My apologies to Casey Crafts. I was supposed to teach a class there today, but had to cancel. They were going to let me teach basket weaving, but I ran out of time and backed out. In Washington State, English Ivy is a noxious weed. I turn noxious weeds into garden art by weaving ivy and holly into wreathes, baskets, balls, and random shapes. (Not every project is a success.) Basket weaving is proof that some technologies survive. We learned how to weave before we conquered fire. We gave birth to technology and continue to raise it, but now it has now progressed to the point that it may move out on its own. Family relations are about to get interesting.
It’s Saturday, which means I’m sitting in Paul Petersen’s glass and metal art studio selling my books and photos. Paul’s arts rely on fire. It is very primal. The furnace roars. Heat is either intense, or swept away by breezes blowing through the open garage doors. Glass pops and cracks, and the rare dropped piece brings a chorus of sympathy from us and a resigned grin from him. My arts are quieter and more ephemeral. The garden baskets are temporary. My books and photos are based on collections of photons and electrons, insubstantial and possibly eternal.
I started weaving baskets as a way to clean up the yard. English ivy grows too well here. It’s resilient, flexible, and pervasive. That’s why it’s hard to eradicate, but I realized that those same qualities must be good for something. Weaving material. Besides, the cost was right. What did I have to lose from trying? If my baskets were no good they could become compost or kindling. It wasn’t until months later that I recognized the juxtaposition of a rocket scientist / digital artist diving into one of the most ancient technologies. It was fun spanning that much history.
Technology is like money: not a good or an evil, just another product of our civilization. Our use creates positive or negative impact, but ultimate consequences are hard to predict. Would we have developed the automobile if we’d known how many people would be killed in accidents or how pollution would impact the planet? If we hadn’t developed the car, how many horses and other draft animals would’ve led tortuous lives, and how much land would be required for millions or billions of methane producing oxen? Zero impact has only been an option for zero human scenarios.
We begin with immature technologies and develop along with them. Paul’s furnace is fire contained, concentrated and controlled far beyond an evening’s campfire. Our cars have developed. Check with those that remember the 1960s. Smokey exhausts, noisy engines, dim headlamps, dangerous interiors were common but not noticeable then. Watch a vintage truck drive by and imagine millions of those cars and their impact. We’ve progressed the technology, possibly not fast enough, but it and we do progress.
Change is happening more quickly. I follow trends and developments for investing, but also to understand where our civilization and environment are headed. It’s one of the reasons I like living more than a hundred feet above today’s sea level. I’ve seen the data on rising seas. It affects my life choices. The data on technological change suggests that technology is changing more quickly than us, our civilization, and our environment. Ray Kurweil’s book, The Singularity Is Near describes the perspective of exponentially accelerating technological evolution. It is possible that a computer will design a computer that is smarter than itself, which will design a computer that is smarter than itself, which will lead to an intelligence that rapidly exceeds human understanding and control. Optimists conjecture benign intelligences making decisions that solve mankind’s’ problems. Pessimists point to movies like The Terminator and The Matrix, while sci-fi fans know novels that describe far worse threats. Replicators and berserkers are possible. Personally, there are many possibilities, but I suspect the greatest probability is heavily influenced by Murphy’s Law, not that things will go wrong, but in this case that all predictions are flawed.
Despite the flaws predictions are useful to make. Referencing history helps. We’ve created technologies that allow billions to live, but have dramatically impacted the planet. We’ve also modified technologies to increase the positive and decrease the negative, though Murphy and unintended consequences modify the outcome. If technology matures to the point that it moves out on its own, then it defines positive and negative, though I suspect that Murphy remains powerful. We won’t be in control, but we will probably live within mature technology’s influence. Our relationship with technology will have changed more dramatically than what a parent experiences as a child becomes a parent.
History proves that civilizations have planned for one set of futures, but have been radically altered by surprises. Monotheism, bubonic plague, Mongols, and Europeans landing in America surprised and ruined the plans of pagans, royalty, the Roman Empire, and Native Americans. We’re trying to deal with limited resources, global impoverishment, overpopulation, and damaged environments, but I suspect that a radical and self-empowered technological intelligence is equally influential. Most of our global issues are described as extrapolated impacts for 2100. Many people alive today could see that day. Some rental agreements reach that far. Many of us plan for a third of that time with 30 year mortgages. Technological progress is happening more rapidly. Ray Kurweil estimates that technology will grow up and move out within twenty years.
An event twenty years from now is within the scope of IRA’s, federal debt reduction plans, and is less time than it takes for a newborn to reach adulthood.
Is Ray right? I don’t know, but I do know that it puts my plans in perspective. Projecting a portfolio’s growth through retirement can involve debates about whether markets will average a 5%, 7%, or 10% growth. Pick your number, but don’t be surprised if bigger changes enter your life. My plans are drawn with a broader brush, aren’t built with an expectation of exacting focus. I situate myself based on a good guess, and am ready to move if it looks like a good idea.
In the meantime, the ivy continues to grow on a friend’s property so I’ll drop by, pick some, weave some, and maybe teach some. Some things never change.