August 19, 2012

Kurzweil Cities and Kunstlervilles, Revisited

Pessimistic Optimism in the Near Term Future
The future is a fascinating place, yet lately it seems like we’ve reached a rather disturbing fork in the road. On one side is the techno-fetishist fantasies of Ray Kurzweil, computer pioneer and auteur of the Singularity concept, in which by 2040, the world will reach a point where everything goes hyperbolic and the distinction between humans and machines gets lost forever. The utopian world that he inhabits is one in which the compound interest derived from Moore’s Law reaches a stage where technology is all pervasive, where we are all completely interconnected, and we hit an event horizon beyond which are febrile flesh and blood brains of today seem incapable of imaging or envisioning. We ARE the network.
Take the other road, however, and the world begins to get disturbingly scary in a different way. In this future we’ve hit the peak resource wall - oil is declining everywhere, the society that’s so utterly dependent upon that oil collapses into a either anarchy or post-modern pioneer society, where being a blacksmith is a good profession, we’re hitching those carbon composite cars to the horses to get anywhere, and the technological boom will fade away as power distribution systems disintegrate. It’s not a bad life, if you like living like the Amish.
In an earlier article (one sadly no longer on the web) I called these two destinations Kurzweil Cities and Kunstlervilles. They seem to represent the two extremes of our love/hate relationship with the technological society, the one transcendent but based upon some fairly absurd assumptions, the other bleak and dark, the expulsion from the rather dubious garden of the petroleum driven Eden. Curiously there are in many ways more people who seem to long for the seeming dystopia of the Kunstlervilles, the neo-Ludites who spend their evenings stocking away supplies awaiting the fall of civilization while blogging this fact to their technologically connected friends and cohorts.
Yet for all of that I cannot help but wonder if perhaps the fork in the road is itself largely an illusion. My gut feel - my intuition, it you will - is that societies are remarkably more resilient than we assume, even if characteristics of those societies change dramatically over time. Personally, I believe that the current cultural edifice of wealthy robber barons (read - the Financial, Military, Petroleum based superindustry and their chief investors) will collapse within the next decade.
Why? Because overall they are all too reliant not only upon hydrocarbons but even a certain grade of those hydrocarbons, namely those in and around the higher end of the “-ane” group - high octane groups. Electricity generation can be accomplished readily with other means, but the conversion of the American fleet of cars, trucks and aircraft can’t be - and the disruption this is already bringing is forcing major societal changes.
Automobile ownership of those between the age of 16-35 is the lowest it’s ever been, and the number of people in this age group who do not even own a driver’s license as a percentage of population is the highest ever. Some of that is due to the explosion in mobile devices - in addition to reducing the need to “get together” to interact, such devices also make it far easier to share cars and to coordinate schedules with other transit options. Some of it is due to the fact that this group has fewer job opportunities, but when those opportunities do arise, many of them can be done without the need to spend an hour on the road for eight hours of time wasting meetings and another hour on the way back home.
But there’s another reason as well. These kids aren’t stupid, and they aren’t as vested into the system of lies and self-deceptions that their Boomer managers and grandparents are. It makes sense to them to keep their expenses low, and a car is a major expense. Put another way, a car has gone from being a luxury, to being a necessity, to increasingly being a luxury again, and one with less and less desirability … especially if you opt out of the corporate model of life.
The same thing applies to the financial system, and with it the military. The US Military has many missions, and it is unfair to categorize all of them as negative. However, a great deal of military policy is ultimately geared towards the protection of oil supply chains globally. The financial sector has gained the primacy it has largely because militaries are expensive - the budget for the Dept. of Defense dwarfs every other department in the Federal Government. Much of this budget has been suborned by military contractors such as Halliburton, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and others for advanced weapon systems that are, for the most part, designed for “conventional” warfare, only faster, with more muscle, and a greater “boom” factor. 
However, the writing is on the wall even there. President Obama has “ended” the US military involvement in Irag, though there are still tens of thousands of contractors, and while it is a slower, and more complicated process, will, if he serves through November 2012, likely see military troops come home from Afghanistan by the summer of 2014. A trillion dollars worth of cuts loom in 2013, and the military will take the brunt of that (and likely much of that brunt will be born by the contractors whose programs get cut). Romney is self-destructing - I put the chance that a new nominee will emerge from the GOP convention as approaching 50% at this point (with about ten weeks to “sell” that nominee to the public), so the reality is that with neither the billions spent on such systems nor the billions in fees generated by servicing the loans for this, neither the military nor financial sectors will survive without radically diminishing their influence.
One of the central tenants of the post-abundance movement is that we’ll go through a radical crash as the systems seize up, and that crash could end civilization as we know it. Yes, of course. But what about civilization as we don’t know it.
Here’s a question to ask yourself: Today, if you had to give up your car or your access to the Internet, which would you choose?
I suspect that most people born before 1960 would answer that they would far rather keep their cars. Those born after most assuredly would answer that they would far rather give up their car. The Internet means communication, accessibility, entertainment. Today, with the Internet, I can order food (from restaurants or grocery stores), furnishings and equipment delivered, can find and do work, can order finished products or raw goods, can stay informed, can promote what I do, can communicate with friends, family and customers, can education myself and my children, can engage in politics and even societal functions.
The car, on the other hand, is primarily a means for getting you to work, for meetings or for transporting goods. It serves a secondary purpose, that of a status symbol, though again that status symbol comes at no small expense (which is, I suppose, part of the rationale for it being a status symbol). In most cases, it is inextricably tied to the type of society that is car-bound - malls, fast food restaurants, millions of miles of highways, centralized offices, gas stations, supermarkets, big box stores, and so forth. What this means in practice is that this generation begins to gain affluence, all of these businesses that have built their business model on the car will also effectively collapse. Less travel, less need for having fast food restaurants at every highway intersection and in every shopping complex, stagnation and eventually decline of their parent companies. And if you believe the future is bright for such companies, take a look at their sales figures in the last five years.
Yet the infrastructure won’t completely collapse. Delivery becomes a bigger concern. Snow Crash’s Neil Stephenson clearly understood that - home delivery clearly becomes an integral part of the business model. Here, ironically, the second major disruptive aspect of the mobile web revolution takes place. Colby Cosh of McLean Magazine wrote what should be a must-read for anyone looking for what the future will bring: Artisan Chocolate and Social Revolution. In it he highlights a phenomenon that has been given names like the neoVictorian Aesthetic and the Second Arts and Crafts Era. The notion is that mass production will not suddenly cease - it is actually a remarkably efficient use of energy to create necessary goods and services, even though if carried through to its logical conclusion it also tends to eliminate almost everyone in the workforce.
What Cosh argues is that this is giving rise not just to “mass customization” but rather “artisanal” products. Artisanal products and services are those that are customized to a specific audience or customer base. His argument is that the chocolates that the team in question make likely end up using the same base products as large manufacturers, but that because they can hand-create their chocolates to individual needs - a party or celebration, a gift, specialized items for artisanal restaurants - it is in fact this customization that provides the added value.
Another good example, one that I love, is the Steampunk laptop. Steampunk of course, epitomizes the neoVictorian sensibilities of William Morris, but the fascinating thing is that most of these laptops were originally created as works of art, but they proved to be so popular that the artist ended up going full time into creating such specialized laptops. Internally, the laptop is similar to countless others, but it is the customization, and the time and talent involved in doing so, that makes this aspect so popular.
The Kickstart project is yet another example of this phenomenon. Kickstart makes it possible to raise small private capital from small investors in order to get a book, magazine, or production funded. The investors may share in some of the profits or receive product in compensation, but the key point here is that the investors in question aren’t billion dollar funds looking to get a high yield return on their money (indeed, these kind of opportunities are drying up), but are instead investments made to see small, manageable products and services be created that don’t have a high enough profit margin to be attractive to the moneyed interests but that nonetheless fulfill a need or want. Significantly, this is actually one of the most benign forms of capitalism out there, because it serves to create a community of interest.
On the services side, you’re beginning to see the emergence of itinerant service professionals - people who will come to your house to cut your hair, give you a manicure, instruct your children (or yourself), and so forth. Why? Both because service people bill by the customer, in general, and the customers are drying up. Transportation costs shifts to the provider rather than the customer - I think that’s going to increasingly be the rule moving forward as the Millennials age. You may in fact see the rise of doctors doing housecalls, a practice that became unfeasible primarily because of the distances involved in the suburban era. 
And in many respects, that brings me back full circle to the question of which road will be taken.  Artisanal customizations is dependent upon mass production to get started, but over time, I think it will increasingly dominate as the underlying forces that currently favor mass-production will fail one by one. Long term I think that the strength of regional economies in the US and Canada will ultimately outweigh the national economy. Artisanal development is an interim step there, and one that may very well be required in order to push aside the rubric of a hundred years of mega-corporate oligarchical controls over everything from employment to zoning to the intrinsic shape of cities.
In time, as supply chains begin to collapse, the scope of the artisans’ efforts will increase even as their effective reach diminishes (because of transportation costs and subsequent reduction of raw materials). Cities become more concentrated and more autonomous even as their suburban neighborhoods begin to crumble, leaving an annulus that will  ultimately revert back to wilderness with towns emerging towards the periphery where distances to the city become unfeasibly far but where the town has a reason for being (a port, a crossroads, an agricultural center, etc.). The artisans may at that end up becoming the new mercantilists, but it will take a while for that cycle to repeat to the extent that it has become today (largely dependent upon energy profiles).
The Internet will be a part of this - people will fight for their ability to stay connected even as the automobile era ends. Most than likely, what you’ll end up seeing is the rise of regional internet authorities in the same way that you have regional power authorities, beholden to their customer base directly but regulated by the regional governments. The regional authorities would keep the primary lines connected as much as possible, even though I suspect that at least at some time during the next several decades, the bandwidth available over the systems will decline overall for a number of years before turning around. 
The Kunstlervillagers are right in thinking that society will become very unstable for a while. Where I break from them is the idea that we’re heading back to a wild-west type society as it was 150 years ago. I think that ours society will be different, not so much regressed as reforged, and that for a few generations yet, these unborn children will challenge us by going in directions that may seem completely foreign to us, but that will work for them. The only real unanswered question is whether they will look upon out time as a golden age or as an object lesson?

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