Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The End Of Machinery

This idea, that there would ever be a time when there were no more man-made machines, seems nearly obvious and nearly unthinkable. Man is so completely dependent on technology of one kind or another that to rid the world of machines first depends on ridding the world of us.

It might be harder to get rid of us than to get rid of tyrannosaurus rex, but much easier than getting rid of ants. And ants would be easy to exterminate compared to primitive bacteria. And short of increasing the minimum temperature of Earth from space to 20 miles deep into the crust to 1000 C, I'm not sure there is any way of killing off every sort of life.

However without stone axes and other primitive tools, humans would probably have died out. We are not so tough as other apes, and there are few environments on the Earth where we could run around naked all year round. Surely just a few humans could strip the land bare of edible plants, and indeed our ancestors had to migrate long distances to find or hunt food, even with tools.

But what if no one alive knew how to fix a car? What if no one understood electricity or computers? Would we be able to transport ourselves and feed ourselves if all the special jobs were unmanned? The only way this could work is if machines did all the work. A machine would have to know about fixing machines and how electricity worked and how to get us from point A to point B.

I don't think it is completely out of the question that humans someday forget everything we know, and that some system of machines would survive by providing us with our sustenance. We would kill them all if they were completely useless, which might be true even if they were indispensable. The proof is that no matter how tiresome it might be to manufacture arrowheads and stone axes, we didn't throw away the technology -- we passed it down the generations.

The facts are slightly different with computer technology. For instance I know a great deal about computers, enough to design and program very complex systems, Yet I do not know every aspect of the technology in order to build a Pentium chip from scratch. I would need some chemists, metallurgists, electronic engineers, logic designers and so forth. If my job ever required such knowledge I would have learned it, but it never came up. I could just go buy such chips.

I do not know how to grow coffee, or make leather shoes, or weave cotton into a green shirt, or most of the things I use every day. Certainly I have no idea how to build plastic computer keys or LCD monitors in order to write this message. I could learn most of those skills individually, although some people may have a knack at things I might suck at. In fact I think most people could iron a shirt much more neatly than I could.

I actually have sat around and chipped away at rocks, trying to make arrowheads, mostly just making broken gravel and nicking my fingers until they were too sore to even touch a rock. I guess the ones I made would serve the purpose in a pinch, but I imagine the average cave man would have me beat solid.

I can also kill and skin animals. I don't like to, and I would probably be happier eating more vegetables and less meat if I had to do it more often. Yet I could survive in those conditions. I don't think I could learn all that stuff and be able to write endless amounts of computer programs, too. And I think it gets more and more complex to interact with all the technology we have, until it is hopeless for any one person to ever keep up. At what point do we just give up?

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