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.

May 18, 2010

Easing into the consumption crash

Filed under: Uncategorized — Lonnie @ 9:26 am

Whenever I talk to anyone, even friends who agree with me and can see the basic argument about the coming catabolic collapse (to borrow the arch-druid‘s description) they act like I’m talking doom and gloom. I don’t see it that way at all. I can’t argue that it’s going to be easy, or that it’s easy now. But on the whole, to me, the coming changes are a breath of fresh air. Thinking about living in a world without cars and constant ad bombing and everyone running around like crazed racoons looking for meaningful retail therapy and the media constantly hammering out fears of turbaned ruffians improvising bombs from here to Timbuktu, …, well to tell you the truth it just sounds like a big relief.

Here are 5 things you can do to make the transition more enjoyable.
  1. Develop a taste for literature. Having the leisure to read is one of the joys of being independently poor. For one thing, it’s a way to find things out about yourself that you would never know in any other way. I discovered, for example, that I prefer Raymond Chandler to John Updike. I would much rather look straight at the dark underside than wallow aimlessly around on the surface pretending that things are normal. In both worlds – the world of Rabbit Angstrom and the world of Phillip Marlowe – the stakes are life and death, but it comes as less of a shock to the hard-boiled PI than it does to the feckless ex-highschool basketball star.
  2. Move someplace where you don’t need a car. Or lobby your local civic authorities to favor more walkable communities that are friendlier to local enterprise than they are to multinational, cargo cultish, MacJob bait and switch schemes. Care are becoming increasingly unaffordable anyway. The automobile may be the single most environmentally destructive invention ever devised, especially when you consider the infrastructure required to support it. Reduce the amount of asphalt in your neighborhood and replace it with gardens and greenspace. You’ll vastly lower your air-conditioning bills in the summertime by reducing the heat-island effect.
  3. Learn to garden. You shouldn’t be swallowing that processed and polluted corporate crap anyway (this goes for information as well as food). You want to improve your health? Get some exercise and eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, chemical free. You want to feel more financially secure? Break free of the global food-as-commodity debacle.
  4. Learn to draw, paint, dance, sing, or play a musical instrument. Find some friends and start a band. Start noticing the world around you; the arts are a great vehicle for this adventure.
  5. Learn a trade – plumbing, carpentry, welding. The technological innovations of the 21st century will be largely in the field of recycled, scavenged parts. I have an idea for a solar generator using an old turbo-charger, a generator from a truck, some tubing and miscellaneous materials for constructing a panel. I have a friend with welding gear. Green retro-fitting and other types of remodeling and handyman work will be in increasing demand.
  6. Bonus Idea: Start a community. I’m not talking about a ideologically driven eco-village type of thing. No “intentional” communities for me. Network with people you know who share some of your views and/or who have something valuable in the way skills and insight to share. Do business with these people, and shun the Wal-Mart, even though the big boxes are cheaper in the short term. Look into starting a local Credit Exchange Network (such as LETS) or a local currency.

The age of exuberant stupidity is coming to an end. With the breakdown of infrastructure comes the easing of control. There will be room to inhabit your own skin and grow your awareness. As long as you remember this simple phrase: Don’t Panic.

April 3, 2010

Hello world!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Lonnie @ 1:58 pm

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