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The Technological Wavefront

Technological development isn't only in one direction

Ancient people had phenomenal technology before science was even formally invented:

They had Antibiotics, hormonal birth control, wind-powered air conditioning, and built structures still extant today by processes we cannot fathom.

Roman concrete is still more durable than what we can produce today.

They were able to apply incredibly thin metallic films to objects comparable to electroplating or vapor deposition today, and were reliably working with nanoparticles 70 nanometres in diameter, in techniques we have yet to understand.

Carbon nanotubes/nanowires were present in the best swords of the middle ages, and Viking solar compasses were comparable to our modern magnetic ones, and even worked in twilight through ingenious use of double-refractive crystals.

The ancient Chinese drilled boreholes two thousand feet deep to mine salt, struck natural gas, and created a network of bamboo pipelines a hundred kilometres long to transport it to factories and dwellings. The ancient Greeks had primitive programmable analog robots.

Even the ancient Neandertals of the El Sidron cave had discovered natural analogues of aspirin and penicillin fifty thousand years ago.

They had all of this long prior to our modern rules of deductive experimentation. Does our mastery of the Scientific Method actually sometimes prevent us from making awesome discoveries through following our intuition?

What else are we forgetting? What other wonders lie hidden in plain sight?

And what are we soon to forget again?

Half a century ago, nations like India faced a Malthusian Catastrophe of epic proportions. It was only through the diligence of Norman Borlaug's team that the Green Revolution enabled our societal carrying capacity to increase.

There appears to be a general rule that as population increases, resources become increasingly constrained. Society specializes to a greater degree, as more people are available, which increases societal complexity. Complexity also requires greater and more diverse resource needs.

These effects intertwine over a long period of expansion, and will continue as long as general environmental conditions are favorable.

There is a technological (organisational, complexity) wavefront whereby expanding resource needs can be successfully catered before the requirement becomes critical. So long as the needs are met just in time, the society will expand in complexity.

However, a society that faces an inescapable bottleneck will not successfully maintain the wavefront – it will collapse. This will precipitate a stepping-down in societal complexity to a level which is once again sustainable.

In our time, such a bottleneck could be a global financial collapse (derivative markets), or a series of environmental catastrophes. Depending on how many levels of simplification occur, a great deal of knowledge might be lost.

Although we have vast amounts of data in our society, it is contingent upon servers located in a few key clouds. Books are increasingly distributed in digital formats that might be difficult to resuscitate from an e-reader with a battery worn past its zero point.

No one person knows exactly how a modern vehicle or electronic chip is manufactured. Great amounts of implicit knowledge are wrapped up in the heads and procedural memory of a slice of a single generation. Even trying to make sense of code written by oneself a few years ago can be a real puzzle. Trying to repair systems for which source has been lost would be an exercise in futility.

It is our momentum as a species that keeps the light of enlightenment burning steadily. If we ever lose momentum, we cannot regroup a few generations hence and try again – The intermediate resources required to develop our present technology level are gone. The cheap and easily accessible energy is depleted, and without it we cannot rebuild the knowledge and industrial capacity to transcend it to PVs and Thorium fuel-cycle molten-salt reactors, the only globally accessible energy sources with sufficient EROEI to eventually rebuild our current complexity.

We'd be stuck – Marooned Neo-Edwardians with dim memories of a golden age where we once had the hubris to alter organisms to make them glow for fun, and dare to extend our very lifespans, as we chatted in our kitchens with thinking machines that knew any fact, yet were asked trivialities like the day's weather.

I find the idea of asking, 'is that all there is to a sapient species?' almost as tragic as the idea of its complete destruction, yet vastly more likely.

If walking on the moon is not to be our one-hit-wonder as a species, our technological wavefront cannot fail. The greatest existential risk to the meaningfulness and excellence of the future of humanity may be something surprisingly benign, not to be experienced as a bang, but rather as a long drawn-out whimper.

Therefore, along with X-Risk, there is W-Risk: Wavefront Risk (or Whimper Risk).

Back in 1859, the Carrington Event, a solar black swan, induced so much current in telegraph lines that they could function without power. Auroras were visible in the sky as far south as Turkey. Such events happen very frequently, they just generally miss the Earth. But when it happens to strike Earth again, it will almost certainly disrupt our electronic systems to such a degree that it collapses the wavefront.

W-Risk is incredibly daunting to think about. X-Risk is Ok in the sense that whatever suffering is likely to be over abruptly. W-Risk may be a long drawn-out trans-generational lament

How then might we best safeguard against W-Risk? We have the Svalbard seed vault for genetic stock. Hard backups of as many technology catalogues as possible would be helpful. I don't believe that hitting CTRL-P if a big uh-oh occurs is sufficient.

We should preserve tech manuals not only from our time, but from decades gone by, so that a range of tech levels can be maintained. The emphasis should be on procedural knowledge that can be directly applied, and the principles learned in practice, in simple non-technical language.  Hard physical copies (or microfiche) are strongly preferable.

Other than vaults of hard and soft data, modified schematics of modern Thorium reactors that can be built with a WW1 era industrial base would be useful, along with the requisite refining processes, and likely local sources of fuel. Such reactors can be miniaturized safely to fit on a truck and can power a small town.

Our modern fertilizers are made from petrochemicals – we essentially turn oil into food. If we had a better understanding of Terra Preta then we could replace chemical fertilizers with organic ones, which would allow us to sidestep some of the worst food shocks during a collapse, but we don't know enough about it yet.

These are highly challenging questions, ones that I'm not sure that are being fully addressed, or even could be. Since W-Risk is much more likely than X-Risk however, it would seem to make sense to give it more priority than it presently is.