Technological Minimalism

Builds Upon: The Obsolescence of ‘Conventional’ Military Operations,
Extreme Competition Reduces Adaptibility

The year 2010 has come and gone without either hoverboards or moonbases.
What is the meaning of this?

There’s something that novelists and screenwriters either forget, or overlook for the sake of including cool stuff in the plot.

Just because a technology becomes possible doesn’t mean its implementation is economically desirable or feasible.
Perhaps modern technology could turn lead into gold, but the intensive process of nuclear bombardment would be a huge net economic loss.
We can go to the moon now, but getting there remains fantastically expensive. Meanwhile Earth still has an entire uncolonized continent. Until millions of people are willing to live in Antarctica, until space travel becomes exponentially less expensive, until there is some significant incentive to establish a presence in space, moon bases will remain a staple of speculative fiction.

Even now there are a number of technologies presently in use that are unsustainable in the long term. Far from colonizing space, humanity is already technologically overextended, operating at a huge energetic net loss.

Many of these technologies don’t even do their jobs significantly better than plain human labor. Consider leaf blowers vs. rakes!

A technology is an asset when it makes the necessities humans must accomplish easier.

A technology becomes a liability when it becomes a necessity itself.

Whether an hour commute is made by car or by horse and buggy, it matters little how far of a distance is covered. It still takes an hour to get to work. Between these two scenarios there is no change in the quality or nature of the worker’s life. The only difference is that the car is more dangerous, expensive and energy intensive.

Yet one can not go back to a horse and buggy. The suburbs spawned by car cultures are often miles from the nearest place of work. Most roads can be used only by cars. Getting to work by any other means is unthinkable. A technological improvement is nullified once it becomes a necessity. For more energy and effort, it merely replaces the function of its predecessor.

-As a car allowed people to travel further to work, the workplace became further away.
-As house appliances and freezer food freed up time for housewives, housewives ended up entering the workplace and staying as busy as ever.
-As cell phones became affordable, it soon became socially and professionally impossible to live without them.
-Internet access that gave us the freedom to work from home now obligates us to work at home in addition to regular work hours.

Once any useful new technology becomes a common standard, it ceases to be an improvement. Thus our lives in the 21st century are not unlike those of the first city dwellers 6000 years ago. We merely accomplish the same tasks through more elaborate means to in order to keep up with more elaborate requirements. The struggle for survival and prosperity is constant. There are perhaps more prosperous people now than long ago, but as ever, the wealthy are few and the poor a teeming desperate horde.

Technological progress remains locked in a cycle of escalation that contributes little meaningful improvement to the lives of individuals in the long term. All the while it has expanded beyond the limits of sustainability by relying on energy stores that will take many millions of years to replenish themselves.

Technology clearly has the power to improve the quality of human life. It’s just never to date been used in a measured way that allows it to produce assets rather than a long list of liabilities. Without some kind of plan, new technological developments quickly become just another typical characteristic of the same oppressive agricultural society.

In order to maintain a technology as a net benefit to a given society, and to do so effectively possible, considerations of technological minimalism become necessary:

If automobiles were to be invented again, a society could keep the local traveling distances manageable by a horse and buggy or even by foot. If traveling distances are kept shorter within a smaller area, it takes fifteen minutes to get to work by car instead of an hour. When the area in which people live is smaller private vehicles are not a necessity and public transport becomes a more attractive option. Thus people can share the costs of transport and eschew the risks and exorbitant expense of individual vehicle ownership. Not only does everyone gain continuous benefit from the motor vehicle, no one needs own a horse and buggy any more either. In this scenario, the society accomplishes a strong gain in both efficiency and overall quality of life for its citizens…

Technological minimalism at the fundamental level is about trying to accomplish a task as easily and effectively as possible, with the smallest possible expenditure of energy. Not just fuel energy,
-The cost of equipment and raw material required to construct the technology,
-The amount of human effort required to make it work.
-The amount maintenance required to keep it working reliably.
-The amount of skill required to use it properly.

A society that observed technological minimalism would as a whole look much more than our own like a single living thing. It would do its best to make the most of every single scrap of energy. It would run vigorously on a level of effort and energy that would not sustain a modern society for an instant…

I was impressed when I saw a movie called The World’s Fastest Indian about an eccentric New Zealander, Burt Munro, who makes the world’s fastest motorcycle in his own garage. When Munro arrives at the Utah salt flats to try for the record, he’s almost laughed out of the competition. Everyone else has sleek cutting edge vehicles designed for them by major automotive and military technology corporations.
This crazy old man’s home made contraption is a complete joke. When the judges inspect the interior of this vintage motorcycle they find odds and ends such as a doorjamb and a brandy cork serving critical functions.
Yet the humble man working in his garage has a superior grasp of all the principles involved in creating his speed machine. He knows exactly what sorts of materials are required to do the job. He knows when a chunk of metal taken from a door will serve just as well as the latest professional grade parts.
Burt Munro had a fine grasp of technological minimalism.

He is a real life example of how a solid understanding underlying principles yields minimal, elegant solutions to large and/or complex problems. Imagine the ethic that produced Munro’s motorcycle applied to an entire society!

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Supermarkets: The Illusion of Overchoice

In the last few years, there’s been lots of articles about over-choice. Actually, the whole idea of a jaded, stressed out consumer barely managing to keep up with a ‘fast paced’ society has become a cliché.

However, I’ve long thought this whole issue to be a false dilemma.
The abundance of choice in our times is mostly an illusion.

At a supermarket 80% of the merchandise is made of the same 4 or 5 ingredients. They’re just used in different proportions and made palatable with different artificial flavorings and food colorings.
Among produce, most is picked unripe and low in quality. Most types come in only one variety model T style.

Our idea of overwhelming choice is merely our reaction to another clever sleight of hand in the distracting magic show that is our society.

In some ways grocery stores offer considerably less choice than our much economically poorer ancestors. They might not have been able to buy out of season/tropical fruit shipped in from around the world, but they would have had access to local fruits right off the tree. Plus they would have had access to multiple varietals of each type of fruit before everything was reduced to the single most profitable commercial strain. Even without refrigeration, they had plenty of their own preservation methods to choose from: salt, smoking, drying, alcohol, honey, vinegar, fermentation, hops and other anti-bacterial herbs, various fats and oils… They had lots of choices.

In our present society, being able to eat any kind of food right at the source is a rarity and a privilege!

Many of the very best food items must be eaten at or close to the source. Bacteria tend to love nutrient rich food just as much as humans do.

Oysters, in particular have to be kept alive almost until the moment they are eaten. Their taste and flavor starts to go perceptibly downhill almost from the instant of their death. Really, anything from the sea just isn’t the same if it isn’t absolutely fresh.
I’ve seen Koreans and Japanese turn their nose up at any kind of seafood that’s been dead for more than a few hours. They come from traditional maritime cultures and they know better.

Presently, most rich and poor alike have no choice but to pay faceless corporations to produce, handle, process, package, ship, and sell them their food. Not one of these middlemen has any reason to have the consumer’s best interests at heart. They are thus prone to taking profitable shortcuts that degrade the entire food supply. Even without worrying about being stabbed in the back by impersonal food suppliers, fresh food only degrades from the moment it is ready to eat. The further one is from the source, the lower the quality of the food available for purchase.

Any culture around that’s stayed in the same place for millennia has hundreds of local plants and animals that are regularly used in their cuisine. Truly, their diet is far more varied than that of a modern urban dweller getting all their food from a supermarket.. Plus, they know exactly how to use every single food in their diet.
Koreans for example, use baby shrimp from a particular time of year to flavor their kimchi.(6th month, June, I believe). Local food eaters all over the world, not only have access to food at the source, they have both the ability and knowledge to eat that food at its peak of desirability.

The aisles of a supermarket are filled with an impressive array of thousands upon thousands of different brands.
Yet how much choice do we have if we have access only to brand name products, no matter how many there might be?
Does it make any difference how many brands of macaroni and cheese there are if the only difference between them is the advertising on the package?

Much of the illusion of choice and abundance we perceive arises because we confuse products with commodities.
Products are an item marketed under a brand name.
The commodity is the base item/ingredients no matter whose label is slapped onto it.

A grocery store reduced to generic commodities would offer surprisingly few options.
The illusion would be shattered, the shelves clearly full of dreary uniform rations subjected to massive amounts of flash heating, freeze drying, and preservatives. Most all of it would contain(or be entirely made of) isolated wheat, corn, rapeseed, cotton seed, and soy byproducts. Without the glamour and the labels, there wouldn’t be much to distinguish the breakfast cereals from the dog food. Such a selection would seem more fitting for a distant military outpost than an actual civilization.

A Formal Mental Science

Builds Upon: Loopholes in Evolution

A club is a physical technology. It lengthens the lever of the human limb and provides a much harder, heavier striking object at the end.

Sparring practice or a system of martial arts is a mental technology. It allows a person to use the club more effectively in more situations.
However, just as a club was not invented by scientists, nor was sparring or martial arts.

Many mental and physical technologies were invented long before modern science.

However, with the invention of modern physical science, there came an exponential explosion in the development of physical technology.

To date, there has not yet been any modern science of the mind, nor an industrial revolution of the spirit.

There’s people who’ve studied the nature of consciousness for thousands of years such as Buddhist monks and yogis. Their systems contain great accumulated knowledge yet they remain a form of pre-science. These mystics have clearly discovered advanced mental technologies through intuition and trial and error but nowhere does there seem to be a rigorous system of testing hypotheses and recording results. Nowhere does anyone seem to deliberately extrapolate the next advance based on what is already known. Around the world mystic studies have always been limited to a talented, curious, dedicated few. Few people have seriously studied the potential to harness and spread mental technologies in ways that could advance an entire civilization.

There are, of course, already cognitive scientists, but as of yet they are firmly within the physical school. Their work begins and ends with empirically observable physical phenomena. Where their scope reaches its limits, the realm of the mystic begins.

A formal mental science is not cognitive science. Nor is it a physical science. Its business is to treat perception as essentially true rather than as a pale, flawed reflection of an objective reality.
The mind becomes a playground, a laboratory open for systematic testing and development. It is a vast frontier only a few people ever explore in depth.

Setting out with the deliberate goals of
-exploring all implications of the known
-testing the boundaries of the unknown

is precisely the sort of questioning that resulted in an explosion of new physical technologies that could never have arisen from a less focused, pre-scientific system.

What would happen if the mental world were approached with a similar mentality?