The Forward Progress of Technology?
I want to clarify my position right from the start of this article, “I am really very fond of furthering technological breakthroughs.” It is the direction of the breakthroughs that I hold in question. Does technology truly benefit society if the main reason for its development is to make life easier? For instance, we no longer can roll our car windows down; instead we need switches, wires and motors to do our task. As life becomes easier to negotiate, the population becomes more inactive. Technology tends to follow the Law of Diminishing Returns. Technological advances in a situation, or in a field, usually provide benefits to society, and the human spirit always wants to improve a situation by further developments in the technology at hand. However, often advancements offer less beneficial change and at some point the negatives start outweighing the positives. The developing succession seems to flow along and is rarely questioned on the validity of the continuing advancement. When much technological advancement has been made pertaining to a specific situation, it is very hard to move towards a totally new technology. This is evident in the car industries’ move to embrace electric cars. Although electric cars are more efficient, have a lot less moving parts, and do not have exhaust, the switch to electric vehicles is painful because the infrastructure for fossil fuel cars is in place and the charging stations for the electric cars can be spotty.
We can use electric lighting around the world to illustrate the Law of Diminishing Returns in regards to technology. Let’s face it, how many of us would like to go back to reading by candle light or using an oil lamp? It’s hard to imagine how people in the past read book after book by candle light or smelly oil lamps. Electric lights were such a great invention and we could finally see in the dark - without fire! Then came, ‘Well, you know it’s hard to see to go down the stairs so a light would definitely help…, it works so well inside so why don’t we add lights outside so we can see walking at night…, I was just talking to the mayor and we realized we could see a lot better if we had streetlights…,’ and time goes on. Unless you’re out in the country there are lights everywhere, in fact we don’t even have to turn them on, they turn on automatically whether we need them or not. Then to get away from it all we may decide to go camping, to spend some time in nature without all those lights. After reaching the destination the camp is set up in the perfect spot, perhaps near a lake. The sun begins to set and soon everyone is watching the beautiful sunset which is finally interrupted by, “Where are the flashlights, I can’t see.”
Our culture has lost their ability to use night vision and as we have added more and better lighting our visual skills have diminished. Also, our culture has developed a fear of the dark, and we have fewer and fewer places to look at the stars because of light pollution. When was the turning point? When was there enough light to bring about all the benefits while still keeping the deficits at bay? Staying with the lighting example I remember the early days of living off the grid. At first there was the candlelight and oil lamp phase, which lasted for only about 6 months, however, it was really 5 months too long. This period was followed by the battery only phase. We installed a second removable battery in the car and when we went to work and back it would be fully charged and the battery was carried into the house to power lights and a radio. The first two lights were 25 watt incandescent light bulbs that offered very little light. I remember getting our first fluorescent 15 watt light fixtures, which offered more light. With this new technology we could now install more lights and see throughout the house! So we increased our lighting and now we needed more electricity to feed our new efficient lighting (Jevon’s Paradox 101). Even when you’re aware of this slippery slope it is hard to stop and rationalizing it just seems to help the flow of the new technology along. Over the years the efficiency of our lighting increased dramatically and you would think our photovoltaic system could have remained the same, or even become smaller. Instead it increased, powering more lighting and more labor saving devices. We found ourselves going to work to earn the money to buy labor saving devices. Of course this is just an illustration of a technological pattern which lives throughout our culture. As the technology improves, the cost decreases, allowing demand to increase, leading to an increase in resource use.
In our house we have worked to decrease our throughput (TP) drastically, however, in doing so we have added a variety of switches and valves to reach our goals. If we only had engineering degrees, along with the needed mechanical skills, the household operational system could be automated. Wait, isn’t this the slippery slope I was just talking about? Yes, and the question is not should we slide along the slippery slope, but how long do we slide, and in which direction? To determine an approximate distance and direction to slide the first question to ask is, “Will it lower the total throughput?” The second question might be, “How much throughput will be added if I install this gizmo (labor saving device) to the system?”
Society is set up to consider efficiency not throughput in designing systems. Almost all main stream appliances, pumps, heating systems, etc. usually have an efficiency rating but I have never seen a throughput rating. When taking throughput into consideration natural forces such as gravity, ambient temperature, and sunlight are utilized and the access to these forces changes from place to place changing the technology needed. Main stream technology can work almost anywhere because of the unlimited flow of electricity. The thought process of developing low TP systems is quite different than the standard systems. When traveling the standard path the customer decides what they want and then finds where to purchase the system (can be heating, water, or the house itself, etc.). Since low TP is not main stream (at least for now) there is a completely different process. Through careful observation and pondering, an idea is developed on how to lower throughput in a system. Once the idea is developed the next step is calling around or visiting sites to find out more about how this idea can actually work. Sometimes the idea is met by the response, “You want to do what, and why do you want to do that?”
If our technology was set up to consider throughput this information would be easily obtained. Instead the easily available technology counts on an unlimited flow of resources. In our house we have incorporated many ideas to lower overall throughput yet over the years the number of switches and valves has also increased to a point where if someone else stays in the house without us it can be over whelming. My wife’s suggestion is to have a house manual. Who ever heard of a manual just to stay in a house? Perhaps I should start creating one!
Modern life has found most of us completely dependent on the constant flow of electricity. Isn’t it time to start looking at the entire electrical grid technology as a whole? The amount of physical resources needed to build and maintain the grid is massive. In comparing grid to off-grid households there are many considerations. A huge advantage to the grid is the efficiency of producing a large amount of electricity, but if we consider TP instead of efficiency the advantage changes. First, let’s consider the shear difference in magnitude. If we were to take all of the wiring, the electronic equipment (such as the inverter and controllers), all the solar panels and the batteries out of our off-grid house we could put them in the back of a pick-up truck and drive away. Doing the same for the grid system, we have to take all (and I do mean all) of the equipment and put it in a pile and the divide it up among all of the households using the system. Now we have all the telephone poles, wires, transformers, electrical plants, other buildings, trucks, etc. everything used to maintain the grid into this pile. It would be quite the pile and would take many, many trucks per household to haul away.
In the last few years the threat of terrorism has risen and the amount of resources needed for protection has escalated, along with the fear of hacking. We have continued along the efficiency path that we are all used to so when the ‘Smart Grid’ came along it just made sense. As climate change progresses the chance of downed power lines will increase. Just the other day a wind and rain storm hit Vermont knocking out the electricity for thousands of homes and businesses. As I am writing this there are still thousands without electricity and they may be out for a few days more. It was a few hours before we found out that this was happening across our state, which is the last point of consideration. In the many years of living off the grid I have never been unexpectantly without electricity. I have been building on a piece of land without electricity, but after the system is up and running it is reliable, reducing vulnerability.
As time moves on it becomes more and more costly to pay for those piles of TP and I wonder when society will make the switch. There is little political incentive to initiate such a change and to enter the political world takes huge amounts of money. Where does the money come from? It flows from the mining, processing and manufacturing industries and large international corporations- all of which depend on selling TP. Global debt has risen to record highs without any end in sight and most of this debt pays for the TP we do not notice. I believe it is through education that we can shift this dynamic.