Reality Blind - Vol. 1

Energy, Technology and Complexity

Summary: In the 1950s, a typical American family had a modest house, a car, a small fridge, a furnace, and an oven. Now we also have cell phones, personal computers, giant flat screen TV’s, two or more cars, barbecues, large fridges, freezers, dishwashers, microwaves, air conditioning, personal cappuccino machines, hot tubs, Xbox, laptops, and, thus, need larger houses to store it all. Our “happiness and satisfaction” indicators have not improved, but the complexity of the average citizen’s target lifestyle now requires much more stuff; all of which need gasoline or electricity from a wall socket. Our personal stuff requires a complex baseline infrastructure (not just roads and the electric grid, but also server farms to keep the internet running and so on) and this increased hierarchy requires more energy and material inputs to stay constant, let alone to grow. The direction taken by our society has been to increasingly invest energy in building complexity, and to build into our individual psychological baselines an expectation of “improvement” year -over-year, in terms of having gadgets that give us the ability to access sensations we didn’t have before. It seems to be a general human tendency to employ “investment in complexity” to solve individual problems or goals , not just in the current day but all the way back to prior human societies and empires. In general, this initially works very well for a society, but eventually runs up against diminishing returns, since new complexity is layered on top of already - existin g prior complex “fixes.” Creation and maintenance of these investments must be accomplished by tapping available net energy, which is always subject to short term (and long term) limits. In the (very) old days of steady-state economies when societal wealth was a function of excess food production, this process of complexity could only go so far. In our current industrialized society, we rely heavily on increasing mechanical complexity, robotics, and distant supply chains of lowest cost


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