that kind of thing
Thursday, May 11 2006
I worked most of the day on the nagging little pieces of an ecommerce site integration. There are probably more moving parts in an ecommerce site than there are in a Diebold Voting machine, particularly one incapable of producing a paper trail.
I made the mistake of interspersing my work with further Peak Oil research on the web. The message seemed clear: we're all doomed, along with our civilization and the hope of for any sort of triumph for intelligent life. People wonder why there's never been an intelligent civilization detected from among the billions of galaxies in the Universe, and maybe someday we'll find out why, though by the time we have our answer no one educated enough to understand it will be available for that instant in Eureka.
I was thinking about the heights of civilization attained by mankind, and how interwoven it was with the sequence of evolution on Earth. It wasn't good enough to just evolve a huge brain and the ability to use tools. That alone would never have led to the modern personal computer and a creature in a spacesuit walking on the Moon. First billions of years of life had to thrive in ancient seas, the solar energy in their bodies stored away as they died. Then our species had to evolve first language, then agriculture, then industries dependent on those ancient dead bodies. Then there had to be a great (though mostly peaceful) conflict between superpowers, leading to a missile build up and a space race, two competitions that in turn led to the development of increasingly miniature electronics and robust networks. Now we have the ability to beam unambiguously-intelligent signals into space and we can nearly afford to send someone as far as the Moon again. But that's it; we've burned through half the energy that got us here, that allowed vast interlocked industrial networks to propagate on a global scale. Now as that energy becomes increasingly scarce, they'll be less and less talk of sending a man to Mars or even the Moon. Before long there won't be the infrastructure to replace weather satellites. Gradually the economy will unzip from the top down, starting with the highest of high tech and ending somewhere within long-term global sustainability. At that point, the central processing unit and sending a man to the moon will be as theoretical as the idea of an astronaut orbiting a black hole. But by then no one will be left on the planet who has had the luxury of learning enough basic engineering to understand these ideas, so they too will be lost (aside from the occasional tech manual found in an ancient landfill and then quickly burned for cooking fuel). From the perspective of our galaxy, intelligent life on our planet will have appeared as a brief pulse. If you were an intelligent lifeform on a distant planet and looked the wrong way for a mere hundred years, you would have missed it entirely. Chances are, though, you would have missed it anyway because you wouldn't have had the technology to see it; you would have been born either before or after the great pulse of technical knowledge and population on your planet that came as the fossil solar energy in your rocks was first discovered and then squandered.
Thinking these things made the work on the ecommerce site seem quite pointless in the grand scheme of things. There was a time when I thought all functions and programs could have infinite lives in an infinite technosphere. For me, the main characteristic of this past week has been the loss of this delusion. Compare it, if you wish, to the time you realized both God and the possibility of an exciting afterlife were no more real than Santa Claus. It's been that kind of thing.
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