Techno-utopianism and system fragility

Late night rant about techno-utopianism and passivity in dangerous times:

I think there’s a great value in technology, and I think much of our ability to survive in the future will be based around technological innovation. But a lot of it is going to also have to depend on adaptation. We simply cannot continue our current path and expect technology to solve all our problems. It’s faith in technology for salvation. It’s not science, it’s religion.

Our systems are much more fragile than we often want to think. We talk about how the Internet was designed to keep functioning after a nuclear attack, feeling secure that our drip-feed of information will survive whatever we throw at it. Yet, as Abe Burmeister pointed out in late July, the Internet is already showing strain from global warming:

The current summer heat wave has been blamed for taking out MySpace for 12 hours, and more anecdotally the internet does not seem to be weathering the weather to well. The few mailing lists I subscribe to are filling up with tales of server fires and emails failing or being delayed far more than usual. Tales that are mirrored pretty accurately in my own webhosting and email accounts.

The internet is a big network of servers, and servers are hot. They devour electricity, they run hot and they mainline air conditioning. When the global thermostat goes up, the servers start going down. It is all a bit of sci-fi now, but could it be that one of the big casualties of global warming might just end up being the internet?

That same heat wave took down Dreamhost, which hosts both Abe’s blog and Technoccult (along with many other blogs, like Sauceruney‘s). Wireless mesh networks take some of the pressure off big hot servers, but they will require a pretty radical change in how the internet operates. And without adequate energy, we could all be using low-fi hand-cranked laptops in the future (if we can even build enough to go around). Effecient energy generation is the biggest stumbling block towards a post-scarcity society, and peak oil may already be here.

And, as wu just pointed out, even after 5,506 years of civilization, we still haven’t figured out not to shit where we eat. Forget food replicating machines or whatever the hell, we still need to figure out how to grow food without poisoning ourselves.

So for a moment, can we stop dreaming about a future where all our wants and needs are served by technologies (conveniently created by other people, of course), and start thinking about how we can alter our world *right now* to live both more comfortably and more sustainably? World Changing seems to provide the best resource for this right now.

A couple weeks ago I was asking about post-civilization thinkers, and was kind of dismissive of Terrence McKenna. This was unfair. McKenna was an advocate for a more simple lifestyle, sustainable energy and agriculture, and, most importantly, a sort of DIY approach to utopianism. He really wasn’t into the “kick back and wait for the nanotech revolution” thing. I remember one interview, I think it was in the Archaic Revival, in which he speculated that the “big event” in 2012 might be space travel. He said something about how we would be traveling to the heavens, and that maybe “heaven” isn’t something that we’re meant to just be handed by the gods – but something that we have to build ourselves.

So, on that note: the question is, what can each of us do as individuals to ensure our collective, comfortable survival? Even if we’re not engineers? The answer will be different for everyone, but will likely involve a combination of lifestyle choices and pro-active work.

For my part, I’ve been working on driving less, radically reducing my consumption of meat and other animal products, living in dense housing, and helping out with that whole e-waste thing. It’s a start, I guess. I’m curious about what others are doing. I’m always looking for ideas.


  1. I don’t drive at all, and when I am in a car it is carpooling. I try to take electric busses when I can. We have clean Hydroelectric power here.

    I am otherwise working on reducing my energy footprint. My biggest cost right now is the computer I believe. Well, that and feeding my ass.

  2. ving in a solar powered house makes more sense.since moving off the grid i use one third of the power i used to.sun is still free .EVERYONE buy solar panels six is enough to live comfortable but basic. 2. JOE CELL invented 1992 australian handyman joe garrett.could be start of auto revolution. alien8

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