25 June 2014

The End of The Road

John Barth, for those reading fiction in the 60s and 70s, was a minor cult hero. Kind of the Pynchon a half a generation before Pynchon. Not as prolific, and most fun from his first three books, late 50s: "The Floating Opera", "The End of The Road", and "The Sotweed Factor". And, of course, "Giles Goat-Boy", his most known work.

But, while I recommend the first three, we're here not to praise Barth, but to segue the title of his second book. Some have questioned the notion that real innovation, discovery of new science, is on its last legs. The usual response is very Rumsfeldian, "we don't know what we don't know". But in science, that's never been true. Scientists have always known what they don't know. They just ascribed the events or conditions to God. The structure of the universe is finite and knowable. The extent of the universe is another matter, so to speak. But the rules of engagement are fixed and finite, and as we approach the point of exhausting our ignorance, we must needs question the twin notions of innovation/discovery and of growth.

In the past, growth was driven by having more mouths to feed, which led to improvements in agriculture, and with cities, primitive forms of industrialization. In order to fight for resources, armies were needed, so gay times were banned. You can only stick where a soldier, or more brood stock, might emerge. We now use machines, more or less autonomous, to kill the folks we don't like, so massed armies aren't as important. Not to mention, The Bomb.

Economic growth driven by more humans is an anachronism. As more and more of our stuff is generated by fewer and fewer humans, creating yet more of them in privation is foolish. Not to mention evil. We need to find a way to distribute ever more stuff made by ever fewer humans to a more or less stable population. This isn't Iron Age Mesopotamia.

The 19th century filled out much of our knowledge of physics and chemistry, of the macro-world, and led to all manner of devices which we now assume as part and parcel of Modernity. I wonder whether most of us realize how little difference, in kind, our lives are from 1900? The main difference is more stuff, yet that stuff is largely miniaturized versions of what Grand Pappy had.

Do we really need yet more non-productive jobs, as we have in the financial services sector? In fact, yes. Finance, and gummint, have been sopping up excess man-hours for some decades. Finance creates its own myth of production, but really only serves one purpose: to marry those with excess moolah with those having a dearth of same. That large wages are accrued for this simple task is a puzzlement. But, what, exactly, will all those STEM students be figuring out in twenty years? What phenomena of today's world do scientists name God (or, equivalently, "we've no freaking idea!") as the cause? Should we be spending our time writing apps such a "Yo" (look it up)? Yes, it seems so.

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