The Technology Regression Curve

The Technology Regression Curve

I have written in the past about how the growth of limits as it is something that most people are blind too. One of the side impacts of the resource limits we are most likely going to face in future is that over the next century or more we will have to start to live with a drastically reduced resource base. With a decline of a resource it can be envisioned that this will lead to a decline in what we demand of our technology. Just as there is typically a growth of a resource, a plateau and then an equal opposite decline; there is also the psychological impact of this decline. How will we adapt and handle the potential of 'less'? How will we do more with less and then live with less overall?

With all the technical marvels that we have created and experienced in the age of cheap fossil fuel, we have been sold the expectation that the world will "always get better". In a mediagenic technology sense; Film advanced into radio. Radio into Television. Television into Computers. Computers morphed into Mobile Phones and so on. The more energy we pushed into the system, the more abstract that technology became. Instead of producing a more efficient and easier life style, we produced more complexity. For those points were it appeared easier, it is usually on the back of making it more complex for someone else. All thank to the one-time-deal of exploiting the earth battery of hydro carbons. We have been told to live with the idea that things can never go backwards. However as the abundance of energy per person goes away, so too will some of the most abstract technology.

Not only will this make some of the more complex technology of today like the computer I am using now become less abundant but it will also mean that people will start to choose less complex technologies to achieve what they desire.

It is somewhat easier to describe this nowadays than a few decades back as we are seeing people that are embodying this very idea. In the 90's and 2000's there was a massive push to digitize everything, add more complexity to the system and embrace the "computer revolution". All this did was put a better paint job on an every declining system. There have been some good things to come out of this technology push in terms of the information availability like Wikipedia. I for one was one of the digital-tech-utopists that pushed these ideals. The idea that with enough connectivity and enough computing power that we could solve the biggest issue of the world. That technology and innovation could only lead to a better future.

How wrong I was!

And yet for all the apparent improvements, the world itself was not improving - it was always changing but never in one direction. The idea of pure technological progress was a naive and foolish point of view to have. More is not better, more is more stress on every system. Both physically and mentally. I thought that with enough connectivity at all times that we would finally have everything we wanted. The saying is 'be careful of what you wish for because you may just get it'. I did get what I wished for. I got always on connectivity and it was horrible. Putting the Internet everywhere proved to be an idiotic thing to do. It has been the adage for millennia but it is still very true; Less is more. After following the technology field for about 30 years it was very apparent the the emperor had no clothes. Technology had got ourselves into our problems, continuing down that path is the path of insanity. You cannot dig yourself out of a hole, you can only get out of the hole by doing something completely different.

Psychologically, we were being beaten up and accepting it and finally people are pushing back. Physically, the world was going to balance it out anyway but some people are ahead of the curve and volunteering to step away from the ever visceral temple of 'technology progress'. If we didn't do it for our own sanity the world would do it be not having the resources to sustain this kaleidoscope of electrical nonsense. Many people nowadays after having using this stuff for decades like me had finally had enough. Either for sanity of sustainability and have started to deliberately reduced their technology usage. To use technology in a more deliberate and controlled fashion rather that just because it is a technically complex way of solving a problem we probably didn't even have in the first place.

Whether this is because they want to or are slowly being forced to is a matter of debate, what is apparent is that it is slowly taking hold.

This is the Technology Regression Curve.

Take a look at Hubberds peak theory curve, it is essentially a graph with time and resources plotted out and it looks like an inverted bell curve. The energy curve goes up, plateaus and then declines in on the equal opposite side. I propose that this will be the exact same curve that digital technology adoption is taking, I also propose that when it comes to global energy per capita and complex technology adoption decline is merely another detail of the same curve only offset by a few decades.

As the benefits of new technologies decrease, people will stop using the newer technologies as the burden of mental and physical maintenance takes its hold. As the environmental impact and sustainability of these machines because an ever bigger burden, then the compassionate and rational people will move to more reasonable technologies to live by.

We see this today in many ways. The resurgence of Vinyl music, technology free days, the perma-culture movement, abandoning the social media treadmill, Tiny homes - Basically a general desire for quality practical things rather than complex (mostly digital) vaporware that is so fragile it can be blinking into the ether without notice or does not provide the users with any joy/function. Ditch the clothes dryer for a clothes line.

The adoption of complex technology the world over however is not even.

Firstly, we have adopted this technology it to gloss over the declines in the planets resources per capita, it is easier to make something look good than to actually improve it. A car nowadays has over a hundred computers, all matter of resins and plastics, GPS touch screens and whatnot; but we ignore that the fuel to drive it now costs twice as much (adjusted for inflation) as it did 25 years ago. We marvel at mobile phones in our pockets while we try not to see that our reliable jobs and living conditions crumble around us. We have favored the aesthetic of the digital world over addressing the issues in the real physical world, a type of cognitive dissonance that haunts people. To have some of the world vision of Issac Asimov's 'The Caves of Steel' come to fruition, to live in a world controlled by technology to avoid addressing the issues it faces. As we go over the energy curve, we have been frantically trying to push the technology regression curve out by a few decades to provide the illusion of growth.

Secondly, this is not happening equally the world over. Continents like Asia, India and Africa are desperately trying to catch up with the western industrial world and the image of the middle class that we so briefly had and is now diminishing. While I don't like to make detailed predictions because they are almost always wrong, I will do it this time. Asia has already achieved this but will probably go into decline with the rest of us in the next 2-3 decades, India will get about a decade before decline and I am not sure that Africa will see much of this at all in any significant fashion. I would argue that the less they jump into the same techno fueled ­frenzy that the west did then the better off they may be long term, at least psychological wise. You cannot miss what you never had, at least to some degree.

In the west at least we are seeing the small flicker of change and some (mostly younger) people start to adopt a lower energy life style to adapt to the current and future change. Minimalism, Simple Living and the 'slow' movement are good examples. While there is a lot of nonsense that has been injected into these fields they are starting to find traction, to live a life with lower environmental impact and more actual living is the movement that is slowly growing. Not everyone labeled a 'hipster' is necessarily in it just for the image, it is a actual way of life.

I do not know where we will end up or the strange perturbations that will occur in this field as we are only in the first decade (approximately) of even acknowledging there being an issue, to watch the decline will be fascinating to see unfold in the years to come but it will not be pleasant for a lot of people.

NOTE : While these are ideas I have been playing around with for the last 20 years and only really addressing for the last 4-5 years, this article was inspired by the writings of John Michael Greer and this book "Retro Future". I would highly recommend it if you want a more in-depth analysis of these concepts. You can find his works at Ecosophia.

Back to Index