Sunday, May 17, 2015

A Post-Industrial Revolution

"This is a simple question of evolution. The day is quickly coming when every knee will bow down to a silicon fist, and you will all beg your binary gods for mercy." - Bill Gates*

There is no question that the so-called Industrial Revolution has transformed human society, and more broadly speaking, life on earth. At the dawn of the 18th century most goods were produced in small craft workshops or "put out" to domestic households. A convergence of developments towards the close of the century, taking place first in England, led to rapid changes. Advances in the precision of machine tooling increased the mechanical efficiency of the steam engine. At the same time coal began to replace bio-fuels such as wood to heat the boilers of said engines. The looms of the textile industry were the first large scale application of machine labour, increasing daily production from tens to hundreds of times over human output for certain aspects of the work.

A further series of advances sprung up one from another sometimes dubbed as a second, Technological Revolution. Mass manufacture of steel in the 1860's coincided with the rise of the petroleum and chemical industries. By the close of the 19th century coal fired electrical power was supplanting steam power for factory machinery. The enormous capital required for these technologies consolidated control of the means of production into the hands of a few wealthy industrialists.

Actually, we find ourselves in the latest ongoing phase of industrialization which began in the mid-20th century, commonly called the Digital Revolution, so named by the development of technologies derived from the digital logic circuit: computers, cellular networks and the internet. This digital revolution is culminating in a large scale automated workforce of robots run by integrated artificial intelligence programs and networks.

Revolution or Evolution?

The first thought that comes to mind at the mention of revolution is often a  forcible overthrow of a government, prominent examples being the French, American and Bolshevik Revolutions. A long standing system is upended, usually accompanied by extreme violence, replaced with an entirely new social order. In that sense, the changes wrought by Industrialization since the late 18th century might justifiably be called a revolution, if more of an economic than a political one.

However, I would contend that "revolution" is really a misnomer for such events or periods. Our English word "revolution" derives from the Latin verb "volvere",  meaning to "roll, turn" combined with  the prefix "re-",  meaning "back, again". So the fundamental meaning of "revolution" is a "rolling, turning back". This is the sense we apply to the rotation of the earth. A 24 hour day is one "revolution" of the planet. We return to the origin, a new day it may be but a day much like the previous one.

By contrast, the changes produced by Industrialization are entirely new, without precedent. I suggest "evolution" might be a better description. Sharing the same root verb "volvere", the sense of "evolution" changes by substituting the prefix "ex-", meaning "out". An "evolution" is an "unfurling", a "rolling out" of something truly different. Industrialization was and continues to be an economic Evolution of unprecedented change.

Evolution and Entropy

The second law of thermodynamics states that while it is possible for the total complexity of a system to remain constant for a reversible, cyclic or revolutionary process, that it can only increase in disorder or "entropy" for evolutionary, irreversible processes.

As we pass wholly from the "technological" to the "digital" phase of industrialization our machines will increase in complexity while we can expect our own social complexity, human beings' diversity of language, art, and culture to continually, exponentially decrease. Governments, industry, public and higher education are preparing for this globalized world where basic necessities (food, clothes, shelter and medicine) and even the arts (painting, sculpture and musical composition) will be fully automated.

What finances this mad evolutionary rush? Cheap energy, principally fossil fuels. Don't get me wrong, I don't think that fossil fuels are inherently bad. Quite the opposite, they represent hundreds of millions of years of accumulated, irreplaceable resources. Properly managed fossil fuels should have improved our own lives, our children's lives, and our children's, children's lives a million years into the future. Instead we've decided in a couple of generations to set fire to every last drop in one big, selfish, orgiastic party. The greatest act of social entropy ending in billions of people whose lives are devoid of meaning with little to keep them occupied: sounds like a recipe for social upheaval to me.

The Post-Industrial Revolution

We're already deep into a cultural dark age. We just don't realize it because of the comfort of air conditioning and the latest app we've downloaded onto our iPhone. The modern world may outwardly appear to be sophisticated and complex; nevertheless, it is getting simpler, more standardized every day. In the past couple of hundred years, thousands of languages have been extinguished along with thousands of ways of understanding, describing and inhabiting the world. Entropy, simplification and the loss of diversity of human activities such as farming, cooking, weaving and building parallel the loss of complexity of the biological systems, plant and animal species we depend on for survival.

What happens after our present unsustainable industrial evolution collapses upon itself? What does the world and human society look like then? I don't know for sure but I suspect after a period of great tribulation and turmoil it will in time resemble our pre-industrial past. In the meantime, certain among us understand where we are in human history. Like monks holding a dimly lit flame in the depth of darkness we seek to copy the manuscript one more time, keep our traditions alive for one more generation. We seek to bring a little bit of human happiness to our brothers and sisters today and make the return to a sustainable society a bit less painful for our children.

*Andrew Lephter,  The PWOT Bill Gates Interview

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Contributed by Patrick Webb


  1. I agree with all your points on social entropy. I used to have a very romantic image of the past - as if "civilized" society is the cause of all our woes, and if only we could get back to our primitive utopia. This is something that crops up in a lot of anti-modernist thinking: The assumption that there ever was any homogenous pre-industrial past. The annoying current fad of the "paleo diet" makes an assumption based on the same premise; that people during some vaguely defined point in time once ate the same, lived well, and we should all be like they were.

    Not that I don't agree that we are headed towards the edge of a cliff, I just have a dimmer view of the past. I don't think it can be said that there ever was a period where it all worked out for everyone.

    I look forward to reading more posts along these lines.