctive character of industrial-technological civilization. Each phase in the cycle of science, technology, and engineering fails in a distinctive (and in a distinctively interesting) way.

The counter-cyclical trend to that of the exponentially escalating spiral of science, technology, and engineering is the exponentially deescalating downward trend of science in model crisis, stalled technology, and catastrophic failures of engineering. Science falters when model drift gives way to model crisis and normal science begins to give way to revolutionary science. Human beings, being what they are, have invested science with the “truth” once reserved for matter theological; but science has no “truths” — there is only the scientific method, which remains the same even while the knowledge that this method yields is always subject to change. 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.

Industrial accidents are intrinsic to industrialized society, and cannot be wished away.

I hadn’t previously thought of these disruptions to industrial-technological civilization together, but now that I see them whole I see that I have already written separately about all the phases of failure that so closely parallel the successes of industrialization. Mostly, I think, these disruptions have taken place separately, and have therefore only proved to be temporary disruptions in the rapidly-resuming cycle of technological growth. However, once we see the possible failures as a systemic, counter-cyclical trend that destroys old knowledge, old technology, and old industries in order to make room for the new, we can easily see the possibility of an escalating disruption in which scientific model crisis would limit knowledge, limited knowledge would lead to long term stalled technologies, and stalled technologies would lead to escalating industrial accidents and complex catastrophic failures.

None of this, of course, is in the least bit surprising. Ever since the industrialized warfare of the twentieth century we have been discussing the possibility that industrial-technological civilization will more or less inevitably destroy itself. Civilization, when it was suddenly and unexpectedly preempted by industrialization, has opened Pandora’s box, and the evils that fly free cannot be shut back inside.

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