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"Some things...can only happen once."
August 12, 2013 6:35 AM   Subscribe

The Blip: What if everything we've come to think of as American is predicated on a freak coincidence of economic history? And what if that coincidence has run its course?
posted by Sticherbeast (107 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite

 
Prof. Wolff says it better
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 6:47 AM on August 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


What's interesting about this is that it's not only that the rise of America occurred during this exception, but also the very science of economics also has this exceptional curve as its baseline.
posted by gauche at 6:48 AM on August 12, 2013 [18 favorites]


The social transformations brought by computers and the Internet cannot match any of this.

It's adorable that you think you've fully grasped the transformative power of the internet on society, or that it's done yet.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 6:53 AM on August 12, 2013 [20 favorites]


It's adorable that you think you've fully grasped the transformative power of the internet on society, or that it's done yet.

I think the article actually addresses your implied critique: to match the economic growth of the past hundred years, the internet (and other, future technologies) will have to produce efficiencies eight times as significant as those already in place. Whether this is impossible or not remains to be seen, but I don't think you can argue with a straight face that it's likely, given our likely energy constraints in the coming decades.

Frankly, I think the naive side is the side that thinks the internet will indeed produce such transformations.
posted by gauche at 6:57 AM on August 12, 2013 [33 favorites]


When things are pretty good, overall, people are less likely to bust their ass to improve things.

I think we are innovating and learning just as fast, it's just that we've grabbed a lot of the low hanging fruit. As gauche implies, we've just sort of gotten used to the idea that the upward curve is the baseline.

The challenges of the next 100 years will be incremental: repairing the damage of the last 200 and bringing everyone up to a better standard of living. If we can do that, the future promised by Star Trek can't be far off.
posted by gjc at 6:59 AM on August 12, 2013


As a non USiAn, this kind of framing and headlining of an otherwise interesting piece really ticks me off. Cherry picking from a long article, I know, but seriously?:

For all of measurable human history up until the year 1750, nothing happened that mattered... the entire human theater of ambition and deceit and redemption took place on a scale too small to register, too minor to much improve the lot of ordinary human beings.

In terms of significant human history, America, you're a toddler in the terrible twos. Your Birth was an amazing event for all of us, but we do kinda wish you'd stop shouting and start growing up enough to realise the world doesn't entirely orbit around you.
posted by protorp at 7:00 AM on August 12, 2013 [51 favorites]


Because actually we're all in orbit around the English Industrial Revolution.
posted by notyou at 7:03 AM on August 12, 2013 [9 favorites]


In terms of significant human history, America, you're a toddler in the terrible twos. Your Birth was an amazing event for all of us, but we do kinda wish you'd stop shouting and start growing up enough to realise the world doesn't entirely orbit around you.

Absolutely, although NY Mag probably thinks it's being generous by including the rest of the U.S. in its little narrative.

I think the idea is the industrial revolution and the discovery of uses for petroleum -- which more-or-less coincide with the timeframe mentioned -- are more what he's talking about. The important thing is that Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, was writing around this time.

Your point is actually congruent with the argument of the article, which is that the U.S., by mere coincidence, was able to ride this historical accident of prosperity upwards and that has informed our national narrative in a way that will be hard to shake because this coincidence has put blinders on us.
posted by gauche at 7:08 AM on August 12, 2013 [14 favorites]


Because actually we're all in orbit around the English Industrial Revolution.

Isn't this more or less what the article says in the test of the paragraph that protorp quotes? It's less "the world revolves around America" but "America revolves around the industrial revolutions, one of which happened here." The fact that America is an incredible young country isn't a counterargument, it's a big part of the original argument.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:10 AM on August 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


the internet (and other, future technologies) will have to produce efficiencies eight times as significant as those already in place

I'm not necessarily predicting it but I can imagine industrial automation increasing efficiency another order of magnitude over the next ~200 years by simply removing more humans from the loop and allowing more fine-grained process optimizations. It's going to suck for those humans mind you but it could happen anyway.
posted by Skorgu at 7:10 AM on August 12, 2013


It's adorable that you think you've fully grasped the transformative power of the internet on society, or that it's done yet.

If you're going to use this infantilizing dismissal, it might be a good idea to back it up with some reasoning on what exactly you think is wrong with the reasoning on display. Computers are probably the most important invention since fire, but even if they do result in the frankly astonishing gains required per gauche's comment, without a complete reorganization of society these gains will just accrue to a relatively small number of people, and everyone else will be left to eat bootstraps.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 7:13 AM on August 12, 2013 [16 favorites]


Tyler Cowen's Great Stagnation theory gaining more traction around the web. If you read through the tags over there you can find some refutations, mostly talking about the internet, robots/automation, and sustainable energy/biofuels. Also pointing out that dude works for a conservative thinktank so it's in his interests to argue that slower improvement of living standards is inevitable and not because more wealth is being captured by the rich.
posted by subdee at 7:13 AM on August 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


Have only read (okay skimmed) one page so far, and at the bottom it turns out there's five, argh.

The thing I'm thinking of first though is: we're more prosperous than ever before, but much less of it is accruing, now, into the pockets of the general population than in previous decades. This trend cannot last; it's still the money in the hands of the general population that drives the economy. We've thus reached a point where self-interest on the hands of the capital owners is becoming increasingly divorced from what's good for the general economy -- people get less money for their work, so they have less to spend, so there's less for the corporations to harvest, etc. Increasing efficiency is a first-order improvement for them, but when everyone is so economically efficient, it drags the economy as a whole down.

The decreasing supply of energy is a real problem, but on the other hand, there is a sense that energy efficiency is difficult partly because we've never really had to do it before. When there's a crisis (the 70s) we all get concerned about energy and fuel efficiency right up until the moment the crisis ends, then we stop worrying about it again (the 90s). Unlike other limitations, energy consumption is a first-order problem, there are hard physical limits to how efficient we can get, that we've been insulated from. But then, we haven't exactly strung up solar cells on every available surface yet, have we? There's a lot of room for improvement, both in energy harvesting and the reduction of consumption, and I don't think we can really know where that will end up at the end.
posted by JHarris at 7:15 AM on August 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


There is a whole set of manners, which we have come to think of as part of our national identity, that depends upon this expectation that things will always get better: Our laissez-faire-ism; our can-do-ism; the optimistic cast of our religiosity, which persisted even when other Western nations turned toward atheism; our cult of the individual.

Didn't we also have the same sort of growth and progress in Europe during the 20th century, though? It seems strange to decide this is the reason for the differences in American and European culture, as far as there are any.
posted by dng at 7:16 AM on August 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


It comes down to average energy use per capita - the bigger the population the greater the complexity the more energy needed per capita. We are currently living in a dark era because energy is constrained by supply and pollution (CO2, radiation). The next revolution in improved standard of living will occur when clean abundant energy makes its way into the economy. No guesses what that may be or how long it will take. Could be fusion, 150 years from now. Meantime we stagnate like most of human history.
posted by stbalbach at 7:17 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's only about efficiency to a point. That we've raised efficiency and productivity as the be-all-and-end-all is half the damned problem. All that that has accomplished is to suck all the wealth to the top. I don't think we have a growth problem as much as we have an implementation problem.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:23 AM on August 12, 2013 [10 favorites]


Didn't we also have the same sort of growth and progress in Europe during the 20th century, though? It seems strange to decide this is the reason for the differences in American and European culture, as far as there are any.

For much of the 20th century, it's my understanding that Europe was considerably poorer than the U.S., having been ravaged by war for a not-inconsiderable portion of that time. It's also at least possible that European cultures and institutional memories have even yet retained some pre-industrial-revolution attitudes which might mitigate against the kind of whiggishness that, the article implies, one often finds in the U.S.
posted by gauche at 7:23 AM on August 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


I only made it through the first page, so maybe someone can tell me:

Is this "inevitable decline" and "America's Golden Age is over (and probably shouldn't have happened in the first place" op-ed different from every single other one by including the giant spoiler event of "and then one day, the people who owned everything pulled up the ladder they finished climbing, and we've been waiting here for things to 'trickle down' ever since? "

Because frankly, I'm tired of reading about how the unprecedented economic prosperity once enjoyed in this country was this unrepeatable fluke, explained to us like we're children, and as much as we might have liked "The Sopranos", HBO wasn't supposed to be unscrambled this past weekend, and it'd be best if we just forgot all about it and went to work.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 7:27 AM on August 12, 2013 [11 favorites]


it might be a good idea to back it up with some reasoning on what exactly you think is wrong with the reasoning on display.

I will freely confess to having no idea whether the internet will in fact head off the dire scenarios predicted by the article. But I do know that to dismiss the possibility as blithely as the article does, when we are less than two decades out from the invention of the web browser (talk about a blip!) is a breathtaking level of hubris even for a futurist.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:28 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


which is that the U.S., by mere coincidence, was able to ride this historical accident of prosperity upwards

There is a difference between "mere coincidence" and having the preconditions necessary to take advantage of opportunity.

America at Work, John Foster Fraser, 1902

"The American manufacturer pays his men well, not always because he is obliged, but because he finds that by paying a man an extra penny an hour over regular wages he puts an impetus unto that man that he gets threepence more of work out of him.

No sentimentalist in his business relations is the American manufacturer. He is bed-rock at money-making, and he has young men because he finds they are more resourceful than their fathers. He pays them, not at the lowest market rate, which means poor food, discontent, and sloth, but at a rate that will feed them well, put spice into their veins, and soul into their work. There are no half-holidays at Baldwins. (a railway engine factory in Philadelphia where the author has made his observations) The men work from seven to six, with one half hour off at mid-day, six days in the week, except for summer months, and then work stops at four on Saturday afternoon.

That spirit of hustling on which the American prides himself is a product of environment and atmosphere. There is something that braces in the American climate, that makes a man hustle even if he doesn't want to. He does a thing at a scamper unconsciously, and because everyone else does things at a scamper. In a boiler-shop I saw a man run to get a hammer, and run back again. I've racked my brains, but I cannot remember ever seeing a British working man run for a tool."
(emphasis added)

For whatever reason there is definitely a spirit for doing business in America - an atmosphere and environment - that may not be unique to America, but there it exists. The Industrial Revolution began in Europe, but America was able to run with it and that's a bit more than coincidence.
posted by three blind mice at 7:29 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


As a non USiAn, this kind of framing and headlining of an otherwise interesting piece really ticks me off. Cherry picking from a long article, I know, but seriously?:

"For all of measurable human history up until the year 1750, nothing happened that mattered... the entire human theater of ambition and deceit and redemption took place on a scale too small to register, too minor to much improve the lot of ordinary human beings."


Shit, I am a USian and this statement seems ridiculous to me too. Saying that nothing that happened before 1750 "mattered" rules out not only the founding of all the worlds' major religions, but also nearly all the scientific achievement up through the Renaissance, the writing of much of the "Western Canon" of literature...

And I don't know about you, but I think that these were some pretty impactful things on a global scale, don't you?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:29 AM on August 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


For all of measurable human history up until the year 1750, nothing happened that mattered ...
That's nothing, sex wasn't even invented until 1963.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:33 AM on August 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


protorp: That quote continues "In England before the middle of the eighteenth century, where industrialization first began, the pace of progress was so slow that it took 350 years for a family to double its standard of living. In Sweden, during a similar 200-year period, there was essentially no improvement at all. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the state of technology and the luxury and quality of life afforded the average individual were little better than they had been two millennia earlier, in ancient Rome.

Then two things happened that did matter, and they were so grand that they dwarfed everything that had come before and encompassed most everything that has come since: the first industrial revolution, beginning in 1750 or so in the north of England..."

So what the author is suggesting is that the gains accrued to average people since the Industrial Revolution were so significant that they beggar basically all of history that happened before. I guess you can debate whether or not the average-person's "technology [and] luxury and quality of life" is a good metric for human civilization, but it seems reasonable if you grant that assumption.

Although it misses much of the romance of what we call history (and thus the lessons that we learn from it), one can model the history of our species since evolving from protohominids in Africa as a very long prehistory as hunter-gatherers expanding across most of the globe, followed by the development of agriculture and cities and a population boom, followed by a long period of slow incremental technological gains, followed by the insane hockey-stick population and technology curve of the Industrial Revolution.

But calling it "technology" (or in a previous era, just "Progress") covers up the real issue. Energy is the key issue. In every major era of human history there is a different major primary-energy source, and everything hangs off of this.

In the long pre-agrarian hunter-gatherer prehistory of humanity? Energy came from our own muscles; each person was limited to only as much energy as they or their companions could produce for transportation and labor, and that was limited by what they could actually hunt or gather in terms of food.

Early agrarians were similarly limited, but had more food available, and could afford then to specialize some of that energy to various tasks. But with the domestication of animals, far more energy became available. One man with an ox can till far more land than a man by himself, a man with a horse can cover more ground, a mounted soldier is far more effective, etc. Pre-Industrial European civilization was built largely on the labor of large animals as well as humans.

The Industrial Revolution in Europe was largely about a transition from animal labor to fossil energy (mostly coal), with inventions like the steam engine and thus railroads falling directly out of that energy availability. I think you can also argue that the continuation of the Industrial Revolution in the United States into the late 19th and 20th century was largely about oil, which is an even better energy source than coal.

If you were to chart "progress" using whatever metric you like, and then put it next to a chart showing discretionary energy per person (e.g. in kWh/person/day), I suspect they would follow along quite closely to each other. But that trajectory -- the way it has increased over time -- is clearly not sustainable, and the unsustainability first became apparent during the 60s and 70s. Which is, interestingly, when the linked article points out that it seems as though progress suddenly had a hiccup.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:33 AM on August 12, 2013 [12 favorites]


I'm not sure that this conversation can take place without acknowledging the vast natural resources which began flowing into Europe from the colonisation of the so-called New World, the ravaging of those resources, and their eventual exhaustion.
posted by jokeefe at 7:34 AM on August 12, 2013 [18 favorites]


I don't accept the implication that future technological development is necessarily hampered by declining fuel supply; we've only begun to explore possible developments in fuel efficiency. It's like someone from prehistoric times saying that humanity is hitting its peak because there's only so much firewood you can burn.

But hey, I think the whole thing is ill-reasoned. "This particular set of circumstances can only happen once!" is a truly lame argument. There's only evidence that those circumstances can bring a 1750-style civilization into a 2000-style civilization. Even if it did happen again, exactly as it did, there's no reason to assume it would carry a 2000-style civilization to a 2250-style civilization anyway!

That's not to say we have nothing to worry about: we're on the cusp of a major climatological calamity, a major demographic calamity (in the U.S. at least), probably some major economic calamities since the architects of the most recent one weren't given any reason not to do it again, and worst of all Breaking Bad is going to come to an end.

But you know what? The "golden days" from 1750 to 2000 weren't exactly calamity-free either. Let's not throw in the towel just because we can't live up to such lofty standards that included slavery and genocide and Vanilla Ice.
posted by Riki tiki at 7:37 AM on August 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


The thing I'm thinking of first though is: we're more prosperous than ever before, but much less of it is accruing, now, into the pockets of the general population than in previous decades.

This is an important point. Much of the wealth growth in the US in the last few decades has gone to a relatively small group, who is having trouble finding ways to spend it, while it is withheld from people who would. This is part of the inevitable crises of capitalism.

Additionally, along with the efficiencies of the Industrial Revolutions, capitalism has had a huge boost from the ability to draw wealth out of the less-developed world in the form if raw materials (including slaves), Essentially "outsourcing" the costs of growth. That's getting harder to do in the current environment. The age of plentiful cheap resources for the West is probably over, so capital's addiction to growth needs other outlets.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:38 AM on August 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


protorp: As a non USiAn, this kind of framing and headlining of an otherwise interesting piece really ticks me off. Cherry picking from a long article, I know, but seriously?:

For all of measurable human history up until the year 1750, nothing happened that mattered... the entire human theater of ambition and deceit and redemption took place on a scale too small to register, too minor to much improve the lot of ordinary human beings.


If you need to skip over the entire middle part of the quote to prove it's an example of American chauvinism, then it probably isn't:

This isn’t to say history was stagnant, or that life was only grim and blank, but the well-being of average people did not perceptibly improve

There is a lot wrong with this article, but the argument that average citizens did not see a big improvement in quality of life for a few thousand years isn't incorrect. The year 1750 is a particuarly important "American" date, but it is a traditional starting part of the Industrial Revolution.

In terms of significant human history, America, you're a toddler in the terrible twos.

This is not how societies work. They do not follow human lifecycles nor did Americans evolve from apes in 1776 or 1608; the US has the same predominantly European cultural/civilizational background as the rest of the West.

This writer was specifically not making an argument about American exceptionlism, but pretty clearly making an arugment that America was in the right place at the right time.
posted by spaltavian at 7:40 AM on August 12, 2013 [18 favorites]


My immediate thoughts after reading this fall into two camps...

First, that there's a lot right with this. I couldn't help but think of the video I've watched recently, There is No Tomorrow, that paints a dire picture of where things will go if we do continue on a path of growth. And that Gordon's predictions that we're pretty much going to stop growing very fast aren't a bad thing - as painful as it would be to switch to a non-growth economy, it's not a bad thing.

Second, that there's potential for some disruptive technologies that could make the industrial revolutions seem small. Both real AI and Nanotechnology look to be within our horizons. Sure, maybe they're just mirages, but if they do happen - heck, if just one of them happens - the consequences are just massive. Take nanotechnology - if we imagine a world where we reach it, and start following realistic possibilities of what it can do, it's not very far to reach a future that's a lot more different from today than today is from 1750.

So I guess I end up feeling that he's right inasmuch as we're reaching the point where the effects of growth due to the industrial revolution are fading. Perhaps part of that is that the changes now are taking away work from people faster than it's creating new work. And just because it's maturing and all the big changes are far over. But just as the second industrial revolution hit when the first one was fading out, we're looking at the real possibilities for another revolution in the near future.
posted by evilangela at 7:42 AM on August 12, 2013


There are still several billion people in the world who have yet to enjoy the fruit of the 18th and 19th Centuries' economic revolutions, so there's still plenty of growth to be exploited, just maybe not here in the First World.

Anyway, related: Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit.
posted by notyou at 7:52 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Why the West Rules takes about how there are declining returns on complexity; once a society his this limit it either reduces its political/economic/demographic complexity, or, in rare cases, it innovates and escapes the "trap" for the time being.

More or less, the book argues that societies were for the longest time bouncing around the upper limit of what complex agrarian socieities can do. This is more or less a fleshed out version the Malthusian trap; where ecological collapse, and political fragmentation come into play. Western societies kept exhausting themselves, and finding it harder to rebuild as the environment was used up (for example, goats causing desertification) and "barbarians" crept up technologically, increasing competition. The center of "the West" kept migraiting West; from Sumer to Italy in a few thousand years. Rome was not able to escape the complexity issue itself (despite having some intriguing near misses), and was forced to decrease in complexity.

Europe kept having this problem has its population waxed and waned; the discovery of the Americas certainly held off resource exhaustion for a time being. Europe was again near the point of maximum complexity, but was able to escape this trap with the Industiral Revolution.

The implication being is that once we hit the highest level of productive complexity allowed for by industrilzation, we'll either innovate and have a new revolution that pushes the cap higher, or we'll be forced to become less complex (through war, famie, what have you) and will stay that way until we can regroup and try again.
posted by spaltavian at 8:00 AM on August 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


we've only begun to explore possible developments in fuel efficiency

The counterargument to this is that there have been many times in the past when we have concentrated on efficiency and during those periods only small quality-of-life gains have tended to happen. All the Great Books in the world matter very little when you're still spending your day staring at the southbound end of a northbound ox, tilling your acre the same way your father did, and his father, and his father...

The energy-availability view of history is cyclical: a new energy source is opened for exploitation, there's explosive growth of new technologies and processes, and then things taper off and we get down to the long business of using that energy source efficiently. But you don't get a lot of vast, transformational change out of the efficiency part. It's all in the margins.

E.g. throughout most of what we think of as "European history", animal power was brought to near-perfection, with different animals bred for various purposes and climates, all for the underlying goal of using limited forage and feed crops (which is to say, energy) more efficiently. But the quality-of-life gains of an average peasant as a result of all those efficiency improvements were pretty paltry compared to the Industrial Revolution, which was largely fueled by coal (though water was used as a power source as well, its exploitation on an industrial scale required metal which was produced with coal and coke).

We might have expected to enter one of these slow phases, shifting gears from the exponential growth that happens right after a new energy source comes on-line to the slow, incremental growth associated with efficiency gains, sometime in the 19th century, when coal extraction started to become really difficult (given available technology). But we didn't, mostly because we switched from coal to oil. And so things kept going, and we had the 20th century, the Green Revolution, etc. Rather than just one fuel revolution, we had two, one right after the other.

If we're not going to have a third -- and for a while in the mid-20th century it looked like we'd keep things going with nuclear power -- then it's going to be a rough transition to that lower gear of incremental efficiency gains.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:02 AM on August 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


Kadin2048: "But calling it "technology" (or in a previous era, just "Progress") covers up the real issue. Energy is the key issue. In every major era of human history there is a different major primary-energy source, and everything hangs off of this."

You are Paolo Bacigalupi and I claim my kink-spring scooter.
posted by boo_radley at 8:03 AM on August 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


So what the author is suggesting is that the gains accrued to average people since the Industrial Revolution were so significant that they beggar basically all of history that happened before. I guess you can debate whether or not the average-person's "technology [and] luxury and quality of life" is a good metric for human civilization, but it seems reasonable if you grant that assumption.

If it's actually true, which is far from as clear as the author made it out to be. There was progress before the industrial revolution, nor was it as slow as suggested, while the industrial revolution itself was not an unalloyed improvement for all people it affected. Much of the improvement in life was hard fought and hard won, against the tide of history, by working men and women who were not satisfied with the conditions their betters put them in. To blithly remake this into some whiggish idea of science and technology bringing progress is insulting at best.
posted by MartinWisse at 8:04 AM on August 12, 2013 [6 favorites]



I will freely confess to having no idea whether the internet will in fact head off the dire scenarios predicted by the article. But I do know that to dismiss the possibility as blithely as the article does, when we are less than two decades out from the invention of the web browser (talk about a blip!) is a breathtaking level of hubris even for a futurist.


I don't know, I read the whole article, and I think his argument makes a lot of sense. I don't think he's saying that the internet and other new technologies are not transformative, but that they are not going to be transformative in the *same direction* as the technologies of the industrial revolutions. It seems like, in the aggregate, the lives of average people were more greatly transformed by things like electricity and public sanitation. He's speaking specifically of improvement in economic terms - that each successive generation will be twice as well off as its parents'.

Given that in the article even one of Gordon's detractors notes that the problem with technological gains is jobs for humans, it is hard for me to see how the internet (as much as I love it and think that it is transformative on many levels), is going to help that. Everybody can't be a knowledge worker. When robots and AI get even more efficient, and they replace more jobs currently being done by humans, what do you do with those humans? What will be the economic impact of even more people without jobs?
posted by DiscourseMarker at 8:04 AM on August 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Computers are probably the most important invention since fire...

Yes, computers are definitely way more important than agriculture, the wheel, textiles, pottery, writing, mathematics and the other sciences, including medicine, the steam engine, use of wood and stone as building materials, the steam engine and so forth. After all, there are probably apps for all those things now.
posted by DU at 8:06 AM on August 12, 2013 [21 favorites]


Yes, computers are definitely way more important than agriculture, the wheel, textiles, pottery, writing, mathematics and the other sciences, including medicine, the steam engine, use of wood and stone as building materials, the steam engine and so forth. After all, there are probably apps for all those things now.

Farmville?
posted by jaduncan at 8:07 AM on August 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Shit, I am a USian and this statement seems ridiculous to me too. Saying that nothing that happened before 1750 "mattered" rules out not only the founding of all the worlds' major religions, but also nearly all the scientific achievement up through the Renaissance, the writing of much of the "Western Canon" of literature...

What it suggests to me is that we are supposed to believe that life was de facto miserable before about 1920 for virtually everyone. And that a continuous fancying-up of technology is needed for us to feel that life has meaning.

The first point isn't true - on a simple quality-of-life scale, for instance, it seems like a lot of indigenous societies in the Americas were pretty happy places pre-colonization. And the great periods of Chinese history prior to 1750 - many people seem to have had a lot of quiet enjoyment. And peasant life post-dark-ages and pre-Enclosure seems to have been pretty decent. If anything, I'd argue that the misery of human life is a product of the rise of nationalism and capitalism - not that everyone was always having a great time everywhere, and I personally quite like modern medicine, but mass agricultural production, wars fought on a large scale and industrial-era urbanization caused a lot of the baseline misery that gets attributed to "the human condition prior to 1920." It's like widespread risk of puerpal fevel - it's not an inherent aspect of childbirth that is mitigated by technology, it's an artifact of proto-modern medicine where doctors treated a lot of people with a lot of diseases and then came to help women give birth without washing their hands.

As several people have pointed out right here, inequality and misery are political more than they are technological.

Also, frankly, this whole "growth has to be eight times as effective to keep our standard of living rising fast enough or we will slip into misery and stagnation" business - look, how many of us would be perfectly happy with the level of technology we currently have if we were relatively economically secure? Would the world be so terrible if everyone merely had access to clean water, comfortable housing, modern medicine, secure and non-brutal work and a reasonable amount of leisure time? I bet I could fill up my remaining hours quite well under those conditions - I don't need a jet pack or a refrigerator that reminds me that I'm low on milk, and I'd argue that while it's important that medical research progresses, greater levels of collective happiness would be achieved by making access to medical care universal than by developing ever-more-sophisticated treatments available only to the few.

Not that this will happen, of course.
posted by Frowner at 8:07 AM on August 12, 2013 [24 favorites]


I think it's interesting how the people who are most convinced that the Internet Will Change the World are people who spend most of their time on the internet.

It's a great big world out there, people. Most of it doesn't have very much to do with the internet, nor does adding the internet necessarily promise to do anyone any good. People can't eat smart phones or wifi. Adam Smith may not have been able to make his math work, but he understood from the get-go the problems with specialization of labor, and he also understood that "the wealth of nations" consists in stuff you can use. Land. Grain. Livestock. Buildings. Raw materials. Etc. It doesn't consist in money, even if that money is gold. It certainly doesn't consist in anything as ephemeral as IP.

Something I don't see the article dealing with is even less pleasant. The Industrial Revolution, from 1750 through, hell, call it the 1960s, was powered the same way all earlier economic "golden ages" were powered, i.e., on the backs of a large and oppressed under-class. The US was perhaps unique in that it engaged in outright chattel slavery--most societies that have involved some form of indentured servitude haven't gone that far--but whether you call it serfdom, wage-slavery, the company store, or exporting manufacturing to lowest-common-denominator labor markets, any great surplus of wealth has almost always been "plied by the bondsmans'. . . unrequited toil." Well we've stopped oppressing people quite as much in the US, and we're running out of people to oppress elsewhere.
posted by valkyryn at 8:08 AM on August 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


In the USA the peak co-incided with the moon landings. For us in the UK it was back just before the start of World War One when the sun never set on the quarter of the globe we controlled. For the Romans it was AD 98 as Trajan's topped of the transport network with a bridge over the lower Danube. The lesson is that declines don't have to be precipitous or traumatic - but an occasional glance over the shoulder to make sure nobody is sniggering is probably wise.
posted by rongorongo at 8:15 AM on August 12, 2013


I have long maintained the the so-called American Century was just a stroke of geographical luck. While the other industrial powers burned through talent, treasure and infrastructure in two world wars, North America remained blissfully out of range. Well, that bit of luck has been wearing off for some time now and the US economy has been inexorably sliding back into the pack. This wouldn't be such a problem if our politics, policies and hubris had kept apace...
posted by jim in austin at 8:16 AM on August 12, 2013


to match the economic growth of the past hundred years, the internet (and other, future technologies) will have to produce efficiencies eight times as significant as those already in place.

I wouldn't completely rule it out either. Walmart employees produce about 1/3 the (gross) revenue of Amazon ones (using Wikipedia's numbers). Amazon is also more profitable than Walmart. That's just a decadal change. Walmart killed Sears in the 1990s-2000s. Amazon has only started to get really big in the past ten years or so. I think we're still in the early days of the internet transformation.
posted by bonehead at 8:18 AM on August 12, 2013


Partial list of things that are currently on the horizon and have been so for the last 20-40 years (at least): I'm not holding my breath for any of these things.
posted by entropicamericana at 8:19 AM on August 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


And no, I don't see people changing from Walmart floor staff jobs to Amazon warehouse positions as an unvarnished good---Amazon clearly isn't the best place to work.
posted by bonehead at 8:20 AM on August 12, 2013


You'll be excited when they are all replaced by robots then.
posted by jaduncan at 8:23 AM on August 12, 2013


MartinWisse: Acknowledged, and I thought about something like that when writing the previous comment but didn't want to derail.

But yes, technological development itself is only one side of the coin of realized, average-person 'progress'; who the gains brought by those technologies accrue to is the other, and there's a whole social history of technology there.

However, I think that if you look at periods of incremental gains (efficiency focused) vs revolutionary gains (new sources), it is far easier for elites to capture and ensure that the gains accrue to themselves during incremental periods, while during revolutionary periods things typically happen fast enough that they lose their grip and you actually see progress for the average/working class.

It is not coincidental that successful populist revolutions seem to happen more frequently during times of great technological change and upheaval, while the wars during the slow incremental periods are of the kings-playing-chess variety: elites maneuvering against each other for the biggest slices of a fixed-size pie.

There is little reason to believe that the great democratic revolutions of Europe would have occurred absent the Industrial Revolution; certainly there were many who tried (and, frequently, met a bad end) pursuing similar ideas much earlier, but had little success. It was certainly not due to a failure of either ideology or fervor.

If indeed we are moving out of a period of rapid, nonlinear change in technology and into a slower, linear regime based around efficiency improvements, it may also signal a very difficult time ahead for social progress.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:24 AM on August 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


I would indeed be very excited if large numbers of workers were replaced by robots and I think that probably could rival the industrial revolution in societal transformation. It would only work if those displaced workers still got food, shelter and healthcare, though. That is, the profits need to be shared or they'll just accumulate in a bank account somewhere, transforming nothing.
posted by DU at 8:25 AM on August 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Cut it any way you want. A system that willingly and increasingly employs people elsewhere while Americans go unemployed may be good (!) business, but it's a fucked-up social system. We have no one to blame but ourselves, in that regard.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 8:27 AM on August 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I asked a similar question a few months back and got some great answers from the community.
posted by 2bucksplus at 8:32 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's also kind of odd to talk about 1870 on as a boom period. Most economist think of that time as "the long depression", a period of stagnant growth, even contraction. It's considered one of the worst economic times prior to the 1930s.
posted by bonehead at 8:33 AM on August 12, 2013


Oh, it wasn't sarcasm. Machines should work, people should think about interesting things. The luddites were right that there are now very few handweavers, but so very wrong in how they felt about that.
posted by jaduncan at 8:33 AM on August 12, 2013


Amazon is also more profitable than Walmart.

Bullshit. Amazon isn't always even profitable. Its 2011 EPS was $1.37, and its 2012 EPS was a loss of $0.09. Walmart, on the other hand, had a 2011 EPS of $4.52 and a 2012 EPS of $5.02. AMZN has never paid a dividend. WMT has paid a quarterly dividend like clockwork since 1988 (with the exception of 2006) and has increased its dividend payments every year since 2007.

Unless you're operating under a different definition of "profitable" than I am, you're smoking a particularly potent breed of crack.
posted by valkyryn at 8:34 AM on August 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


We've probably derived far more gains in productivity from the creation of a large scale manufacturing and exportation infrastructure in Asia, than we have have from ubiquitous internet and cell phones. Industry had spent a century getting pretty damn efficient with landline phones, radios for people who had to be in the field, faxes (and before them wires and telegrams), and catalogs, and a not-inconsiderable share of the decisionmaker efficiency that new tech has developed has been eaten up in the costs of building and maintaining that equipment; all those IT departments aren't free.

There are some very important technological changes in the next 20 years which are likely to occur which can be as revolutionary. Micro-manufacturing both for its lower scaled cost and for the customization it can provide (as well as upending much of the current paradigm for global sourcing and distribution). Battery and grid technology creating cheaper and cleaner power. Self-driving cars (a development the impact of which people grossly underestimate).

Things that are speculative could do even more -- a serious advance in surgical or medical technology which could build on existing health improvements to produce a true inflection point for lifespan and working life. Fusion (!) to make the power in that grid incredibly cheap. Etc.
posted by MattD at 8:37 AM on August 12, 2013


When robots and AI get even more efficient, and they replace more jobs currently being done by humans, what do you do with those humans? What will be the economic impact of even more people without jobs?

Well, that assumes a continuation of the current model, under which only those positioned to economically exploit the productivity gains get to benefit from them in their standard of living. That certainly isn't the only possible scenario, although I have no idea how we transition out of this one.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 8:40 AM on August 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


However, I think that if you look at periods of incremental gains (efficiency focused) vs revolutionary gains (new sources), it is far easier for elites to capture and ensure that the gains accrue to themselves during incremental periods, while during revolutionary periods things typically happen fast enough that they lose their grip and you actually see progress for the average/working class.

Obviously this is an argument with a number of open questions (namely how do you define incremental versus revolutionary), but I would submit the Agricultural Revolution as a counter-example. Neolithic society was, as a rule, more stratified than paleolithic society (at least as far as I've read).
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:41 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


New York Magazine unable to conceive of any advances that might displace New York City from the center of the universe.
posted by no relation at 8:42 AM on August 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


While I agree that much of the American success story is luck, futurists are next to worthless. We're still obsessed with a future of flying cars and a solid network of video phone booths. Turns out the future happens in ways few can predict.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:43 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Skorgu: "I'm not necessarily predicting it but I can imagine industrial automation increasing efficiency another order of magnitude over the next ~200 years by simply removing more humans from the loop and allowing more fine-grained process optimizations. It's going to suck for those humans mind you but it could happen anyway."

It's only going to suck if we continue to insist on the demands of capitalism forcing workers to work a full 40 hours a week and funneling profit to the owners of capital.

Of course, that's not looking into the exploitation of the Third World by the First World countries and the fact that they have a right to their resources... What happens when (as is happening now) they start to demand their own autonomy and control over their resources. The World Bank is still quite powerful, but I don't think it's the powerhouse it used to be. You have the South American socialist oriented countries forming a bloc to resist imperial attempts at domination. You have China as a secondary power right now with vast lands and resources (with their own internal social and environmental problems, to be sure). You have a moderately "strong" Communist movement in Asia (India, Nepal, Bhutan, Philippines, amongst others) forming another bloc/faction. You have Russia which is obviously another resource rich region which has influence and more a quasi imperialist faction in its own domain as well.

The first world has it good and the only way for it to 'get better' is to give up this old idea that Capitalism is the answer, because capitalism doesn't want "jobs for all" and "reduced work hours" it needs to work each person as hard as possible to maximize profit, and use as few people as possible in order to pay as little as possible. Socialism calls for more employment for all with fewer hours. Of course it's hard to do when you're playing catch up with a country that has a long history of obtaining a multitude of benefits due to Primitive Accumulation, and thus a head start. This country also had the luxury to give some minor affordances to its working class to prevent them from uprising, while dominating them with a certain propaganda consensus. So we now have a nationalistic, self-interested working class that buys into the power structure, even as it continues to be attacked and attacks itself via right-wing smears. This very propaganda is the thing that must be struggled against if we are to have an hope of sanity in the coming years of decline.
posted by symbioid at 8:44 AM on August 12, 2013 [13 favorites]


All past transformative technologies have required that all the old folks running the world died before their effects were realized, so only a fool would discount the internet so soon. At present, there are numerous examples of transformative internet technologies, like wikipedia, git, wikileaks, etc., but the old fogies running the show understand them too poorly to realize the gains or even attempt to realize harm.

We're headed towards a largely transparent society, but many old behaviors like organizational secrecy, drug prohibitions, enforced sexual mores, etc. become so problematic and inefficient in that world that they must be eliminated. We're right now observing the problems caused by secretive organizations forcing "transparency" upon individuals, ala the war on drugs, well both industrial revolutions were initially disastrous for ordinary people. We'll bring them down eventually though because the old morons running the show die like everybody else and the young know better.

That said, we know our economy cannot continue to grow exponentially, so certainly a blip may exist in that sense, but human well being may continue to improve dramatically, at least well beyond out ability to predict anything. Internet enabled transparency sounds like one incredible mover though.

I also disagree with his disregard for advances made before the last few hundred years. Why do our brain even exist? Yes, sexual selection played an important role, but all that other shit did too. What do you call say numbers or the printing press? It's also unclear if the industrial revolution really gets credit for technologies like vaccination.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:47 AM on August 12, 2013


Also - one of the biggest goddamned problems we have holding us back is this "puritan work ethic" bullshit. And I don't know a way around it, because the people who believe that, hold onto it to make themselves feel better (regardless of how the actual truth of the matter is regarding their own actual work ethic vs their perceptions).

It's that "Sure, I'm down on the ladder, but goddamn, at least I ain't on the lowest rung, now, I gotta kick the one below me to make sure he don't get ahead." attitude.
posted by symbioid at 8:49 AM on August 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


New York Magazine unable to conceive of any advances that might displace New York City from the center of the universe.

Quoting myself here... the next big revolution is going to be moving everything from centralized to local again. Solar panels on your roof charging the electric car in your driveway. 3d printers and desktop CNC mills in your workshop (these are the robots that are going to make your lives easier).
posted by no relation at 8:51 AM on August 12, 2013


valkyryn: You are of course correct about profit stats for Amazon, but they are achieving break-even due to business investment rather than underlying lack of profit. I would imagine their shareholders make up for their tears regarding the lack of dividends by the fact that AMZN has increased from $37 in mid-2008 to $296 now, with a fairly constant upwards trendline.

They are just optimising for long term rather than short term profits, and so their increase in value is expressed through share price rather than dividend.
posted by jaduncan at 8:53 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Unless you're operating under a different definition of "profitable" than I am

Fair enough, I was less than precise with my language.

Amazon is plows profits back into growth, and balances right on the edge of financial "profitability". However, if you use profit in the less technical sense to also include increase in net worth, and not just net earnings, then Amazon is gaining net worth at a faster rate than Walmart, even considering that Walmart has finally returned to a fair valuation.

So, you're correct from a technical viewpoint. However, Walmart has the growth and economic production of a mature business largely returning profits to investors as dividends, while Amazon is still in it's growth phase, returning profits in stock growth. Based on returns to investors over the last decade, I'm comfortable calling Amazon more profitable than Walmart.
posted by bonehead at 8:58 AM on August 12, 2013


Based on returns to investors over the last decade, I'm comfortable calling Amazon more profitable than Walmart.

I'm not. The fact that some people have realized real gains out of the increase in share price isn't to be ignored, but I think that's all part of the bubble. The idolatry that economic value is arbitrary and depends solely upon what people want to pay. AMZN may still be in its growth phase, and it may even be a viable company, but it's not profitable yet. People who have made money on its equity prices were lucky is all.
posted by valkyryn at 9:06 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


There is no good evidence that anyone has ever been able to write decent predictions about economic conditions on either the micro or the macro scale that serve for much more than entertainment (either in the present or, more richly, in the "Hee hee, they all thought we'd be living on the moon by now" vein of retro-futurism) in any significant time frame. I don't see anything in this article that suggests that that long losing streak is likely to have been snapped.
posted by yoink at 9:06 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't think it's inconceivable that the virtual economy, trading in goods with no real physical existence, might eventually make up the majority of business, relegating manufacturing and real-world trade to a minor role. After all, it must once have seemed like a law of nature that agriculture would always be the dominant economic activity.

And if the economy becomes largely virtual, there's no particular reason in principle why growth can't continue indefinitely at any rate you can think of.
posted by Segundus at 9:06 AM on August 12, 2013


And if the economy becomes largely virtual, there's no particular reason in principle why growth can't continue indefinitely at any rate you can think of.

But we are here in the physical world. There are only so many data services and downloads a guy can use, but every day you have to eat.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:22 AM on August 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


We could eat the tulips!
posted by entropicamericana at 9:35 AM on August 12, 2013 [11 favorites]


But we are here in the physical world. There are only so many data services and downloads a guy can use, but every day you have to eat.

True. But we are definitely in a moment where more and more of one's income can be focused on day to day physical needs ... without any discernible decline in quality of life. In my case, it's a simple as having one Windows laptop serving as both my primary work and entertainment device (along with an internet connection, of course). And it's not just obvious devices it's displacing like a TV set, a typewriter, pens, pencils, a calculator etc ... it's also stuff like needing a full office (either at work or in my home), or owning a car. Because now that I require as few tools as I do, transit and/or bike and/or walking gets me pretty much everywhere I need to go on a day-to-day basis.

And meanwhile, I look at a friend of mine's teenage kids, none of whom are bothering to even get a driver's license, which would have been unthinkable back in my day (mid-70s).

So yeah, change is on us. We are most definitely in Buckminster Fuller's future (doing more with less) whether want to be or not.
posted by philip-random at 9:45 AM on August 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


MetaFilter: slavery and genocide and Vanilla Ice.
posted by kengraham at 9:47 AM on August 12, 2013


most societies that have involved some form of indentured servitude haven't gone that far

I don't know. The Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Ottoman, and British empires went pretty far.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 9:52 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


If it's actually true, which is far from as clear as the author made it out to be. There was progress before the industrial revolution, nor was it as slow as suggested, while the industrial revolution itself was not an unalloyed improvement for all people it affected. Much of the improvement in life was hard fought and hard won, against the tide of history, by working men and women who were not satisfied with the conditions their betters put them in. To blithly remake this into some whiggish idea of science and technology bringing progress is insulting at best.

But without those technical revolutions to create production gains, there isn't much for political revolutions to fairly divide. If you were to take all the assets of the English aristocracy before the industrial revolution and divide them up equally, how much richer would the average person in England actually have been?

I also don't think that this is a particularly whiggish view of history because it dismisses a lot of technological progress as merely window dressing for the real story, which is energy. Not only that, but the whig view would incorporate a lot more self congratulation about the wonders of the protestant work ethic and modern institutions. I don't think there's any conflict between this view of the last few centuries and other materialist economic schools of thought such as Marxism.
posted by atrazine at 10:05 AM on August 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm comfortable calling Amazon more profitable than Walmart.

There are other terms for what you're trying to describe. Return on Equity, whatever. Pick one. But you don't get to redefine "profitable". If you think return on equity is more important that straight profit, fine. But again, just redefining precise terms isn't the right thing to do. Perhaps you'd care to check some commonly used financial ratios.
posted by GuyZero at 10:15 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


People can't eat smart phones or wifi.

People can't eat refrigerated trucks, shopping carts, or refrigerators either, but those things might have something to do with the food.

Or, to bring it to our more general discussion, cheap versions of high technology can help "developing" countries to skip all the intervening stages from subsistence to the 21st century, if accompanied by investment and education (which is where the Internet can shine) and water/food security.

These are not trivial by any means, and there will always be vast struggles (especially to keep the capitalist vultures from feeding on the world's masses of poor), but I am reminded of JFK's 1962 speech setting the moon program in motion, with its famous line about doing things "not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

The context of that line in a speech about keeping space free of war and nuclear weapons is especially sad to me, given what might have been -- and given what the US has done in the world into since 9/11. Well, since JFK intensified the US presence in Vietnam. The USA has been involved with or responsible for conflicts around the world for decades and decades, nominally opposing communists, later terrorists.

But imagine a 21st century version of these lines given by a US president, with a cooperative legislature and a strong nation of optimists determined to stop bombing the world and start feeding, clothing, and educating it.
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
A man can dream.
posted by Celsius1414 at 10:16 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


a major demographic calamity (in the U.S. at least)

I wouldn't personally characterize it as an impending calamity, but definitely a shift in demographics as a result of modern medicine does make the present very, very different from all of human history. Basically antibiotics et al have hugely extended human life and birth control is slowly but surely slowing the rate of human reproduction. Antibiotics are less than 100 years old. Birth control less than 50. These are very recent inventions in the scale of human history and while computers are fun and all medicine is making a much, much bigger impact.
posted by GuyZero at 10:19 AM on August 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Basically antibiotics et al have hugely extended human life

Problem solved.
posted by entropicamericana at 10:25 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Antibiotic resistance is a drag, but it's not going to undo modern medicine. It's like mad cow disease - sure it was a big problem, but it didn't fundamentally turn all people into vegans or something.
posted by GuyZero at 10:36 AM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I would indeed be very excited if large numbers of workers were replaced by robots and I think that probably could rival the industrial revolution in societal transformation. It would only work if those displaced workers still got food, shelter and healthcare, though. That is, the profits need to be shared or they'll just accumulate in a bank account somewhere, transforming nothing.

Right, and this is the problem. You can imagine a world in which robots do everything, scarcity is solved, and humans enjoy infinite leisure. People, including a couple commenters in this thread, call this the "Star Trek" future. So far, so good. But there is no good way from point A to point B without massive upheaval.

If I am allowed to geek out for a minute: Most people forget that Star Trek actually posited this upheaval. By the early 21st century, income inequality and unemployment got so bad that the poor were herded into "Sanctuary" districts, leading to riots. A couple decades later, the economic collapse led to resource wars culminating in full-on world war and nuclear destruction. The only reason humanity wasn't left in a new dark age was because a lone genius invented warp drive and got the attention of a more advanced society.

Leaving out that last part, it's not too hard to imagine our current world following a similar track if measures are not taken to manage the societal change that comes from this sort of economic restructuring.
posted by tau_ceti at 10:38 AM on August 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


On the one hand I can see and largely agree with the idea that the author and article reflect a trend in rich people telling us that it is inevitable that they take all the money while we get table scraps at best.

On the other hand, I can see and largely agree with the basic thesis that our belief that the tech curve is exponental rather than sigmoid is quite possibly misguided.

But on the gripping hand, I mostly agree with Kaiden, and I think the "pessimist" faction is far too over optimistic.

The *real* problem is not that our children may not have a lifestyle twice as good as ours. The real problem is that we're reaching the end of the petroleum economy and if we can't find a replacement then billions of us will die and the survivors will live as peasants grubbing in the dirt. Paolo Bacigalupi was, I'd argue, an optimist.

I feel confident that we as a species will continue our habit of completely ignoring environmental concerns and we'll try to keep the fossil fuel economy going as long as we can. Hydrolic frakking and tar sands are just the beginning. I'm also sure that we'll try fission, as fusion remains "30 years away".

The problem there is that the ultimate costs of continuing petroleum are likely to be painful in the sense of starvation. Hurricane season smacking the coasts with even an annual Cat 4 is going to be bad, if it gets worse than that with multiple Cat 4 hurricanes per year it'll be really bad. And the less blatant effects are bad too. The American South is experiencing simultaneous drought and flooding and it's cut the harvest in many key crops this year to less than half of the norm. Imagine that keeping up for a few decades even if we keep fuel going to the tractors.

Fission may offer an escape, but probably not much more. The *demand* for energy keeps growing. People in Africa, in South East Asia in India, in China, are not satisfied to continue living third world lives, they want to spend as many kilowatt hours per person as we do in the USA. China's demand for oil is partially responsible for the increasing gas prices we see worldwide. More competitors for resources that are not merely leveling off but actually dwindling.

And even leaving aside safety concerns and questions of waste disposal, fission has limits too. Decent quality uranium ore is not all that common. Far from being too cheap to meter, fission is turning out to be quite expensive. There's also a humanitarian issue which while I think will be brushed aside is worth noting: the places that have high quality uranium ore are almost entirely the places where our societies have pushed the marginalized. In the USA if you want good uranium ore you find it, surprise surprise, on the last scraps of Indian Reservation land. I have no doubt at all that when the broader American society feels an energy pinch the solumn treaties we signed assuring the Indians that *those* reservations will never be taken away will be scrapped as quickly and ruthlessly as every other treaty the US government has ever signed with Indians.

But even assuming we push, massively, into solar, wind, and fission, that doesn't really answer all the problems. Even if our output in quads (quadrillion BTU's) remains the same, that doesn't translate easily into keeping tractors running in fields.

Ultimately we *CAN NOT* sit at our current tech level for a few hundred years. Either we advance and live in the Star Trek future, or 90%+ of the human species will die and the few who live will be back to living the way we did in 500 CE.

I'm actually somewhat optimistic about our chances. We do have a tremendous advantage over our predecessors in that we have all their knowledge and a massive planetary information network to dissiminate it. It may well be a group from Bangalore or Nairobi who finds the solution.

But painting the issue as one where our future economic growth slows and we can't expect the grandkids to have a standard of living twice as good as ours is not only narsistic, but also hopelessly optimistic about the bad outcome.
posted by sotonohito at 10:46 AM on August 12, 2013 [9 favorites]


> It's adorable that you think you've fully grasped the transformative power of the internet on society, or that it's done yet.

First, language please.

Second, we've had TCP/IP for 30 years already, and the changes, though important, haven't been within an order of magnitude as great as the first or second industrial revolution - perhaps not even two orders of magnitude.

I mean, what do we have? Better shopping. Cheaper and better telecommunications. Lots and lots of chat. Not that these things aren't big - but the industrial revolutions were super-huge. This isn't in the ballpark.

Worse, the previous industrial revolutions didn't result in a net destruction of jobs. Near as we can tell, the "third wave" has resulted in a great deal of middle class jobs lost, to be replaced by nearly nothing.

Writer, editor, journalist, skilled salesman, postal worker, session musician, orchestrator, translator, file clerk, stenographer, and soon driver - all jobs that are being slammed by automation, and there are many more.

This has worked out well for a few people like me, but very badly for the great majority of individuals.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:07 PM on August 12, 2013 [10 favorites]


lupus, not that I disagree with some of your conclusion, but... Just TCP/IP isn't all there is to it. Wideband internet everywhere coupled with better mobile devices does have some significant potential and it still isn't here.

More important, the computer revolution has shortened supply chains, allowed just in time inventory to work, and slashed the resources needed for paperwork. I do EDI work these days and the system I oversee does the work of 20 or more people, and does it faster and vastly cheaper than humans could have.

Not game changing, industrial revolution level stuff, but it does help with improving marginal efficiency.

My point is that it isn't just Farmville and Angry Birds.

But yeah, in the main you are right . So far the computing hasn't done a major economic revolution. I think if we can solve the energy problem and avoid a future where kink springs are the height of technology computing will usher in a revolution in terms of industrial automation. Then we'll have to abandon the concept of full employment and admit that a lot of the population will never have a job. Which, if history is anything to go by, is going to be very ugly before we work it out.

But that's assuming we solve the energy problem.
posted by sotonohito at 12:20 PM on August 12, 2013


> Antibiotic resistance is a drag, but it's not going to undo modern medicine. It's like mad cow disease - sure it was a big problem, but it didn't fundamentally turn all people into vegans or something.

Statements like that really terrify me. I suspect that most people have no idea how crucial antibiotics are to what we think of as "normality", and just think of them as "Some doctor thing."

CJD was not a disease that was ever going to be transmitted between people except in pathological circumstances - it's more akin to food poisoning. There is no way that CJD was ever going to be anything other than a minor thing - indeed, it never approached the death rate of any "popular" food poisoning bug like Campylobacter or Salmonella.

But here's a list of epidemics throughout history. Many of them have killed a significant portion of humans in a geographic area, in some cases a majority.

The reason that these epidemics don't happen any more is partly modern sanitation, but much more importantly, antibiotics. But what happens when there's a plague that's antibiotic-resistent - particularly given humanity's flagrant abuse of these drugs, creating an almost idea testing ground to breed such resistent organisms? What happens if there are several over a few decades?

I'm reasonably confident in humanity's brightness - enough that we'll eventually figure out some alternate solution. But it seems the height of complacency to assume we'll be able to do it in a rush. We've had AIDS for 30 years, and we're barely at the point where we have (somewhat) affordable remedies - but still no actual cure or immunization. Medicine can be helped by computers, yes, but it's also essentially time-consuming - you cannot hurry the growth of a culture in a medium, for example.

We might get lucky. We might not. To consider antibiotic resistance just "a drag" or to dismiss it as comparable in magnitude to CJD is irresponsible.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:25 PM on August 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


The most frightening stat on antibiotic resistence is that prior to the widespread use of antibiotics roughly 40% of deaths were due to bacterial infection. I'd rather not see us go back to that.
posted by sotonohito at 12:28 PM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


But what happens when there's a plague that's antibiotic-resistent - particularly given humanity's flagrant abuse of these drugs, creating an almost idea testing ground to breed such resistent organisms?

Quorum sensing manipulation is the exciting prospect there. The idea of getting farmers not to inject antibiotics in everything all the time is apparently harder to achieve.
posted by jaduncan at 12:52 PM on August 12, 2013


If anything, I'd argue that the misery of human life is a product of the rise of nationalism and capitalism - not that everyone was always having a great time everywhere, and I personally quite like modern medicine, but mass agricultural production, wars fought on a large scale and industrial-era urbanization caused a lot of the baseline misery that gets attributed to "the human condition prior to 1920.

It's tempting, but there was plenty of misery to go around. Wars in China (Ming, Qing, Taiping rebellion) were brutal, as were the Mongol conquests or the conquest of the Americas. Lack of food and medicine could be disastrous.

Then a series of events—sometimes called the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages—collectively killed millions. Starting with the Great Famine in 1315 and the Black Death of 1348–1350, the population of Europe plummeted. The period between 1348 and 1420 saw the heaviest loss. In Germany, about 40% of the named inhabitants disappeared.[1] The population of Provence was reduced by 50% and in some regions in Tuscany 70% were lost during this period

By the way,
By the early 21st century, income inequality and unemployment got so bad that the poor were herded into "Sanctuary" districts, leading to riots. A couple decades later, the economic collapse led to resource wars culminating in full-on world war and nuclear destruction. The only reason humanity wasn't left in a new dark age was because a lone genius invented warp drive and got the attention of a more advanced society.

The Dark Age of Technology, formally referred to by Imperial scholars simply as the Age of Technology, was the zenith of Mankind's scientific knowledge and technological power in the Milky Way Galaxy, which lasted from the 15th Millennium until the onset of the Age of Strife in the 25th Millennium. It saw the development of the first true human interstellar civilisation and the birth of a united human stellar confederation centred on the human homeworld of Terra. Even tens of millennia later, Mankind has not been able to equal or regain its former height of achievement attained in this era.

Waiting for the birth of Slaanesh.
posted by ersatz at 12:53 PM on August 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


> Just TCP/IP isn't all there is to it. Wideband internet everywhere coupled with better mobile devices does have some significant potential and it still isn't here.

I agree with that - it's just the magnitude of the potential is not so great.

In 1913, most Americans didn't even have electricity or cars. Travelling between continents took you weeks to months to accomplish. There weren't antibiotics - people died of tooth aches, ear aches, or stepping on a nail. If you were a child in a regular school, you likely had at least one kid in each class die every year of a communicable disease. If you wanted to hear music, you had to be standing in the same room as a musician (or a player piano :-D). There was no way to talk to someone in a distant city in the same country, let alone overseas. There was no air conditioning and most jobs were outside. If you got a cavity, you would live with it, or have the tooth pulled.

Fast forward fifty years - to 1963. Electricity, antibiotics, jets, long-distance phone calls, radio TV, cars, computers, interstate highways, fillings and root canals...

Now, fast forward fifty years - to 2013. What's the big change? Yes, the internet, I do know about that, but for most of humanity (except a small number of geeks like myself) it really is just "another medium" like TV.


> More important, the computer revolution has shortened supply chains, allowed just in time inventory to work, and slashed the resources needed for paperwork. I do EDI work these days and the system I oversee does the work of 20 or more people, and does it faster and vastly cheaper than humans could have.

Sure - all very important, particularly when it comes to destroying jobs - but these are efficiency improvements, incremental improvements. Are these really comparable in magnitude to antibiotics alone - let alone jets, root canals, interstates...?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:56 PM on August 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


I have to agree with lupus_yonderboy about the Internet. I'm a programmer and I spent the first half of my life with no internet (it existed but wasn't that ubiquitous) and have spent the last half with. My life isn't really that different. I enjoy the improved access to media like video and music but ... well it ain't really noticeably better otherwise.

I think the main benefit of the net/web is what it does for our ability to quickly transmit knowledge, but of course we have to come up with useful goals to take advantage of that - human rights, medical advances, etc. Streamlining the supply chain is great if you're in the widget business or have to have stuff RIGHT NOW, but it's arguably been bad for the middle class since jobs are being lost.

I do love posting on Metafilter though.
posted by freecellwizard at 1:08 PM on August 12, 2013 [3 favorites]



It's tempting, but there was plenty of misery to go around. Wars in China (Ming, Qing, Taiping rebellion) were brutal, as were the Mongol conquests or the conquest of the Americas. Lack of food and medicine could be disastrous.


Well, yes, of course. The point I wish I'd articulated (but the migraine meds - hooray modern technology! - were making me foggy) was that the ability to live a decent life varies hugely over time and place. It's not that the future is unevenly distributed; it's that everything is unevenly distributed. And that this is political.

What's going to happen, obviously, is that lots of jobs will be eliminated by robots. Some new jobs will be created. Some old jobs will become viable again due to worker desperation - for example, having a live-in staff of servants will be affordable to the upper middle classes. I expect that sex work will become more widespread and more respectable and the best-paid kinds of sex work will be less well-paid than they are now. I expect that there will be hardscrabble subsistance farming/rural slum-shantytowns again in the US. Because what's going to happen, fundamentally, is this - everyone who is not solidly "creative class" or solidly well-off is going to get completely fucked over. "Print your own products"? Yeah, fuck, how is that going to work? Most of the people who used to be the mass market for major appliances also used to have jobs making, distributing, selling and maintaining various products. Those jobs are going away, replaced by "running the robot factory that makes the printers" and "delivering bags of Universal Compound" and "designing advertising for the printers". How are people going to afford a home to keep the printer in? "The printer that will be in your workshop" - yeah, right. We're not going to have workshops, because we'll be living in servants' quarters and working 14 hour days.

Do you really think that anyone with a scrap of wealth or power really wants to waste their money supporting all the people whose jobs will be eliminated? No, those people will be pushed out to starve. As went welfare in the nineties, so will go all of us. I'm only glad that it will probably take at least a little bit longer and I'm already rising forty, so at least I've had a decent life out of it.
posted by Frowner at 1:11 PM on August 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


The reason that these epidemics don't happen any more is partly modern sanitation, but much more importantly, antibiotics. But what happens when there's a plague that's antibiotic-resistent - particularly given humanity's flagrant abuse of these drugs, creating an almost idea testing ground to breed such resistent organisms? What happens if there are several over a few decades?

So ok, sure, I guess. But on one hand you dismiss CJD as being not significant, but how many deaths have come from antibiotic resistant bacteria? Here's the WHO's information - they seem to discuss primarily TB and a few other diseases. Now, I will wholly agree that a full-on resistant TB strain would be really bad, but there are other public health measure that can be taken to control that sort of thing, basically testing and isolation. It seems like every school kid in California needs a TB test to register for school these days which, while expensive, is pretty effective.

This article suggests there are 150K deaths annually from AMR TB, which is indeed bad, but from several seconds of googleing, it seems like TB is the only major killer in this category. it doesn't seem like there are other wide-spread AMR diseases.

Like you mention, sanitation is a much bigger deal. And I agree, AMR might be a big deal. Maybe. But it might remain as it is today, a dangerous outlier like Ebola.

Also, i did say "antibiotics et al" because I was too lazy to specify the numerous other medical advances, but most of your historical plagues were viral and caused by diseases which we have effective vaccines for today. So unless there's a new disease that comes out of nowhere all the oldie-goldie killers are effectively taken care of.
posted by GuyZero at 1:20 PM on August 12, 2013


Whoops, and here comes the anti-vaccination crowd to destroy your herd immunity...
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 1:22 PM on August 12, 2013


Whoops, and here comes the anti-vaccination crowd to destroy your herd immunity...

I'm hoping the anti-vacc movement goes the way of acid-wash jeans and CB radios. It's a social movement, not any actual science, so like many social movements it may go away as quickly as it appeared.

I hope.

I really, really hope.
posted by GuyZero at 1:28 PM on August 12, 2013


In a more optimistic view, there's a lot of technological progress to make. As a society, for example, we've focused on making computers faster, with more memory, and with better applications -- but I'm still typing this on a keyboard that isn't that far removed from the first typewriters, on a screen that looks suspiciously like a piece of paper. My desk phone still has a handset, my cell phone speakers and a microphone. My car has a control scheme from the 1930s, and though it's got several computers in it, it still requires me to drive it. We've just barely scratched the possibilities of genentic engineering, and are still trying to discover all the laws of physics and how they can be applied.

I'm a science fiction fan, have been since I was a kid, so I know what's potentially in the offering, if we can get over the hurdles in the way. I want an enhanced brain, with better memory, access to information, a math co-processor, and a (heavily firewalled, with an off switch) network connection. I believe that when such things come to pass, a generation raised on them will be able to transform the world economy yet again, with an accompanying industrial/computational revolution.

Despite the beliefs I've seen above that say "we've mastered all our tools, we have reached the end of prosperity," I believe we're just at the start of using these tools. We're the engineers who've figured out how to pump water out of a tin mine, saying "well, once the tin's gone, that's it, no more prosperity."
posted by Blackanvil at 1:29 PM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


f you wanted to hear music, you had to be standing in the same room as a musician (or a player piano :-D).

or a victrola, which would enable you to listen to caruso without being on the same continent as him

There was no way to talk to someone in a distant city in the same country, let alone overseas.

telephones existed then - you could call as far as new york to chicago, although it wasn't until 1915 that you could call coast to coast

but generally, life was fairly primitive and dangerous back then
posted by pyramid termite at 1:33 PM on August 12, 2013


Because what's going to happen, fundamentally, is this - everyone who is not solidly "creative class" or solidly well-off is going to get completely fucked over.

That's why I think what's happening in retail is so important. If people-heavy retail jobs start to go away, that would be very disruptive: realtors getting reduced by online listings and at-home browsing, shoe sales staff cuts because of Zappos, Amazon shuttering not just Barnes and Noble, but starting on the grocery stores, etc...

The internet is/is going to be very hard on service sector jobs. I don't think we've seen the half of it yet.
posted by bonehead at 1:53 PM on August 12, 2013


But that's assuming we solve the energy problem.

The obstacles to solving the energy problem are not technical.
posted by no relation at 1:55 PM on August 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Predictions are hard, particularly when they're about the future.
posted by kaibutsu at 2:00 PM on August 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Now, fast forward fifty years - to 2013. What's the big change? Yes, the internet, I do know about that, but for most of humanity (except a small number of geeks like myself) it really is just "another medium" like TV.

You're underestimating the changes by making vague comparisons and ignoring improvements so vast that they're qualitatively different even if they might appear to be the same thing.

In 1963, jets existed, but air travel was realistically out of reach for common middle-class people, except as a once-or-twice-in-a-lifetime indulgence.

In 1963, heart disease that would now be easily treatable with a near certainty of success would have killed you dead, or radically limited your life activities. Yes, there was treatment for heart disease, but it was so primitive compared to modern treatments that the modern stuff is a qualitatively different thing.

In 1963 any number of cancers that can be effectively treated would have just killed you in a few months.

And so on.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:52 PM on August 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Admittedly I am an idiot, but this just seems like we're assuming a certain model of socioeconomic and political organization is the "natural order" of things, and we should all just get used to our lot in life as peasants and proles, and left the wealth and power accumulate in the Oligarchy, where it belongs.

And that sounds like shit to me.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 5:23 PM on August 12, 2013 [11 favorites]


What if everything we've predicated as American was powered by cheap fossil fuels and cheap labor? What if those have all been consumed?

(What if rhetorical questions would fall out of favor? Would that be groovy?)
posted by Twang at 5:39 PM on August 12, 2013


Ray Walston:

You are most definitely not an idiot. The idea you expressed is exactly what Karl Marx said.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:41 PM on August 12, 2013


The challenges of the next 100 years will be incremental: repairing the damage of the last 200 and bringing everyone up to a better standard of living. If we can do that, the future promised by Star Trek can't be far off.

"The economics of the future is somewhat different. You see, money doesn't exist in the 24th century... The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of Humanity." - Picard
posted by Golden Eternity at 9:50 PM on August 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


A couple of years ago, this excellent article was posted to MeFi, which contains an interesting discussion of possible social structures in a robots-took-our-jobs future.

The author suggests that which of these possible futures the plinko ball of fate falls into is highly path dependent; that is, depending on where and how society approaches the sudden (and wholly hypothetical) obsolescence of toil via automation, very different things might result. Not all of them are good.

He identifies two major axes, which correspond roughly to the two sides of the coin I described in an earlier comment, one being technological and the other social. The technological one is the availability or abundance of resources, the social one is whether society is broadly egalitarian or hierarchical.

An egalitarian society under conditions of great material abundance (think replicators) coasts smoothly into Star Trek-ian communism, while a hierarchical society with the same abundance would create artificial scarcity in order to preserve the ancien regime and end up stagnating as a rentier state with a busywork economy.

But absent that material abundance, assuming we basically take humans out of the global supply chain before we solve the issue of material input scarcity, then things look a bit ... different. Egalitarian + scarcity nets you classical socialism, in which the unlimited wants and limited resources are managed rationally by some sort of governance model. Perhaps a Soviet system, only with more computers and fewer mass graves.

Only that last bit isn't really guaranteed, because the fourth possibility is what you may get if you remove the necessity of human labor from a solidly hierarchical society that's still subject to material scarcity: exterminism. It's the simple, logical conclusion when you have a fixed-size resource pie and the labor of the proletariat is no longer required to serve it — why share it at all? The only reason is because if you don't share, they might take all the pie; inevitably, one starts to wonder if there isn't a more ... permanent solution to preventing pie expropriation? Disposing of the labor surplus could be easily done, and wouldn't necessarily involve robots stuffing untermenschen into gas chambers; it could be as simple as some benign neglect leading to a bad outbreak of disease.

Of course, the chances of any one of these scenarios being correct is vanishingly small. More likely, if we ever do achieve something like an end to necessary labor, it will take various forms depending on local conditions. But the crucial idea is that the direction from which you approach a technological revolution matters (or, looking at past transformations, mattered) greatly in where you'll end up on the other side.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:27 PM on August 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


i'm reading jeremy rifkin's The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World (trying to at least! it's not a little tendentious, self-promoting and somewhat off-putting ;) which is basically a manifesto/mission statement/white paper/action plan or whatever[*] towards an empathic civilization:
The human race is in a twilight zone between a dying civilisation on life support and an emerging one trying to find its legs. Old identities are fracturing while new identities are too fragile to grasp. To understand our situation, we need to step back and ask: what constitutes a fundamental change in the nature of civilisation? The great turning points occur when new, more complex energy regimes converge with communications revolutions, fundamentally altering human consciousness in the process.
which is interesting to me (and apparently people like angela merkel and li keqiang!) but i think ernest gellner helps provide a fuller treatment of the political ramifications of what a post-industrial revolution _might entail_ beyond a vision of 'democratic capitalism'...

cf. Marxism vs social democracy
viz. Surviving Progress

---
[*] he "has been a senior lecturer at the Wharton School's Executive Education Program at the University of Pennsylvania — the world's #1 ranked business school — where he instructs CEOs and senior management on transitioning their business operations into sustainable Third Industrial Revolution economies." and it shows :P
posted by kliuless at 10:41 PM on August 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Disposing of the labor surplus could be easily done, and wouldn't necessarily involve robots stuffing untermenschen into gas chambers; it could be as simple as some benign neglect leading to a bad outbreak of disease.

Or a decently sized war. There is no better way of dealing with a surplus of young men than having them kill each other on an industrial scale. We're overdue for a full-on throw down.
posted by valkyryn at 2:23 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


There are limits on growth in a "virtual economy" too, Segundus, if only because the energy costs something, but really..

Zero marginal cost goods should not contribute to the 'economy' at all because they should cost nothing !! We should pay their creators upfront via crowd funding, grants, basic income, etc. instead.

"As every graduate of an introductory economics class knows, the market works best when items sell at their marginal cost. That means we maximize efficiency when recorded music, movies, video games and software are available to users at zero cost." - Dean Baker

Aren't there non-zero marginal cost virtual goods? Yes, obviously commissioned artwork, writing, etc., but even these artistic jobs are growing more automated.

Now our "possessions" are growing more virtual with mp3s, etc. already. And they could eventually become mostly virtual via technological convergence, 3d printers surpassing manufacturing, and a declining population eventually obliterating real-estate value, but that doesn't mean their trade should contribute to the 'economy'.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:38 AM on August 13, 2013


bonehead: "That's why I think what's happening in retail is so important. If people-heavy retail jobs start to go away, that would be very disruptive: realtors getting reduced by online listings and at-home browsing"

Yes please!

Only because I work in a property tax assessment firm and dear god the amount of calls we get from lazy fucking realtors who want info and WANT IT NOW (even though law gives us up to 48 hours) and heaven forbid we should ask for a little money to cover the costs of the volume of fucking requests we get, especially when we're busy as fuck doing our own jobs not trying to hunt down data for you.

/endrant
posted by symbioid at 9:40 AM on August 13, 2013


This interview with Grace Lee Boggs was neat. It seems there are interesting things happening in Detroit. Perhaps in "post-industrial" robot society people will have time to rebuild the neighborhoods, communities, and families that have suffered under industrialization. She made a really interesting comment about how African Americans from the South who had learned how to make something from nothing impacted her post-industrial vision.
posted by Golden Eternity at 11:37 AM on August 13, 2013


The prospect of "doubling quality of life in one generation" seems particularly arbitrary, given that the quality of life gains brought on by the Industrial Revolution (primarily in wealthy nations and as a result of significant political upheaval) have served to supply many of us with our basic needs (food, shelter, health). Everything beyond that is gravy. Drastic improvements in quality of life are more likely to come from political upheaval (equitable wealth distribution, fewer hours at "work", lower unemployment) than fantastic technological innovation. In wealthy countries, we don't really need more food, more shelter, or more health, we need political and economic systems that allocate those resources more equitably so that all of us can enjoy the benefits of leisure brought about by computers and automation. Right now we have a system that includes significant amounts of people who are un- or underemployed and can't afford leisure and significant amounts of people who are overworked and don't have access to leisure. Solving these problems is a political issue, not a technological one. For most people, cutting their work week in half (without cutting income) is much more likely to increase their quality of life than giving them the ability to teleport or fly to the moon quickly and cheaply or whatever.

As for energy, a 100% renewable energy system is perfectly reasonable given current technology, and the outlook is getting rosier every passing moment. The issue is that our political and economic systems are currently operating under the (false) notion that our use of fossil fuels is perfectly benign, such that any and all replacements must be "economically-competitive," ignoring the externalities of carbon pollution.
posted by MetalFingerz at 3:14 PM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


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