Negative growth image via shutterstock. Reproduced at Resilience.org with permission.
I’ve commented before in these posts that writing is always partly a social activity. What Mortimer Adler used to call the Great Conversation, the dance of ideas down the corridors of the centuries, shapes every word in a writer’s toolkit; you can hardly write a page in English without drawing on a shade of meaning that Geoffrey Chaucer, say, or William Shakespeare, or Jane Austen first put into the language. That said, there’s also a more immediate sense in which any writer who interacts with his or her readers is part of a social activity, and one of the benefits came my way just after last week’s post.
That post began with a discussion of the increasingly surreal quality of America’s collective life these days, and one of my readers—tip of the archdruidical hat to Anton Mett—had a fine example to offer. He’d listened to an economic report on the media, and the talking heads were going on and on about the US economy’s current condition of, ahem, “negative growth.” Negative growth? Why yes, that’s the opposite of growth, and it’s apparently quite a common bit of jargon in economics just now.
Of course the English language, as used by the authors named earlier among many others, has no shortage of perfectly clear words for the opposite of growth. “Decline” comes to mind; so does “decrease,” and so does “contraction.” Would it have been so very hard for the talking heads in that program, or their many equivalents in our economic life generally, to draw in a deep breath and actually come right out and say “The US economy has contracted,” or “GDP has decreased,” or even “we’re currently in a state of economic decline”? Come on, economists, you can do it!
But of course they can’t. Economists in general are supposed to provide, shall we say, negative clarity when discussing certain aspects of contemporary American economic life, and talking heads in the media are even more subject to this rule than most of their peers. Among the things about which they’re supposed to be negatively clear, two are particularly relevant here; the first is that economic contraction happens, and the second is that that letting too much of the national wealth end up in too few hands is a very effective way to cause economic contraction. The logic here is uncomfortably straightforward—an economy that depends on consumer expenditures only prospers if consumers have plenty of money to spend—but talking about that equation would cast an unwelcome light on the culture of mindless kleptocracy entrenched these days at the upper end of the US socioeconomic ladder. So we get to witness the mass production of negative clarity about one of the main causes of negative growth.
It’s entrancing to think of other uses for this convenient mode of putting things. I can readily see it finding a role in health care—“I’m sorry, ma’am,” the doctor says, “but your husband is negatively alive;” in sports—“Well, Joe, unless the Orioles can cut down that negative lead of theirs, they’re likely headed for a negative win;” and in the news—“The situation in Yemen is shaping up to be yet another negative triumph for US foreign policy.” For that matter, it’s time to update one of the more useful proverbs of recent years: what do you call an economist who makes a prediction? Negatively right.
Come to think of it, we might as well borrow the same turn of phrase for the subject of last week’s post, the deliberate adoption of older, simpler, more independent technologies in place of today’s newer, more complex, and more interconnected ones. I’ve been talking about that project so far under the negatively mealy-mouthed label “intentional technological regress,” but hey, why not be cool and adopt the latest fashion? For this week, at least, we’ll therefore redefine our terms a bit, and describe the same thing as “negative progress.” Since negative growth sounds like just another kind of growth, negative progress ought to pass for another kind of progress, right?
With this in mind, I’d like to talk about some of the reasons that individuals, families, organizations, and communities, as they wend their way through today’s cafeteria of technological choices, might want to consider loading up their plates with a good hearty helping of negative progress.
Let’s start by returning to one of the central points raised here in earlier posts, the relationship between progress and the production of externalities. By and large, the more recent a technology is, the more of its costs aren’t paid by the makers or the users of the technology, but are pushed off onto someone else. As I pointed out a post two months ago, this isn’t accidental; quite the contrary, as noted in the post just cited, it’s hardwired into the relationship between progress and market economics, and bids fair to play a central role in the unraveling of the entire project of industrial civilization.
The same process of increasing externalities, though, has another face when seen from the point of view of the individual user of any given technology. When you externalize any cost of a technology, you become dependent on whoever or whatever picks up the cost you’re not paying. What’s more, you become dependent on the system that does the externalizing, and on whoever controls that system. Those dependencies aren’t always obvious, but they impose costs of their own, some financial and some less tangible. What’s more, unlike the externalized costs, a great many of these secondary costs land directly on the user of the technology.
It’s interesting, and may not be entirely accidental, that there’s no commonly used term for the entire structure of externalities and dependencies that stand behind any technology. Such a term is necessary here, so for the present purpose, we’ll call the structure just named the technology’s externality system. Given that turn of phrase, we can restate the point about progress made above: by and large, the more recent a technology is, the larger the externality system on which it depends.
An example will be useful here, so let’s compare the respective externality systems of a bicycle and an automobile. Like most externality systems, these divide up more or less naturally into three categories: manufacture, maintenance, and use. Everything that goes into fabricating steel parts, for instance, all the way back to the iron ore in the mine, is an externality of manufacture; everything that goes into making lubricating oil, all the way back to drilling for the oil well, is an externality of maintenance; everything that goes into building roads suitable for bikes and cars is an externality of use.
Both externality systems are complex, and include a great many things that aren’t obvious at first glance. The point I want to make here, though, is that the car’s externality system is far and away the more complex of the two. In fact, the bike’s externality system is a subset of the car’s, and this reflects the specific historical order in which the two technologies were developed. When the technologies that were needed for a bicycle’s externality system came into use, the first bicycles appeared; when all the additional technologies needed for a car’s externality system were added onto that foundation, the first cars followed. That sort of incremental addition of externality-generating technologies is far and away the most common way that technology progresses.
We can thus restate the pattern just analyzed in a way that brings out some of its less visible and more troublesome aspects: by and large, each new generation of technology imposes more dependencies on its users than the generation it replaces. Again, a comparison between bicycles and automobiles will help make that clear. If you want to ride a bike, you’ve committed yourself to dependence on all the technical, economic, and social systems that go into manufacturing, maintaining, and using the bike; you can’t own, maintain, and ride a bike without the steel mills that produce the frame, the chemical plants that produce the oil you squirt on the gears, the gravel pits that provide raw material for roads and bike paths, and so on.
On the other hand, you’re not dependent on a galaxy of other systems that provide the externality system for your neighbor who drives. You don’t depend on the immense network of pipelines, tanker trucks, and gas stations that provide him with fuel; you don’t depend on the interstate highway system or the immense infrastructure that supports it; if you did the sensible thing and bought a bike that was made by a local craftsperson, your dependence on vast multinational corporations and all of their infrastructure, from sweatshop labor in Third World countries to financial shenanigans on Wall Street, is considerably smaller than that of your driving neighbor. Every dependency you have, your neighbor also has, but not vice versa.
Whether or not these dependencies matter is a complex thing. Obviously there’s a personal equation—some people like to be independent, others are fine with being just one more cog in the megamachine—but there’s also a historical factor to consider. In an age of economic expansion, the benefits of dependency very often outweigh the costs; standards of living are rising, opportunities abound, and it’s easy to offset the costs of any given dependency. In a stable economy, one that’s neither growing nor contracting, the benefits and costs of any given dependency need to be weighed carefully on a case by case basis, as one dependency may be worth accepting while another costs more than it’s worth.
On the other hand, in an age of contraction and decline—or, shall we say, negative expansion?—most dependencies are problematic, and some are lethal. In a contracting economy, as everyone scrambles to hold onto as much as possible of the lifestyles of a more prosperous age, your profit is by definition someone else’s loss, and dependency is just another weapon in the Hobbesian war of all against all. By many measures, the US economy has been contracting since before the bursting of the housing bubble in 2008; by some—in particular, the median and modal standards of living—it’s been contracting since the 1970s, and the unmistakable hissing sound as air leaks out of the fracking bubble just now should be considered fair warning that another round of contraction is on its way.
With that in mind, it’s time to talk about the downsides of dependency.
First of all, dependency is expensive. In the struggle for shares of a shrinking pie in a contracting economy, turning any available dependency into a cash cow is an obvious strategy, and one that’s already very much in play. Consider the conversion of freeways into toll roads, an increasingly popular strategy in large parts of the United States. Consider, for that matter, the soaring price of health care in the US, which hasn’t been accompanied by any noticeable increase in quality of care or treatment outcomes. In the dog-eat-dog world of economic contraction, commuters and sick people are just two of many captive populations whose dependencies make them vulnerable to exploitation. As the spiral of decline continues, it’s safe to assume that any dependency that can be exploited will be exploited, and the more dependencies you have, the more likely you are to be squeezed dry.
The same principle applies to power as well as money; thus, whoever owns the systems on which you depend, owns you. In the United States, again, laws meant to protect employees from abusive behavior on the part of employers are increasingly ignored; as the number of the permanently unemployed keeps climbing year after year, employers know that those who still have jobs are desperate to keep them, and will put up with almost anything in order to keep that paycheck coming in. The old adage about the inadvisability of trying to fight City Hall has its roots in this same phenomenon; no matter what rights you have on paper, you’re not likely to get far with them when the other side can stop picking up your garbage and then fine you for creating a public nuisance, or engage in some other equally creative use of their official prerogatives. As decline accelerates, expect to see dependencies increasingly used as levers for exerting various kinds of economic, political, and social power at your expense.
Finally, and crucially, if you’re dependent on a failing system, when the system goes down, so do you. That’s not just an issue for the future; it’s a huge if still largely unmentioned reality of life in today’s America, and in most other corners of the industrial world as well. Most of today’s permanently unemployed got that way because the job on which they depended for their livelihood got offshored or automated out of existence; much of the rising tide of poverty across the United States is a direct result of the collapse of political and social systems that once countered the free market’s innate tendency to drive the gap between rich and poor to Dickensian extremes. For that matter, how many people who never learned how to read a road map are already finding themselves in random places far from help because something went wrong with their GPS units?
It’s very popular among those who recognize the problem with being shackled to a collapsing system to insist that it’s a problem for the future, not the present. They grant that dependency is going to be a losing bet someday, but everything’s fine for now, so why not enjoy the latest technological gimmickry while it’s here? Of course that presupposes that you enjoy the latest technological gimmicry, which isn’t necessarily a safe bet, and it also ignores the first two difficulties with dependency outlined above, which are very much present and accounted for right now. We’ll let both those issues pass for the moment, though, because there’s another factor that needs to be included in the calculation.
A practical example, again, will be useful here. In my experience, it takes around five years of hard work, study, and learning from your mistakes to become a competent vegetable gardener. If you’re transitioning from buying all your vegetables at the grocery store to growing them in your backyard, in other words, you need to start gardening about five years before your last trip to the grocery store. The skill and hard work that goes into growing vegetables is one of many things that most people in the world’s industrial nations externalize, and those things don’t just pop back to you when you leave the produce section of the store for the last time. There’s a learning curve that has to be undergone.
Not that long ago, there used to be a subset of preppers who grasped the fact that a stash of cartridges and canned wieners in a locked box at their favorite deer camp cabin wasn’t going to get them through the downfall of industrial civilization, but hadn’t factored in the learning curve. Businesses targeting the prepper market thus used to sell these garden-in-a-box kits, which had seed packets for vegetables, a few tools, and a little manual on how to grow a garden. It’s a good thing that Y2K, 2012, and all those other dates when doom was supposed to arrive turned out to be wrong, because I met a fair number of people who thought that having one of those kits would save them even though they last grew a plant from seed in fourth grade. If the apocalypse had actually arrived, survivors a few years later would have gotten used to a landscape scattered with empty garden-in-a-box kits, overgrown garden patches, and the skeletal remains of preppers who starved to death because the learning curve lasted just that much longer than they did.
The same principle applies to every other set of skills that has been externalized by people in today’s industrial society, and will be coming back home to roost as economic contraction starts to cut into the viability of our externality systems. You can adopt them now, when you have time to get through the learning curve while there’s still an industrial society around to make up for the mistakes and failures that are inseparable from learning, or you can try to adopt them later, when those same inevitable mistakes and failures could very well land you in a world of hurt. You can also adopt them now, when your dependencies haven’t yet been used to empty your wallet and control your behavior, or you can try to adopt them later, when a much larger fraction of the resources and autonomy you might have used for the purpose will have been extracted from you by way of those same dependencies.
This is a point I’ve made in previous posts here, but it applies with particular force to negative progress—that is, to the deliberate adoption of older, simpler, more independent technologies in place of the latest, dependency-laden offerings from the corporate machine. As decline—or, shall we say, negative growth—becomes an inescapable fact of life in postprogress America, decreasing your dependence on sprawling externality systems is going to be an essential tactic.
Those who become early adopters of the retro future, to use an edgy term from last week’s post, will have at least two, and potentially three, significant advantages. The first, as already noted, is that they’ll be much further along the learning curve by the time rising costs, increasing instabilities, and cascading systems failures either put the complex technosystems out of reach or push the relationship between costs and benefits well over into losing-proposition territory. The second is that as more people catch onto the advantages of older, simpler, more sustainable technologies, surviving examples will become harder to find and more expensive to buy; in this case as in many others, collapsing first ahead of the rush is, among other things, the more affordable option.
The third advantage? Depending on exactly which old technologies you happen to adopt, and whether or not you have any talent for basement-workshop manufacture and the like, you may find yourself on the way to a viable new career as most other people will be losing their jobs—and their shirts. As the global economy comes unraveled and people in the United States lose their current access to shoddy imports from Third World sweatshops, there will be a demand for a wide range of tools and simple technologies that still make sense in a deindustrializing world. Those who already know how to use such technologies will be prepared to teach others how to use them; those who know how to repair, recondition, or manufacture those technologies will be prepared to barter, or to use whatever form of currency happens to replace today’s mostly hallucinatory forms of money, to good advantage.
My guess, for what it’s worth, is that salvage trades will be among the few growth industries in the 21st century, and the crafts involved in turning scrap metal and antique machinery into tools and machines that people need for their homes and workplaces will be an important part of that economic sector. To understand how that will work, though, it’s probably going to be necessary to get a clearer sense of the way that today’s complex technostructures are likely to come apart. Next week, with that in mind, we’ll spend some time thinking about the unthinkable—the impending death of the internet.