Patchwork Design Lab

May 19, 2010

Technology and Entropy

Filed under: Human Ecology, Systems Ecology, Uncategorized — Lonnie @ 7:58 am

Technology is not static. No part of it is static. What is not continually used and refined is degrading and will eventually be lost. Those are the facts of entropy and technology. Technology combines information with tools. Most modern technology involves combinations of simple machines powered by motors or engines fueled by fossil fuel of one kind or another or else elaborate networks of electronic switches that perform logical functions in response to incoming signals, these networks also powered by fossil fuel of one type or another. The information comes from insights gleaned either from formal scientific research or else from practical application and experience. There are a few variations on the energy source, some hydroelectric power, some nuclear, a smattering of wind turbines and photovoltaic arrays. But mainly, it’s fossil fuel.

Information is a curious resource, because unlike other natural resources it is not depleted or degraded with use. On the contrary it is improved and refined with use and degrades when not applied. I saw a program on PBS several months ago which talked about how we/NASA no longer remember how to build a Saturn V rocket, the one used to launch the Apollo moon missions. There are no engineering documents that preserve the specifications of any of the components. There are no drawings, no parts lists, nada. On the program, scientists from NASA were obtaining old Saturn V components from a junk dealer in the area who specialized in such high-tech gadgetry and trying to reverse engineer the various sub-systems. My own experience debugging legacy code makes me wonder if it won’t take them longer to reverse engineer the technology than it took to develop it in the first place.

One of the trends I’ve seen in my working life is the dual push for automation, on the one hand, and specialization, on the other. My own “specialty”, that is whenever my job paid anything substantial (jazz musician, carpenter, writer, permaculturist, not so much), usually involved facilitating automation in some way. When the postal service wanted to automate, to some degree, the process of trouble shooting failures in its complex mail sorting and bar-coding equipment, I got a job first writing trouble shooting procedures for operators to use and later automating the process even further by writing interactive troubleshooting programs, again to be used by lower paying nontechnical employees. Ultimately they wanted a program that would use computer monitored voltage levels at different key locations to analyze failures and prompt operators to take the appropriate correctrive measures. Of course they didn’t want to hire and pay the number of people with the appropriate skills to complete the project within the timeframe they were looking at. I guess you can’t automate everything.

There is a modern myth which, if you unpack it, says that technology combined with free markets continually increases the efficiency of production, approaching something-for-nothing asymptotically. It may never reach it, but it can get arbitrarily close to it. Something for Nothing (for all practical purposes) is the bill of goods I’ve seen being sold all my life. No wonder we live in such an entitled society.

Here are the ABC’s of technology and entropy. Most people no longer understand simple machines, because they’ve been packed in black boxes and powered by black-box engines for almost a hundred years now. Technology, you might have observed, is a consumer of energy, not a producer. Sure, there are “energy generating” technologies, but that’s just word salad. Energy is neither “generated” nor destroyed. These technologies are really energy harvesting and transforming techniques. They are not all that efficient. And we are rapidly depleting their primary power source, fossil fuels. In the mean time, the cultural push for convenience, overspecialization, and something for nothing has brought about a decline in wet tech, the neural technology that actually understands the way some of these things work. Not to mention the older techniques of sustainable agriculture, animal husbandry, even – in many cases – basic cooking.

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