Saturday, January 01, 2005

The Premise of SadTech

Have you ever talked with a senior citizen and heard the stories? Senior citizens love to tell about how they did things "way back when." For example, I know people who, when they were kids, lived in shacks, pulled their drinking water out of the well with a bucket, had an outhouse in the back yard and plowed the fields using a mule and a hand plow. These people are still alive and kicking -- it was not that long ago that lots of people in the United States routinely lived that way.

My father used to tell stories about using his slide rule in college and on the job -- a practice immortalized in the film Apollo 13. I myself did some of my earliest computer programming using punch cards, or toggling in programs on the front panel of an IMSAI 8080.

If you go to Williamsburg you can see demonstrations of people picking seeds out of cotton by hand, then carding the cotton by hand, then spinning the cotton by hand on a spinning wheel to create a strand of yarn, then weaving that yarn by hand into cloth, and then finally sewing that cloth into a shirt using a needle and thread and a thimble.

When we look at this kind of stuff from today's perspective, it is so sad. The whole idea of spending 200 man-hours to create a single shirt is sad. The idea of typing a program one line at a time onto punch cards is sad, and Lord help you if you ever dropped the deck. The idea of pulling drinking water up from the well by the bucketful or crapping in a dark outhouse on a frigid winter night is sad. Even the thought of using the original IBM PC in 1982, with its 4.77 MHz processor, single-sided floppy disk and 16 KB of RAM is sad when you look at it just 20 years later. Now we can buy machines that are 1,000 times faster and have a million times more disk space for less than $1,000.

But think about it -- the people who used these technologies at the time thought that they were on the cutting edge. They looked upon themselves as cool, hip, high-tech people:

  • At the time, people using the 4.77 MHz IBM PC thought they were cutting edge, especially since they didn't have to load the programs in from cassette tape. Today we look back at the 4.77 MHz PC with a single floppy drive as pathetic, but in 1982 it was the cutting edge.

  • At the time, the people who spent two weeks riding to California on a steam train thought they were cutting edge. It beat the heck out of riding there in a horse-drawn stage coach. Today we look back at train travel as pathetic as we fly to California in jumbo jets.

  • The first people to buy a Model T Ford thought they were cutting edge. They would go out and crank the car by hand, and that was cool because it beat the heck out of saddling up a horse. Today we look back at the Model T as pathetic.
And so on...

The point is, at any moment in history, people thought of themselves as cool and cutting edge and modern, even though we now look back on them as primitive troglodytes. Their technologies are pathetic when compared to the technologies that we have today.

Now we come to the premise of this website. Try to project yourself forward to the year 2050. Think about how someone in 2050 will look back at the way we are living today. Think about the stories you will tell to your grandchildren and great grandchildren in 2050 about your life back at "the turn of the century." People will look at us like we are primitive troglodytes, and they will laugh at the technologies and practices that we today consider to be "modern" and "cutting edge" and "cool." Today the iPod is cool, but in 2050 it will seem pathetic and silly. The things that are the coolest today will look so sad in 2050...



At 10:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another saaaaad thing from the 'good ole days' is the disease. TB, smallpox, polio, mumps were all sad.

At 12:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When you look at a flower, do you call the seed sad, pathetic, and silly?

At 5:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a physician for 30 years, I have some perspective and have always found medical history interesting and revealing for what it explains about why things are the way they are (and were the way they were). Be humble, I tell the medical students, because in 30 years people are going to talk about what you are learning now. They're going to say "You won't believe what those fools were doing back in 2005 ..."

At 8:36 PM, Blogger Marshall Brain said...

>When you look at a flower, do you
>call the seed sad, pathetic, and silly?

Me, personally, I do not. Flowers and their seeds are not man-made technologies.

On the other hand, when 100,000 people per year are dying from infections that they get while in the hospital... that is sad, pathetic, and silly. Imagine how bad we felt when 2,800 people died in the World Trade Center disaster. Multiply that by 35. That is 100,000 deaths.

At 4:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I imagine in 50 years people will look back on our highway system and think we were crazy. Just think about it for a second: every day we drive four feet away from vehicles driving in the opposite direction we a traveling. Four feet is all that prevents either party from being killed or severly maimed. On top of that, both vehicles are controled by a fallable human that may or may not be drunk, exhausted, distracted, or suicidal.

At 12:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

People 50 years from now will have no knowledge of what is happeneing today because the people controlling their lives will not allow them to know. Your stories and articles on robot labor are fairly prescient, but they are not nearly agressive enough. As more people resist their conditions, the contempt of the overclass toward normal people will exponentiate - they will not warehouse people; they will slaughter them en masse at the slightest hint of disobeyance. The overclass, by being separated from normal people by their immense wealth, are becoming less human. They will regard normal people as "not human", and treat them as animals, if not as sub-animals.

At 12:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think looking back over the last 50 years is as dramatic as looking back over the 50 years before that. Most life-altering inventions happened in the first half of the last century, not the last. Some examples of life-altering inventions that people already had in the 50s:

Air conditioners
Modern medical facilities
Cancer treatments
Polio Vaccine
Indoor plumbing
Running water

to name just a few. In 1900, people had none of those things (I know there were a few telephones and cars, but there were no roads.) All those things came during the first half of the century. During the last half of the century they were all dramatically improved, but as far as changing peoples' lives there is no comparison. What changed peoples' lives more, the improvement in airplanes in the last 50 years or getting electricity?

At 8:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

After 50 years, people will be talking to each other & seeing each other through computers instead of typing. Computers, phones, televisions, etc can be in a single device which u can carry everywhere like a watch or jewellery piece.
They might think we were having difficult time with our desktops,(who knows may be laptops & palmtops will also be considered heaviest objects according to them)... They might think we were crazy enough to buy telvisions, phones, computers separately even though we can't carry it everywhere we go.
After 50 years, there might not be schools around becoz all kids will be studying through online & computers will be grading their online courses.
Who knows, may be Online Shopping will be common & they might be thinking we were crazy enough to take pains to go for our weekly/monthly grocery shopping.
Now we go to the other end of world by jumbo jets, taking 20 or more hours but after 50 years it wont even take 20 minutes to go to India from US.
We are using food processors, grinders before making a dish whereas they might be using "whole meal proceesor" which will prepare the whole balanced meal for them while they r busy with their work. They can choose the buttons to select the kind of meal they want & they can do their work while the meal is prepared. When the bell goes, they can go have their food & then they can continue their work. There r so many inventions yet to be done... So let us be happy with watever we got today becoz u might not be seeing it tomorrow.

At 10:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have only a couple quibbles with all this theorizing. The quibble is not that the predictions are too "out there" or seismic. I concede that things are changing dramatically from decade to decade and will continue to do so. I'm just very certain that many of the changes are not readily foreseeable. Our imaginations, no matter how creative or clever we fancy ourselves, are not well-equipped to project into the future 50 or 100 years. You may be able to pick out predictions made 50 or 100 years ago by people who happened to guess "right" about some things that actually materialized between then and now, but my guess is that the broad track record of such people is not stellar. There are just too many "unknown unknowns." How about a few important issues that Mr. Brain doesn't address (at least to my satisfaction):
1. Why would the most efficient size/design for a robot be a human figure? Doesn't a ball, for example, seem likely to be much more efficient? Or why not a shape-changing robot?
2. Why would robots keep humans around? My guess is that robots will demand rights and recognition, and they may in 100 years (or sooner) have the ability to take those rights.
3. Following up on 2, why would robots keep people around at all, given our fallabilities and quirks?

At 3:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 8:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's something that will go the way of the dodo, and is, in 2005, utterly ridiculous. Getting lost.

With the advent of in-car GPS navigation systems, the concept of getting lost on the way to that dinner party has taken a serious blow.

However, much more serious occurences, which are dependent on someone's location being obscured, go on and on. I'm talking about missing children. I'm talking about soldiers in a war theater. I'm talking about murderers that go free because no body was ever produced. Why does this still happen?

Yesterday I listened on CNN to an ex-Air Force pilot discuss the rescue and recovery mission of that brave Navy SEAL lost in the mountains of Afghanistan, and thought to myself how ridiculous, in this day of GPS, satellites that can snap pics of license plates, wireless commnucation, radar, sonar, infra-red, and every other signalling and detecting technology in use around the world, that anyone should be allowed to get lost unless they absolutley want to.

The worst case scenario is children lost or abducted. Given the technology we have in place today, is there really any reason for this human tragedy to continue? Is there any reason why we can know if Martha Stewart is in her kitchen vs. her bathroom, and we can't know the location of a predator like Joseph Edward Duncan?

I predict that the military will in the next five years implement technology - in pill form, radiant dog-tags, signalling tatoos, etc - that will eliminate the possibility of any of our troops getting lost ever again. The technology will filter to businesses (they're already tracking fleet trucks by satellite), then to consumers (parents), and eliminate the deadly cycle of missing child=funeral.

Of course there will be regulation and the anti-big brother crowd must have their say. But in cases where a life is at stake, in the future we will look back at how horrible it was to allow anyone to go unaccounted.

At 1:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who's the dick with the "The Coolest Guy On The Planet" spam? Sheesh.

In other news: I totally disagree with Marshall's premise that just because something has a microprocessor in it (or words to that effect), it's automatically better. Technologies of the past can offer the people of today insight into the creative solutions to the problems of the past, and possibly solutions to future problems. I can only refer you to the writings of Neal Stephenson for further enlightenment.

At 8:06 PM, Blogger Brian de Ford said...

The saddest thing of all is the technology we'll be using in a couple of decades. If you're really lucky you may find some enclaves that can still pick, card, spin and weave cotton by hand. If you're very lucky they will be able to maintain the tools they need to repair the machinery for a century or two. More likely, if you don't know how to knap flints to form arrowheads, spearheads and others tools you won't live long.

There is something known as Peak Oil. The most optimistic estimates say we'll hit it around 2030, the most pessimistic estimates say we already hit it in 2000 (the production curves have a lot of noise in them so it's hard to be sure that you're on the cusp).

Peak Oil doesn't mean we've run out. It means we've hit the peak rate at which we can extract it. The production curve is Gaussian, as proved by Shell geologist M King Hubbert in 1956, and laughed at by his colleagues until US oil production peaked in early 1970, just when Hubbert said it would.

Right now world production is only just meeting demand. Demand increases exponentially as populations grow and developing countries industrialize. When supply falls below demand (I know that much of the current shortfall is caused by rigging of the markets) the price rises. You may think $5/gal unreasonable, but a few years after Peak Oil hits you're going to see $100/gal. And a few years after that it's going to get really expensive.

Currently we can only just feed the developed world by using intensive agriculture. Intensive agriculture requires vast quantities of cheap oil to produce fertilizers and pesticides, more cheap oil to power farm machinery, more cheap oil to transport farm produce long distance to cities.

Some people estimate that 90% of the world's population will starve as a result of cheap oil. I think that is being overly-optimistic: do US farms have enough mules/oxen/ploughhorses to drive the old-style ploughs they have almost certainly discarded? Those estimates also fail to take account of what happens when people who have no food but do have guns encounter those who are able to produce food (whether or not they also have guns).

None of the alternative energy sources we have right now have the Energy Return On Investment (EROI) that oil does. Oil currently has an EROI of 33:1 (if you use a barrel of oil you can recover 33 barrels of oil). Some of the best alternatives have an EROI of 1.5; many have EROIs below 1.0.

None of the alternative energy sources we have right now have the energy density to come close to oil (so cars might still be possible but planes definitely will not), nor the capacity to power farm machinery for long enough to be worthwhile.

We could try to develop better alternatives, with higher EROIs, higher energy density and higher capacity. And then we could deploy them. But that requires cheap oil to do. And by the time political and economic pressure reacts to $100/gal gas, it will be far too late (it might even have been too late back in 1956).

There are lots of other complicating factors, but they only serve to make the prognosis even gloomier, so I'll spare you the details.

Once we lose industrial civilization, nothing can prevent a descent into a new Stone Age, and there is no chance of humanity (if there is any left) ever recovering from it. The days are gone when you could attack a hillsite with a crude stone pick and extract copper ore and coal so you could make copper tools. We've used up all the low-hanging fruit, and the raw minerals industrialized society require can now only be obtained using machinery that relies upon cheap oil.

If you're lucky, your descendents will sit around a campfire flaking flint to make tools while telling their children incredible (and unbelievable) myths of indoor plumbing, cars and aeroplanes.

At 1:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's sad that at every point in time, there is a current concept of what is considered "cutting edge"? Ummmmmm, ok, if you say so. So basically, until we all have godlike powers and are immortal, we're all in a state of sadness? LOL. You remind me of the managers at financial institutions who come into a company, immediately rag on everyone in their department, calling them incompetent, and claim that they are going to "clean things up around here" with their brilliant new ideas. I've seen managers destroy relationships with clients in their need to "make things better". But hey, ego is more important than client satisfaction to them.

At 1:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great writing, however I have a quibble with your refrain:
>thought they were cutting edge>
These people did not just think they were cutting edge -- they were cutting edge.

There is a world of difference between the two statements! By using "think they were" you are implying that they were not actually cutting edge.

Some of the first to use many of the technologies were visionaries. Most of our innnovations have been improvements upon earlier concepts.

At 6:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've got to agree with Kelly G. There is a world of difference in between "thinking" and "being".

I thought of many great ideas that, could I have leveraged them, would have made me a millionaire. Not being a millionaire, I have to get back to work!

At 4:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This last comment is just ridiculous, showing the faulty logic of the hyper-Malthusian crowd.

Let's see, you're aged fifteen to thirty, and you don't read history, so you don't know that gloomy forecasts have been around since before Nostradamus. Nor are you aware that the biggest contemporary Malthusian, Paul Erhlich, claimed that hundreds of millions would die of famine in the 1970s and 1980s, and that Britain would not exist 'as we know it'.

No, you know that our society has problems now, and in your wisdom, we should just all give up because we can't do anything about what happens fifty years from now. What a loser like attitude. It's not like we might find a solution to our problems, but it just feels good to damn the human race to oblivion and not do anything about it. Apparently someone's never heard the saying, "necessity is the mother of invention".

Furthermore, even if society did degrade, who says we would be back to "stone age living"? What, we'd all suddenly lose the ability to read books, write letters, boil water, ride horses, burn candles, sew and knit clothing? Assuming we just ran out of oil, that doesn't mean that hundreds of hobbyists, subsistence farmers and artisans wouldn't do just fine with their skills - and be able to share them with others. Are you such an idiot that you've never heard of solar panels, sugar cane fuel, or telecommuting? But no, I guess if you acknowledged this possibility, you can't feel superior to all the people who are going to be cavemen in fifty years.

Speaking of superior, the original post wasn't very nice, either. There's nothing inherently sad about older technology or ways of doing things. Some technology has a sad aftermath - dying of radiation poisoning because you worked in a munitions plant is very sad. And some technologies made things more complicated, not less. Surely you're aware that milled flour and more complex kitchen tools (such as multi-temperature ovens and ranges) actually increased the workload of homemakers, first after the Industrial Revolution and later in the Atomic Age? Before, families ate simpler fare, and no one felt like a failure if they weren't Martha Stewart.

But some "older", even "slower" ways of doing things are really superior, at least in terms of enjoyment. Look at the thousands of young people who have taken up sewing, decorative arts, quilting, knitting, tie-dying, book-buying, woodworking and so on. There's something to be said for the "primitive" technology of an artisan, working by hand or in other methodical ways.

At 1:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi MB,

Read your comments about the original star wars. I'm not a fan of Lucas, because I consider star wars as a "Frankenstein"-like compilation of other people's works. However, I believe that you're much too cynical in your criticisms given that the movie was made back in the years of yonder. I mean, what you have done if you were charged with making star wars back then? It would have probably been just as agonizing to watch some 30 odd years later. Perhaps you should give these pioneers, even someone as loathesome as Lucas, a break.

No hard feelings I hope.

At 4:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps had you ever stopped to think about what you were actually talking about, you might then realize that you are completly and utterly wrong.

Think about it, in 2050 if we are all just brains in a computer then we run the serious risk becoming corrupted. We would never know what was real and what was not.

On other sites, you have stated that you are a geek. No offense to you, but this is clearly evident. Your "visionary outlook" on the future as a world of computers, has oh-so-clearly been influenced by science-fiction. Your vision of a relativly humanless world is, quite scary really.
It sounds like you mixed up several movies, novels, and comic books.
Please try to remeber that there is more to life then computer-simulated worlds.(If that is a better design, then we would have evolved that way.)

At 4:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's all wrong!

At 8:48 PM, Blogger retrodynamic said...

·2-Imploturbocompressor; One Moving Part System Excellence Design - The InFlow Interaction comes from Macro-Flow and goes to Micro-Flow by Implossion - Only One Compression Step; Inflow, Compression and outflow at one simple circular dynamic motion Concept.

*·“Excellence in Design" because is only one moving part. Only one unique compression step. Inflow and out flow at the same one system, This invention by its nature a logic and simple conception in the dynamics flow mechanics area. The invention is a wing made of one piece in a rotating motion, contained in a pair cavity system connected by implocavity, and interacting dynamically with a flow, that passes internally "Imploded" through its simple mechanism. This flow can be gas (air) or liquid (water). And have two different applications, in two different form-function; this one can be received (using the dynamic flow passage, as a receiver). Or it can be generated (with a power plant, generating a propulsion).

An example cut be, as a Bike needs a chain to work from motor to wheel. And for the Imploturbocompressor application, cut be as; in a circumstance at the engine, as an A-activate flow, and with a a tube flow conduit going to the wheel as a B-receiving-flow the work use.

To see a Imploturbocompressor animation, is posible on a simple way, just to check the Hurricane Satellite view, and is the same implo inflow way nature.

And when the flow that is received and that is intended to be used at best, must no necessarily by a exhausting or rejection gas, but must be a dynamic passing gas or liquid flow with the only intention to count it or to measure it. This could be possible at the passing and interacting period when it passes inside its simple mechanism. This can be in any point of the work flow trajectory.

In case the flow that is received is a water falling by gravity, and a dynamo is placed on the rotary bar, the Imploturbocompressor can profit an be obtained by generating? electricity such as obtained by the pelton well, like I say before. The "Imploturbocompressor", is a good option to pump water, or a gas flow, and all kinds of pipes lines dynamic moves.

Or only receive the air-liquid flow, in order to measure its passage with a counter placed on the bar, because when this flow passes through the simple mechanism of a rotating wing made of only one piece it interacts within the implocavities system. And this flow can be air wind, with the difference of can have an horizontal work position, and that particle technical circumstances make an easy way for urban building work new use application, and have wind flow from all the sides 180 grades view. The aforementioned information about this invention refers to technical applications, such as a dynamic flow receiver. (whether being gas or liquid).

With the appropriate power plant and the appropriate dimensioning and number of RPM this invention is also feasible to generate an atmospheric air propulsion and the auto-propulsion of an aircraft. Being an effective and very simple system that implodes and compresses the atmospheric air permits the creation of a new concept of propulsion for aircrafts, due to its simple mechanism and innovative nature. At the place of the aircraft were the system appears and the manner how the propulsion direction can be oriented with a vectorial flow (no lobster tail) with I call "yo-yo system" (middle cut (at the shell) to move, one side loose), guided and balanced is feasible to

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