If you were to ask an Icelandic sheep farmer freezing in his longhouse 500 years ago: “hey, will those rainy mountains and geysers make your descendants wealthy?” he would have said “you’re crazy. sheep and fish are natural resources, rainy mountains just get in the way.”
Fast forward 500 years. Those rainy mountains provide tons of fast-flowing water, which can be turned into something the sheep farmer couldn’t even imagine – cheap electricity. This electricity can be used to smelt something else the sheep farmer didn’t know existed – pure aluminum. This aluminum is valuable because it enables thousands of technologies that – you guessed it – the sheep farmer could barely have imagined.
With this story and many, many like it, I always find it surprising that many people still say “yes, well NOW we know what the limits are and should really slow down.”
Inspired by: Planet Money Podcast – “A City on the Moon”
Counterarguments Include: Ah, but now we have science that tells us the value of all resources.
Learn more: Julian Simon wikipedia. Julian Simon Econtalk. Julian Simon Planet Money. Aluminum.
Sunday’s post has me thinking about other ways my outlook on technology has changed as I’ve been exposed to more of its underbelly. In particular, how I’ve softened my derision towards technology that doesn’t actually allow us to do anything new.
From what I can tell, there are two main ‘modes’ in which technology moves forward:
- By reducing the amount of ‘stuff’ (energy, material, manpower) necessary to do the same things we could before.
- By giving us the ability to do something we couldn’t do before.
Examples of the first mode are everywhere, but one of my favorites is the fact that it used to be a feat of strength to crush a soda can with a single hand while now people do it instinctively. It’s not that we have all become stronger through secret infusions of super-soldier serum, but because functional cans can now be made with far less aluminum.
I would argue that the majority of innovations fall into this category, a fact that I used to find depressing. Sure, increasing efficiency saved money, resources and time, but it just felt so … boring and uninspired (this is arrogant past-me thinking.) It was like putting a little bit more mud on the mud castle that someone had built before you.
The key that I missed was that without the first type of advance, the second would never happen. It is exactly the extra time, energy, and money saved by increases in efficiency that allows us to develop brand-new capabilities. It’s another way of seeing continuous changes leading to tipping points and discrete changes.