Are we headed to an Internet Dark Ages?

The common wisdom these days is that the Internet and Web, as well as technology in general, will continue on a forward momentum. It will constantly add to our collective knowledge and increase our achievements as it grows. Things like Moore’s Law and Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerated Return would have us believe that our future of incredible technology is within our grasp. After all there is no indication that it is otherwise.

Or is there?

I like to consider myself a realist when it comes to technology and society. I would like to think that there are incredible things ahead for us as we make discovery after discovery. I also believe, unlike a lot of my equals, that as much good as all this new technology will bring society there are those who will subvert the future to their own advantages. That doesn’t change the fact that I don’t hope for a bright future. In fact I hope to always be proven wrong and that we live to see the benefits of a universally equal society as it is helped by our constantly growing technological knowledge.

What if I am wrong?

We live in a world where the Internet and by extension the Web is an increasingly integral part of our society. We might bicker about things like ubiquitous access for all and worry about things like search monopolies, but we would like to believe that as we move to the future we will overcome those problems. We like to believe in a technologically driven world where things like health and other problems which plague us today will no longer exist. Things like oil and coal shortages would be a thing of the past and we would live without fear of the planet imploding from our mere presence.

What if this isn’t the future we end up with?

While the majority of forward thinkers and technologists might dismiss these question as being not something we need to be asking ourselves there are some whole think otherwise. I ran across the writings of one of these types of persons earlier today via a post on Treehugger. John Michael Greer is the author of the Archdruid Report and two of his most recent posts directly look to these types of questions.

The End of the Information Age

In the first post I read titled The End of the Information Age he suggests that rather than heading into a technological Golden Age we are in fact headed in the opposite direction. Much of his argument in the post is based around the point that our technological world is being powered by an increasingly limited supply of energy.

This kind of logic is common enough these days that it’s probably necessary to point out the flaws in it. Electricity isn’t an energy source; it has to be generated, using some other energy source to do so. The electricity that powers the European and Japanese rail systems is mostly generated by plants that burn coal, with significant help from nuclear reactors and a rather smaller assist from hydroelectric plants. Of these, only the hydroelectric plants are a renewable energy source; the others are poised just as firmly on the downslope of depletion as the diesel oil that runs American locomotives.

His point being that our principal forms of creating long term supplies of energy are in fact finite. I realize that this is the point where a vocal group of environmentally minded people will jump up and start waving nimbythe banners of solar, wind and wave generated power. Once more we tread into the realm of possible futures but the reality is more likely that these forms of energy generation are going to have a lot harder time gaining a foothold than they think.

As I pointed out in a previous post here we are only just entering into the fields of generating alternative forms of energy. We are barely getting our toes wet in this new world and already see the flag of NIMBY being waved in the communities that, as much as they need these new forms of energy they don’t want its transport systems going through their neighborhoods.

Now I talked about this whole thing with a good friend of mine, Mark “Rizzn” Hopkins, via IM and he raised the point that Greer was forgetting things like Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerated Return. It was his point that even now stuff like nano-tech solar technology is only about five years from hitting the market in any great degree. For Mark it is things like this that will allow increasing amounts of solar energy to be generated on a smaller more local scale

Well, take into account urban solar initiatives as well as nano-tech – solar is currently poised for a quantum leap forward.

We’re about five years out from affordable solar accessible to everyone.

Having read Ray Kurzweil’s book The Singularity is Near I can understand the point that Mark is making. Technology isn’t a linear growth, it is in fact an exponential growth that builds on top of what we already know and have. While I may not be in total agreement with what John Greer is trying to say in this first post I also think that people like Kurzweil, and Mark, forget about a major contributing factor in all human growth.

Human Nature

As much as we might like to believe that all human beings are good and want to do the right things for our world and our society that isn’t the case. We live in a world where money and power are the major driving force. Those in power will always do the bare minimum to keep the maximum number of people happy. Beyond that it is all about garnering as much power and money as possible. Corporations have equal or more power than the governments we elect to [supposedly] govern us.

We have seen time and again throughout our history where any serious change in our society has been brought in only through kicking and screaming. Governments and business do not want to change anything that will affect their long term power and profit margins. At the heart of this is our current situation of an inevitable decline of fossil based source of energy and the constant bickering over moving to more renewable sources of energy. On the smaller scale we have even within our own neighborhoods and communities those that will do whatever they can to stop change because it might affect their short term bottom lines.

The Cost of Our Information Age

When it comes to the bottom line in our technological world we all want as much access with a little interference as possible for a little cost as possible. For many people, myself included, this is a perquisite for any attempt to move ourselves into a true technological future. However all this access costs us a lot of energy. We tend to loose sight of this cost when we look on the small scale of our own personal usage of technology. It is a totally different story when start approaching the bedrock of that technology.

measure-energy-consumption Very few people realize just how extravagant the intake of resources to maintain the information economy actually is. The energy cost to run a home computer is modest enough that it’s easy to forget, for example, that the two big server farms that keep Yahoo’s family of web services online use more electricity between them than all the televisions on Earth put together. Multiply that out by the tens of thousands of server farms that keep today’s online economy going, and the hundreds of other energy-intensive activities that go into the internet, and it may start to become clear how much energy goes into putting these words onto the screen where you’re reading them.

At some point we are going to reach a convergence of the need for more cheap energy and the reality that we’ve been playing NIMBY far too long. There will come a point, if what Mark suggests about things like nano-solar doesn’t happen, that energy cost could become the most crucial deciding factor in who – if anyone other than Government and Business, has access to technology.

The Economics of Decline

We could actually arrive at a point where those things like libraries, newspapers and shopping in our neighborhoods become more economically viable because of an increasing cost of technology due to our delay, or inability, in moving to a more sustainable energy production. John Greer talked about this in his second post I read titled The Economics of Decline

All this is true, but it misses the central issue I’ve tried to raise in the last few posts – the impact of energy and resource scarcity on the relative costs and benefits of different technologies – and it also dismisses the even broader issue of whether such energy-intensive technologies are sustainable at all in the future ahead of us. It’s a dizzying departure from reason to insist that the advantages conferred by the internet mean that the internet must continue to exist. The fact that something is an advantage does not guarantee that it is possible.

Our Internet, and all our other technological toys we wouldn’t want to be without, do in fact eat up huge amounts of energy. Companies like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft along with a host of other technology companies are spending millions of dollars a year trying to find ways to lower their energy consumption. It is a good effort that has already shown promise but they are fighting against an ever growing tide of new technology coming online everyday.

The Growing Energy Cost of the Infrastructure

For as much as technology like the Internet, computers and other modern toys, may have a direct cost energy wise we have to also take into consideration the energy cost of the infrastructure to maintain and grow our technologies. As Greer puts it in his post

It’s crucial to remember that the entire supply chain that keeps the internet and its potential competitors running coal_powered_stationhas to be factored into these calculations. It’s easy to see the internet as uniquely efficient if all you take into account is the energy going into your home computer, or even if you consider the gigawatts used by server farms. Putting those gigawatts to work, however, requires an electrical grid spanning most of a continent, backed up by the immense inputs of coal and natural gas burnt to put electricity into the wires, and a network of supply chains that stretches from coal mines to power plants to the oil wells that provide diesel fuel for trains and excavation machines; the server farms draw on a vast array of supporting services and manufactures, from the overseas mines that produce rare earths for semiconductor doping through the factories that turn out components to the colleges that turn out trained technicians, and the list goes on.

To try and just center our attention on the direct energy cost of technology is myopic and potentially irresponsible. We need to understand that the energy cost of maintaining the world we know and the one we want is going to be immense. As much as our current online experience might like us to believe that the things we want in life can be had at no or extremely little cost the real world shows us otherwise.

The Cost of Living Off of Abundance

Our society for its entirety has lived much a a parasite on this planet. We have placed ourselves above everything else on the planet to the point that we are sucking it dry of its lifeblood. We have no concern for any consequences until we are backing to the proverbial corner. As Mark pointed out though in IM when we talked about this

throughout history, just at the precipice of collapse, humanity figures out a way to continue the growth curve.

He is right.

We have always seemed to pull our asses out of the fire when any bookie in Vegas would have laughed at the odds. Unlike the past though we are reaching a point where the cost of our greed, ignorance and collective self-importance may have exacted too high of a price. While ordinary people fly their NIMBY flags to make sure their corner of the doesn’t change Corporations do everything in their power to maintain the status quo. They have made an art form out of the practice of Avoidance of Cause and Effect.

I am not saying that everything that Greer puts forward in his writing is something that will come to pass. I do believe though that as long as we keep playing the the game of diminishing energy we are in danger of losing any truly good changes that technology could bring to our society. As much as I might like to believe that Kurzweil’s hypothesis might save our asses I also realize that human nature still has a very large part to play in this and that most definitely gives me pause.

Thoughts anyone?