” Carson’s claim is that the accelerating breakdown of the existing infrastructure of industrial society isn’t a problem, because that infrastructure either is being replaced, or is sure to be replaced (he is somewhat vague on this distinction), by newer, better and cheaper high-tech systems. What Buckminster Fuller used to call ephemeralization—defined, with Bucky’s usual vagueness, as “doing more with less”—is, in Carson’s view, “one of the most central distinguishing characteristics of our technology,” and guarantees that new infrastructures will be so much less capital-intensive than the old ones that replacing the latter won’t be a problem.
That’s a claim worth considering. The difficulty, though, is that the example he offers—also borrowed from Fuller—actually makes the opposite case. Replacing a global network of oceanic cables weighing some very large amount with a few dozen communications satellites weighing a few tons each does look, at first glance, like a dramatic step toward ephemeralization, but that impression remains only as long as it takes to ask whether the satellites are replacing those cables all by themselves. Of course they’re not; putting those satellites up, keeping them in orbit, and replacing them requires an entire space program, with all its subsidiary infrastructure; getting signals to and from the satellites requires a great deal more infrastructure. Pile all those launch gantries, mission control centers, satellite dishes, and other pieces of hardware onto the satellite side, and the total weight on that end of the balance starts looking considerably less ephemeral than it did. Even if you add a couple of old-fashioned freighters on the cable side—that’s the modest technology needed to lay and maintain cables—it’s far from clear that replacing cables with satellites involves any reduction in capital intensity at all.
All this displays one of the more troubling failures of contemporary intellectual culture, an almost physiological inability to think in terms of whole systems. I’ve long since lost count of the number of times I’ve watched card-carrying members of the geekoisie fail to grasp that their monthly charge for internet service isn’t a good measure of the whole cost of the internet, or skid right past the hard economic fact that the long term survival of the internet depends on its ability to pay for itself. This blindness to whole systems is all the more startling in that the computer revolution itself was made possible by the creation of systems theory and cybernetics in the 1940s and 1950s, and whole-systems analysis is a central feature of both these disciplines.
To watch the current blindness to whole systems in full gaudy flower, glance over any collection of recent chatter about “cloud computing.” What is this thing we’re calling “the cloud?” Descend from the airy realms of cyber-abstractions into the grubby underworld of hardware, and it’s an archipelago of huge server farms, each of which uses as much electricity as a small city, each of which has a ravenous hunger for spare parts, skilled labor, and many other inputs, and each of which must be connected to all the others by a physical network of linkages that have their own inescapable resource demands. As with Fuller’s satellite analogy, the ephemeralization of one part of the whole system is accomplished at the cost of massive capital outlays and drastic increases in complexity elsewhere in the system.
All this needs to be understood in order to put ephemeralization into its proper context. Still, Carson’s correct to point out that information technologies have allowed the replacement of relatively inefficient infrastructure, in some contexts, with arrangements that are much more efficient. The best known example is the replacement of old-fashioned systems of distribution, with their warehouses, local jobbers, and the rest, with just-in-time ordering systems that allow products, parts, and raw materials to be delivered as they’re needed, where they’re needed. Since this approach eliminates the need to keep warehouses full of spare parts and the like, it’s certainly a way of doing more with less—but the consequences of doing so are considerably less straightforward than they appear at first glance.
To understand how this works, it’s going to be necessary to spend a little time talking about catabolic collapse, the theory referenced earlier. The basis of that theory is the uncontroversial fact that human societies routinely build more infrastructure than they can afford to maintain. During periods of prosperity, societies invest available resources in major projects—temples, fortifications, canal or road systems, space programs, or whatever else happens to appeal to the collective imagination of the age. As infrastructure increases in scale and complexity, the costs of maintenance rise to equal and exceed the available economic surplus; the period of prosperity ends in political and economic failure, and infrastructure falls into ruin as its maintenance costs are no longer paid.
This last stage in the process is catabolic collapse. Since the mismatch between maintenance costs and economic capacity is the driving force behind the cycle, the collapse of excess infrastructure has a silver lining—in fact, two such linings. First, since ruins require minimal maintenance, the economic output formerly used to maintain infrastructure can be redirected to other uses; second, in many cases, the defunct infrastructure can be torn apart and used as raw materials for something more immediately useful, at a cost considerably lower than fresh production of the same raw materials would require. Thus post-Roman cities in Europe’s most recent round of dark ages could salvage stone from temples, forums, and coliseums to raise walls against barbarian raiders, just as survivors of the collapse of industrial society will likely thank whatever deities they happen to worship that we dug so much metal out of the belly of the earth and piled it up on the surface in easily accessible ruins.
Given a stable resource base, the long-term economic benefits of catabolic collapse are significant enough that a new period of prosperity normally follows the collapse, resulting in another round of infrastructure buildup and a repetition of the same cycle. The pulse of anabolic expansion and catabolic collapse thus defines, for example, the history of imperial China. The extraordinary stability of China’s traditional system of village agriculture and local-scale manufacturing put a floor under the process, so that each collapse bottomed out at roughly the same level as the last, and after a century or two another anabolic pulse would get under way. In some places along the Great Wall, it’s possible to see the high-water marks of each anabolic phase practically side by side, as each successful dynasty’s repairs and improvements were added onto the original fabric.
Matters are considerably more troublesome if the resource base lacks the permanence of traditional Chinese rice fields and workshops. A society that bases its economy on nonrenewable resources, in particular, has set itself up for a far more devastating collapse. Nonrenewable resource extraction is always subject to the law of diminishing returns; while one resource can usually be substituted by another, that simply means a faster drawdown of still other resources—the replacement of more concentrated metal ores with ever less concentrated substitutes, the usual example cited these days for resource substitution, required exponential increases in energy inputs per ton of metal produced, and thus hastened the depletion of concentrated fossil fuel reserves.
As the usual costs of infrastructure maintenance mount up, as a result, a society that runs its economy on nonrenewable resources also faces rising costs for resource extraction. Eventually those bills can no longer be paid in full, and the usual pattern of political and economic failure ensues. It’s at this point that the real downside of dependence on nonrenewable resources cuts in; the abandonment of excess infrastructure decreases one set of costs, and frees up some resources, but the ongoing depletion of the nonrenewable resource base continues implacably, so resource costs keep rising. Instead of bottoming out and setting the stage for renewed prosperity, the aftermath of crisis allows only a temporary breathing space, followed by another round of political and economic failure as resource costs continue to climb. This is what drives the stairstep process of crisis, partial recovery, and renewed crisis, ending eventually in total collapse, that appears so often in the annals of dead civilizations.
Though he’s far from clear about it, I suspect that this is what Carson meant to challenge by claiming that the increased efficiencies and reduced capital intensity of ephemeralized technology make worries about catabolic collapse misplaced. He’s quite correct that increased efficiency, “doing more with less,” is a response to the rising spiral of infrastructure maintenance costs that drive catabolic collapse; in fact, it’s quite a common response, historically speaking. There are at least two difficulties with his claim, though. The first is that efficiency is notoriously subject to the law of diminishing returns; the low hanging fruit of efficiency improvement may be easily harvested, but proceeding beyond that involves steadily increasing difficulty and expense, because in the real world—as distinct from science fiction—you can only do so much more with less and less. That much is widely recognized. Less often remembered is that increased efficiency has an inescapable correlate that Carson doesn’t mention: reduced resilience.
It’s only fair to point out that Carson comes by his inattention to this detail honestly. It was among the central themes of the career of Buckminster Fuller, whose ideas give Carson’s essay its basic frame. Fuller had a well-earned reputation in the engineering field of his time as “failure-prone,” and a consistent habit of pursuing efficiency at the expense of resilience was arguably the most important reason why.”