Technological Advancement, Evolution of Civilization, and Regulated Breakthroughs
These days, it might seem to one that technological revolutions come nearly on a weekly basis. Innovative startups promise to disrupt nearly every industry in existence, so the disruption in question becomes akin to killing d’Artagnan on a duel: they’ll have to get in line. Elon Musk, a person who is just one childhood trauma away from becoming a supervillain, launches his car into space and promises to land people on Mars in the very next decade. Finally, there are transhumanists who believe that the technological singularity is nigh, and meanwhile prepare themselves to the life in a cyberpunk dystopia.
Notions of Energy
Still, the notion of progress doesn’t measure by minor technological advancements. Even the advancement of things like distributed ledger or sinister Alexa laughter do not signify a major technological leap for the humankind. It’s quite easy to get deluded into the belief we have significantly progressed since the 1960’s when most of our current achievements have been described by sci fi writers. The real technological leaps are extremely rare and they nearly instantly reshape the very essence of any person’s life.
Any technological leap, of course, is defined by the technology that becomes available after such a leap. The question is, however, what causes said leaps, and the answer is fairly simple: it’s the amount of energy that becomes accessible to people.
A human being per se isn’t really powerful. The amount of job a person can do in a day is nothing compared to what can be done if additional means are used. In the early days of the humankind, however, people were alone. The greatest technological achievement of those days matched the limited energy capabilities of a human being, and consisted mostly in crafting primitive tools to build a household or kill a beast.
This all changed when people learned to domesticate animals. The domestication of horses provided people with greater energy compared to what they had had previously: using horses, they were able to seriously engage in agriculture that had been next to nascent before. Agriculture on such scale, however, required people to tend to the plants they grow, to store the massive amount of crops, and then get it somewhere, preferably in exchange for money, and thus had them settle in the same place for generations. Such settlements became ancient cities, and thus the civilization as we know it emerged.
After that, there haven’t been any major technological advancements for millenia. Whatever great achievements people have accomplished in those ancient days, they solely relied on domestic animals, slave labour and regular fire that allowed them to craft better tools. The amount of available energy, however, remained unchanged.
Things became dramatically different after the industrial revolution: the energy of steam staggeringly exceeded that of a couple of horses. Steam engines were then used to harness electricity, another power that had been beyond human control for ages. As the overall amount of energy increased, it became possible to create various machinery that was doing things faster and better than living people.
Things have changed again when they split atom. It gave people even greater amounts of energy and powered computers. Whatever discovery of today is made, it still lies in the paradigm that was shaped by the atomic age. It allowed them to create an industry where more people are engaged in services, not in manual labor, and thus ushered in postindustrial economy. Cell phones, broadband internet, blockchain, and everything else we’re accustomed to using today is actually a part of that atomic energy paradigm.
And it seems that the atomic era has nearly depleted itself.
Progress of Civilization
Regardless of all that, people still haven’t learnt to preserve energy. Anyone who has ever used a smart device is well aware that it either has to be permanently connected to the socket or recharged everyday. The storage capacity of today’s batteries is laughable compared to the things they power.
The atomic energy itself is in decline thanks to Chernobyl and other disasters that have proved its inherent dangerousness. Replacing atomic power plants with those using renewable energy, however, doesn’t address the issue of further progress and technological advancement. While, theoretically, renewable energy sources are sufficient to power the existing requirements of the humankind, it’s pretty obvious that they cannot come even close to powering some nerdy pipedreams like teleports, warp drives, and time machines. All of them are scientifically possible, however, in order to make them work, we’ll have to use amounts of energy comparable to those produced by the Sun, which no windmill can ever possibly generate. In fact, a teleport would require us to use negative energy, which is a legit physical concept but is unimaginable at the current phase of our civilization’s evolution.
This also raises the question of ethics: even though domestication of horses effectively shaped the very notion of civilization, it’s quite obvious that it didn’t benefit horses whatsoever. Steam-powered engines required coal to operate, and its byproducts effectively polluted the atmosphere. Atomic energy isn’t even fully harnessed and any mistake in its handling may cause a Chernobyl-like catastrophe with downright lethal consequences.
In order to attain energy sufficient to power even a primitive teleport people would have to stop burning fossils and delve into the Earth’s core that is mostly powered by non-stopping nuclear decay. The ecological consequences of such endeavor potentially put Chernobyl to shame and make the movie 2012 look like a trip to a tropical island where weed is legal.
There is a moderately known notion of civilization types, which suggests that any type of civilization is defined by the amount of energy it has at its disposal. Under this classification, we’re still type 0 civilization that relies on fossils. In order to become type I civilization, we have to use the energy of our planet’s core. In order to become type II civilization, we’ll have to build a Dyson sphere around the Sun to fully harness the energy of continuous thermonuclear synthesis. Finally, there’s type III civilization that uses the energy from the galaxy’s core, and arguably can be seen in Star Wars. Most likely, there’s a supermassive black hole in the heart of the galaxy, so the energy in this case is likely to be gravitational.
It’s impossible to jump from type 0 civilization to type II civilization. Currently we don’t even have technological means even to reach the core, let alone harness its energy. However, no such advancement comes out of nowhere. It is being continuously prepared by the very history of our progress.
How Progress Stumbles
Horses existed well before they were domesticated. It was a human effort to start using them for the people’s good (and horses’ bad, apparently). The steam engine itself was conceived in the Ancient Rome times, when Heron of Alexandria developed a thing that wouldn’t be seen for 18 centuries after him. The fable goes, he showed his invention to the first Roman emperor Octavian Augustus. The emperor was a smart person, a successful politician who managed to turn a republic into an empire, and a very cautious man. He was impressed by the steam engine but said he won’t use it. “What are we going to do with 200,000 slaves then?” he presumably said and put the project under wraps.
Even less major advancements don’t use anything new. All the nuts and bolts for the first book printing device were available in the Ancient Roman days, however, it took ingenuity of just one person to put them together in the right layout. If the core of things really doesn’t change, we can safely assume that the means to the next evolution phase for humankind are already here. For now, however, we still have to deal with smartphones that turn into pumpkins every 24 hours; with months of journey to Mars; and with incredibly inefficient fossil-based economy. If you hear someone saying they’ll disrupt some industry using distributed technologies, feel free to laugh at their statements. On a grander scale, decentralization is a minor step towards greater convenience at best.
If you imagine that someday in the future the energy sufficient to operate a teleport becomes available, it will change everything. It will kill economy as we know it as the teleport technology would allow one to create material objects out of thin air. Therefore, there won’t be any more need to earn money as anyone will be able to get whatever they want in an instant. It will also completely reshape politics and security as some people would be able to materialize a nuclear warhead right in the middle of a parliament building.
Just as people in the ancient days couldn’t even imagine a smartphone or your old and beaten Volkswagen, we are similarly incapable of imagining what’s down the road. That is, if we don’t invent a time machine.
How Regulations Evolve
In order to keep technological advancement from going south, people always tended to create different laws and regulations. Even in Ancient Rome, there were traffic rules. Every new technological advancement like book printing or telegraph eventually caused lawmakers to invent some new guidelines, and with every new advancement they have less and less idea of what exactly they’re trying to regulate.
This regulatory process, of course, never went smoothly. Many believe that such rules don’t really stop people from doing bad things but simply slow down the pace of progress. Others argue that hadn’t there been any regulations in place, the whole world would have rapidly slipped into the deep abysmal chasm of anarchy and chaos. Ironically, the very notion of extreme importance of laws comes mostly from Ancient Rome that had been mentioned here on numerous occasions. The Romans believed that laws equal culture, and that their own laws were the pinnacle of such.
However, in all cases regulations were put in place way after the actual advancement occurred. And, the more sophisticated the advancement was, the less regulations could actually do something about it. It was quite easy to control book printing as the printing press was enormous, heavy and quite expensive. It was relatively easy to control telegraph and telephone lines. It’s not as easy to control the internet as it’s fairly impossible to ban something without giving people a chance to bypass the ban. Some even went as far as banning bypassing methods like VPNs but then they had to face the fact that they cannot actually control such bypasses.
In the future, it might be even more difficult to actually create any legal framework for sci fi things like teleports or time machines. In fact, any prankster with a time machine could go back in time and disrupt any legal effort that would have banned him or her from travelling to the past. Or, for instance, convince Dr. J.K. Rowling to drop her career in engineering androids and instead focus on that novel about a magical boy, unless that’s already happened in your timeline.
Still, laws are one of the cornerstones of civilization, and as its evolution goes to unimaginable lengths to achieve the unimaginable, the laws will have to go the same lengths, otherwise they would perish.
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