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The shape of social progress - I

Stirling Newberry's picture

If you want to see scenario fulfillment, read anything popular. If it is popular, it is probably based on a bad idea that everyone accepts, and then argues for, precisely because everyone accepts it. The history of science, is the history of one person being right, and everyone else being wrong, which is why in a scientific society, wrongshock is a sacred moment: the moment where you find out that everything you believe is wrong. In engineering culture, that is a culture which is exploiting a previous wave's scientific advancements, clickstrike is a sacred moment, the moment where all the complexities seem to click together and fall into place.

As soon as I read this by Neal Stephenson I knew it was going to be mad popular. But that's because it is so thoroughly wrong, wrong on almost every point of its thesis, wrong on its facts, and wrong on its interpretation of those facts. Most of all, it provides an easy excuse: ineffable forces based on random past events are locking us in. There are three parts to the error. The first is the assertion of the improbability of rocketry, the second is the uncorrelated parts of the scientific progress, and the third is the relationship of both to ineffable forces. The forces involved are effable. It's worth going into the problems with the analysis, and then moving on to the illumination of how things actually fit together.

Let's start with Neal Stephenson's thesis:

To recap, the existence of rockets big enough to hurl significant payloads into orbit was contingent on the following radically improbable series of events:

1. World's most technically advanced nation under absolute control of superweapon-obsessed madman
2. Astonishing advent of atomic bombs at exactly the same time
3. A second great power dominated by secretive, superweapon-obsessed dictator
4. Nuclear/strategic calculus militating in favor of ICBMs as delivery system
5. Geographic situation of adversaries necessitating that ICBMs must have near-orbital capability
6. Manned space exploration as propaganda competition, unmoored from realistic cost/benefit discipline

1 is wrong, the rocket was already developing rapidly, in the USSR as well as the US. The real motivation for Germany's immediate push wasn't madness, it was the Versailles restrictions on artillery, and the very realistic understanding that bombing costs pilots. Neither of these have to do with Hitler's madness. In addition von Braun's prototypes were not developed under Nazi sponsorship, and when he joined the Nazi's to further rocketry, it was 1934, well before total control had occurred in Nazi Germany. The V-2 was already there, on the drawing board, for whoever wanted it. Much of the work had already been done by Goddard and Oberth, and had been incorporated by von Braun. Finally, Hitler was not impressed with the weapon for most of the war, and grasped on it as a way of improving German morale and a total lack of expendable pilots. It was a hail mary weapon, ready two years before it was used, but only deployed late. So much for the "Manhattan Project" mad man theory of the V-2. Unless you mean that the madman was Werner von Braun.

2 is also wrong, as can be shown, the key technologies for atomic advancement are the same that made engineering of rockets practical.

3 would there have been a nuclear arms race absent Stalin? We see nuclear weapons races today between Pakistan and India, neither of which are run by Stalin. Israel developed atomic weapons, and Israel was a democracy during the entire time pursuing them. Why did the US pursue atomic weapons? Because of the leverage they offered: the US was facing not one, but two, enemies who were presumed not to be willing to surrender without a shattering invasion.

4 is also wrong: missiles offered two other legs of survivability, naval and missile launches, in addition to aircraft. Missiles have the advantage of being supersonic, and therefore difficult to stop by military means, or for civilians to get out of the way of. In addition, hardened targets can often only be destroyed by a small number of means. Atomic weapons fill this bill. In fact, over time, atomic weapons have grown smaller, not larger.

5 is wrong: the first and only large scale use of rockets is by Germany on the UK, and the distances there are short. The reality of the ballistic missile, is that even relatively short flights, reach sub-orbital space, and are a breath away from orbit.

6. is harder to say whether it was "wrong," but a quick inventory of the results of spaceflight, including the internet you are using to read this, shows that of the investments of the 1950's and 1960's, it was one of the most productive. The hidden "wrong" is what "ordinary cost benefit" is. Stephanson, trapped in a "next quarter" horizon universe, does not see that entities with longer horizons, and with easier recapture, can make different calculations than, say magazines and book publishers.

Now for the details

Most of you don't think very much about turbines, and yet, turbines are one of the crucial components of your society. They are, also, the crucial technology in a modern liquid propelled rocket. the F-1 was the basic engine of the Saturn project, clustered together in the Saturn V to produce enough lift and throw to project a payload that could land on the moon, and have enough fuel to return safely to earth. At base, it is a one way jet engine. That is, a turbine pump which which combines kerosene with Liquid Oxygen.

This process was demonstrated, in a different form, as the modern welding torch, in 1901: mixing a combustible with oxygen.

To make this much pure oxygen, the process requires a continuous supply of electricty. This is supplied by powerplants which use, a turbine.

Thus the modern liquid rocket is not a random outgrowth out of place with its moment, it is part of the application of the turbine to air transport, which included, by the end of World War II, the jet engine. Instead of a power mad dictator, the application of the turbine to flight was a natural outgrowth of the application of the turbine to sea transportation, which had happened in the last war, and to slower than air transportation.

So why the rockets? Realize that all bombing is, militarily, a dicey proposition, particularly general attrition bombing, or "strategic" bombing. John Kenneth Galbraith's survey of the bombing from World War II indicated that it was more trouble to take production out, than it cost the Germans. The same is true of the German air campaign against Britain. The purpose of air attack on civilian areas, is terror. Firebombing, not strategic bombing, is the war weapon that leads to victory. It was the firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo which damaged the will to fight.

Hilter's pursuit of "Vengence Weapons" was a way of producing usable intermediate products. The same technology which drove the V-1 "buzzbomb" is the jet engine, which is still in service today, including our use of cruise missiles. The V-2 was an intermediate product, eventually to carry the atomic weapon that Hitler's Germany craved so much. However Hitler did not develop one in time, for reasons which are still a matter of debate. The United States did, and it did so based on the same technology.

The production of an atomic weapon rests on large scale grinding and refinement of Uranium. For a strictly Uranium weapon, the method is to use centrifuges, which is to say, the same technology as a turbine. Turbines creating power to spin grinders which feed centrifuges. Water power, in massive quantities, was needed for the fleet of fuges. And so it goes.

The turbine would then drive the military helicopter, and eventually, even the tank. If you can wait for it to spin up, the turbine delivers torque, power, and versatility. The internal combustion engine's main advantage, is that it delivers power in bursts, hence, where we need burst power, we have internal combustion, where we have the need for powerful efficient peaks, we have turbines.

To see how this played out, not based on "path dependence" but on technological and social synergies, consider the personal transport. Early on in its history there were several competing technologies for driving personal transport. Electrical cars, diesel cars powered by agricultural products, and internal combustion cars powered by extracted products, both gasoline and deisel, were in the mix. There had been relatively practical automobiles for almost a century by this point, however, the problem was the problem of roads: dirt roads and the people that moved on them by foot and horse, could not easily co-exist with automobiles, particularly steam powered ones. In 1903 the fastest car in the world was a steam powered one, and one could not drive from coast to coast in the US on the roads.

The railroad then, was a closed cycle, both technologically and socially. Coal produced iron, iron produced both rails and boilers, and on rails segregated the machine from the society. It also led to one of the gigantic ages of centralization of power, which was in accordance with the need to extract rocks from around the world that had the right properties. Empires were based on steam ships, which found the coal and the metals to put into the process, and allowed the centralization of labor needed to dig things out of the ground, since digging things out of the ground by hand, since antiquity, is one of the worst jobs a person could be inflicted with.

The petroleum car is also a closed technological and social loop: the liberation of the individual allowed the market utilization of production, with the combustion on demand engine producing steel, the assembly line, refinement, and asphalt. Technologically closed loops have an advantage over other competing loops, simply because they use "everything but the squeal" and relatively small changes produce relatively large continuous wins. Which then exploit themselves

The rock centric technology hit a wall. That wall was first observed from rocks that did not behave as rocks should. That observation led to the nuclear model of the atom, and from there, to the understanding that there was more energy in the center of the atom. Key techology? The cathode ray tube, which bent electrons. The same pool that separates out hydrogen from oxygen, to make the oxydizers in liquid fueld rockets.

Rockets took another piece of technology from turbines: the de Laval Nozel, created in 1888 to improve the steam turbine, Goddard and others applied this to the rocket in the 1920's, improving efficiency from under 5% to over 60%. A 10-20 fold increase in performance. Again: a modern rocket is a one way turbine that burns kerosene and LOX. The turbine, the rocket, and the atom, are intimately interlinked.

The connection then, between rockets and atoms, is not distant, but quite close: both are children of the production of continuous electricity, made possible by the turbine, both feed the results into turbines. The turbine puts in, the turbine pulls out, with the only important difference being the substance used as the leverage of energy: more energy comes out than in, and in roughly the same proportions. The Life Cycle Analysis of atomic electrical power, and petroleum motive power, is almost equal.

The central techology then, was the ability to build large scale turbines, and the ability to deal with small scale effects. Turbines that had been needed to build large scale hydro-power, which was the key mechanism for electrification of production and daily life. The reason atomic weaponry and rockets go hand in hand, is that they are the low hanging fruit of the turbine. So not a matter of mad dictators, but a matter of the mad scramble of war and a technology that had a considerable head start on the main competing technology - the magnetic rail.

So the closed loop, and the continuous niche indicators work in favor of rockets, atomic weapons, jet fighters, hyrdo-power, and turbines as high end objects, while favoring four stroke petroleum engines on the low end, with electrical motors at the very low end; just as the absence of power to weight sources of power, mass production, and large scale road surfacing – all met by petroleum and the turbine – had hindered this system. When one throws in the production of aluminum as part of flight, the correlation becomes tight when compared with other islands, based on the requirements of that moment.

Thus the turbine-petroleum age was the hill to climb, precisely because, after almost 300 years, all of the pieces were ready. Internal combustion, the idea of the automobile, the turbine, all existed, but they were missing power to weight storage of energy, surfacing of roads, and importantly, social order. Realize that the assembly line was not a production of Ford's mind, but something that had been built before: namely, in the 1500's as the Venetian Arsenal: an assembly line for ships.

So examining the evidence, consider what is missing from the parallel world of an electrical transport economy: a storage mechanism, in the form of a better battery or fuel cell – the fuel cell is 1932, a full two generations after the establishment of internal combustion and the turbine – a power to weight ratio, means of flight – electrical planes are slower and impractical, and the airshift requires helium, which cannot be manufactured and is in short supply – and a higher initial investment cost.

The argument that rockets were only useful for atomic attacks is belied by their long use in warfare - including on First World War bi-planes. The west was relatively behind others, and, in fact, the evidence indicates that the Western rocket was based on Arabic designs in the 18th and 19th century. The rocket was behind the gun mechanism by, again, two generations. But the gun mechanism beat out several competing technologies, including compressed air – a means of energy storage that is being pursued today, but in the 18th century was used to make the most accurate rifles of that time. But the air cylinders were heavy, and could not be recharged in the field, and did not scale to canon size.

But to really answer these questions, one must look at the social context. Why these choices? Was Hilter mad? A leader who took his nation from occupied vanquished to near victor? There's no evidence that he was mad, in the sense of suffering from mental disease, nor that he had made generally bad decisions. Like his antagonist Winston Spencer Churchill, he was a technological believe, a believer in invention. He turned to rockets to get around restrictions on artillery, both legal and technological. Guns that could fire from German to England would not occur for decades after wards, and the Germans had all of the technology available. Also, rockets have an advantage of dealing with another shortage: pilots. A missile does not use pilots, and without escorts, bombing is virtually a human guided missile. Look up how Joe Kennedy died, or how many crews returned from Allied bombing missions before the development of interceptors.

So the obvious question is why a popular and widely read author, get his story so wrong, and why so many people believe it now. The answer, of course, is that America, and the developed world, are locked in a path dependent and locked in culture. The reason people believe a randomocity theory of rockets, is because much of our lives are based on relatively random decisions and lock in. So we project backwards. But Adolf Hilter, WSC, FDR, Stalin, were not creatures of the same moment. They had the reverse problem: namely, no one knew what the best technologies were, or the best social structures, to handle a massively disruptive moment.

In otherwords Stephanson is wrong on virtually every point, on every interpretation, but is right about his audience. Allowing them to see the past as making the same mistakes they make in their cubes every day, is an easy way to enormous instant popularity. It's also a good example of why we are in the mess we are in: people like Stephanson writing for other people like Stephanson about how the weeds are thick and the weeds are somehow aligned against us. No, we are meeting the enemy, and he is us. It isn't Hitler that is keeping the Ares alive, nor Stalin that is making us build vast banking frauds to prop up demand for suburban homes that aren't really wanted, nor Truman and Eisenhower who are stopping us from researching fast nuclear power plants. They are de-yad. It must be us.

And that transition, that moment, is what the next section of this essay will be about.

So Stephanson presents a "clickstrike" lots of random choices made by random people in a random past for a random reason. Which is a great deal like work in Dilbertia. But that's not what happened. Instead, the people who created this structure were looking for "wrongshock" – ways of obliterating people's adherence to the past, and aligning it with a new present. The new present that they were pursuing varied widely, but was guided by a sense of a new social shape, one that would shift Victorian Network to something else – through the Modern Grid, and towards a future which we see as the Post-Modern pyramid.

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Stirling Newberry's picture
Submitted by Stirling Newberry on

replaced with something a bit more obvious.

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

Thanks Stirling.

par4's picture
Submitted by par4 on

me of James Burke's 'Connections'. THX Stirling for the post.

Tony Wikrent's picture
Submitted by Tony Wikrent on

And I thought I knew some history of technology. I never thought of turbines in their proper context, but now that the obvious has been pointed out, it's, well, it's obvious. Of course, von Braun, and von Karman and other pioneers of aerodynamics relied heavily on hydrodynamics.

But Stirling, I have to confess, I'm completely lost in that last paragraph, starting with the "wrongshock" and what "new present" "they" are pursuing (and I have a strong suspicion who "they" are, but would be deeply gratified were it made more explicit).

And, if nothing else, I would that people would spend some time thinking about this: "The history of science, is the history of one person being right, and everyone else being wrong. . ." There is an awesome amount of hope, the most noble hope, for all of humanity, bound up in that simple but unappreciated truth. Because it tells us that all that we are today as a society, as a culture, as a civilization, and the material complexity we now command, which allows us to have expected lifetimes nearly triple that of a mere two centuries ago -- all that, though broken down into various different aspects and constituents, all that can be ruthlessly and rigorously traced back to when just one individual, just one, single, lonely individual, generated a new idea. And that idea was spread to the minds of other individuals. And we all progressed. Thus we can see the immense, the almost infinite power, and the self-evident worth, of every single person. Because just one person, thinking and acting alone, always has, and always will, have the potential shape the course of human events.

This concept -- the awesome transformative power of a single human idea once it is conveyed to others -- touches, for those who are interested, on what I consider the most important part of my religious belief and faith. It is why oligarchs always doom themselves to failure, ruin, and defeat, the second they have achieved power, no matter how total and complete their control may look at the moment.

Ian Welsh's picture
Submitted by Ian Welsh on

but it can be a hell of a long time coming and what replaces it isn't necessarily any better. People have no historical perspective on the long scale (hundreds to thousands of years). Things like democracy are rare and startlingly contingent on a variety of factors and widespread prosperity is also contingent on various social and technological factors which are not necessarily given, either now or in the future.

As for Stirling's article, brilliant.

Submitted by lambert on

"the correlation becomes tight when compared with other islands" ??

"So the closed loop, and the continuous niche indicators " ??

What "wall" did uranium hit?

"It isn't Hitler that is keeping the Ares alive" Ares? The god?

I suppose you could make a pun on "Dilbert Space" ....

Did you know that there were actually Victorian hackers? Socially disabled telegraphers with odd dietary choices, even for Britain, who worked at night and slept by day. I'd want it shown how Victorian networks were different from our own. Were they not scale free? I doubt it very, very much.

Stirling Newberry's picture
Submitted by Stirling Newberry on

What Stephenson is lamenting is that the technologies we have are nearing their theoretical efficiency, we are trapped on an "island" because to get comparable efficiency we need to develop whole new sets of technology. He posits that technology climbs random islands, and this is "path dependency."

Instead think of it as a series of interlocking shapes, the one that will come to predominate will be a complete closed set of technologies, whose inputs and outputs help each other. Here the turbine exploits itself in myriad ways.

Uranium was a rock that didn't behave correctly, specifically it emitted radioactivity, which was not accounted for by either the mechanical or electromagnetic theories of energy. At that time Western science is on the newtonian program, which asserted that there was conservation of mass, and conservation of energy, and therefore all energy could be accounted for by movement, light, or magnetism.

Radiation was among a few factors, what broke the Newtonian program, the others were the absence of an ether, the constant speed of life, and the evidence for atomic substructure.

Or to close the loop, the newtonian program combined with metallurgy had driven the steam/iron/machine wave of innovation. It depended on mining rocks, coal and ores, to get materials which would have the right properties to make finer machines out of. This, in turn, drove a series of discoveries which would break the program: refining, the periodic table of the elements, and fluid dynamics.

Submitted by lambert on

... a literal metaphor.

I think "island" is not sufficient since it does not capture the dynamic and involutional nature of what you are describing.

It would be interesting to try to animate this.

Since your imagination seems to be visual, you might consider looking for artwork that represents what you are talking about. Calder? (NO Escher, please. That's for undergrads). It's likely it exists, "artists are the sensitive antenna." OK, back to live blogging. Bach fugues? Poems like villanelles, note interlocking rhyme scheme

Submitted by hipparchia on

that was one poem where the ending took me completely by surprise. i think i've still got my copy of her geography iii, but i still haven't unpacked all my books from moving yet....

speaking of elizabeth bishop, perhaps this one goes along with your live from cairo series? or not.

Stirling Newberry's picture
Submitted by Stirling Newberry on

""It isn't Hitler that is keeping the Ares alive" Ares? The god?"

The rocket.

okanogen's picture
Submitted by okanogen on

I couldn't bother to read further.

Accordingly, the victorious nations showed only modest interest in their development immediately following the war.

Oh, really?

Atomic bombs turned out to be expensive, dirty, controversial, and of limited military use (it was difficult to find targets sufficiently large to be worth using them on). So they might have fizzled out

No shit?

Conversely, because those bombs were so destructive (making it tricky to drop them out of a manned aircraft without killing the crew) and the consequences of a first strike so dire, ICBMs—which could be launched from hardened, dispersed silos, as contrasted with bombers, which must take off from concentrated, vulnerable air bases—were the best way to deliver them.

Sure, Wikipedia, but even their facts are better then Stephenson's. The first US ICBM launched in 1959, meanwhile, bombers had proven adept at delivering nuclear bombs for over a decade (timelines above).

He also deliberately ignores the need for an Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty.

But Jesus, that is plenty enough garbage in to just ensure garbage out. In fact, it is so representative of the typical, lazy, I've-got-a-theory-I'll-find-the-data-that-supports-it work which Somerby short-hands as "stock narrative" or alternately "standard novel" or "known stricture", that I decided to go ahead and plow through to see which Hard Pundit Law he was going to invoke.

I should (and kind of did) skip to the last line:

those who do concern themselves with the formal regulation of "technology" might wish to worry less about possible negative effects of innovation and more about the damage being done to our environment and our prosperity by the mid-20th-century technologies that no sane and responsible person would propose today, but in which we remain trapped by mysterious and ineffable forces.

So "no sane and responsible person" would propose, what? Improving mid-20th century "lock-in" technologies like a railroads? Yeah, good luck with that.

Maybe Stephenson should worry less about some pleasing myth he is making (since the example he uses doesn't come close to supporting it without, ignoring tons of conflicting shit), and get directly to the point he is trying to make? Specifically what "mid-20th century" technology are you saying we should discard because we are "trapped" in it by "mysterious, ineffable forces"? Did he maybe not realize there are goddamn good reasons that certain technologies (like satellites) are developed?

Apparently the guy never heard of Occam's Razor.

Anyway, who exactly is he accusing of concerning themself with formal regulation of innovation? That's freaking absurd! Maybe he is talking about the anti-genetically modified crop movement? He builds up his strawman argument, but never points it at any exact target.

Submitted by lambert on

... which strikes me as a.... Welll, er, a shape of the future I'd really like to be wrong about. So it would be nice to know why Snow Crash was really and necessarily a work of fiction, as opposed to a message from the future....

Stirling Newberry's picture
Submitted by Stirling Newberry on

but anyone who thinks that baking bread is a programmed meme, in the sense of a literal program, in reality, has some serious problems.

Submitted by lambert on

.... passages like this:

"The Mafia has a sample of the drug for the first time, thanks to me and my pal Ng. Until now, it always self-destucted before they could get to it. So I guess they're analyzing it or something. Trying to make an antidote, maybe."

"Or trying to reproduce it."

"The Mafia wouldn't do that."

"Don't be a sap," Hiro says. "Of course they would." Y.T. seems miffed at Hiro. "Look," he says, "I'm sorry for reminding you of this, but if we still had laws, the Mafia would be a criminal organization."

"But we don't have laws," she says, "so it's just another chain."

I would probably be a happier person if this example of futurism was as flawed as the idea of a recipe as a literal program.

Stirling Newberry's picture
Submitted by Stirling Newberry on

1. The laws they obey out of fear of collapse.
2. The laws they obey out of fear of revenge.
3. The laws they obey because others are more powerful.

While moral inversions aren't all that uncommon – remember the Mafia was formed as an alternative government, and already is "just another chain" in Italy, so it is hardly an act of great vision to see a legal mafia – generally when criminals take control, they pass laws against other criminals.

So writing a dystopian book, that's common. Saying everything is shit, well that's the average Black Sabbath album, it is what you have to say about the world in the face of run of the mill nihilism and despair that's important.

And frankly the book's techno-libertarianism, is really dated at this point, in the age of stealth updates, stealth installs, kill switches, and botnets.

Submitted by lambert on

Yep. There you go. That's why I didn't mention Crypotnomicon.

I guess glibertarian-themed structures doesn't have the right "shape"?