All Of This Stuff Takes Brains To Maintain
Don’t mind me. I’m just looking for a better Skinner Box.
Months ago, I saw the series “Brave New World” on Peacock the NBC streaming service. It was just an experiment to see if I would enjoy the show and the streaming service. I did enjoy the show and I liked the philosophical discussion about what a life would be like where it’s apparently easy to get your needs met. I think that’s fine if you know what your needs are.
But there was something that really intrigued me about the show. I found the drama between the haves and the have nots interesting. I was also interested in how they used their time. Everyone was essentially wealthy and they had what they wanted pretty much any time they wanted it. Except for the servant class. They could not always get their needs met and they were programmed to not have any needs other than the basics.
As I watched the show, I kept looking at the tiny population of people in this fictional society and the advanced technology that they were using. The genetic manipulation, the in vitro fertilization tech, and the child-rearing practices (Huh. Still using behavior modification). The augmented reality tech as contact lenses that plug into the nervous system through the optic nerve, now that was an interesting twist. I recalled a few episodes of Black Mirror with similar tech. But I just kept thinking, small population and high tech. Nah.
I work in IT. I work with very large storage systems and I know from personal experience that everything breaks at scale. I also know that it takes brains to build that stuff and keep it running. The high tech and artificial intelligence portrayed in Brave New World, that all required maintenance. High tech is hard to build. High tech is also hard to maintain and it requires constant supervision to keep it running.
Brave New World was a sort of post-apocalyptic future. It was a dystopia but not at first. At first, it was Utopia until we see what it takes to keep it running. And although it had a very political plot, the tech was there, enforcing the politics. And that tech had to be smart and that smart tech had to be maintained by someone familiar with the code and how the code works with the hardware. An army of experienced and highly educated programmers is required to keep that stuff running, and that was not in evidence.
You don’t know how good technology is until you’ve had a chance to use it for weeks or months in the field. In my line of work, finding bugs is a common occurrence. We are constantly finding bugs and submitting them to the developers for review so that the software can be improved. Often we find use cases for improvements and submit them to the developers and hope that the developers will take them up.
It isn’t just software that is like this. Everything we use requires maintenance. Everything we use breaks down over time. Everything we use must be repaired or replaced, and all of that requires brains. Lots and lots of brains. I see the tech in Brave New World, and I see a culture that lacks the surplus labor required to keep it all going.
Smaller cultures mean smaller surpluses. And what I mean by surplus is that which is left over after you get the basics done. Smaller cultures in ancient times just had enough labor and brains to grow the food and defend the clan from predators. Over time, technology took root. Farm implements were built with iron. Walls were built with stone or mud. Ditches were dug to channel water as needed. Fire was tamed to prepare food for consumption and keep us warm. Fibers were fashioned into clothing and paper. And all of that took brains and labor to do.
As more brains came into being at the same time, there was more brainpower available to think about the problems to be solved. With each problem solved came some new form of technology. From stone to iron to steel to silicon. But with every advance of technology, even though more work could be cone with less human effort, every machine required maintenance. There are no exceptions. So even though we have more food and clothing and shelter than we really need, the surplus brainpower and labor were used to increase productivity, and to automate processes with machines and eventually, computers.
We are so good at farming, housing, and clothing, that most of what we fight over today is surplus goods. And those fights still manage to leave many people behind with less than they need. So I’m not so sure that the technology that we have today has made our lives easier. But more to the point, there is a scant realization that things like cellular networks, the internet, and social media require an enormous amount of mental effort to build and maintain. We are a high surplus society and we know this because most of our efforts are expended to maintain the luxuries of life, not the basics.
Late last year, I found an article about artificial intelligence and whether or not AI would be smarter than humans. The article discussed a forum featuring Jack Ma and Elon Musk. Ma pointed out that the birthrates around the world are falling fast and he seriously suggested that China was not making enough babies to support society as we know it today. He expressed an awareness that all of this technology requires brains to keep it running smoothly and a fear that if we don’t make enough babies, we’re not going to be able to keep it running.
The ironic part of the article is near the end where Ma says that eventually, artificial intelligence will cut the workweek to 12 hours. I have serious doubts that this will happen for the reason that everything breaks at scale, even artificial intelligence. I have such doubts because I have yet to see a technology that did not make more work for us than before the technology was adopted. Another reason I doubt Ma’s prediction is that everything requires maintenance. There are no exceptions.
To put this in perspective, look at our clothing. Most of our clothing is made of synthetic fibers that are made of polymers called plastic. That plastic washes out into the sea and the lakes. All of that micro and eventually, nano plastic is going to wind up in our bodies, creating the work of cleaning that up for us. That is a lot more work created for us than the technology was intended to save us. That’s what I mean by maintenance. And that’s just one example.
There’s an old joke about the laws of thermodynamics, a set of laws to explain how our physical world behaves. It goes something like this:
Zeroth: You must play the game.
First: You can’t win.
Second: You can’t break even.
Third: You can’t quit the game.
We are alive, so we must play the game. I’m not even sure we know what the game is. I think in America, we are playing one-upmanship in Skinner Boxes. In this game, everyone wants a better Skinner Box, an easier job, with a nice view and money left over for vacations and retirement. Is that what we want?
We can’t win the game. I don’t think there is a way to win the game. If I win something in this culture it’s at the expense of my brother, and I may need my brother to survive. There is no such thing as winning an argument with the wife, or with anyone really. If you lose, I lose. So I don’t try to win against anyone. I don’t want control over anyone, either. That’s too much responsibility and that control requires me to win an advantage over another. And once I have that, zip! there goes intimacy. We win at the expense of intimacy.
As I alluded to above, we can’t break even. Every technology we use comes at a cost. So far, we can see that our technology is costing us our ecosystem. We might still find a way to keep our ecosystem, the very thing that supports our lives, and keep much of the technology, but short of reducing our population, I’m not sure how that could be done.
All of our technology has created more work for us elsewhere. I know it's there, the work of cleaning up the planet, but we haven’t created a system that will pay for that yet. And don’t tell me that system is capitalism because if it were, we wouldn’t be worried about the environment — capitalism would have paid for it already.
You can’t quit the game. Once you’re born, you’re in the game. There is no easy way to quit. You could commit suicide, but then you lose all this stuff. You lose everything, your family, your friends, and all of your possessions. All of it. You could stop working in the system and become Jeremiah Johnson, but you’re still in the game. Then you’re just in a far more primitive Skinner Box. Pressing buttons to get food becomes hunting and farming to get food.
I honestly don’t know what the answer is to all of this. The best that I can come up with is to take a lighter touch approach to everything. I don’t want control over other people, so I don’t seek it. I acquire what I need to maintain some comfort and then I let that be enough. I’m careful with the things I own so that I don’t have to buy another one so that I can wear things out to the end of their usefulness. I take care of the people in my lives for I cannot replace them. They are the reason I am here. None of the possessions in my life can ever match the value of the people in it. And I can’t possess people. That is the nature of the game.
The object of the game then is to know that the value of our possessions can never exceed the value of the people in our lives. It’s not even close.