Monday, January 2, 2017

We are being lied to II (technology will deliver us? Ha!)

In my latest post I devoted some time to debunk one of the most pervasive lies we are being told, the fact that the economy is growing at an unprecedented pace (which it is not) and how that justifies any effort and any sacrifice from all the social body (as for some parts of the social body, that happen to be the vast majority of it, both income and wealth have not grown in the last half century, and in some not-as-well-measured aspect like population’s ability to reproduce itself they have indeed contracted). I briefly mentioned two other lies that act as additional alibis for keeping the current social compact going (that may weight against “rocking the boat” and attempting to change some fundamental rules) that are almost as widely held as sacrosanct truths but, not having much time I didn’t develop them as much as what I think they merit, so in today’s post I’m going to present in more length y arguments against them:

 Lie # 2: thanks to the spread of innovations, technology will solve all of our problems

In a number of fields, from growing inequality to the accelerating degradation of our shared environment (by biodiversity loss, depletion of non-renewable resources and global warming) the case is made from a number of opinion makers (which, on not-too-close examination many times happen to be funded by companies that benefit greatly from the maintenance of current arrangements) that no change is really required on how we organize society and conduct businesses, as new technologies, today unforeseen, will come to our rescue and solve today’s ills without pain and without anybody having to renounce to their current level of consumption. Ah, the paretian magic economists have been raised to believe in!

Of course, the luster of technological advance wears off quite fast when you dispel the previous lie and consider that most of the advantages new technology may bring will be enjoyed only by a tiny minority, and that the price to be paid for such minor improvements will be borne by the vast majority, who will live in a grossly despoiled and impoverished planet (but you don’t have to take my word for it, the pope of the Catholic Church, an institution not typically noted for its progressivism or distaste for earthly injustice, has devoted his latest encyclical just to such perils: on "Laudato si") without reaping any of the supposed benefits that the development of the latest generation of costly baubles has delivered.

However, that is not the worst part of it, and that is why the second lie has also to be put to rest independently of the first one. To that end, let’s get bac to basic, and try to disentangle what humans need to lead a rewarding life from what humans want to lead a satisfying life (a distinction that both economists and politicians tend to forget, and that their disciplines studiously erase). The first is dictated by our nature (oooops, such a slippery, contentious issue! Do human beings have a nature at all? Aren´t we all just 100% a product of malleable culture, free to invent ourselves in any way or shape we fashion? Well, of course not you silly, human nature is as stubborn and solid a reality as you can dream of, although being free, and thus having a certain leeway to overcome its dictates is part and parcel of it) whilst the second is imposed from outside, and coordinated so it is reasonably coherent within any self-perpetuating group by that wonderful collective arrangement called dominant reason (more about that towards the end of the post). And what our nature dictates we need is pretty simple, and can be summarized in the famous 4F+B formula: we need food, fiber (clothing), fuel (energy) and procreation, plus (outside the milder climates) building materials to erect shelters to protect us from the weather.

So let’s review how technology has improved our capability to produce any of those basic needs, and how it seems poised to push it further:

·         Food: tremendous advances in the last two centuries, since we got better at understanding what nutrients the different crops require from the soil, thus improving crop rotation and reducing the use of fallow lands, using manure (and later on, artificially produced fertilizers, thanks to the Haber-Bosch process) and finally reducing the loss to insects that competed with us for the food through pesticides. However, those impressive advances (that have allowed us to go from producing barely enough food for one billion human beings, requiring the toil of 95% of the population to producing in excess for 9 billion, requiring the work of less than 10% of the population) achieved their peak in the 70’s of last centuries (the “green revolution”, for which Borlaug received the Nobel prize in 1970) and although still producing great results today just by being applied in less developed countries (Bill Gates is a big proponent, and has donated 1.4 billion dollars to further it in places like India and Bangladesh… the result? Crop yields roughly doubled in the last decade) it is, thankfully, of less and less relevance because, hope you are seated before hearing such groundbreaking news, producing enough food is not a problem for the human species (we already do it at a clip of roughly between 1.2 and 1.4 times what we actually need or can conserve, having to basically dump 30% of what we cultivate). You may hear about the use of satellites to more finely monitor the situation of crops, and allowing to raise them with less water consumption and less pesticides, and of course, the omnipresent promise of genetic engineering to create magical varieties that will yield even more edible matter with less water and inbuilt resistance to pests. Guess what? We have been genetically engineering these things (technically called “plants”) for millennia, and the room for improvement over what is actually achievable is now exceedingly small. But hey, I’m not against ultra-rich philanthropists throwing money at a non-existing problem, far from it. Only I’m not very optimistic it’s going to have much impact.

·         Fiber: If having enough to eat stopped being a collective problem half a century ago, having enough to cover ourselves and protect our fragile bodies from the merciless elements is something we solved about twice that time ago. Sure, we have been very good at creating silly fashion waves to force consumers to keep on buying pieces of clothing at ever shorter intervals so we can keep lots of people in Bangladesh and Vietnam sewing in unsanitary conditions for a few pennies a day (and a few people in our own countries cashing nice, fat profits from distributing and advertising the garments, you wouldn’t believe for a moment that we kept on throwing “fashion weeks” at our main capitals for the Vietnamese and the Bangladeshis, would you?) Again, you may expect some improvements in how patterning, cutting and sewing are done in more automated factories, further reducing the amount of people that can earn a semi-decent living from the trade, and further increasing the speed of rotation due to obsolescence in the first world, but don’t expect any major breakthrough in that area either. It is an already solved problem, and society tends not to spend much effort to solve again what has already been solved.

·         Fuel: now, come on! At least here there must have been some advance! Germany is in the midst of the Energiewende! And they will cut greenhouse emissions by 90% by 2050! And they will produce 50 to 60% of their energy from renewables by that same date! And fusion energy is around the corner! And the price of solar has been cut in an order of magnitude! And solar is already economical without subsidies! And wind… well wind is probably slightly cheaper than it was a couple decades ago! Sigh… If “ifs” and “ands” were pots and pans, there’d be no work for tinker’s hands. The only real effect of Germany’s valiant policy so far is to raise the price of electricity between a 30 and a 40% and to increase its production of greenhouse gasses. The intermediate targets for 2020 are almost certainly not going to be met, and only God knows what may happen after that (not that I’m against their push, only that before holding it as an example of what less wealthy countries should so it would be nice to have all the data). Fusion is just a super costly experiment in Cadarache which nobody knows what it is good for, and that is going (slowly and expensively) nowhere. Solar is in its very early stages of technological development (look at the “state of the art” plants for concentrated thermosolar, which would solve the problem of storage, both in Tonopah, USA, and in Ouarzazate in Morocco, and tell me how economical and competitive it already is; everything else are projects or demonstrators, I know, drawing plot plans is cheap and low risk) and it will take decades (not years) to have it working anywhere near competitiveness. Photovoltaic requires batteries being priced in the whole model so comparisons can be properly drawn, and is not competitive even in the Sahara desert, let alone Denmark, and on and on we could go. But we have a bright spot: fracking is a technological breakthrough that has allowed us, as a species, to pump cheaper hydrocarbons from the crust of the planet, so we can burn more of them. Whopeee! Some progress! In summary: no significant progress in the energy generation department

·         Procreation: it is the prerogative of every human generation to believe they have discovered sex (and of their parents to believe in turn they have discovered being scandalized by their progeny’s salaciousness) since we invented language. I already devoted some satirical space to the prospect of applying AI to sex toys (the final impulse for AI?) and won’t expand on that particular trope, but will at least say this: past certain point people need to fornicate not because some primeval urge forces them no matter what (although I reckon males between 18 and 45 years may find that point particularly hard to reach) but because they are bored. Human beings, once they have satisfied the need for the three previous F’s need something to turn their minds to and avoid facing the grim prospect of being left alone with themselves and having to, um, actually think something (just being unnecessarily obnoxious here, I now). Looking who to bang (and even better, who to prevent from banging others) has been historically one of the great sources of amusement of the species, and such need is not to be lightly set aside. Only it has traditionally happened mostly outside of the commercial sphere (yup, prostitution has been called “the oldest profession” for a reason, but optimistic me prefers to think that the hiring of someone for sex is but a very insubstantial part of the satisfaction of our desire for entertainment), and only in the last two centuries has it become an ever increasing part of GDP. We’ll have more to say about the growing weight of the “boredom-avoidance industry” (aka “culture”), suffice it to say at this point that although the way it is distributed is still undergoing massive changes, the way it is produced (and even what such production consists in) is not amenable to much change, and we shouldn’t expect dramatic changes in the coming decades (I’m fully aware this goes against the grain of much of mass media analysis, from MacLuhan on, for which new media is coextensive with radically new and altered messages… count me a contrarian also on this).

·         Building: just take a walk around any city, be it in the West, in the fast developing Asian economies or in the undeveloped world and tell me with a straight face we are witnessing a time of innovation in how human dwellings are conceived, built or sold… City halls still keep a wholly artificial scarcity of land (that super old fashion factor of production, that has stayed not just relevant into our days, but predominantly so) that has managed to smother any attempt at creativity from architects and engineers. I know, some visionary “star architect” (I’m thinking in Santiago Calatrava, Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry…) may have devised some highly original constructions here and there (but few for actually living in them) employing some new technique and innovative materials, but I think I’m not off the mark if I say their work has not been that much influential and that most architecture we see actually being built today is overwhelmingly “traditional” (even the megaprojects undertaken for prestige reason seem like version of what “futuristic” skyscrapers looked like in the 70’s with a few additional stories added on top).

So in any of the areas of providing for “basic” human needs, there is not much innovation going on. However, we are bombarded with the message that these are distinctly innovative times, that the very fabric of our society is being redesigned and reweaved from the ground up, that every institution and belief is up for grabs, questioned and streamlined by the ever accelerating impulse of wondrous and earth-shattering technologies that allow us to define how we want to live from the ground up, soon to be freed from the last remnants of necessity and scarcity in a world of plenty. Hence the disconnect?

The deep reasons behind the monstrous lies we are being ceaselessly told would require a post of their own, I’ll just point here that there are some groups that benefit enormously from the current status quo (the 1% that has been hoarding all the increased wealth that is being produced, and that indeed is benefitting from the minuscule amount of innovation -heavily concentrated on luxury goods- that has happened through a sclerotic system that is well past its prime of civilizational vigor).

Also, there is this one area where there have been innovations aplenty: that of entertainment and simulation, where software and computing squarely seats. A lot of enthusiastic journalists, knowing very little about how the world actually works (but, in a nice application of the Dunning-Kruger effect, believing that by having talked with some CEOs with a strong vested interest in convincing said journalists that them and the likes of them are going to fundamentally change the world, see latest and most refined example: Tom Friedman more and more away from reality) keep on parroting such lies, and a substantial part of the population seems to have taken their words, as they say, line, hook and sinker. I already devote some lines to try to debunk the impact of increasingly meaningless software (Guys, forget about Sw, it's gettin' you nowhere) and how its impact in how the world works, how society works, how human lives develop and flourish (or not) would be minimal, so I will not repeat them here. I’ll finish today by sharing a well-known fact, taken verbatim from the excellent The Rise and Fall of American Growth, by Robert Gordon (o work I’ve quoted frequently of late). A puzzle of the last decade is why, if we are in the midst of such revolutionary times, total factor productivity has not only failed to grow, but is trending distinctly below the peak it reached around the middle of last century (after a brief reprieve in the 90’s):

So, frankly, next time somebody tries to sell me the wondrous effects of technology either show me something that affects the 4F+B, or something that explains why we seem to only improve minimally what it takes to produce the goods and services we actually are able to measure. And I know the tired argument of “people had a sad collection of a few dozen vinyl LPs and now they have all the music ever recorded at their fingertips (or the whole content of the Encyclopedia Britannica, or any movie ever filmed)”… which they then use to hear the same song by Justin Bieber again and again.

‘nuff said for today, we’ll deal with the 3rd lie another day 


  1. It's a case of "everything old is new again" We keep pointing to our technology when the real problem is that humans haven't evolved over the last 10,000 or so years. And now you have the audacity to tell me that the tech is just so much hokum?

    We're too busy running away from reality so we have to substitute with "reality" TV and now "virtual" reality.

    So, yeah, we're no longer standing still, we've reversed direction. Think I'll head out for the towpath and the woods and a semblance of quietude. (I'm living on the sharp edge of Trump country in Ohio)

    1. Good luck with that, Lady. I wouldn't go as far as to say we've reversed direction yet (although I fear we soon may), but stillness still looks a lot like reversion when so many opinion makers keep yelling how fast forward we are advancing while we don't move at all...
      The woods and a semblance of quietude seems an awfully better place to be than the hustle and bustle of an imagined "progress" towards nowhere land, so again, best to you and thanks for reading!