[ExI] Bryan & Kevin's exchange on technology

Tom Nowell nebathenemi at yahoo.co.uk
Mon Jun 30 20:04:05 UTC 2008

Apologies for the length of this, but I have to add my comments to the discussion between two people, and I want to make sure I've quoted accurately.

To quote Kevin Freels and Bryan:
On Sunday 29 June 2008, Kevin Freels wrote: The technology necessary for singularity isn't going to be made by some guy in a cave.
Bryan replied:
Excuse me, but where do you think we started if not in a cave? So how is 
everything else after that not by the same tech, to some extent also 
manufactured from within a cave anyway? Okay, so we moved ten meters 
outside the mouth of the cave, so what? You can walk that in a couple 
of seconds.

My response to this: the difference between us and the cavedwellers is a succession of big changes in society and technology. We've recently seen in the media pictures of an uncontacted tribe aiming their bows at a plane flying overhead. They are unlikely to play a part in causing the singularity, for reasons I shall outline.
 According to Toffler's wave theory (check wikipedia under "The Third Wave" if you're not familiar with it), the first wave involves adoption of agriculture and early states forming. This takes you away from everybody gathering their own food, with a low population density, to food being cultivated by a proportion of the community, leading to much higher population densities and allowing some people not to work in agriculture at all. These people can take up crafting professions, leading to a higher quality of manufactured goods, and professions involving thinking and learning (your early priests and scribes). This division of labour allowing people to specialise is why metalworking and writing come after the development of agriculture.
 The second wave involves the adoption of mechanical technology to factories, changing economies to allow corporations, and mass education. Mass everything allows much higher levels of production of material goods, more educated societies, and more heavily urbanised societies.
 The third wave is more loosely defined, but is more broadly comparable to the concept of "the information age" - as information technology and advanced communications take hold, the economy becomes more knowledge based, and knowledge and creativity are at least as important as manufacturing in the economy.
 The conditions most conducive to developing technologies for the singularity are these: 
1. Somebody gets funding for their new tech idea, has the money to pay specialists to devote their working week to it, and the facilities to develop it. Eventually this will be taken to market, and the investors will either make money or have to write the investment off. 
2. A group of highly educated people devote spare hours outside of their working week to an open source project, and people donate excess money generated by their jobs if a manufactured end-product is needed.
3. A government uses the tax money from the economy to pay people to work on a project, and then subsidises it to production.
 1 & 2 are most likely in a society with a market economy, with a widely educated workforce, and sufficient economic freedom to let people do this. 1 probably requires decent intellectual property laws. Even for 3, the more educated people there are, the better the odds of finding the right team.
 As a result, even if we were to take someone from a hunter-gatherer society, teach them to read, give them a computer and tell them to look everything up on wikipedia and search the net for things, they would have a colossal difficulty adapting to way in which we produce technological innovations. Many of the technologies transhumanists are interested in require considerable education and/or specialisation (as people complaining about lack of physics education on this list know all too well). 

 To cover other points that Kevin and Bryan talked about:
Kevin> Technology requires industry.

Bryan> Don't know what you mean by this. Arguably, biology is technology. And biology came before human industry.
 I think what Kevin meant was "you don't build an Intel chip at home, and backyard rockets don't compete with the Apollo programme." If you need high-tech manufactured goods, the odds of you having the knowledge to design it, the knowledge to use it, the knowledge to build it and the tools to build it all at once are small. You are likely to need to get a lot of people to help you out, and for the manufacturing end the straightforward solution is to pay people to make it.
 As for non-manufactured goods - whether it's music or software or something else rapidly copiable - in order to get these spread, you and all your potential audience need to pay communications companies so you can spread them. The bands on myspace rely on everyone paying telecommunication companies for internet access, and collaborative software development relies on email, file transfer, and people communicating with each other lots.

Kevin> Industry requires economies.

Bryan> Certainly, look at ecosystems, but it's not the same thing as money.
 I think Kevin was trying to say that money-based economies provide clear, obvious mechanisms to encourage industrial production and reward innovation. Certainly, the beginnings of better production and new products took a great leap in England after the monetarisation of the economy in the thirteenth century, and the invention of double-entry accounting in medieval Italy revolutionised commerce and encouraged the spread of goods. There may be other ways of encouraging industry and production, but none of them so far have worked as well as money.

Kevin> Economies require stability.

Bryan>Stability is good stuff, yes. 
 I just need to use the examples of Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, Idi Amin's Uganda, and the comparative fates of North and South Korea to show what instability and poor governance can do.

Kevin> Without stable growing economies you get no advancing industry and no advancing technology.

This isn't strictly true - despite the terrible economy and the starving people, North Korea still detonated what looked like a nuke, and has some military technology. It's not a patch on what the South can do (says the man with a Samsung phone in his pocket and an LG TV in the house).

Kevin> A cell phone without civilization is just a paper weight.  

Bryan> That's not true ... just throw up some towers/antennaes, a few 
electrical generators and also some distribution equipment. you can 
make a rudimentary hydrodynamic power generator with wires (or less 
optimally other shapes) of magnetic materials wrapped around other 
conductive metals basically, etc. etc.

Well, in Burma the cyclone took the telecoms network down. Telecoms Sans Frontieres offered to send in telecoms engineers to put up a temporary network and offer every refugee a phone call to someone, so they could let relatives know what was happening. The temporary network would also allow aid agencies on the ground to co-ordinate better. The Burmese government rejected this, and kept aid agencies out. In Burma, your cell phone IS just a paper weight. As to Bryan's point - a cellular network requires a fair amount of technology, you're not likely to knock this up in your backyard. Without a certain degree of civilisation, it's hard to rebuild a downed network.


Not happy with your email address?.
Get the one you really want - millions of new email addresses available now at Yahoo! http://uk.docs.yahoo.com/ymail/new.html

More information about the extropy-chat mailing list