Building Modern Cathedrals
Yes, but... technology, no matter how advanced is a tool in the hands of humans. Human behaviors are governed by social norms and belief systems. While our technologies grew exponentially our social adaptations are still rooted in survival, our morals still lack ethical clarity, and our collective beliefs are so outdated I can't help but think of this situation as "the monkey with a blaster" scenario. Look at our political and economic systems! Who's controlling the tech, its development and application? We already have everything to make life on earth a paradise, but we don't because of the above.
FINALLY. Someone (and only you could have done this) has beautifully explained (with examples!!!) the type of awe I feel on a daily basis when I go "look at those machines." Yes. Among the doomer ideas that plague modern society, this piece stands out as the antidote. THIS is the techno-optimism I'm subscribed for, and THIS is what I hope you never stop writing about! Keep up the epic work, Packy (and Dan)!
This post makes a powerful and much-needed case for seeing the beauty in modern technological marvels, but I don’t think they are a sufficient replacement for actual physical beauty in the environment that humans experience daily. I think the human built environment has clearly become much uglier over the last century or so. I agree that we haven’t lost the ability to build beautiful things. On the contrary, industrialization makes it much easier to build whatever we choose, and we’ve chosen the new and the alien over the traditional. Our new powers have allowed us to make new mistakes.
There is much evidence that traditional urban design (of individual buildings and their agglomeration into cities) is not merely a temporal aesthetic preference but a reflection of human nature and serves to comfort human beings and to promote social virtue. It is in fact the environment that nurtured human civilization, the starting point for all that you describe. Human economics changes but human nature does not, and therefore a design that reflects human nature is not easily improved upon.
On the timescale of human evolution, what we call traditional design is actually a modern technology that emerged from the same kind of compounding innovation and trial-and-error process that you describe so well. As the Dutch architect Mieke Bosse said, “Tradition is the sum of successful innovations.”
I suspect, though I cannot prove, that the more modern technology evolves and improves human life by dragging it away from its natural conditions, the more humans will feel the need to be surrounded by a physical beauty that appeals to their unchanging nature. I think a lack of such beauty is one of the reasons for the unease and unhappiness we see in the modern world.
Really love how you explained the intricacies of each of these technologies and the people/will power that went into making them - I feel the exact same wonder when I think about both human, technological creations and natural creations too. I will say I'm confused about the link between these and the idea of degrowth though. I think both realities can exist where we can create beautifully complex (and useful!) things, while also being conscious of what's being made and how it's made. My take on degrowth is that we should focus on removing both the many excessive luxuries, and the pointless mass produced 'stuff', and therefore all of the (arguably wasted) people power that goes into making them, allowing us to focus on building the things that matter. All of the technologies you mentioned aren't considered excessive or luxuries (perhaps they were at the time), most people can see the inherent benefit to them. Perhaps degrowth ideals, removing the mass-produced, mass-advertised stuff from the world, would allow us to focus on building more beautiful things.
Wow. I think that’s the most interesting and insightful article I’ve read in a long time. Thanks!
Wow. Thank you.
This is a well reasoned and illustrated article with plenty of enthusiasm, so it was a pleasure to read. Keep up the great work!
Funny I just visited La Sagrada Familia a couple of days before... And was beyond amazed to see the architecture we are still capable of building. We don't have many incentives as a society to build beautiful or even crazy things like the ones Gaudí envisioned, but I am glad we still have some incentive to apply technology for art as well!!! I wished the place wasn't so costly to visit, I would love to go there for just reading, just writing, just appreciating it... and thinking "what else can I do to advance humanity?" Even if its just a tiny bit of a contribution, am I in the right track?
Time will tell, I hope. Thanks Patrick for another amazing and definitely not boring overview of how the world around us works.
yes all these things are beautiful bc of the coordination and intellectual power involved (high complex) systems ... however none of these things address man’s spiritual needs, cathedrals were built drawing from a rich cultural reservoir of religious stories, myths, and hymns to fuel an understanding of beauty that simply can’t be “scienced”. the the materialist vs the spiritualist ... so i will say I am begging tech bros to take just one humanities course.
Impressively good!! looking at the intersection of technology and history with a new perspective. Thanks packy for sharing this gem of an article.
Flat out amazing piece of work... Thank you!
This isn't my first exposure to exponentials or the various laws, and I still found it interesting. It's easy to think that these "laws" have happened and so they will continue to do so and therefore we should think about abundance. It's another, which I think was your point: to stand in awe of how a collective of humans have across time and geography without knowing each other made these things happen. Even if we don't agree on what "growth" means or should be (I don't think it should be GDP or even population), these trends are important to retell.
Few additional thoughts:
1) I was not aware of the history of PV going back to the 1800's with selenium, nor the serendipitous error of a cracked silicon rod in a radio prototype that led to even thinking about silicon as a semi-conductor.
It's fascinating, and I think it highlights that if curiosity and luck are so important, we need more experiments, more luck surface area, more sharing of the data. There are probably a hundred other examples like this in various domains.
2) How many other things are like fusion?
Beautiful article! Marvelous! Thank you..
I don't have a solution either. I have an idea of what it would take for the world to change: a majority of the population realizing what we're doing and deciding not to do it. But... how to make this happen, I don't know.
As to socialism, that's not a solution. Because it still exists within the framework of exploitative domineering culture/money based economy/limiting and archaic belief systems.
"Applying ethics in everyday life" looks like not consuming more than I need, recycling and upcycling stuff I have, shopping at thrift stores, etc., - doing everything to reduce one's footprint. Since I can't live outside the modern society (lack of wilderness survival skills and constant reduction of wilderness), I have to do what I can to do less damage by reducing my consumption.
This is the worst post I have seen - in a long line of techno utopian ones.
Let's start with Moore's law. People still don't seem to understand that semiconductors deal with information - information is literally zero mass and energy. Furthermore, the reality is that these latest stages of Moore's law are being "met" mostly by handwaving and chart manipulation.
But the key here is that anything else - is not massless and zero energy cost.
The next: solar panels. I am sick and tired of bullshit graphs trying to show solar panels are on the path of Moore's law. They are not.
First of all, Moore's law is a PERFORMANCE metric, not a PRICE metric.
A doubling of performance every generation is NOT the same as a halving of price. What is a "generation" from a solar panel perspective? There are none.
Secondly, a doubling every generation is a geometric curve - not a linear one.
Lastly, the graph is complete bullshit because the start of the curve is completely arbitrarily chosen as are the increments. Note the spike in cost around 2002 - there is no such thing as a plateauing in Moore's law.
All we are seeing here is a marketing at work.
DNA sequencing: the same nonsense at work. As I already noted above: Moore's law is about performance - it is NOT about cost. Again, we see the lack of any form of performance metric in favor of a price one - and even the price one is bullshit.
Did anyone sequence anything at $100M?
I doubt it. The HGP cost $2.7 billion to sequence the first human genome but this was R & D cost, not the actual sequencing cost and it was declared complete in 2003. The actual data starts in 2001 - so before HGP completion and thus the $100M is not applicable. Then there's the machinery. When was the first actual commercial human sequencing machine made? It was certainly not 2004. In fact, the first sequencing machines were created in 1987. And there are a raft of sequencing machines that came out around 2006-2007.
Net net: more marketing nonsense even if this came from NIH.
Next: "That just leaves the question of will and economics. One of the reasons we don’t build churches and stone buildings like we used to is that they just don’t make financial sense. "
No, we don't make churches any more because religion is no longer a dominant social force. Unless you believe the "advanced early civilizations that left zero evidence" crowd - the pyramids were built by tens of thousands of people over decades; medieval churches were built by thousands over hundreds of years. That's real commitment. Sagrada Familia is probably the last gasp of Christianity in terms of religious construction barring an unforeseen massive resurgence.
Robot cost decline: more graph games. The numbers aren't doubling and the focus is again on cost as opposed to performance. And the source is ARK LOL.
Internet speeds: this also looks like nonsense.
Yes, gigabit speed internet does exist. What percent of people outside of a major city in the first world have access to gigabit internet speed? The actual speeds are also nowhere near 1 gigabit even for people who supposedly have it.
Why not measure the # of pixels capability of the most expensive iPhone - it would be the same appearance.
In any case, the next step is obviously not going to happen for a long, long time if ever: home petabit internet access.