Thursday, February 26, 2015

Technological progress in a market economy is therefore self-terminating, and ends in collapse

The Archdruid Report | Now of course there are plenty of arguments that could be deployed against this modest proposal. For example, it could be argued that progress doesn't have to generate a rising tide of externalities. The difficulty with this argument is that externalization of costs isn't an accidental side effect of technology but an essential aspect—it’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Every technology is a means of externalizing some cost that would otherwise be borne by a human body. Even something as simple as a hammer takes the wear and tear that would otherwise affect the heel of your hand, let’s say, and transfers it to something else: directly, to the hammer; indirectly, to the biosphere, by way of the trees that had to be cut down to make the charcoal to smelt the iron, the plants that were shoveled aside to get the ore, and so on.

For reasons that are ultimately thermodynamic in nature, the more complex a technology becomes, the more costs it generates. In order to outcompete a simpler technology, each more complex technology has to externalize a significant proportion of its additional costs, in order to compete against the simpler technology. In the case of such contemporary hypercomplex technosystems as the internet, the process of externalizing costs has gone so far, through so many tangled interrelationships, that it’s remarkably difficult to figure out exactly who’s paying for how much of the gargantuan inputs needed to keep the thing running. This lack of transparency feeds the illusion that large systems are cheaper than small ones, by making externalities of scale look like economies of scale.

It might be argued instead that a sufficiently stringent regulatory environment, forcing economic actors to absorb all the costs of their activities instead of externalizing them onto others, would be able to stop the degradation of whole systems while still allowing technological progress to continue. The difficulty here is that increased externalization of costs is what makes progress profitable. As just noted, all other things being equal, a complex technology will on average be more expensive in real terms than a simpler technology, for the simple fact that each additional increment of complexity has to be paid for by an investment of energy and other forms of real capital.

Strip complex technologies of the subsidies that transfer some of their costs to the government, the perverse regulations that transfer some of their costs to the rest of the economy, the bad habits of environmental abuse and neglect that transfer some of their costs to the biosphere, and so on, and pretty soon you’re looking at hard economic limits to technological complexity, as people forced to pay the full sticker price for complex technologies maximize their benefits by choosing simpler, more affordable options instead. A regulatory environment sufficiently strict to keep technology from accelerating to collapse would thus bring technological progress to a halt by making it unprofitable.


CNu said...

I'm going to react to the excerpt before I read the entire article. There is something ponderously "druidic" (or simply Luddite) about the underlying ideology and aesthetic of this piece. I'm going to stake an antithetical position, an avowedly Luciferian position, which holds that complex species arise to overcome the implicate order.

Sentience and sapience impose the risk of increasing externalities and inevitable collapse, unless there's a "regulatory environment" sufficiently strict to keep sentience and sapience at a strictly ant-like level which can be homeostatically stable for a billion years. Once you get individual end-points up to the level that some of ours operate (or malfunction) at, well, then you run the risk of Khardashev 2 or bust!

LENR, CRISPR, will serve as my Exhibits A. and B. for what it is that sufficiently advanced sentience and sapience are supposed to accomplish with regard to their (our) Luciferian drive to overcome the implicate order, or to at least operate upon it.

Dale Asberry said...

The point of this posting is completely about the missing regulatory environment and how capitalism specifically, actively, subverts any such regulatory environment. Although he doesn't describe it as such, technology's purpose is not to advance our Luciferian drive but to advance our movement into complete dopamine hegemony while destroying the entire environment in support of life before any Khardashev II jump can occur. I completely get his disdain for "progress" if all we get out of it is dopamine hegemony.

But as to your point concerning our Luciferian drive -- that is what progress is and it's why I'm bothered by his complete dismissal of this obvious drive within humanity - no, within life itself.

CNu said...

Now having read the full original, my biased excerpting of the money shot:a
society that chose to stop progressing technologically could maintain itself
indefinitely, so long as its technologies weren’t dependent on nonrenewable
resources or the like. The costs imposed by a stable technology on the economy,
society, and the biosphere would be more or less stable, rather than increasing
over time, and it would therefore be much easier to figure out how to balance
out the negative effects of those externalities and maintain the whole system
in a steady state. Even dopamine hegemony is merely a biological means to an end. From my perspective, the "conquest of the new world" was principally kickstarted and driven in its early years by sugar addiction. It is perhaps a necessary mass-motivational evil.

While his article dwelt on old-fashioned mass production and the wealth and profit extraction to be gotten from the same, I didn't take away from it the sense that he's unaware of the Nietzschean will zur macht, the overcoming, the striving the, the, the...,

CNu said...

Point being, a big part of what we're now facing is that maintaining the mass is a big part of the current problem facing these humans..., what to do, what to do....,

Dale Asberry said...

How do you get out of the way as the hammer comes down?

Dale Asberry said...

Rather, how do we get the true makers out of the way as the hammer comes down?