Monday, March 06, 2006

I really wanted to post something about Dante's De Monarchia

But I will argue with Marco instead...

Think of any technology that has been usefully applied - It has only happened where the entity paying for this technology is expecting a return.

Yes, but this expected return has not always been financial.

Great ideas in themselves are almost completely useless without funding and an expectation that the idea is in the long run unsustainable if it cannot get a financial return.

Firstly, this expectation is a characteristic of our current society, not of human societies generally. Secondly, there is no idea so stupid that someone cannot be persuaded that they can expect a financial return from it. The supermarkets and cyberemporia are awash with such things.

What use is technology to extend people's post retirement life.

None whatsoever. Technology to extend people’s pre-retirement life, on the other hand, is dead useful. ‘Retirement’ is a dying concept and our grandchildren will be amazed that such a thing ever happened.

People will save up to extend it for as long as they can afford, but the simple truth is, eventually they will run out of money.

The complex truth is, if they invest it wisely and keep their needs simple (I am sure a brain in a tank can be kept happy for dollars a day, especially when economies of scale are factored in), there is no reason for them ever to run out of money.

Technology also necessarily builds on previous technologies given the social, economic and legal structures of the time. An understanding of the links between economy, society, laws and technology will give us a glimpse of what is feasible within our lifetimes and what isn't.

Firstly, I am not particularly concerned with what is feasible in my lifetime. I don’t think very many problems are ever solved in such a short period of time. Secondly, on the basis of the success of historical attempts to predict what is ‘feasible within our lifetimes’, this glimpse would be of less value than a small grey piece of triangular plastic marked with the letter ‘W’.

Also, some of what drives technology is pure luck. One cannot count on discoveries and insights to go in any particular direction.

One certainly can count on discoveries and insights to go in a particular direction, if that is the direction one chooses to look in. One cannot determine the rate of progress, but one can certainly decide where one wants to go, and go there. For example, the Manhattan Project. The biological engineering things I have in mind are based one vaguely plausible existing science and it is expected that some successes could be had by working in that direction.

Portable and high energy density power sources like nuclear, have a capacity both to improve our society and to risk it going backwards with calamity. Any disaster that causes world wide chaos can make some or most of recent technological advances useless.

Yes, which is why one world is not enough.


Marco said...

There was once someone that told me the solution to overpopulation was simple. Genetically engineer everyone to be smaller. Smaller people require less resources etc. etc. Something inside of me snapped. It was as if he told me " oh its simple, lets just start killing each other (or just really tall people, I guess)". The solution is just so incongruous to reality as I perceive it. As it is , the non-technical solution is to just wait until we are all sick of the sight of eachother, and let sanity prevail. Issues of age and gender are also similarly self-fixing, with or without technology. I don't know if you think of something so basic as "free trade" as a form of social engineering or as something else. Or patent protections, property law, compulsory seatbelts, free speech, democracy. Are they all irrelevant to solving societies ills? Have they failed in what they are trying to achieve where correct technologies would succeed? Is a formula for the correct balance of law-based social engineering principles that are calculated to advance technology a technology or is it just another social engineering failure.

Ps I hope you're right about the retirement thing. My calculation is old people vote - young people don't = concept of retirement will hold on for dear life in democracies.

Dr. Clam said...

I have probably told this story before, but a couple of years ago I was sitting in a graduation ceremony and the occasional speaker was a member of the 'Wentworth Group', scientists concerned about environmental stuff. He went through this litany of problems facing us, all of which I pretty much agreed were serious problems, and I nodded eagerly, waiting for the clarion call for the graduands to rise up and solve these problems. Then he got to his solutions. Legislation legislation, legislation, erosion of property rights, additional levels of administration, Stalinist claptrap. This to an audience of graduating scientists! Idiot.
I don't deny that social engineering has a place- well, actually I did a few posts ago, but that was just a kneejerk overreaction- but I think the main danger is the automatic reaction 'there ought to be a law' rather than 'there ought to be a widget'. Our decision makers are heavily biased toward legislative rather than technical solutions, and fanatic bloggers like myself have to try and counterbalance this trend.

Marco said...

Let me assure you - all the social engineering constructs I have in mind to encourage are the "Experiment these on a country and apply useful results" kind of engineering. I am hoping that in the long run, legislators of all kinds will be this kind of engineer rather than the social engineering of popularity and votes, or even worse - Believing that popular policies are popular because they work! I think encouraging my kind of social engineering is fighting fire with fire - rather than your fighting it with water. Fair enough to be optimistic with technological solutions, but also with the hope that people will realise some of the social "non-solutions" should be avoided in equal measure.

winstoninabox said...

Have either of you read Jared Diamonds' Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed?

I haven't read it myself, but thought it might have some interest for you both. I also haven't read Guns, Germs and Steel, so I don't have much of an idea if either are worth following up on as far as this debate is concerned.

Dr. Clam said...

Not I, but I will check the library! I have a vague recollection I might have read reviews of both of them at some time...