RE: Have We Entered a Post-Literate Technological Age?

Subject: RE: Have We Entered a Post-Literate Technological Age?
From: "McLauchlan, Kevin" <Kevin -dot- McLauchlan -at- safenet-inc -dot- com>
To: "sharon -at- anthrobytes -dot- com" <sharon -at- anthrobytes -dot- com>, 'Gene Kim-Eng' <techwr -at- genek -dot- com>, "techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 25 Aug 2009 11:24:12 -0400

I was busy-busy last week when Sharon Burton said:

> Why should we need to understand how shrink wrap technology works? It
> matters not at all to me *how* my car works, so long as it does. In a
> specialized society, we have experts who know how this stuff
> works and how
> to make it work again.
>
> Most people have no idea how to construct clothing, for
> example. And why
> should they?

Until recently, I would have said the same. Greater and greater specialization has been key to the rising tide of wealth that has raised /a/l/l/ most boats, the past few centuries. And as science and tech grow and grow, it's long been physically impossible for anyone to have functional practical knowledge in all areas. There's just too much.

BUT... with the arrival of peak oil (this year?) and peak natural gas (two years ago for Canada; earlier for USA), things are about to change. As industry recovers from the slump and begins guzzling oil and natural gas again, those prices will resume climbing, and now there's no more cheap stuff to be found. From here on out, it all gets more and more expensive. That will have wide-reaching effects of course, but I had in mind a specific few for this discussion. A bit of generalization is going to come back. Specialization won't go away, but it will likely shift. I forsee a trend away from consumerism and throw-away, toward quality, solidity, simplicity, and repairability. Craftsmanship.

It won't be protectionism or a desire for strategic self-sufficiency that will bring a lot of production back to North America. It'll be the prohibitive energy costs of getting "cheap" clothing and consumer goods back across the pond from China, Malaysia, Taiwan, India, etc., and the equally prohibitive costs of getting such goods even as far by truck as the distance from coastal ports to the interior.

Anyone besides me see a coming resurgence in airships for freight and for travel? :-)

Expect a lot of densifying of population centers, but also expect a lot of new "cottage" industry for local food production, reclaiming of some farmland for family-sized agriculture, small sheep-and-alpaca farms for textiles/clothing, and so on. Hundred-mile diets will become a necessity again, rather than a luxury for avant-garde tree-huggers.

The choice will be between locally-produced products of all sorts that didn't have to come far, or stuff from far that came very slowly. The quality of furniture in many houses will go up as it becomes obvious that it makes more sense to have a talented local person build your bedroom set from solid wood (or do it yourself if you have the knack), rather than buy particle-board with wood-pattern printed on it from a blue-and-yellow store that ships from the other side of the world.

It's going to take a long time to get a decent rail network going again, even after trucking becomes prohibitively expensive (partly because the energy cost of maintaining all those highways will become so much more expensive than it already is), so expect some contraction and adjustment and even more local tendencies.

The general idea is that a lot of people will need to get closer to the technology of basic production and maintenance of a lot of things from their everyday lives, or those of their near neighbors. It'll be just more economical for individuals to re-learn how to hand-milk a cow or ten, when it's no longer economical to have huge centralized dairy operations that truck milk hundreds of miles. Also, the solar array on the roof will power lights and computers and won't have enough juice left over for the milking machine. The spinning wheels and sewing machines might not be as basic and ... I was going to say "crude", but the purely mechanical ones were a sophisticated, perfected technology so I'll go with "basic"... as the ones our great-great-grandparents had, but despite some computer control/enhancement, they'll be built far more simply and ruggedly than the plastic wonders you can buy at Wal-Mart for $98.00. When your equipment is solid and meant to last, you'll tend to learn a bit about how to maintain and fix it, rather than count on throwing it away and replacing it because a new one /i/s/ used to be cheaper than a repair.

I think "user" manuals for "consumer" products are going to begin growing again - and this time, not from more pages of liability-deflecting warnings - to include maintenance and repair instructions. I think metal, as a major ingredient of many ordinary devices will displace plastic. Or the plastic will go from being the structure and casing of <name some device> to merely the (expensive) resin that binds the wood particles or the hemp and bamboo fibers.

I had previously thought that the "3D printer" - the device that uses a print head to lay down plastic to form solid, three-dimensional parts, pieces, tools - was a coming thing, with eventually one in every home, but I'm re-thinking that, in light of what's going to happen to the price of plastic feed-stock. Possibly plant-based polymers will take up some of the slack, but those are energy-intensive to produce... But whether you have a 3D printer or, instead, a computerized milling machine for shaping wood or metal, you'll want to know how to maintain and repair it.

Techwriters might soon have *more* interesting and down-to-earth jobs.

Whoops! Crystal ball clouding over. Session ends.

Cheers,

- Kevin


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Follow-Ups:

References:
Have We Entered a Post-Literate Technological Age?: From: Daniel Ng
Re: Have We Entered a Post-Literate Technological Age?: From: Gene Kim-Eng
RE: Have We Entered a Post-Literate Technological Age?: From: Sharon Burton

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