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More on John Michael Greer

photo of Kevin Carson

Kevin Carson
27th July 2010


Michel Bauwens solicited comments on this post by John Michael Greer, and compiled them into this:  “Will the Internet survive energy contraction?

Michel also solicited my comment on Greer’s views from the standpoint of a possible tie-in with Lewis Mumford’s thought.  But to the extent that, like Dave Pollard, he sees assorted Peak Everything crises leading to a post-tech future, I feel Greer is best treated as a foil or straight-man for Mumford.

Digital technology and the network revolution are at the heart of what’s creating the potential for a low-impact, less resource-intensive economy.  Green and high-tech are allies against mass production and the mountains of deliberately obsolete goods piling up in our landfills, and against the globalist economic model of truck/containership warehouses linking points of production and points of consumption thousands of miles apart.

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If any single thing reduces the need for fuel, it will be shifting wherever feasible from the movement of material to the movement of information.  Despite all the talk of how big the carbon footprint of server farms is, compare it to the carbon footprint of the low-hanging fruit they could replace:  replacing business air travel with teleconferencing, replacing most white-collar commutes with working at home, the sharing of digital designs with relocalized neighborhood manufacturers, etc.  If it’s looked at in those terms, then the servers and communications infrastructure are worth their weight in gold, and will (along with freight trains) be given all the rationed fuel they can use even when fossil fuel ouput is at 20% of present levels.

Greer’s point, that the desirability of the Internet does not mean it will survive, might seem to be a telling objection to my views on the significance of telecommuting and teleconferencing.  But it misses the point of Mash’s argument quoted in the previous post:  to the extent that the Internet is a loose network of lots of modular local systems, it’s quite likely that local meshwork systems may survive indefinitely as community “intranets” of sorts.

First of all we might lose the “available everywhere”. Undersea cables get cut, satellites fail, the infrastructure as a whole turns into continents of connectivity separated by vast oceans of distance.

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Next maybe we lose the reliability. The longer distances (like between cities) have connections – sometimes. Maybe an unreliable wire. Maybe a weak radio link.

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But somewhere along that line we have local areas of connectivity – maybe something like a local telephone exchange (except now that we know how, why would we make a dedicated voice service instead of a data service? Now we know how to make voice look like data, and make that voice easier to handle by doing so)

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And we have unreliable connections over the long distances. But in “the internet” we have created the exact formulas that allow us to use those connections to continue the information transfer in the most useful way possible.

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If we end up with a true dark ages of NO technology, maybe we’ll lose the internet. But the very nature of it makes it one of the most resilient networks we’ve created. Because it’s not really “a” network. It’s a lot of little networks connected together, forming something that people find massively useful for information transfer.

Given that, the capacity of central trunk lines and servers for connecting them are not an all-or-nothing thing but a more-or-less thing.
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In fact Greer’s own example of the Roman courier relays — which survived in modular, local form in the cities — works against him in this regard.  I quote:
In urban areas, where it made sense, the network was maintained or even expanded. Outside of those areas, much of the system was simply lost, the roads swallowed by forests, mudslides, wandering rivers, fields and weeds, the fortifications falling to ruin and scavenged for building materials, the bridges succumbing to earthquake and flood.
Greer is entirely correct that the “job” as primary vehicle for work is likely to disappear or become drastically reduced in significance. But the rapid evolution of micromanufacturing technology, with networked/flexible manufacturing using affordable general-purpose CNC tools for craft production, is currently driving just such a shift. We’re seeing a reversal of the economic forces that created the “job” two hundred years ago:  a shift back from expensive mass-production machinery to individually affordable craft tools.

And I think Greer seriously underestimates the resilience of society. The development of micromanufacturing and decentralized production technology means that a much larger and growing portion of the total prerequisites for meeting our consumption needs can be produced locally.  Projects like Factor e Farm are in the process of expanding the technologies available for continuing this shift even more rapidly.  And the larger the share of the prerequisites for production that are modular and scalable and locally reproducible, the smaller the share of the prerequisites for production will remain as weak links.   Arguably, the smaller the number of weak links, the more plausible it is that the market will shift dwindling resources to maintaining these weak links.

The significant thing about the slow collapse of the Western Roman empire in my opinion is that the component parts of production technology that were modular and scalable to the village or town economy survived.  It was emergent or holistic relationships between these components that collapsed.  And we’re in the middle of a revolutionary shift toward modularity and scalability in the share of  total prerequisites for production unequalled since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution — and amounting in many ways to a reversal of the increasing brittleness entailed in mass-production society, on the same scale as the original increase.

The more energy resources are freed up by market pressures toward relocalization and shortening of supply-distribution chains, where it is possible to do so, the more resources will be freed up for shifting to redundant cushioning mechanisms for the reduced number of weak links.

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One Response to “More on John Michael Greer”

  1. Sepp Says:

    “And I think Greer seriously underestimates the resilience of society. The development of micromanufacturing and decentralized production technology means that a much larger and growing portion of the total prerequisites for meeting our consumption needs can be produced locally. Projects like Factor e Farm are in the process of expanding the technologies available for continuing this shift even more rapidly.”

    I would add that Greer also seriously underestimates human genius in producing energy.

    Oil is FAR from the only game in town. It has been the dominant game for a while, not because there are no other possibilities but because oil has been immensely profitable for the few family fortunes that made it their business to monopolize the petrochemical industries.

    Just think about all the suppressed energy inventions, those that did not receive financing because oil was more profitable, those that were ended with force, sometimes with fatal consequences for the inventor. Once the floodgates open on energy alternatives, there will be literally thousands of ways to produce energy.

    Once we apply human genius to developing alternatives without restrictions, we will look back at the era of oil with wonderment, bewildered how we could have stayed so long on one stage of development, an energy era that should have lasted decades instead of two centuries.

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