Dark Age America: Climate Change, Cultural Collapse, and the Hard Future Ahead - John Michael Greer (2016)
Chapter 7. THE TWILIGHT OF TECHNOLOGY
IT’S PROBABLY INEVITABLE THAT THE PREVIOUS CHAPTER, with its discussion of the ways that contemporary science is offering itself up as a sacrifice on the altar of corporate greed and institutional arrogance, will convince at least some readers that I must hate science. This is all the more ironic in that the shoddy logic involved in that claim also undergirded George W. Bush’s famous and fatuous insistence that the Muslim world is riled at the United States because “they hate our freedom.”
In point of fact, the animosity that many Muslims feel toward the United States is based on specific grievances concerning specific acts of US foreign policy. Whether or not those grievances are justified is a matter I don’t propose to discuss here. The point that’s relevant here is that the grievances exist; they relate to identifiable actions on the part of the US government; and insisting that the animosity in question is aimed at an abstraction instead is simply one of the ways that Bush, like his successor, tried to sidestep any discussion of the means, ends, and cascading failures of US policy toward the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world.
In the same way, it’s convenient to insist that people who ask hard questions about the way that contemporary science has whored itself out to economic and political interests, or who have noticed gaps between the claims about reality made by the voices of the scientific mainstream and their own lived experience of the world, just hate science. That evasive strategy makes it easy to brush aside questions about the more problematic dimensions of science as currently practiced. This isn’t a strategy with a long shelf life. Responding to a rising spiral of problems by insisting that the problems don’t exist, and denouncing those who demur, is one of history’s all-time bad choices. Even so, intellectuals in falling civilizations all too often try to shore up the crumbling foundations of their social prestige and privilege via that foredoomed approach.
Central to the entire rhetorical strategy behind the claim “They just hate science” is a bit of obfuscation that treats “science” as a monolithic unity, rather than the complex and rather ramshackle grab bag of fields of study, methods of inquiry, and theories about how different departments of nature appear to work that it actually is. There’s no particular correlation between, let’s say, the claims made for the latest heavily marketed and dubiously researched pharmaceutical, on the one hand, and the facts of astronomy, evolutionary biology, or agronomy on the other; and someone can quite readily find it impossible to place blind faith in the pharmaceutical and the doctor who’s pushing it on her, while enjoying long nights observing the heavens through a telescope, delighting in the elegant prose and even more elegant logic of Darwin’s The Origin of Species, or running controlled experiments in her backyard on the effectiveness of compost as a soil amendment. To say that such a person “hates science” is to descend from meaningful discourse to thought-stopping noise.
The habit of insisting that science is a single package, take it or leave it, is paralleled by the equivalent and equally specious insistence that there is this single thing called “technology,” that objecting to any single component of that alleged unity amounts to rejecting all of it, and that you’re not allowed to pick and choose among technologies—you have to take all of it or reject it all. I field this sort of nonsense all the time. It so happens, for example, that I have no interest in owning a cell phone, never got around to playing video games, and have a sufficiently intense fondness for books printed on actual paper that I’ve never given more than a passing thought to the current fad for e-books.
I rarely mention these facts to those who don’t already know them, because it’s a foregone conclusion that if I do so, someone will ask me whether I hate technology. Au contraire, I’m fond of slide rules, love rail travel, cherish an as yet unfulfilled ambition to get deep into letterpress printing, and have an Amateur Extra class amateur radio license. All these things entail enthusiastic involvement with specific technologies, and indeed affection for them, but if I mention these points in response to the claim that I must hate technology, the responses I get range from baffled incomprehension to angry dismissal.
“Technology,” in the mind of those who make such claims, clearly doesn’t mean what the dictionary says it means. To some extent, of course, it amounts to whatever an assortment of corporate and political marketing firms want you to buy this week, but there’s more to it than that. Like the word “science,” “technology” has become a buzzword freighted with a vast cargo of emotional, cultural, and (whisper this) political meanings. It’s so densely entangled with passionately felt emotions, vast and vague abstractions, and frankly mythic imagery that many of those who use the word can’t explain what they mean by it—and get angry if you ask them to try.
The flattening out of the vast diversity of technologies, in the plural, into a single monolithic shape guarded by unreasoning emotions would be problematic under any conditions. When a civilization that depends on the breakneck exploitation of non-renewable resources is running up against the unyielding limits of a finite planet, with resource depletion and pollution in a neck- and-neck race to see which one gets to bring the industrial project to an end first, it’s a recipe for disaster. A sane response to the predicament of our time would have to start by identifying the technological suites that will still be viable in a resource-constrained and pollution-damaged environment, and then shift as much vital infrastructure to those as possible with the sharply limited resources we have left. Our collective thinking about technology is so muddled by unexamined emotions, though, that it doesn’t matter now obviously necessary such a project might be: it remains unthinkable.
Willy-nilly, though, the imaginary monolith of “technology” is going to crumble, because different technologies have wildly varying resource requirements, and they vary just as drastically in terms of their importance to the existing order of society. As resource depletion and economic contraction tighten their grip on the industrial world, the stock of existing and proposed technologies face triage in a continuum defined by two axes—the utility of the technology, on the one hand, and its cost in real (i.e., nonfinancial) terms on the other. A chart may help show how this works.
This is a very simplified representation of the frame in which decisions about technology are made. Every kind of utility, from the demands of bare survival to the whims of fashion, is lumped in together and measured on the vertical axis; and every kind of nonfinancial cost, from energy and materials straight through to such intangibles as opportunity cost, is lumped in together and measured on the horizontal axis. In an actual analysis, of course, these variables would be broken out and considered separately. The point of a more schematic view of the frame, like this one, is that it allows the basic concepts to be grasped more easily.
The vertical and horizontal lines that intersect in the middle of the graph are similarly abstractions from a complex reality. The horizontal line represents the boundary between those technologies that have enough utility to be worth building and maintaining, which are above the line, and those that have too little utility to be worth the trouble, which are below it. The vertical line represents the boundary between those technologies that are affordable and those that are not. In the real world, those aren’t sharp boundaries but zones of transition, with complex feedback loops weaving back and forth among them, but again, this is a broad conceptual model.
The intersection of the lines divides the whole range of technology into four categories, which I’ve somewhat unoriginally marked with the first four letters of the alphabet. Category A consists of things that are both affordable and useful, such as indoor plumbing. Category B consists of things that are affordable but useless, such as electrically heated underwear for chickens. Category C consists of things that are useful but unaffordable, such as worldwide 30-minute pizza delivery from low Earth orbit. Category D, rounding out the set, consists of things that are neither useful nor affordable, such as building a mile-high statue of Richard Nixon on Mars.
Now, of course, the horizontal and vertical lines aren’t fixed; they change position from one society to another, from one historical period to another, and indeed from one community, family, or individual to another. (To me, for example, cell phones belong in category B, right next to the electrically heated chicken underwear; other people would doubtless put them in somewhere else on the chart.) Every society, though, has a broad general consensus about what goes in which category, which is heavily influenced by but by no means entirely controlled by the society’s political class. That consensus is what guides its collective decisions about funding or defunding technologies.
With the coming of the industrial revolution, both lines shifted substantially from their previous position, as shown in the second chart. Obviously, the torrent of cheap abundant energy gave the world’s industrial nations access to an unparalleled wealth of resources, and this pushed the dividing line between what was affordable and what was unaffordable quite a ways over toward the right-hand side of the chart. A great many things that had been desirable but unaffordable to previous civilizations swung over from category C into category A as fossil fuels came on line. This has been discussed at great length in my blog and elsewhere in the peak oil blogosphere.
Less obviously, the dividing line between what was useful and what was useless also shifted quite a bit toward the bottom of the chart, moving a great many things from category B into category A. To follow this, it’s necessary to grasp the concept of technological suites. A technological suite is a set of interdependent technologies that work together to achieve a common purpose. Think of the relationship between cars and petroleum drilling, computer chips and the clean-room filtration systems required for their manufacture, or commercial airliners and ground control radar. What connects each pair of technologies is that they belong to the same technological suite. If you want to have the suite, you must either have all the elements of the suite in place or be ready to replace any absent element with something else that can serve the same purpose.
For the purpose of our present analysis, we can sort out the component technologies of a technological suite into three very rough categories. There are interface technologies, which are the things with which the end user interacts—in the three examples just listed, those would be private cars, personal computers, and commercial flights to wherever you happen to be going. There are support technologies, which are needed to produce, maintain, and operate the output technologies; they make up far and away the majority of technologies in a technological suite—consider the extraordinary range of technologies it takes to manufacture a car from raw materials, maintain it, fuel it, provide it with roads on which to drive, and so on. Some interface technologies and most support technologies can be replaced with other technologies as needed, but some of both categories can’t; we can put those that can’t be replaced into a third category, bottleneck technologies, for reasons that will become clear shortly.
What makes this relevant to the charts we’ve been examining is that most support technologies have no value aside from the technological suites to which they belong and the interface technologies they serve. Without commercial air travel, for example, most of the specialized technologies found at airports are unnecessary. Thus a great many things that once belonged in category B—say, automated baggage carousels—shifted into category A with the emergence of the technological suite that gave them utility. Thus category A ballooned with the coming of industrialization, and it kept getting bigger as long as energy and resource use per capita in the industrial nations kept on increasing.
Once energy and resource use per capita peak and begin their decline, though, a different reality comes into play, leading over time to the situation shown in the third chart.
As cheap abundant energy runs short, and it and all its products become expensive, scarce, or both, the vertical line slides inexorably toward the left. That’s obvious enough. Less obviously, the horizontal line also slides upwards. The reason, here again, is the interrelationship of individual technologies into technological suites. If commercial air travel stops being economically viable, the support technologies that belong to that suite are no longer needed. Even if they’re affordable enough to stay on the left-hand side of the vertical line, the technologies needed to run automated baggage carousels thus no longer have enough utility to keep them above the horizontal line, and down they drop into category B.
That’s one way that a technology can drop out of use. It’s just as possible, of course, for something that would still have ample utility to cost too much in terms of real wealth to be an option in a contracting society, and slide across the border into category C. Finally, it’s possible for something to do both at once—to become useless and unaffordable at something like the same time, as economic contraction takes away the ability to pay for the technology and the ability to make use of it at the same time.
It’s also possible for a technology that remains affordable, and participates in a technological suite that’s still capable of meeting genuine needs, to tumble out of category A into one of the others. This can happen because the costs of different technologies differ qualitatively, and not just quantitatively. If you need small amounts of unobtainium for the manufacture of blivets, and the handful of unobtainium mines around the world stop production—whether this happens because the ore has run out or for some other reason, environmental, political, economic, cultural, or what have you—you aren’t going to be able to make blivets any more. That’s one kind of difficulty if it’s possible to replace blivets with something else; it’s quite another, and much more challenging, if blivets made with unobtainium are the only thing that will work for certain purposes, or the only thing that makes those purposes economically viable.
It’s habitual in modern economics to insist that such bottlenecks don’t exist, because there’s always a viable alternative. That sort of thinking made a certain degree of sense back when energy per capita was still rising, because the standard way to get around material shortages for a century now has been to throw more energy, more technology, and more complexity into the mix. That’s how low-grade taconite ores with scarcely a trace of iron in them have become the mainstay of today’s iron and steel industry; all you have to do is add fantastic amounts of cheap energy, soaring technological complexity, and an assortment of supply and resource chains reaching around the world and then some, and diminishing ore quality is no problem at all.
It’s when you don’t have access to as much cheap energy, technological complexity, and baroque supply chains as you want that this sort of logic becomes impossible to sustain. Once this point is reached, bottlenecks become an inescapable feature of life. The bottlenecks, as already suggested, don’t have to be technological in nature—a bottleneck technology essential to a given technological suite can be perfectly feasible yet still out of reach for other reasons—but whatever generates them, they throw a wild card into the process of technological decline that shapes the last years of a civilization on its way out and the first few centuries of the dark age that follows.
The crucial point to keep in mind here is that one bottleneck technology, if it becomes inaccessible for any reason, can render an entire technological suite useless and compromise other technological suites that depend on the one directly affected. Consider the twilight of ceramics in the late Roman Empire. Rome’s ceramic industry operated on as close to an industrial scale as you can get without torrents of cheap abundant energy; regional factories in various places, where high-quality clay existed, produced ceramic goods in vast amounts and distributed them over Roman roads and sea lanes to the far corners of the empire and beyond it. The technological suite that supported Roman dishes and roof tiles thus included transport technologies, and those turned out to be the bottleneck: as long-distance transport went away, the huge ceramic factories could no longer market their products, and they shut down, taking with them every element of their technological suite that couldn’t be repurposed in a hurry.1
The same process affected many other technologies that played a significant role in the Roman world, and for that matter in the decline and fall of every other civilization in history. The end result can best be described as technological fragmentation: what had been a more or less integrated whole system of technology, composed of many technological suites working together more or less smoothly, became a jumble of disconnected technological suites, nearly all of them drastically simplified compared to their pre-decline state, and many of them jury-rigged to make use of still-viable fragments of technological suites whose other parts didn’t survive their encounter with one bottleneck or another. In places where circumstances permit, relatively advanced technological suites can remain in working order long after the civilization that created them has perished—consider the medieval cities that got their water from carefully maintained Roman aqueducts a millennium after Rome’s fall—while other systems operate at far simpler levels, and other regions and communities get by with much simpler technological suites.
All this has immediate practical importance for those of us who happen to live in a civilization that’s skidding down the curve of its decline and fall. In such a time, as noted above, one critical task is to identify the technological suites that will still be viable in the aftermath of the decline, and shift as much vital infrastructure as possible over to depend on those suites rather than on those that won’t survive the decline. In terms of the charts above, that involves identifying those technological suites that will still be in category A when the lines stop shifting up and to the left, figuring out how to work around any bottleneck technologies that might otherwise cripple them, and get the necessary knowledge into circulation among those who might be able to use it, so that access to information doesn’t become a bottleneck of its own.
That sort of analysis, triage, and salvage is among the most necessary tasks of our time, especially for those who want to see viable technologies survive the end of our civilization, and it’s being actively hindered by the insistence that the only possible positive attitude toward technology is sheer blind faith. For connoisseurs of irony, it’s hard to think of a more intriguing spectacle.
The blind faith in technology just anatomized has any number of odd effects in today’s culture, but one of the strangest is the blindness to the downside that clamps down on the collective imagination of our time once people become convinced that something or other is the wave of the future. It doesn’t matter in the least how many or obvious the warning signs are, or how many times the same tawdry drama has been enacted. Once some shiny new gimmick gets accepted as the next glorious step in the invincible march of progress, most people lose the ability to imagine that the wave of the future might just do what waves generally do: that is to say, crest, break, and flow back out to sea, leaving debris scattered on the beach in its wake.
It so happens that I grew up in the middle of just such a temporary wave of the future, in the south Seattle suburbs in the 1960s, where every third breadwinner worked for Boeing. The wave in question was the supersonic transport, SST for short: a jetliner that would fly faster than sound, cutting hours off long flights. The inevitability of the SST was an article of faith locally, and not just because Boeing was building one; an Anglo-French consortium was in the lead with the Concorde, and the Soviets were working on the Tu-144, but the Boeing 2707 was expected to be the biggest and baddest of them all, a 300-seat swing-wing plane that was going to make commercial supersonic flight an everyday reality.
Long before the 2707 had even the most ghostly sort of reality, you could buy model kits of the plane, complete with Pan Am decals, at every hobby store in the greater Seattle area. For that matter, if you took Interstate 5 south from downtown Seattle past the sprawling Boeing plant just outside of town during those years, you’d see the image of the 2707 on the wall of one of the huge assembly buildings, a big delta-winged shape in white and gold winging its way through the imagined air toward the gleaming future in which so many people believed back then.
There was, as it happened, a small problem with the 2707, a problem it shared with all the other SST projects; it made no economic sense at all. It was technically feasible but economically impractical, and it existed mostly as a way to pump government subsidies into Boeing’s coffers. Come 1971, the well ran dry. Faced with gloomy numbers from the economists, worried calculations from environmental scientists, and a public not exactly enthusiastic about dozens of sonic booms a day rattling plates and cracking windows around major airports, Congress cut the project’s funding.
That happened right when the US economy generally, and the notoriously cyclical airplane industry in particular, were hitting downturns. Boeing was Seattle’s biggest employer in those days, and when it laid off employees en masse, the result was a local depression of legendary severity. You heard a lot of people in those days insisting that the US had missed out on the next aviation boom and Congress would have to hang its head in shame once Concordes and Tu-144s were hauling passengers all over the globe. Of course, that’s not what happened; the Tu-144 flew a handful of commercial flights and then was grounded for safety reasons, and the Concorde lingered on, a technical triumph but an economic white elephant, until the last plane retired from service in 2003.
The same logic may well apply to the most loudly ballyhooed of the current round of waves of the future, the internet. The comparison may seem far-fetched, but then that’s what supporters of the SST would have said if anyone had compared the Boeing 2707 to, say, the Zeppelin, another wave of the future that turned out to make too little economic sense to matter. Granted, the internet isn’t currently supported by overt government subsidies, and it’s also much more complex than the SST; if anything, it might be compared to the entire system of commercial air travel, which we still have with us for the moment. Nonetheless, a strong case can be made that the internet, like the SST, doesn’t actually make economic sense. It’s being propped up by a set of financial gimmickry with a distinct resemblance to smoke and mirrors, and when those go away—and they will—much of what makes the internet so central a part of pop culture will go away as well.
It’s probably necessary to repeat here that the reasons for this are economic, not technical. Those of my readers who have tried to discuss the hard economic realities that will affect the internet in an age of economic contraction and environmental blowback, as I have, will have noticed that nearly everybody else wants to talk about issues of technical feasibility instead. Those issues are beside the point. No doubt it would be possible to make something like the internet technically feasible in a society on the far side of the Long Descent, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that the internet has to cover its operating costs, and it also has to compete with other ways of doing the things that the internet currently does.
It’s a source of wry amusement to me that so many people seem to have forgotten that the internet doesn’t actually do very much that’s new. Long before the internet, people were reading the news, publishing essays and stories, navigating through unfamiliar neighborhoods, sharing images of kittens with their friends, ordering products from faraway stores for home delivery, looking at pictures of people with their clothes off, sending anonymous hate-filled messages to unsuspecting recipients, and doing pretty much everything else that they do on the internet today. For the moment, doing these things on the internet is cheaper and more convenient than the alternatives, and that’s what makes the internet so popular. If that changes—if the internet becomes more costly and less convenient than other options—its current popularity will not last.
Let’s start by looking at the costs. The price of monthly internet service, it probably needs to be pointed out, is not a reasonable measure of the cost of the internet as a whole. Talk to people who work in data centers, and you’ll hear about trucks pulling up to the loading dock every single day to offload pallet after pallet of brand-new hard drives and other components, to replace those that will burn out that same day. You’ll hear about power bills that would easily cover the electricity costs of a small city. You’ll hear about many other costs as well. Data centers are not cheap to run, there are many thousands of them, and they’re only one part of the vast infrastructure we call the internet—by many measures, the most gargantuan technological project in the history of our species.
Your monthly fee for internet service covers only a small portion of what the internet costs. Where does the rest come from? That depends on which part of the net we’re discussing. The basic structure is paid for by internet service providers (ISPs), who recoup part of the costs from your monthly fee, part from the much larger fees paid by big users, and part from advertising. Content providers use some mix of advertising, pay-to-play service fees, sales of goods and services, packaging and selling your personal data to advertisers and government agencies, and new money from investors and loans to meet their costs. The ISPs routinely make a modest profit on the deal, but many of the content providers do not. Amazon may be the biggest retailer on the planet, for example, and its cash flow has soared in recent years, but its expenses have risen just as fast, and it rarely makes a profit. Many other content provider firms, including fish as big as Twitter, rack up big losses year after year.
How do they stay in business? A combination of vast amounts of investment money and ultracheap debt. That’s very common in the early decades of a new industry, though it’s been made a good deal easier by the Fed’s policy of next-to-zero interest rates. Investors who dream of buying stock in the next Microsoft provide venture capital for internet startups, banks provide lines of credit for existing firms, the stock and bond markets snap up paper of various kinds churned out by internet businesses, and all that money goes to pay the bills. It’s a reasonable gamble for the investors; they know perfectly well that a great many of the firms they’re funding will go belly up within a few years, but the few that don’t either will be bought up at inflated prices by one of the big dogs of the online world or will figure out how to make money and then become big dogs themselves.
Notice, though, that this process has an unexpected benefit for ordinary internet users: a great many services are available for free because venture-capital investors and lines of credit are footing the bill for the time being. Boosting the number of page views and click-throughs is far more important for the future of an internet company these days than making a profit, and so the usual business plan is to provide plenty of free goodies to the public without worrying about the financial end of things. That’s very convenient just now for internet users, but it fosters the illusion that the internet costs nothing.
As mentioned earlier, this sort of thing is very common in the early decades of a new industry. As the industry matures, markets become saturated, startups become considerably riskier, and venture capital heads for greener pastures. Once this happens, the companies that dominate the industry have to stay in business the old-fashioned way, by earning a profit, and that means charging as much as the market will bear, monetizing services that are currently free, and cutting service to the lowest level that customers will tolerate. That’s business as usual, and it means the end of most of the noncommercial content that gives the internet so much of its current role in popular culture.
All other things being equal, in other words, the internet can be expected to follow the usual trajectory of a maturing industry, becoming more expensive, less convenient, and more tightly focused on making a quick buck with each passing year. Governments have already begun to tax internet sales, removing one of the core “stealth subsidies” that boosted the internet at the expense of other retail sectors, and taxation of the internet will only increase as cash-starved officials contemplate the tidal waves of money sloshing back and forth online. None of these changes will kill the internet, but they’ll slap limits on the more utopian fantasies currently burbling about the web and provide major incentives for individuals and businesses to back away from the internet and do things in the real world instead.
Then there’s the increasingly murky world of online crime, espionage, and warfare, which promises to push very hard in the same direction in the years ahead.2 I think most people are starting to realize that on the internet, there’s no such thing as secure data, and the costs of conducting business online these days include a growing risk of having your credit cards stolen, your bank accounts looted, your identity borrowed for any number of dubious purposes, and the files on your computer encrypted without your knowledge, so that you can be forced to pay a ransom for their release, or what have you.
Online crime is one of the few fields of criminal endeavor in which raw cleverness is all you need to make out, as the saying goes, like a bandit. In the years ahead, as a result, the internet may look less like an information superhighway and more like one of those grim inner city streets where not even the muggers go alone. Trends in online espionage and warfare are harder to track, but either or both could become a serious burden on the internet as well.
Online crime, espionage, and warfare aren’t going to kill the internet, any more than the ordinary maturing of the industry will. Rather, they’ll lead to a future in which costs of being online are very often greater than the benefits, and the internet is by and large endured rather than enjoyed. They’ll also help drive the inevitable rebound away from the net. That’s one of those things that always happens and always blindsides the cheerleaders of the latest technology: a few decades into its lifespan, people start to realize that they liked the old technology better, thank you very much, and go back to it. The rebound away from the internet has already begun, and will only become more visible as time goes on, making a great many claims about the future of the internet look as absurd as those 1950s articles insisting that, in the future, every restaurant would inevitably be a drive-in.
To be sure, the resurgence of live theater in the wake of the golden age of movie theaters didn’t end cinema, and the revival of bicycling in the aftermath of the automobile didn’t make cars go away. In the same way, the renewal of interest in offline practices and technologies isn’t going to make the internet go away. It’s simply going to accelerate the shift of avant-garde culture away from an increasingly bleak, bland, unsafe, and corporate- and government-controlled internet and into alternative venues. That won’t kill the internet, though once again it will put a stone marked R.I.P. atop the grave of the giddier fantasies that have clustered around today’s net culture.
All other things being equal, in fact, there’s no reason why the internet couldn’t keep on its present course for years to come. Under those circumstances, it would shed most of the features that make it popular with today’s avant-garde and become one more centralized, regulated, vacuous mass medium, packed to the bursting point with corporate advertising and lowest-common-denominator content, with dissenting voices and alternative culture shut out or shoved into corners where nobody ever looks. That’s the normal trajectory of an information technology in today’s industrial civilization, after all; it’s what happened with radio and television in their day, as the gaudy and grandiose claims of the early years gave way to the crass commercial realities of the mature forms of each medium.
But all other things aren’t equal, of course.
Radio and television, like most of the other familiar technologies that define life in a modern industrial society, were born and grew to maturity in an expanding economy. The internet, by contrast, was born during the last great blowoff of the petroleum age—the last decades of the twentieth century, during which the world’s industrial nations took the oil reserves that might have cushioned the transition to sustainability and blew them instead on one last orgy of over-the-top conspicuous consumption. It’s coming to maturity, in turn, in the early years of an age of economic contraction and ecological blowback.
The rising prices, falling service quality, and relentless monetization of a maturing industry, together with the increasing burden of online crime and the inevitable rebound away from internet culture, will thus be hitting the internet in a time when the global economy no longer has the slack it once did, and the immense costs of running the internet in anything like its present form will have to be drawn from a pool of real wealth that has many other demands on it. What’s more, quite a few of those other demands will be far more urgent than the need to provide consumers with a convenient way to send pictures of kittens to their friends. That stark reality will add to the pressure to monetize internet services and will provide incentives to those who choose to send their kitten pictures by other means.
It’s crucial to remember here, as noted above, that the internet is simply a cheaper and more convenient way of doing things that people were doing long before the first website went live, and a big part of the reason why it’s cheaper and more convenient right now is that internet users are being subsidized by the investors and venture capitalists who are funding the internet industry. That’s not the only subsidy on which the internet depends, though. Along with the rest of industrial society, it’s also subsidized by half a billion years of concentrated solar energy in the form of fossil fuels. As those dwindle, the vast inputs of energy, labor, raw materials, industrial products, and other forms of wealth that sustain the internet will become increasingly expensive to provide, and ways of distributing kitten pictures that don’t require the same inputs will prosper in the resulting competition.
There are also crucial issues of scale. Most pre-internet communications and information technologies scale down extremely well. A community of relatively modest size can have its own public library, its own small press, its own newspaper, and its own radio station running local programming, and could conceivably keep all of these functioning and useful even if the rest of humanity suddenly vanished from the map. Internet technology doesn’t have that advantage.
Internet fans boast about the net’s scalability, but that analysis makes sense only if you ignore the constellations of server farms needed to keep it supplied with the content that makes it popular and the archipelagoes of mines and factories that supply its insatiable appetite for hardware. Take those into account, and the internet makes sense only if you’ve got a modern global economy to back it up. A simple radio transmitter and receiver can be built by any competent hobbyist in a basement workshop out of readily available raw materials, and the fourteenth-century technology of printing presses and card catalogs needed for print media is even more accessible to local-scale manufacture; try making a memory chip or a central processing unit under the same conditions. On the scale of a small community, the benefits of using internet technology instead of simpler equivalents wouldn’t come close to justifying the vast additional cost.
Now, of course, the world of the future isn’t going to consist of a single community surrounded by desolate wasteland. That’s one of the reasons why the demise of the internet won’t happen all at once. Telecommunications companies serving some of the more impoverished parts of rural America are already letting their networks in those areas degrade, since income from customers doesn’t cover the costs of maintenance. That’s a harbinger of the internet’s future—an uneven decline punctuated by local and regional breakdowns, some of which will be fixed for a while.
That said, it’s quite possible that there will still be an internet of some sort fifty years from now. It will connect government agencies, military units, defense contractors, and the handful of universities that survive the approaching implosion of the academic industry here in the US, and it may provide email and a few other services to the very rich, but it will otherwise have a lot more in common with the original DARPAnet than with the 24/7 virtual cosmos imagined by today’s more gullible netheads.
Unless you’re one of the very rich or an employee of one of the institutions just named, furthermore, you won’t have access to the internet of 2065. You might be able to hack into it, if you have the necessary skills and are willing to risk a long stint in a labor camp, but unless you’re a criminal or a spy working for the insurgencies flaring in the South or the mountain West, there’s not much point to the stunt. If you’re like most Americans in 2065, you’ll likely live in Third World conditions without regular access to electricity or running water, and you’ve got other ways to buy things, find out what’s going on in the world, find out how to get to the next town, and, yes, share kitten pictures with your friends. What’s more, in a deindustrializing world, those other ways of doing things will be cheaper, more resilient, and more useful than reliance on the baroque intricacies of a vast computer net.
Exactly when the last vestiges of the internet will sputter to silence is a harder question to answer. Long before that happens, though, it will have lost its current role as one of the poster children of the myth of perpetual progress and turned back into what it really was all the time: a preposterously complex way to do things most people have always done by much simpler means, which only seemed to make sense during that very brief interval of human history when fossil fuels were abundant and cheap.
The trajectory of the internet on the way to the deindustrial dark ages is by no means unique, any more than the internet is. A great many other elements of everyday life in today’s North America will fade out in the same uneven but relentless way, and these include such essential services as electricity and running water.
The electrical grid and the assorted systems that send potable water flowing out of faucets are so basic to the rituals of everyday life in today’s America that their continued presence is taken for granted. At most, it’s conceivable that individuals might choose not to connect to them; there’s a certain amount of talk about off-grid living here and there in the alternative media, for example. That people who want these things might not have access to them, though, is pretty much unthinkable.
Meanwhile, as I write these words, tens of thousands of residents of Detroit and Baltimore are in the process of losing their access to water and electricity.3
The situation in both cities is much the same, and there’s every reason to think that identical headlines will shortly reference other cities around the nation. Not that many decades ago, Detroit and Baltimore were important industrial centers with thriving economies. Along with more than a hundred other cities in America’s Rust Belt, they were thrown under the bus with the first wave of industrial offshoring in the 1970s. The situation for both cities has only gotten worse since that time, as the United States completed its long transition from a manufacturing economy producing goods and services to a bubble economy that mostly produces unpayable IOUs.
These days, the middle-class families whose tax payments propped up the expansive urban systems of an earlier day have long since moved out of town. Most of the remaining residents are poor, and the ongoing redistribution of wealth in America toward the very rich and away from everyone else has driven down the income of the urban poor to the point that many of them can no longer afford to pay their water and power bills. City utilities in Detroit and Baltimore have been sufficiently sensitive to political pressures that large-scale utility shutoffs have been delayed, but shifts in the political climate in both cities are bringing the delays to an end; water bills have increased steadily, more and more people have been unable to pay them, and the result is as predictable as it is brutal.
The debate over the Detroit and Baltimore shutoffs has followed the usual pattern, as one side wallows in bash-the-poor rhetoric while the other side insists plaintively that access to utilities is a human right. Neither side seems to be interested in talking about the broader context in which these disputes take shape. There are two aspects to that broader context, and it’s a toss-up which is the more threatening.
The first aspect is the failure of the US economy to recover in any meaningful sense from the financial crisis of 2008. Now, of course, politicians from Obama on down have gone overtime grandstanding about the alleged recovery we’re in. I invite any of my readers who bought into that rhetoric to try the following simple experiment. Go to your favorite internet search engine and look up how much the fracking industry has added to the US gross domestic product each year from 2009 to 2014. Now subtract that figure from the US gross domestic product for each of those years, and see how much growth there’s actually been in the rest of the economy since the real estate bubble imploded.
What you’ll find, if you take the time to do that, is that the rest of the US economy has been flat on its back gasping for air for the past five years. What makes this even more problematic is that the great fracking boom about which we’ve heard so much was never actually the game-changing energy revolution that its promoters claimed. It was simply another installment in the series of speculative bubbles that has largely replaced constructive economic activity in this country over the two decades or so just past.4
What’s more, it’s not the only bubble currently being blown, and it may not even be the largest. We’ve also got a second tech-stock bubble, with money-losing internet corporations racking up absurd valuations in the stock market while they burn through millions of dollars of venture capital; we’ve got a student loan bubble, in which billions of dollars of loans that will never be paid back have been bundled, packaged, and sold to investors just like all those no-doc mortgages were a decade ago; car loans are getting the same treatment; the real estate market is fizzing again in many urban areas as investors pile into another round of lavishly marketed property investments—well, I could go on for some time. It’s entirely possible that if all the bubble activity were to be subtracted from the past five years or so of GDP, the result would show an economy in freefall.
Certainly that’s the impression that emerges if you take the time to check out those economic statistics that aren’t being systematically jiggered by the US government for PR purposes. The number of long-term unemployed in America is at an all-time high; roads, bridges, and other basic infrastructure is falling to pieces; measurements of US public health—generally considered a good proxy for the real economic condition of the population—are well below those of other industrial countries, heading toward Third World levels; abandoned shopping malls litter the landscape while major retailers announce one round of store closures after another. These are not things you see in an era of economic expansion, or even one of relative stability; they’re markers of decline.
The utility shutoffs in Detroit and Baltimore are further symptoms of the same broad process of economic unraveling. It’s true, as pundits in the media have been insisting since the story broke, that utilities get shut off for nonpayment of bills all the time. It’s equally true that shutting off the water supply of 20,000 or 30,000 people all at once is pretty much unprecedented. Both cities, please note, have had very large populations of poor people for many decades now. Those who like to blame a “culture of poverty” for the tangled relationship between US governments and the American poor—and of course, that trope has been rehashed by some of the pundits just mentioned—haven’t yet gotten around to explaining how the culture of poverty all at once inspired tens of thousands of people who had been paying their utility bills to stop doing so.
There are plenty of good reasons, after all, why poor people who used to pay their bills can’t do so any more. Standard business models in the United States used to take it for granted that the best way to run the staffing dimensions of any company, large or small, was to have as many full-time positions as possible and to use raises and other practical incentives to encourage employees who were good at their jobs to stay with the company. That approach has been increasingly unfashionable in today’s America, partly due to perverse regulatory incentives that penalize employers for offering full-time positions, partly to the emergence of attitudes in corner offices that treat employees as just another commodity. (I doubt it’s any kind of accident that most corporations nowadays refer to their employment offices as “human resource departments.” What do you do with a resource? You exploit it.)
These days, most of the jobs available to the poor are part-time, pay very little, and include nasty little clawbacks in the form of requirements that employees pay out of pocket for uniforms, equipment, and other things that employers used to provide as a matter of course. Meanwhile housing prices and rents are rising well above their post-2008 dip, and a great many other necessities are becoming more costly—inflation may be under control, or so the official statistics say, but anyone who’s been shopping at the same grocery store for the past eight years knows perfectly well that prices kept on rising anyway.
So you’ve got falling incomes running up against rising costs for food, rent, and utilities, among other things. In the resulting collision, something’s got to give, and for tens of thousands of poor Detroiters and Baltimoreans, what gave first was the ability to keep current on their water bills. Expect to see the same story playing out across the country as more people on the bottom of the income pyramid find themselves in the same situation. What you won’t hear in the media, though it’s visible enough if you know where to look and are willing to do so, is that people above the bottom of the income pyramid are also losing ground, being forced down toward economic nonpersonhood. From the middle classes down, everyone’s losing ground.
That process doesn’t continue much higher on the economic ladder than the upper middle class, to be sure. It’s been pointed out repeatedly that over the past four decades or so, the distribution of wealth in America has skewed further and further out of balance, with the top twenty percent of incomes taking a larger and larger share at the expense of everybody else.5 That’s an important factor in bringing about the collision just described. Some thinkers on the radical fringes of society, which is the only place in the US you can talk about such things these days, have argued that the raw greed of the well-to-do is the sole reason why so many people lower down the ladder are being pushed further down still.
Scapegoating rhetoric of that sort is always comforting, because it holds out the promise—theoretically, if not practically—that something can be done about the situation. If only the thieving rich could be lined up against a convenient brick wall and removed from the equation in the time-honored fashion, the logic goes, people in Detroit and Baltimore could afford to pay their water bills! I suspect we’ll hear such claims increasingly often as the years pass and more and more Americans find their access to familiar comforts and necessities slipping away. Simple answers are always popular in such times, not least when the people being scapegoated go as far out of their way to make themselves good targets for such exercises as the American rich have done in recent decades.
John Kenneth Galbraith’s equation of the current US political and economic elite with the French aristocracy on the eve of revolution rings even more true than it did when he wrote it back in 1992, in the pages of The Culture of Contentment. The unthinking extravagances, the casual dismissal of the last shreds of noblesse oblige, the obsessive pursuit of personal advantages and private feuds without the least thought of the potential consequences, the bland inability to recognize that the power, privilege, wealth, and sheer survival of the aristocracy depended on the system that the aristocrats themselves were destabilizing by their actions—it’s all there, complete with sprawling overpriced mansions that could just about double for Versailles. The urban mobs that played so large a role back in 1789 are warming up for their performances as I write these words. The only thing left to complete the picture is a few tumbrils and a guillotine, and those will doubtless arrive on cue.
The senility of the current US elite, as noted earlier, is a massive political fact in today’s America. Still, it’s not the only factor in play here. Previous generations of wealthy Americans recognized without too much difficulty that their power, prosperity, and survival depended on the willingness of the rest of the population to put up with their antics. Several times already in America’s history, elite groups have allied with populist forces to push through reforms that sharply weakened the power of the wealthy elite, because they recognized that the alternative was a social explosion even more destructive to the system on which elite power depends.
I suppose it’s possible that the people currently occupying the upper ranks of the political and economic pyramid in today’s America are just that much more stupid than their equivalents in the Jacksonian, Progressive, and New Deal eras. Still, there’s at least one other explanation to hand, and it’s the second of the two threatening contextual issues mentioned earlier.
Until the nineteenth century, fresh running water piped into homes for everyday use was purely an affectation of the very rich in a few very wealthy and technologically adept societies. Sewer pipes to take dirty water and human wastes out of the house belonged in the same category. This wasn’t because nobody knew how plumbing works—the Romans had competent plumbers, for example, and water faucets and flush toilets were to be found in Roman mansions of the imperial age. The reason those same things weren’t found in every Roman house was economic, not technical.
Behind that economic issue lay an ecological reality. White’s law, as already noted, states that economic development is a function of energy per capita. For a society before the industrial age, the Roman Empire had an impressive amount of energy per capita to expend; control over the agricultural economy of the Mediterranean basin; modest inputs from sunlight, water, and wind; and a thriving slave industry fed by the expansion of Roman military power all boosted the capacity of Roman society to develop itself economically and technically. That’s why rich Romans had running water and iced drinks in summer, while their equivalents in ancient Greece a few centuries earlier had to make do without either one.
Fossil fuels gave industrial civilization a supply of energy many orders of magnitude greater than any previous human civilization has had: a supply vast enough that the difference remains huge even after the vast expansion of population that followed the Industrial Revolution. As already noted, though, there are two difficulties with this otherwise sanguine picture. To begin with, fossil fuels are finite, nonrenewable resources; no matter how much handwaving is employed in the attempt to obscure this point, every barrel of oil, ton of coal, or cubic foot of natural gas that’s burned takes the world one step closer to the point at which there will be no economically extractable reserves of oil, coal, or natural gas at all.
That’s catch #1. Catch #2 is subtler, and considerably more dangerous. Oil, coal, and natural gas don’t leap out of the ground on command. They have to be extracted and processed, and this takes energy. Companies in the fossil fuel industries have always targeted the deposits that cost less to extract and process, for obvious economic reasons. What this means, though, is that over time, a larger and larger fraction of the energy yield of oil, coal, and natural gas has to be put right back into extracting and processing oil, coal, and natural gas—and this leaves less and less for all other uses.
That’s the vise that’s tightening around the American economy these days. The great fracking boom, to the extent that it wasn’t simply one more speculative gimmick aimed at the pocketbooks of chumps, was an attempt to make up for the ongoing decline of America’s conventional oilfields by going after oil that was far more expensive to extract. The fact that none of the companies at the heart of the fracking boom ever turned a profit, even when oil brought more than $100 a barrel, gives some sense of just how costly shale oil is to get out of the ground.6 The financial cost of extraction, though, is a proxy for the energy cost of extraction—the amount of energy, and of the products of energy, that had to be thrown into the task of getting a little extra oil out of marginal source rock.
Energy needed to extract energy, again, can’t be used for any other purpose. It doesn’t contribute to the energy surplus that makes economic development possible. As the energy industry itself takes a bigger bite out of each year’s energy production, every other economic activity loses part of the fuel that makes it run. That, in turn, is the core reason why the American economy is on the ropes, America’s infrastructure is falling to bits, and Americans in Detroit and Baltimore are facing a transition to Third World conditions, without electricity or running water.
I suspect, for what it’s worth, that the shutoff notices being mailed to tens of thousands of poor families in those two cities are a good working model for the way that industrial civilization itself will wind down. It won’t be sudden; for decades to come, there will still be people who have access to what Americans today consider the ordinary necessities and comforts of everyday life; there will just be fewer of them each year. Outside that narrowing circle, the number of economic nonpersons will grow steadily, one shutoff notice at a time.
As noted earlier in this book, the line of fracture between the senile elite and the internal proletariat—the people who live within a failing civilization’s borders but receive essentially none of its benefits—eventually opens into a chasm that swallows what’s left of the civilization. Sometimes the tectonic processes that pull the chasm open are hard to miss, but there are times when they’re a good deal more difficult to sense in action, and this is one of these latter times. Listen to the whisper of the shutoff valve, and you’ll hear tens of thousands of Americans being cut off from basic services the rest of us, for the time being, still take for granted.