Posts Tagged ‘Technology’

David Graeber on postmodernism

September 24, 2014

Might the cultural sensibility that came to be referred to as postmodernism best be seen as a prolonged meditation on all the technological changes that never happened?

The question struck me as I watched one of the recent Star Wars movies.  The movie was terrible, but I couldn’t help but feel impressed by the quality of the special effects.

Recalling the clumsy special effects typical of fifties sci-fi films, I kept thinking how impressed a fifties audience would have been if they’d known what we could do by now—only to realize, “Actually, no. They wouldn’t be impressed at all, would they? They thought we’d be doing this kind of thing by now. Not just figuring out more sophisticated ways to simulate it.”

That last word—simulate—is key. The technologies that have advanced since the seventies are mainly either medical technologies or information technologies—largely, technologies of simulation.  [snip]

The postmodern sensibility, the feeling that we had somehow broken into an unprecedented new historical period in which we understood that there is nothing new; that grand historical narratives of progress and liberation were meaningless; that everything now was simulation, ironic repetition, fragmentation, and pastiche—all this makes sense in a technological environment in which the only breakthroughs were those that made it easier to create, transfer, and rearrange virtual projections of things that either already existed, or, we came to realize, never would.

Surely, if we were vacationing in geodesic domes on Mars or toting about pocket-size nuclear fusion plants or telekinetic mind-reading devices no one would ever have been talking like this.

The postmodern moment was a desperate way to take what could otherwise only be felt as a bitter disappointment and to dress it up as something epochal, exciting, and new.

via Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit – The Baffler.

David Graeber on the lack of flying cars

September 21, 2014

David Graeber, the brilliant anarchist-anthropologist, wrote about possible reasons why technological progress seems to be slowing down, and why the science fictional dreams of his boyhood did not come true like the dreams of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.

David Graeber

David Graeber

One is that American institutions are reshaping themselves on the model of the for-profit corporation, where everything has to be justified on its potential for short-term profit.  If you have to show in advance what you intend to invent, and its guaranteed cash value, you’re not going to invent anything very new.

Another is that the government and corporate elite is not interested in radical new technologies that will disrupt the power structure.  So research is focused on high-tech automated weapons, on surveillance technology, on psychiatric drugs to keep us calmed down, and on special effects, virtual reality and electronic gadgets to keep us distracted.

Yet another is that the payoff from technology, in terms of profits, is reaching a point of diminishing returns, which, by the way, is something Karl Marx predicted.

I strongly recommend reading the whole thing.  Click on Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit to read it.

Is progress in technology winding down?

September 16, 2014
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Is technological progress winding down?  I think it might be.   And if it is, I have some ideas as to why this might be so.

I have seen many changes in my adult lifetime (since 1957), but I think the changes my grandparents saw were greater.   They saw the advent of electricity, the telephone, piped water, radio and the automobile—not that these things were invented in their lifetimes, but that they came into widespread use.

Technological20progress20640x480What have I seen that is comparable?  Television, the personal computer, the Internet, affordable air travel.  I don’t think that any of these things changed my life as the progress of technology changed my grandparents’ and my parents’ lives.

I don’t think this is because inventors are less creative.  The electrical generating plant and the internal combustion engine were much more complicated than the steam engine, and the nuclear reactor is more complicated still.  The telephone was a more ingenious invention than the telegraphy, and the Internet even more ingenious.   Compared to the first car I owned, the car I have now is like something out of science fiction.

Rather it is because the simple inventions that have a big payoff have already been made.   As the Japanese would say, we have picked the low-hanging fruit.  It is in the nature of things that the demands on engineers and inventors in the future will be greater, and the payoff will be less.

The first oil wells were simple devices compared to deep water drilling and hydraulic fracturing.  Think about drilling a deep vertical shaft into the earth’s surface, then drilling a horizontal shaft out from that, then setting off explosives to fracture the layers of shale, then pumping in detergent to force out the oil and gas.   It is amazing to me that this is possible at all.  Yet the payoff is less and the hazards are greater than in the old well because the low-hanging fruit already has been picked.

Then, too, to the extent that technological progress consists of using external sources of energy more efficiently, it is self-limiting, because there are finite amounts of water power, fossil fuels and nuclear fuels.

electricity_illustrationThis is all speculation.  I could be wrong.  This is not a subject about which I have deep knowledge.

I remember all the people in the past, including the man who said about a century ago that the U.S. Patent Office should be closed because there was nothing important left to invent.   And even if I’m right for now, there could be some breakthrough that would change everything.

Why, then, do I even bother to post on this topic?  It is because so many people, especially us Americans, seem to think that indefinite technological progress is a law of nature.

The extreme example of this is the high-tech entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil, who says that accelerating scientific progress will soon bring us everything we could wish for, including immortality.   A more common example is the people who refuse to be alarmed about climate change, exhaustion of fossil fuels or mutant drug-resistant disease, because they are confident something will turn up.

I’ve seen construction crews with flow charts of their work, culminating in a box saying [AND THEN A MIRACLE OCCURS].   This of course was a joke, but if we as a people assume this in real life, the consequences will not be a joke.

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The passing scene: Links & notes 12/1/13

December 1, 2013

The latest health issue for the elderly: ‘observation purgatory’ in hospitals by June McCoy for The Guardian.  Hat tip to naked capitalism.

Medicare’s payment structure gives hospitals an incentive to designate elderly patients as “observations” rather than “admissions.”  This means less care for the patient and higher bills for their families.

23andMe is Terrifying But Not for the Reason the FDA Thinks by Charles Seife for Scientific American.  Hat tip to naked capitalism.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has ordered a genetics testing company to stop selling its products until it can prove its tests are accurate.  But the writer says the real danger is creating a genetics database on millions of Americans that could be tapped by Big Brother.

Activist Malpractice by Michael Donnelly for Counterpunch.  Hat tip to Mike Connelly.

The writer slams Democrats, liberals and fake environmentalists who facilitate the Alberta tar sands mining, mining by mountaintop removal in Appalachia and clear-cutting of forests in Oregon.

Canada to file Arctic seafloor claim this week by the Canadian Press.

As the Arctic icecap melts, Canada, Russia and Denmark (which owns Greenland) are mapping their northern continental shelves and staking claims to the floor of the sea.  Canada’s claim will be the size of the provinces of Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba combined.

Nicaragua canal boosts China power by Arnie Seiki for Asia Times.

China and Nicaragua have signed an agreement that would give China the right to build a canal across Nicaragua rivaling the Panama Canal.  While it’s long way from signing an agreement to actually building a canal, it is a sign of China’s emergence as a global power, and not merely an east Asian power.

Wal-Mart arrests could fuel “a new political movement of the disenfranchised,” Grayson tells Salon.

Weird science: links & comments 9/16/13

September 16, 2013

The natural world is a source of beauty, awesomeness and knowledge, but we human beings have to seek justice, mercy and the means of survival within ourselves.

They’re Taking Over by Tim Flannery for New York Review of Books.

This review of Stung! Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Oceans by Lisa-ann Gershwin tells how the rich ecology of vast areas of the world’s oceans are dominated by jellyfish.  That is because much marine life is sensitive to pollution and climate change, while the jellyfish can survive almost any conditions.  Flannery sees nothing to prevent jellyfish displacing all other surface marine life.

Evolutionary fitness is different from being high on the food chain.  Jellyfishes and cockroaches may be better able to survive radical changes in the environment than whales, dolphins or humans.  I hope Flannery and Gershwin are wrong, although I don’t know any facts that prove them wrong.

Stop pretending we aren’t living in the Space Age by Annalee Newitz for io9.

The Space Age is already here.  We depend on space satellites for communications, global positioning and much else and, at any given time, there are scientists, engineers and technicians working in interplanetary space.

The First Gear Discovered in Nature by William Herkewitz for Popular Mechanics.

Wheels were not thought to occur in nature, but scientists of discovered a tiny insect with biological gears that increase its jumping power.

Architect in London Accidentally Builds Solar Death Ray by Sam Webb for London Daily Mail.  Hat tip to Bored Panda.

The curved reflective surface of a London skyscraper focused the sun’s rays so as to partially melt a businessman’s car.  Nobody actually was killed.

The Radical Challenge of Building a Dorm for the Deaf by Liz Stinson for Wired magazine.

Gaullaudet University in Washington, D.C., is the largest U.S. educational institution for the deaf.  This article tells how its new residence hall was designed to create the equivalent of good acoustics—to minimize the occasions in which deaf students would not be able to face each other.  There is much more to this than I would have thought.

As Humans Change Landscape, Brains of Animals Change, Too by Carl Zimmer for the New York Times.

Scientific studies indicate that the sophisticated city mouse may have a larger brain than the old-fashioned country mouse.

Preventive maintenance, the price of civilization

August 20, 2013

The 18th century British statesman Edmund Burke said that human society was based on a contract between the present generation, past generations and generations yet to come.

He was speaking and writing about social institutions, but the same is just as true of the physical infrastructure of our society.

When I was a boy, electricity, telephone service and running water were not things that everybody had, and there were living people who could remember when these things are unusual.   I enjoy a higher material standard of living than my parents did, based on technologies I did nothing to create, from my Internet connection to my thermostat-controlled furnace.   I can’t repay my debt to previous generations, but I can pay it forward to the next generation.  That’s what I think Burke meant.

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These thoughts were prompted by an article I read in The Washington Post on-line by Brad Plumer about how electric power outages are becoming more common.   He noted that the U.S. electrical transmission system is aging and not being replaced, and wondered if there would be fewer outages if there were a more modern system.

Of course the expense of upgrading the transmission lines will have to be paid by someone—the utility stockholders, the utility customers or both.  The cost of neglect may be greater in the long-run, but the decision-maker won’t be around to face the consequences.

I think this is part of a larger problem—neglect of the preventive maintenance that is needed to keep our technological systems going.

grid-constructionThere is a lot of political support for gee-whiz technologies such as high-speed rail, but not so much for mundane work such as inspecting and upgrading the existing track system so that trains can proceed safely at normal speeds.

I don’t see this as an economic or governmental question as a question of attitude.  No matter what the system, there will be a temptation to put aside long-range concerns and focus on the next quarterly profit statement or the next election.  We live in the present and forget the generation yet to come.

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Terrorism, the Internet and free speech

August 14, 2013

I’ve posted a good bit lately about abuses of power by the National Security Agency and other U.S. intelligence agencies.  My friend Daniel Brandt recently e-mailed me some links to articles by a UK news service called The Kernel which are a good reminder that there are Islamic terrorists who really should be spied on.

islamic-awakeningThe articles describe how terrorists are recruited through Islamic jihadist discussion forums.  Typically there will be an open forum which argues the radical Muslim jihadists are justified.  People who post on the forum and have someone to vouch for them are then admitted to closed forums which discussed actual terrorism.

I don’t believe the NSA and the other Homeland Security agencies should spy on all Americans.  I don’t believe they should spy on peaceful protesters.  I don’t believe they should encourage and then entrap people into terrorists plots.  But they do have a right and duty to monitor pro-terrorist web sites so they can nip plots in the bud.

Here are links to The Kernel series.

The scariest sites on the Internet by Jeremy Wilson.

The hosts keeping radical Islamic forums online by James Cook.

CloudFlare: ‘terrorists little helper’ by James Cook.

Chaos on campus: Islamists and social media by Jeremy Wilson.

When ‘free speech’ means defending evil murderers by Milos Yiannopoulos, editor-in-chief.

The Kernel is especially concerned about an Internet company called CloudFlare.  Daniel Brandt also is critical of that company.  What CloudFlare purports to do is to provide services by which web sites can product their anonymity, survive denial of service attacks and optimize their efficiency.

cdn-hosting-cloudflareThe Kernel writers criticize CloudFlare for protecting radical Islamic web sites against denial of service attacks by US and UK intelligence services.  Daniel Brandt’s criticism is broader.  He says CloudFlare also provides a shield for malicious hackers, cyber-bullies, hard-core pornographers, copyright pirates and other kinds of lawbreakers.

Here are links to statements of CloudFlare’s position.

CloudFlare and Free Speech by Matthew Prince, chief executive officer.

Ceasefires Don’t End Cyberwars by Matthew Prince.

Here are links to statements of Daniel Brandt’s position.

Web watchdog’s new site: CloudFlare Watch.org

CloudFlare Watch

What it all comes down to is which you fear more, abuse of freedom or abuse of power.  This is not an easy question.  What Milos Yiannopoulos fears most is abuse of freedom.  What I fear the most is abuse of power.

Yiannopoulos thinks Twitter, YouTube and CloudFlare should be regarded as publishers, like Huffington Post, and exercise pro-active responsibility to take down dangerous content, based on their own judgment.  He doesn’t think this is censorship, but what else would you call it.

I think Twitter, YouTube and the like should be regarded as public utilities, like Rochester Telephone, which provide services to all members of the public unless there is a specific legal reason not to do so.

What do you think?

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An end to progress? Arguments pro and con

August 6, 2013

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An economist named Robert J. Gordon, and Erik Byrnjolfsson, director of the MIT Center for Digital Business, had an interesting debate at a TED forum on whether the days of rapid economic growth are over.

Gordon said improvements in world living standards are the result of two historical events that may not be repeated—the first industrial revolution, based on coal, iron and steam, beginning in the late 1700s in Britain, and the second industrial revolution, based on oil, electricity and the internal combustion engine, beginning in the late 1800s in the USA.

Both these revolutions have run their course, he said, and there’s no reason to think that the current technological revolution in information technology will have the same impact.  The i-phone is nice, but it will not change society in the same way that Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone did.

Byrnjolfsson said computer and information technology are in their infancy, and will have as great an impact as the earlier technological revolutions.  Human beings haven’t as yet learned how to work most effectively with the new technology, he said.

Much depends on which one is right.  With rapid economic growth, it is possible for all classes of society, rich, middle and poor, to improve their condition without hurting the others, except maybe in relative terms.  With flat or declining economic growth, the struggle for economic and political power becomes much more of a zero sum game, a sorting of society into winners and losers.

I think the videos are interesting and worth watching, but I also think both speakers fail to emphasize an important thing—that improvement in the material standard of living requires not only progress in science and technology, but public policies that make the fruits of science and technology available to the wider public.

Improvements in public health, for example, are based not only on discoveries about vaccination, antiseptics and antibiotics, but also from public water and sewerage systems, food inspections and mass vaccinations of school children.   Universal telephone service is based not only on a technology, but also on a commitment by AT&T as a condition of maintaining its monopoly position.

Advances in technology don’t automatically abolish poverty.  George Orwell, in The Road to Wigan Pier, which is about unemployed British coal miners in the 1930s, pointed out that every miner’s family owned a radio, a technological wonder unavailable to kings and emperors 50 years before.  And yet these same miners had difficulty putting food on the table.  Not having radios would not have enabled them to pay for it.

Brynjolfsson could be right.  Factory automation could produce a world of leisure and well-being for everyone.  But, depending on who is running things, it could produce a world like that imagined by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in his 1952 novel Player Piano.

I can easily imagine a future USA with amazing information technology, communications technology and virtual reality entertainment technology, not to mention science-fictional war-making and surveillance technology.  And along with this, growing shortages of affordable housing, medical care and higher education, and a deterioration of public services and the physical environment.

I’m neither foolish enough nor brave enough to attempt to predict the future.  I don’t think decline is inevitable.  But all it requires is for us to continue on our present path.  We’re halfway there now.

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The Saturn V rocket explained in common words

August 3, 2013
up_goer_five

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The Saturn V rocket explained in the 1,000 most common words in the English language.

Source: xkcd: Up Goer Five.

If you like this, you might like Short Words to Explain Relativity.

Hat tip for both to kottke.org.

After 33 years, a human-powered helicopter

July 13, 2013

Click on this article in Popular Mechanics for details.

Hat tip to kottke.org.


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