Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Note on Technology

I did not undertake to play the book meme that went around a while ago (here and here), but my own habit is to read multiple books at the same time. Of those, very frequently, some will be re-reading books once more. Just recently I read again Arnold Toynbee’s Christianity Among the Religions of the World, a worthwhile venture at any time. It dates back to 1955 when Toynbee presented the contents of this book in a lecture series in the United States. What struck me this time, reading this book (the last time was in 1965) is Toynbee’s linkage of post-Christian western civilization with technology. The two are linked over and over again. The subject of technology is always present somewhere in my current thought. In fact I’d just read about the sputtering sort of appearance of it during the Hellenistic era in The Forgotten Revolution, on which more here. Years ago now, reading Lynn White’s Medieval Technology and Social Change, I’d come to the conclusion that—to the contrary of our common view—technology was present, changing, improving, and evolving as far back as we can see. And, indeed, as I was reading Toynbee I was also reading an essay by Sir Steven Runciman titled “Constantinople and Baghdad: Cultural Relations” in an essay collection titled Cultural Encounters. In that essay (here we go again!) there are several mentions of technological innovations, both on the Byzantine and on the Muslim side, dating back to the ninth, tenth, and later centuries, all of them considered pre-technological.

Why then, in these later centuries—say the eighteenth or nineteenth and thereafter—does technology suddenly begin to throw so great a shadow that an eminent historian chooses it as defining our times? The reason for that, it seems to me, is that the massive expansion of technology is very visible, its technical complexity and the engineering ingenuity is easily linked to advances in science (even though the two are not at all invariably linked), but the cause of this expansion is not. And the cause of that expansion has been the discovery and exploitation of fossil energy—coal and then petroleum.

The age of technology is also the age of metals. But humanity has worked metals as far back as the Bronze Age (3000 BC). Why the recent expansion of the use of metals beyond weaponry? Again. Same answer. Massive metalworking requires enormous amounts of cheap energy. We might say that technology, viewed over millennia, is the consequence of human ingenuity. Its expansion is the consequence of the Age of Oil. But this has important implications. We are approaching Fossil Sunset now. And while our technological optimism is high (but itself caused by the free wealth we discovered underground) when oil runs out and coal is used up rapidly—minimally within a hundred years—the remaining ways of generating energy will yield vastly less usable power. Hence, therefore, technology cannot be viewed as a permanent gain—except in the millennial view, thus at low levels of use. In the not too distant future, our technology will be better. Technology as always improved and will continue to do so. But it will no longer be pervasively present in everyday life and major re-adaptations are in the offing. The consoling thought is that we are extraordinarily adaptive, and when that time comes, those of us now who have an existential crisis when the Internet fails will no longer be alive.

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