Decadent Technologies

4 June 2012

Monday


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“Present technologies will stall, and they will eventually be superseded by unpredicted and unpredictable technologies that will emerge to surpass them.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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Technological Succession

25 January 2011

Tuesday


Knives constitute a perennial technology

Reflecting on what I wrote some time ago about mature technologies, stalled technologies, and perennial technologies — whether hardware technologies or social technologies, i.e., whether a structural innovation or a functional innovation — I realized the inadequacy of throwing together these categories of technological institutions. For particular technologies have their distinctive institutions no less than particular peoples have their distinctive institutions.

Bicycle technology has improved significantly, but the basic design has not changed in more than a hundred years. Bicycles, then, would seem to be a perennial technology, though they emerged much later in history than knives.

An appropriately fine-grained account of technological institutions would recognize that while mature and perennial technologies are both robust and durable technologies, they nevertheless represent robustness and durability for different reasons. Indeed, there is a sense in which perennial and mature technologies are opposed, and that sense is rooted in the natural history of both technologies. A perennial technology derives from the first stages of the succession of technological institutions, while a mature technology derives from the latest stages of the succession of technological institutions.

Nuclear warhead design is now a mature technology that reflects a period of rapid development followed by a plateau of incremental development.

Perennial technologies are those which perennially emerge even under adverse conditions. These are the hardiest, and their appearance in the historical record is a response to perennial needs. Mature technologies emerge from stable societies with stable institutions that allow for continued and continuous development of a given technology over time. Such mature technologies do no necessarily correspond to a perennial social need, although changed social conditions that make use of available technologies create needs previously unanticipated.

Most of our strategic weapons systems are mature technologies.

A perennial technology matures early and remains useful despite having attained a plateau. It is useful precisely because it cannot be improved upon in any essential way. A perennial technology may change in inessential ways, and later iterations may make use of indirect technological innovations, but direct technological innovations to essentials are not possible for a truly perennial technology. Perennial technology could be defined in terms of its imperviousness to essential improvement.

I have argued previously that tire chains are a perennial technology, although I will allow that they are a little more problematic since they are contingent upon automobile technology, which is now a mature technology. However, tire chain design is not likely to change any more significantly than bicycle design.

Sometimes it is quite difficult to improve upon a perennial technology, even if it has direct origins in the earliest stages of technological succession. A knife, for example, is a perennial technology, and knives date back to the earliest human technological innovations. While the construction and composition of knives have changed as technology has changed, this is just an improvement in the way to produce essentially the same thing. It should also be noted that there is a great diversity of knives, some of them highly specialized for a particular purpose, and some of them useful precisely because they are not specialized. (It is interesting to observe that a tool or technology produced without a specific use in mind cannot properly said to be exapted by any unanticipated use in the future.)

A mature technology, on the other hand, derives from the later stages of technological succession. A mature technology has achieved a plateau in its development, with most of its aspects having been explored for their possibilities to further extend and exploit the technology. The technology of nuclear weapons is a mature technology. There are many designs for many different varieties of nuclear weapons, most designs have been tested repeatedly, and most of the possibilities of the technology have been explored. The technology of automobiles is also a mature technology.

Some technologies are more difficult to classify, and perhaps deserve a category of their own. It is to be expected that there will be problematic cases, which is not a counter-example to the clear cases that are easy to classify. (And this latter observation is a clear example of what I have called an unnamed principle and an unnamed fallacy and later called the truncation principle.)

It can now be seen that what I previously formulated in terms of the Law of Stalled Technologies has an alternate formulation in terms of technological succession. That is to say, we could formulate a law of technological succession, and it would look a lot like the law of stalled technologies.

The overtaking of a stalled technology that remains at a given plateau by another technology that fulfills a similar need but 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 technological coevolution.

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.

In Political Constraints on Weapons Systems I attempted to demonstrate some ways in which weapons systems, presumably constructed on a pure “form follows function” principle, with the function understood as winning battles, in fact are deeply embedded in a social context that dictate what tactical imperatives will be embodied in weapons systems. The idea of technological succession tied to coevolution with evolving social institutions gives us an alternative formulation of the same basic idea. Social institutions that govern the fighting of battles and the waging of wars spur particular developments of tactics and weapons systems, and these tactics and weapons systems, once employed in the battlespace, constitute a changed condition that will, in the fullness of time, make itself felt in the social institutions that influenced their development.

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technological succession

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Blindsided by History

16 February 2009


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It was never my intention to write so much here about artificial intelligence and machine consciousness, but having visited the topic in The Singularity has no Clothes and returned to it in The Law of Stalled Technologies, it becomes more apparent with each further glance at the topic that a brief treatment cannot do justice to all the issues involved. Also, it has been a fruitful inquiry. We have seen that a consideration of the possibility of a “technological singularity” led us to the Law of Stalled Technologies, and this in turn led us to the realization that social technologies may well manifest a similar pattern of development.

I ought to point out that I am not an AI “skeptic.” I’m not even a skeptic of the possibility of machine consciousness in a strong and robust form. On the contrary, if I had to give my position a name I suppose I would have to call myself an “inevitabilist” as it seems to me that if industrial-technological civilization has the opportunity to continue its present course of development, it will inevitably converge upon artificial intelligence and even machine consciousness — in some form, however inscrutable. And this is an important qualification to make, since if and when machine consciousness emerges in history, it will be incomprehensibly alien, perhaps unrecognizable for what it is (i.e., as another form of consciousness, distinct from human consciousness), because it will have emerged from a different evolutionary process than that from which we emerged.

We should expect to be blindsided by the future, as history is inherently unpredictable. Just ask a Marxist. Marx was supposed to have discovered the laws whereby history functions; some of his followers saw him as the Newton who gave the laws of motion for human society. Only, things didn’t work out the way Marx predicted. And even after history has run its course, people fight over the meaning and significance of what happened. Just ask an historian. There is little consensus on what actually happened in the past, for the past is a battleground.

Putting faith in our powers of prediction is a fool’s errand. Usually we cannot even see what is in front of our noses. One striking feature of intelligence gathering efforts in the twentieth century was its utter failure. All the biggest world events — what geopolitical types now call “strategic shocks” — were completely unexpected and blindsided even the experts. While there has been a lot of backpedaling during the past twenty years, I was old enough at the time of the collapse of communism in eastern Europe to remember how completely unexpected it was. And, of course, the same is true of the financial crisis today. After the fact, everyone says that they saw it coming. The fact is, almost no one saw it coming. It is a particular dishonesty of our time that so few are willing to admit it.

While I have just pointed out above how wrong Marx was, I will now make the point (after having much criticized Marx in this forum) of observing the sense in which Marx was a true visionary. Marx, unlike most men of his time, knew that he was witnessing a revolution. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, transforming the world of everyone, Marx included, but Marx was one of the few to explicitly realize that he was seeing a revolution. His vision opened his eyes to what was going on around him. Indeed, it was Marx’s realization that he was seeing a revolution that made him aware that revolutions were in fact possible and therefore there could be a revolution of the industrial proletariat that would expropriate the expropriators. It is a powerful vision, but it has remained a vision only.

Marx the visionary recognized the Industrial Revolution and was inspired by the possibility of further revolution.

Marx the visionary recognized the Industrial Revolution when others did not and was inspired by the possibility of further revolution.

Similarly, our world has been and is being transformed by technology. It is a revolution, although this time there is more of an awareness that it is a revolution. Kurzweil’s prediction of a technological singularity is essentially a prediction of the precise form that a further technological revolution will take. My issue it not with a technological revolution, but that it will take the form of a technological singularity, or, for that matter, any vision of a technological utopia in which human beings no longer struggle but rather enjoy unlimited abundance and leisure. This simply isn’t how the world works. We know we are alive because we struggle, and when we cease to struggle we will have given up and dropped out of history. The end.

The HAL 9000 was the frightening fictional introduction to AI for many of us.

The HAL 9000 was the frightening fictional introduction to AI for many of us.

Fortunately, it is not yet the end for us — not quite yet, at least. The more I think about it, the more Kurzweil’s approach to AI and machine consciousness — “simple methods combined with heavy doses of computation” — is the antithesis of mind. It is the technological approach, and this approach has been buttressed by successes such as Deep Blue, but it is an approach that will stall, since it is based on a highly specific technology.

the factual introduction to AI for many of us.

One of several versions of IBM's Deep Blue: the factual introduction to AI for many of us.

Moore’s law, in its original form (and it has received several forms as its supporters have re-formulated it as technology has changed), was a very specific prediction about a very specific technology: it was concerned with how many transistors can be fit on an integrated circuit. The technology of integrated circuits has rapidly reached a point of maturity, and when this specific technology stalls can be predicted on the basis of known materials science.

This is not to say that computers might not continue to realize tremendous gains in performance, but if they do so it will be because new technologies replace integrated circuit technologies, which cannot function when the miniaturization of transistors falls below the size of the molecules of the particular materials used to create transistors in integrated circuits. At this point, the technology by definition reaches its end. There may be increases in computer performance from such things as quantum computing, but this is a distinct technology based on distinct materials and processes. Further improvements will not come from the stalled, older technologies, but from the new, innovative technologies only now beginning to experience an initial exponential growth.

Similarly, even if artificial intelligence and machine consciousness are inevitable, that does not mean that they can be predicted, projected, or extrapolated on the basis of present technologies. There is an element of anachronism in even supposing that this is so, and that is part of the charm of failed futurisms of the past. The simplicity of consciousness is the exact opposite of Kurzweil’s approach, which latter is based on a projection of present technologies. Consciousness operates with a large stock of rules of thumb derived from experience and many principles derived from reflection, and it works on a very few select perceptions retrieved from the preconscious mind.

Failed futurisms of the past are endlessly entertaining, and it is worth enquiring into why this is the case.

Failed futurisms of the past are endlessly entertaining, and it is worth inquiring into why this is the case.

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. While engineers and technologists may be slow to grasp this, canny politicians have exploited this facet of social technologies from the beginning of time: all hope is fixed upon the revolution that promises fundamental change, and not upon the Old Order, which is seen as demoralized, decadent, and compromised.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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