This is from Connections, James Burke’s documentary television series produced by the BBC in 1978, on how technology and change happens. It’s a personal account of how we got to now, how ideas spread and technology evolves; overall I think what Burke does well is showing how everything is connected. Throughout Connections knowledge is analysed foremost as a distributed system within a community, rather than as a personal asset (as something that I, as an individual, have or not). In Burke’s view then progress happens when a new detail of reality becomes widely known to a group of people, to one civilisation.

His point is also that — as we add layers of technology to our society — it becomes impossible for each and one of us to have a solid understanding of how everything works. Knowledge has to be distributed, by necessity. In our everyday interactions — when we open the tap, flush the toilet, flip the switch — we don’t have to think about how something works: it just works. The functioning of the systems which support the technologies is abstracted for us.

As as result, we’re mostly clueless: we move between abstractions, failing to notice the model, unaware of the complexity of the network we built. To say it differently: any mature technology eventually recedes to the state of nature, to background, to part of the environment and of how things are, unquestioned and taken for granted. What Burke also seems to say is that although our strength — our ability to survive and adapt — derives from technology, the complexity that technology has introduced over time has reduced (if not removed) our individual ability to survive.

I sympathise with this argument — it’s why I was never charmed by the escape to the pond kind of literature. It’s naive at best to believe that at this stage any single one of us is not totally reliant on the layers of technology (water supply, electricity, and so on) that we put in place and on the outsourcing of the knowledge required to keep them running.

Which is another way of saying that reality has an infinite amount of details, most of which we’re unaware of. As soon as we look closely into something, we realise the stark vastness of our ignorance. It might be a useful thing to remind ourselves of, before entertaining any dream of self-sufficiency outside of society.

Robin Hanson:

First, we should seriously worry about which aspects of our modern civilization system are rotting. Human culture has lasted a million years, but many parts of our modern world are far younger. If the first easiest version of a system that we can find to do something is typically be a rotting system, and if it takes a lots more work to find a non-rotting version, should we presume that most of the new systems we have are rotting versions? Farming-era empires consistently rotted; how sure can we be that our world-wide industry-era empire isn’t similarly rotting today? We may be accumulating a technical debt that will be expensive to repay.