Saturday, 24 December 2011

the machine will stop

Entropy ensures that our technologies become ever more complex and inter-dependent. Some devices may seem simpler to use - automatic lights and wipers on our cars, for example - but, under the hood, simple mechanical switches have been replaced by complex systems in sealed boxes, with sensors connected. Machines may appear to simplify our lives, but when they go wrong we are increasingly at their mercy. Our machines are no longer fixable: instead of repairing or replacing a single faulty part, an entire subsystem is replaced, or more often the whole machine is discarded, and replaced with a new one... the old one is "obsolete" anyway! This is a tremendous waste of the dwindling resources of our planet. Meanwhile we become ever more dependent on our machines, needing sophisticated machines to fix (or replace) our sophisticated machines: for example, cars now require computer diagnostics to be repairable.

More alarmingly, our whole civilisation has become globally interdependent. We have created one vast mothering machine to succour all of us from birth through death. Our distribution networks become ever more centralised - we depend on one giant global system for almost all of our food, fuel, and other supplies. When one link in this chain fails, the effects are immediate and widespread. "Just in time" practices have eliminated inventories to streamline the system and reduce costs: this is more efficient, but also much more vulnerable to failure.

The new-paradigm design of the internet indicates how our systems of the future should be: the internet is massively distributed and massively failsafe. It was designed to survive nuclear warfare. However the other systems we depend on to keep body and soul together have not been designed following new-paradigm principles: they are old-paradigm at its worst: massively centralised and massively dependent. This makes sense to the money men in the short term (which is all they look at), but it is catastrophic for even the medium term future of the human race. One major failure, which could be caused at any time by natural disaster or manmade disaster (warfare, terrorism, mistake), and our global centralised distribution system will fail a great many of us, almost literally overnight.

We have lost our local distribution systems, and our local skills. We cannot survive a major breakdown in our mother system in the way that, say, the Soviet people survived their economic collapse - they were accustomed to looking after themselves anyway, growing their own food, helping their neighbours - but we have become completely dependent on our mother system, which has lulled us into a very false sense of security by appearing to do its job very well indeed. Why trail all afternoon around many small shops like a pack animal to get the household supplies when one deftly trundled trolley around the supermarket quickly yields a better selection at lower prices? Indeed why drive to the supermarket and why walk around it and queue at the till, when a few mouse clicks online will result in delivery of all of our requirements to the doorstep later the same day?

The mother system seems to make our lives easier, albeit in a soulless way - a supermarket visit really does make us feel like we are in a machine, part of a system, and many of us miss the friendly chat with local shop assistants of days gone by. But, having killed the alternatives off, the mother machine has made us totally dependent on it. When it fails we are in big trouble. And it will fail. The machine will stop.

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