Grappling with Exponential Growth

Since the sixties, analysts have been using Moore’s Law to summarize the expansion of computing power and, by extension, the growth of information technology as an industry. Named for Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, his “law” can be summarized to state that computing power per-dollar spent can be expected to double every 1-2 years.

Moore himself expected the phenomenon to hold for a decade or so across the early life of the computer industry but it remains fairly consistent forty years later. If anything, there are signs that this phenomenon may actually be accelerating. Though computing based on silicon chips may struggle to keep up with Moore’s Law, the introduction of quantum computing and even biocomputing may soon make Moore’s Law seem quaint.

The authors of The Second Machine Age argue that one of the challenges of adapting to this new economic reality is our mental struggle to comprehend the power of exponents. They illustrate the point with a reference to an Indian folktale:

As the story goes chess was invented by a very clever man who traveled to Paliputra, the capital city, and presented his brainchild to the emperor. The ruler was so impressed by the difficult, beautiful game that he invited the inventor to name his reward.

The inventor praised the emperor’s generosity and said, “All I desire is some rise to feed my family.” Since the emperor’s largess was spurred by the invention of chess, the inventor suggested they use the chessboard to determine the amount of rise he would be given. “Place one single grain of rice on the first square of the board, two on the second, four on the third, and so on,” the inventor proposed, “so that each square receives twice as many grains as the previous.

If his request were fully honored, the inventor would wind up with 2 to the 64th power, or more than 18 quintillion grains of rice. A pile this big would dwarf Mount Everest; it’s more rice than has been produced in the history of the world.

What’s truly fascinating about this process is the way the growth curve bends upward on the second half of the chessboard. This is not a bell-curve phenomenon, but a launch.

Why does computing follow a steeper growth curve than earlier technologies? The chess board analogy helps us recognize that this is a misunderstanding of the situation. It’s not that computing is such a unique technology as compared to, say, the steam engine. The difference is that computing is arriving on the second half of the chessboard.

Looking at the growth of technology across all of human history, almost nothing happens until about 1750. The development of fire, agriculture, and the wheel were thousands of years apart. Gunpowder was another few thousand years later. Steam and mechanical technology were rather farther along this curve, but still early.

It’s not that computers are so special. It’s where they fall on this general expansion of knowledge that makes them more dynamic than previous technologies. And seeing the growth of technology along this long timeframe, we begin to recognize that this phenomenon is not about computing at all, and that it is likely to accelerate from here in ways we that our brains can barely process.

What this means beyond computing can perhaps be illustrated with a look at the industries spawned by this expansion in computing power. Again, from The Second Machine Age:

The ASCI Red, the first product of the U.S. government’s Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative, was the world’s fastest supercomputer when it was introduced in 1996. It cost $55 million to develop and its one hundred cabinets occupied nearly 1600 square feet of floor space at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. Designed for calculation-intensive tasks like simulating nuclear tests, ASCI Red was the first computer to score above one teraflop – one million floating operations per second – on the standard benchmark test for computer speed. By 1997 it had reached 1.8 teraflops.

Nine years later another computer hit 1.8 teraflops, but instead of simulating nuclear explosions it was devoted to drawing them and other complex graphics in all their realistic, real-time, three-dimensional glory. It did this not for physicists, but for video game players. This computer was the Sony Playstation 3.


The ASCI Red was taken out of service in 2006.

It took humans about 3000 years to move from ox-driven plows to mechanical plows. In fact agricultural technology at the time of the American Revolution was no better, and in some regards perhaps less advanced than that practiced by the Romans. By contrast it took 25 years to go from Pong to Halo.

Why does this matter politically? This kind of growth is a major adaptive challenge for traditional institutions. We need them more than ever, but they groan and occasionally fail under the strain. Government built to meet the bureaucratic demands of 20th century Industrial Capitalism is struggling to remain not just relevant, but intact.

Industrialization destroyed an old political order based on aristocracy and land ownership. How will automation transform our order?

Chris Ladd is a Texan living in the Chicago area. He has been involved in grassroots Republican politics for most of his life. He was a Republican precinct committeeman in suburban Chicago until he resigned from the party and his position after the 2016 Republican Convention. He can be reached at gopliferchicago at gmail dot com.

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Posted in Economics, The Second Machine Age
114 comments on “Grappling with Exponential Growth
  1. fiftyohm says:

    Exponential growth can be found everywhere in nature. The processes that drive it are generally pretty simple; A bacterial colony grows in such a manner until it runs out of food or space, nuclear fission until the fuel supply becomes limiting, many chemical reactions also follow the model. But-

    The development of machines and technologies are driven by far more complex mechanisms. A technology called photolithography enabled the modern integrated circuit, which in turn enabled the technology of the modern computer. That technology has been tweaked over the decades to allow the fabrication of smaller and smaller features on a chip. That progression, for the most part, has driven Moore’s Law. Software, on the other hand, has not kept up. The only reason the computing technology has fit the exponential so far is that faster machines and larger memory has enabled pretty crappy software to work at all. The end of this is in sight.

    Technology has two fundamental components: science and engineering. Basic science opens the book of possibilities with deep knowledge of the fundamental processes of the natural world. Engineering allows us to make useful stuff with it. Both take human insight. Technology enabled the automated sequencing of the human genome. Technology provides about zero answers to what it means. To say we’ve scratched the surface, is a ponderous understatement.

    In a manner similar to the growth rate of a new species with a few new and beneficial traits, the mutation has to happen, (the science), and the technology, (of selection), has to take over. It seems to me we’re running out of mutations.

    It’s been said that we’ve more about the natural world in the last two centuries than the knowledge we’d accumulated in the previous 10 thousand. Are we adding to that fundamental knowledge pool today at the same rate as we were say a half century ago?

    Most of us can rattle off less than a couple dozen fundamental scientific discoveries that have, in large part, contributed to our ‘modern world’. When was the last one made? Without the investment in dollars and human capital in not only science, but engineering, our rate of ‘progress’ is going to ebb. Exactly how we accomplish this is open to debate – the result of not doing so is not. And there’s no computer that’s gonna tell us how to do that.

    • Tuttabella says:

      How would you characterize inertia or stagnation in general? As a depletion of energy/fuel?

      • fiftyohm says:

        Tutt- Not sure I understand the question. Inertia is a tendency to keep moving, (or stay still). Stagnation is a general lack of motion or change.

        I do detect some measure of stagnation in the sciences, at least when compared to the past. But we must also keep in mind that scientific advance must also become *exponentially more difficult*. It could be cultural – what society sees as important. It could be just plain social ennui. It could be that we seem to value financial managers, entertainment personalities, sports stars, and video game designers more highly than scientists and engineers. It could be that in our rush to make everyone equal, we’ve squelched the exceptional. To be perfectly frank, I don’t know. I doubt anyone does.

      • Tuttabella says:

        It may also be complacency, or taking modern technology for granted.

  2. Tuttabella says:

    I’ve been using the words DISCOVERIES and INVENTIONS and the more general word DEVELOPMENTS. I was thinking that Discoveries belong more on the earlier side of the chessboard, and Inventions on the later side, with Inventions building upon Discoveries previously made. I wonder if there’s anything left to Discover, something we could possibly not be aware of at this stage in human history.

    • Owl of Bellaire says:

      Dark matter? Dark energy? A life-bearing extrasolar planet? Cosmology and astronomy are rife with opportunities for discovery. And one certainly does not “invent” a planet or substance.

      Other fields still offer the same sorts of potential. For biology, how about a better understanding of the relationship of consciousness to the physical structure of the human brain, or the process of chemical evolution that produced life on Earth? For geology, how about the discovery of what powers the diapirs or “hot spots” which produce chains of islands or volcanic calderas over geologic time, whether that be the Emperor seamount chain and Hawaiian Islands or the line of eruptive sites which culminates in Yellowstone?

      We do not by any means live in an era where there is nothing left to be discovered.

      • Tuttabella says:

        Agreed. After I hit Post Comment it occurred to me how naive my comment was. And something could be right under our noses, yet we don’t understand its full potential, all its possibilities.

      • Tuttabella says:

        After I wrote my first entry and hit Post Comment, my first thought was, How arrogant of me, but naive is the more appropriate term.

      • Bobo Amerigo says:

        Politically and philosophically, though, we seem to be discussing the same topics early civilizations did, one-trick ponies.

      • Tuttabella says:

        Bobo, personally, I don’t get particularly excited about the scientific and technological aspects of new developments. Instead, I’m fascinated by the social, psychological, and political consequences of all the new developments — for example, like the changing concept of time, which you mentioned in your post below. I especially enjoy studying how aspects of daily life are affected.

      • Tuttabella says:

        I’m fascinated by the subtle changes to society as a result of technology, and not so much the obvious, immediate changes. For example, not so much that we live longer, but how living longer changes the mindset of society.

      • Owl of Bellaire says:

        I heard a speaker a few years ago comment on how the common fairy-tale trope of “getting lost in the forest” was becoming unfamiliar to young children, because of their families’ common use of GPS navigation.

    • Bobo Amerigo says:

      A lot is being written about new understandings of the gut flora — I think it’s both interesting and exciting.

  3. Tuttabella says:

    As Lifer says, powerful computing is not such a big deal in itself, it’s that it occurred on this side of the chessboard. I wonder if we’re due for another invention or development on the scale of something like the discovery of fire. Combined with being on this side of the chessboard, it would be amazing indeed. I would put in that category the wonders of modern medicine. Space exploration is also amazing, but it doesn’t have the same immediate application to daily human life as medicine does.

    • John Galt says:

      You mentioned medicine, which is indeed wonderful, but has traditionally been more of an art than a science. That is changing with modern approaches. Fourteen years ago, the human genome was first sequenced. (As an aside, this project came in 5 years early and 10% under budget. That said, it still took 10 years and cost $2.7 billion.) Today, you could have your genome sequenced for $3,000 in one day. Two years from now, it will be done routinely as a medical diagnostic for less than $1,000. Doctors are already using such information to tailor cancer treatments and will soon be able to determine whether you need to take statins to lower your cholesterol based on your other risks for heart disease, predict your risks for neuordegenerative diseases, etc. It will, indeed, be darn close to a miracle.

    • Owl of Bellaire says:

      Space development as a technological field is still decidedly on the near side of the chessboard. Once we get the opportunity to mine aluminum, oxygen, and other useful materials from the Moon or asteroids, space activities will become much more self-sustaining and fast-paced.

      Orbital solar-power satellites, for example, could provide greenhouse-gas-free generation without the security and environmental hazards (real or perceived) that plague the nuclear industry. Metals from asteroids could cause short-term disruptions in terrestrial commodities markets, but the lower prices could enable more or different uses in electronics. Many industrial processes benefit from the vacuum of space, so manufacturing facilities there would allow for cheaper materials and products and remove another source of environmental danger.

      We haven’t passed as a society onto some universal “other side” of the chessboard. Many technologies or areas of endeavor have the opportunity to deliver sudden, large returns after a slower, more modest period of adaption and development.

    • kabuzz61 says:

      From Wiki: The Raw Story is an American online news publication founded in 2004 by John Byrne. It covers current national and international political and economic news and publishes its own editorials and investigative pieces. The Raw Story describes itself as progressive, bringing attention to stories that it sees as downplayed or ignored by other media outlets. It is owned by Washington, D.C.-based Raw Story Media, Inc.

      Another cut and paste organization that is part of the problem with politics today. Of course this is Texan’s number one news source.

      • Houston-stay-at-Homer says:

        Buzz…I think I would encourage the perusal of a wide range of online sites from across the political spectrum.

        I would also encourage at least a slight chuckle at the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s noodly appendage.

      • texan5142 says:

        Why the attack kabuzz? It was supposed to be light hearted and somewhat funny, crabby old man.

      • geoff1968 says:

        There’s a lot of info out there. I use my training and apply professional skepticism. In Nietzscheian terms I’m not calling you a liar, but I don’t believe a single word you say (or type as the case may be).

        Righteousness and right wing are two significantly different concepts. I stick to righteous. It’s the only way to fly.

        Conservative vs. Liberal, don’t waste my time. I can administer a Liberal program Conservatively.

        Now if I can deprogram the party…that’s a different story.

      • kabuzz61 says:

        Agree Geoff. A pox on both houses.

        Texan takes much pride in minimizing Christianity, faith’s and mocks those that believe. So all of a sudden I am to think this is an idle joke?

        Homer. I do. But when those on your side of the aisle ridicule Fox News and such, I just stated what they have said of those organizations.

  4. GG says:

    Speaking of growth, I find this story very exciting. It would be great to be able to live another 100 years and see what happens in medicine. Growing new organs and limbs is not to far away.

    • Tuttabella says:

      GG, like I said before, you would feel right at home in the Twilight Zone. 🙂

    • Bobo Amerigo says:

      I hear you. A distressing thing about dying is that I’ll never know how the country turns out. Not that it ever stops changing. But it would be nice to know that eventually we do a better job of looking out for one another.

      • GG says:

        That’s what bugs me the most too Bobo. The not knowing the future of mankind and the cool stuff that I might miss not to mention missions to Mars and further space exploration.

  5. CaptSternn says:

    The steam engine is over 2,000 years old. Electricity in battery form predates that. Look at the technology behind that Antikythera Mechanism. Where would we be if people back then had really put forth the effort into those technologies? Where would we be if we had not lost all the knowledge in the ancient great libraries?

    • Tuttabella says:

      Another Dark Age would be a tragedy. I hope something like that never happens again.

    • Owl of Bellaire says:

      Yes, what if Hypatia, the famous female Greek mathematician and astronomer, had not been murdered by the Christian mob in Alexandria, hacked to death with (depending on your source) either oyster shells or roof tiles?

      Author Stephen Greenblatt has written that Hypatia’s death “effectively marked the downfall of Alexandrian intellectual life”.

      • kabuzz61 says:

        Of course it did. It all hinged on one woman.

      • CaptSternn says:

        The library was burned or destroyed on more than one occasion, starting with the Romans, Ceaser setting fire to it around 48BC, then Aurelian around 270AD, then by Theophilus around 390AD. But don’t let facts get in the way of your hatred, Owl.

      • Owl of Bellaire says:

        Did I mention the burning of the library? Why, no. It was burned by both Christians and Muslims, and for similarly inane religious reasons. Instead, I just mentioned Hypatia.

        And, amusingly, kabuzz fell right into my trap. He could, of course, have responded with something like, “Why, yes, the torture and murder of Hypatia was a terrible thing, and any reasonable Christian should condemn it, as I do.”

        But kabuzz instead decided to discount the whole sordid story and minimize its effect. He thus puts himself into exactly the position that many conservatives paint for moderate Muslims, whining that they haven’t condemned the actions of their more violent co-religionists. (Even though, it must be said, it’s easy to find plenty of examples of such condemnation.)

        Thanks, kabuzz. I wondered if that might be the result.

        For the record, Christians have done some fine things throughout history, and it’s important to keep both the good and the evil they’ve committed in mind, without claiming that either end of the scale exists without the other.

      • kabuzz61 says:

        Owly, I discount everything you say. Again, one woman marked the downfall of intellectual life. One. As in single, one. Okay…

      • Owl of Bellaire says:

        Actually, kabuzz, it would be the *torture and murder* of one woman. You’re still covering for those violent Christian terrorists, I see.

        But, hey, take it up with Stephen Greenblatt. He’s had a Fulbright scholarship, a Ph.D. from Yale, two Guggenheim fellowships, the National Book Award for Nonfiction, and the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

        Still, how could any of that deserve any measure of respect next to a cat in a hoodie?

      • kabuzz61 says:

        Okay. If you say so. (eyes rolling)

      • Owl of Bellaire says:

        So, kabuzz, why do you continue to support those who tortured and murdered Hypatia?

      • CaptSternn says:

        The people that killed her are dead, Owl.

      • Owl of Bellaire says:

        And so are the 9/11 hijackers.

        I guess kabuzz just likes to canoodle with terrorists, as long as they’re Christian ones.

      • CaptSternn says:

        As Kabuzz put it … “Okay. If you say so. (eyes rolling)”

      • Tuttabella says:

        All this talk of everything hinging on one woman brings to mind the story of Adam and Eve, with poor Eve being blamed for the sin of all of humanity.

      • CaptSternn says:

        Well, Tutt, in that particulare case, the devil really did make her do it.

      • CaptSternn says:

        Owl, you do understand that you are saying that all Muslims are terrorists, that all blacks are slave traders, that all Japanese make Chinese women sex slaves, that all Germans are Nazis, right? How far back do you want to go to bow to your own guilt?

      • Owl of Bellaire says:

        Actually, I’ve quite specifically *not* said that.

        But your desperation is noted.

      • CaptSternn says:

        The fowl attempts to fly backwards out of desperation. Too little, too late.

    • Tuttabella says:

      And I was just about to remark how it cool it was to see everyone getting along for a change.

  6. John Galt says:

    “Exponential growth” is a concept very familiar to microbiologists. Bacteria, fungi and other microbes grow bigger then divide into two. One to two to four to eight… I laugh at the antibacterial soaps and cleaners that kill “99% of bacteria!” Awesome. At maximal rates, some bacteria can divide in under 20 minutes so that remaining 1% is greater than the original in a bit over two hours.

    Also perhaps relevant is that exponential growth ends when the population becomes resource limited (in this case, mostly meaning they run out of food). Then they enter what is termed “stationary phase,” which doesn’t sound like where we want society to end up.

    • Crogged says:

      The meek shall inherit……..did you see the theory that the massive extinction event (not dinosaurs–Cambrian?) was caused by bacteria. Could it happen-again?

    • John Galt says:

      Could it? Yes. Presently amphibians are being wiped out in many parts of the world by a particular fungus. It’s not clear why, but it is being exacerbated by habitat loss.

      A colleague of mine has a theory that the dinosaurs were killed by fungal infections. It makes for a rousing after dinner speech if you’ve had enough wine.

    • Owl of Bellaire says:

      A popular standardized-test question used to involve a lily pad which doubles in size each day, and covers the pond on the 30th day of its life. The student is then asked to identify on which day the pond is half-covered — the answer being, of course, on the 29th day, even though, to many students, that sounds impossibly fast.

      • Houston-stay-at-Homer says:

        I vividly recall an elementary school teacher asking the class.

        Which would you rather have:
        a) $1,000 today
        b) a penny today, two pennies tomorrow, four pennies the third day, and then continuing to double the amount each day for a month.

        You go the whole first week and barely break a dollar. At two weeks you are still less than $200, but then magic start happening.

        That might have been when I realized math was fun.

      • Owl of Bellaire says:

        Yeah, when the difference between 28-day February and 31-day March becomes over eighteen million dollars ($18,790,481.92, to be precise), it rather gets your attention.

      • Houston-stay-at-Homer says:

        Just another example of White people keeping Black people down. Having Black History Month during the shortest of the year, cutting them out of $18 million. White people suck.

      • kabuzz61 says:

        White people gave a month to just one race? What months do Hispanic’s, whites and Asians have? Those inconsiderate white people.

      • bubbabobcat says:

        Yeah Homie, you speak the truth brudda!

        Fight da power of the Oppressive White Overlords!

        I think they were they name of a street gang in Bensonhurst Brooklyn too…

        Oooh ah!

      • John Galt says:

        $9,395,240.96, actually, Owl.

        If you start with 1 cent on day 1 (2^0), you get up to 2^27 on day 28 ($1,342,177.28), or 2^30 on day 31 ($10,737,418.24).

        I’d take either one, of course.

      • Owl of Bellaire says:

        But what you receive at the end is the *sum* of the contributions from each day, isn’t it?

      • bubbabobcat says:

        Um buzzy,

        Hispanic American Heritage Month – Sep 15 – Oct 15

        Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month – May

        You really need to get out more and take those blinders off.

        Geez, cranky and lazy old people…

      • bubbabobcat says:

        Almost forgot since it is a universally known given:

        White people lording over everyone else month – Jan 1 – Dec 31.

        Yer welcome.

      • Houston-stay-at-Homer says:

        My math is with Owl here. Everyone has the math right, but some forgot to add it all together.

        Either way, math is fun.

        Also, compounding interest…something that should be drilled into kids’ heads as soon as they understand percentages.

        Also, the flip side of that…interest payments on credit cards…drilled into kids’ heads twice a day from the time they first learn about percentages.

        Sure, that latte only costs you $5 today, but by the time you pay off your credit card in 2027, it will have cost you one billion dollars!

      • geoff1968 says:

        There are eleven months dedicated to white history. It used to be twelve, but then we decided to throw February to the Afro-Americans as a gesture of goodwill.

        Seems fair enough to me.

      • John Galt says:

        I suppose I misread the question to get the last day’s amount. My mistake.

  7. Bobo Amerigo says:

    Perhaps we’re not talking about technology, perhaps we’re talking about time logics.

    “I spent a few years considering the relationship between science, technology and the human experience of time when I was writing my last book About Time, Cosmology and Culture in the Twilight of the Big Bang. I found that every culture in every epoch of history has its own time logic — its own way of organizing activities through the day. Most importantly those time logics are always mediated by the culture’s technology. If you don’t have cheap clocks you can’t separate the day into 24 abstract units called hours. If your clocks don’t have reliable minute hands, then you can’t demand that your workers show up at 8:15 a.m.

    With each important advance in technology we’ve gained the capacity to not only measure new domains of time but to exploit them as well. That is why the increasing speed of industrial production in the 19th century meant that the minute was bound to become a unit of economic return.”

  8. kabuzz61 says:

    One aspect of older inventions compared to new computing technologies is it’s direct impact to citizens. I believe the wheel, fire, gunpowder, the plow, the cotton gin, etc., were felt and used almost immediately by society at large. Computer technology, though operating around society, doesn’t necessarily directly impact society whether user or computer.

    Chris, I know you started this string of posts with ‘Future Shock’ so many weeks (months?) ago. As a person who loves technology innovations and eagerly wait for what’s around the corner, I think we are leaving more and more people by the ‘side of the road’. Maybe morally it would help all to slow it down and let people catch up?

    • Tuttabella says:

      Affirmative action??

      • kabuzz61 says:

        LOL! For older people?

      • kabuzz61 says:

        Well Homer. Take it from me then. I own many old people. They weren’t always that way, but they are now. One of their fun moments is saying loudly at a crucial time during a program or movie, “What did he say?” My wife whom I love dearly frequently says “Why is the tablet (computer, cell phone) doing this? I didn’t ask for this.”

        Really I wasn’t focused just on older people. The young/poor are getting further behind.

        I will say this, thank God for closed captioning.

        I am up in age and keep up. I do find most just don’t care. I get it.

    • Houston-stay-at-Homer says:

      That would be patently unfair to hardworking people who work hard doing hard work and keep up with technology.

      It is not my fault that old people are too lazy to keep up. One of my best friends is an old person, and he/she keeps up with technology, so I know it can be done, and those old lazy people that don’t keep up with technology are just old lazy entitled old people.

      You people who want to help these old people are the real age-ists who believe old people are inferior and cannot get by without help from others.

      These old people get together, sitting around with other old people, just collecting their gov’t checks, not doing anything that helps society. Leeches, I tell you…leeches.

      Many of them also do a tremendous amount of drugs as well. Sure, they say it is for arthritis and stuff, but right, just like marijuana is “medicinal” too.

      I never owned any old people, so do not blame me for their problems.

  9. Crogged says:

    The new ‘order’ created by industrialization is now old and not going anywhere (once one has an estate of certain size the same chessboard power of compounding interest is a powerful tool). This old industrialization order but has been joined by another order created by our technological advances. The activities of the world of ‘finance’, harnessing computing power to break down barriers between currencies and of time itself, is here. Many of us probably work at organizations ‘owned’ by large pools of capital gathered by these tools.

    In my own life these tools greatly change what I do for ‘work’, my life is similar to Tuttabella in that the amount of time spent paper shuffling greatly diminished, and a tool to get the information of ‘why’ was on my desk. I think each of us used this tool, I did to great effect in my career. I enjoyed Tracy’s comments on the last two posts, I think he is right about the myriad, empowering aspects of creativity launched by technology and manipulating on/off switches in computers in ways much beyond my ability to even comprehend. And for looking like you are hard at work the keyboard and a screen are wonderful tools.

    Public policy matters and will not go away with a flowering of intellectual creativity. Some old battles in economics aren’t changed by the size of the numbers. But the ability to see our same old history in a new light just because we all can now see it from all of us, rather than depend on experts to tell us what it meant, can give us more freedom or something to bitch about at happy hour.

  10. glennkoks says:

    Who would have thought that the guy on the floor at the New York Stock Exchange would be replaced by high frequency traders armed with computers making super fast transactions.

    I’m not convinced that HFT is a good thing…

  11. Bobo Amerigo says:

    The chessboard analogy is over my head.

    The number of chessboards is finite?

    One game and we’re done?

  12. way2gosassy says:

    I don’t think the average person gives much thought to the huge growth in computing power or how it affects them outside of how much money to spend on the latest and greatest computing gadget. Faster processors, bigger data storage and maybe how portable it is.

    When I first went to work at the plant I just retired from computers had only been on the scene for maybe 5 years. They were very limited in the scope of the work that they could be utilized for. We were basically using them to control simple motor operated valves and to monitor measurable variances in pressure, temperature and flow rates. The only “memory” we had of the trends were reams and reams of paper that were printed out on a preset timed limited basis. Mole ratios and product analysis were calculated “by hand” written down and then entered into a very limited spreadsheet.

    Today, many jobs in the oil, gas and chemical industries have been eliminated due to the expansive use of computers and digitized measuring and monitoring devices. A single operating unit that required a minimum of 4 people per shift is now being operated by about .5 people per shift because 1 person can now be utilized to monitor more than 1 unit. Operating parameters are entered into the units computer controls and it maintains within those parameters. Very little human intervention is involved or required unless some major deviation occurs.

    “Outside operators” were required to walk their units to monitor equipment, look for leaks and monitor locally installed measuring devices and look for possible mechanical breakdowns and perform simple maintenance tasks. For the most part many of those jobs have been eliminated by computers. Cameras now monitor critical equipment, odor detectors and in stream chemical analysis of waste water systems now do the jobs that operators once did.

    Mechanical reliability and end of life determinations are now pretty much determined before a unit is even built but are still limited by the data that is input by humans and that data comes from many different sources. Equipment manufacturing data, plant maintenance records, operating parameters, metallurgy and much more are now being calculated by computers to make those determinations much more accurately than a whole class of engineers parsing all that data.

    In 1988 this plant employed more than 1,000 hourly employees, in the years since, it has expanded to double the number of operating units and more than quadrupled production while reducing the number of hourly employees by nearly two thirds. Multiply this by the numbers of plants across the country and what you see is a huge loss of jobs that were the bread and butter of the middle class.

    Construction and maintenance jobs are no longer immune to the computer age. We are no longer a society that “fixes” anything, everything has become disposable. Parts replacing can now be done with robotics and in many cases it can be done remotely without having to take into consideration things like ergonomics or exposure to harmful chemicals.

    • Tuttabella says:

      Sassy, I would say that even though technology has resulted in the elimination of many jobs it has led to the creation of others, or by eliminating the need for many manual tasks, it has freed up time for more creative pursuits. I used to spend a lot of my time on the job physically processing paperwork. Now that today’s office technology has taken a lot of that drudgery off my hands, I can devote my energy to more cerebral and creative endeavors on the job.

      • way2gosassy says:

        While what you say may be true what I see are 3 people applying for 1 job. A great many of those jobs aren’t even in the field of technology. Maybe our friend HT could give us some insight into how many jobs have been created in technology vs those that have been lost to it.

        Regardless of what some may think about “jobs” not adding value I do not agree. Most people spend fully one third of their adult lives working. I would think that I am not unique in thinking that if I am spending that much time in an endeavor I would expect it to add value to my life beyond a paycheck.

        As I said in the previous post, technology made one job bone numbing boring while it enhanced another. I don’t think that we as a nation are prepared for this fast paced change in the way we work, live and play. Maybe I’m a little pessimistic but I see as many downsides as I do upsides.

      • CaptSternn says:

        There are lines of work where technology doesn’t replace people but it does help them do their jobs more efficiently and thoroughly, as in Tutt’s case.

        Other examples would be fire, EMS and police. The communications and information that is now part of their vehicles allows them to gather information right away about fires and medical emergencies. They are always connected via air cards. Police can run plates and names from their cars. Add the ALPR and the computer runs all plates it passes, detecting stolen cars, amber alerts and silver alerts and then alerting the officer. Dispatch systems allow the dispatchers to send information to the computers in those vehicles in real time, much more information than can be passed on through radio traffic efficiently.

      • CaptSternn says:

        Forgot to add, that technology creates jobs because it takes people to develope it, program it, install it and support it.

      • Owl of Bellaire says:

        I suspect many police departments would love to have robotic officers in place rather than human ones. Besides the potential increases in speed and durability, you also don’t have to worry about keeping up payments to your pension program.

      • Owl of Bellaire says:

        Technology may create jobs — but, in general, not as many as it displaces!

        Imagine how many monks could have been employed as scriveners to keep up the output of our modern publishing industry. Consider how many hay-farmers, horse-breeders, farriers, buggy-whip manufacturers, and so forth were put out to pasture (so to speak) by the rise of the automobile.

        The only thing that has “saved” us is the rise of DIFFERENT jobs, as society comes to care about different things (like having baristas to scribble designs in the cream of your coffee, or home-health workers to periodically visit Grandma, to offer two radically different examples).

      • bubbabobcat says:

        Owl of Bellaire says:
        April 10, 2014 at 10:00 am
        “I suspect many police departments would love to have robotic officers in place rather than human ones.”

        Depends on if you get RoboCop…or the SUX2000!

        Love that reference from the movie.

    • John Galt says:

      Creative destruction. It accompanies all new technologies and there is a disruption to the labor force because of it. This is usually immensely profitable for a few drivers of this technology and (also usually) the owners of capital and fairly negative for labor until things settle into a new economic order. We’re not there yet with IT.

      • way2gosassy says:

        We have seen “creative destruction” in our own history and more than once.

        “Concentrations of wealth by 1900

        Mass concentration of wealth through acquisitions, such as one with J.P. Morgan to form the United States Steel Company in 1901, and the unbridled power of investment banking firms, led labor unrest to the doorstep of a population of one percent owning more national wealth than the other 99 percent.

        U.S. Steel swallowed up 213 manufacturing plants and transportation companies, 41 mines, 1,000 miles of railroad track, 112 ore boats and more, to become an employer of 170,000 workers alone.

        Between the years of 1897 and 1903, approximately half of America’s families did not own property. And by 1900, 18 million of the 29 million made an annual wage of around $500, which was below the cost of living for a industrialized family of four, while Andrew Carnegie earned $23 million himself.

        Life expectancy for whites was 48 years and nonwhites was only 34. The work force included 1.75 million children under 15 and more than five million women, who sometimes worked for as low as 10 cents for a 10-hour day. Those conditions, the dehumanization of the American laborer in large, and impersonal factories, led to numrous revolts and uprisings.”

        I would bet that most of us are familiar with that first paragraph by now but in reference to today, not in 1900.

        This as a result of the Great Depression is still being challenged today.

        “Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938), with the objective of the “elimination of labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standards of living necessary for health, efficiency, and well being of workers.”

        Touted by President Roosevelt as “the most far-reaching, far-sighted program for the benefit of workers ever adopted,” the act eventually provided for the maximum work week of 40 hours and minimum wage of 40 cents an hour by 1945. Nearly 700,000 workers, including organized blacks, were affected by the wage increase. Some 13 million more workers were ultimately affected by the hours provision, although the act did not affect blacks working in the agricultural and domestic fields.”

        If one looks closely at history you can see a pattern repeating itself. Political positions are lining up to stand on one side or the other of the economic division between those who work and those who “collect”. I would like to believe that we could learn from our own history and not repeat things like the coal wars but recent events are starting to look like that is the direction we are heading.

      • CaptSternn says:

        Conditions are completely different now than they were then. Then wealth was limited to how much gold, silver and copper existed. Now wealth is infinite, it is created, not mined.

        Unions did once have a place and important role. But they have outlived all that.

      • Owl of Bellaire says:

        The *prospect* of wealth may be unlimited. But, at any given time, the amount of wealth in existence is finite. And vast disparities in how that wealth is distributed can still cause massive social unrest.

      • John Galt says:

        It’s a stretch to say that the Great Depression resulted from the “Robber Baron” era 30 years before. However, a number of laws “spread the wealth” a bit with unionization, the income tax, break up of monopolies (i.e., Standard Oil), labor standards, etc. A middle class came out of that able to have money to buy property, invest in stocks, etc. Then came the fiscal crash of the Great Depression. Roosevelt kept people busy through Keynesian spending, but most of the reforms and laws he passed had little effect. His biggest contribution to ending the Depression was declaring war on Germany and Japan.

      • CaptSternn says:

        All FDR did for the Great Depression was make it worse and caused it to last several years longer than it should have. Obama is doing his best to repeat that with the recession. We got out finally because the U.S. was the only real manufacturing nation left standing after WWII.

      • bubbabobcat says:

        JG,I would agree that WW II lifted the country out of the remaining depths of depression, but isn’t that just Keynesian economics on steroids? 100%+ employment (women who were traditionally housewives/homemakers at that time suddenly joined the workforce in droves) and the economic output to support the war effort, not to mention all the enlistees/draftees becoming gainfully employed and earning a salary with both incomes in the households having the fruits of their labor to spend on what they could (given the rationing for the war effort).

        Certain similarities to what Obama attempted with his stimulus being more limited in scope than necessary or what he would liked to have implemented thanks to the Republican obstructionists.

      • bubbabobcat says:

        Cappy and his insular world view does not correlate with reality and facts. Again. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives started the economy towards recovery with increased employment, economic output, and spending. And then FDR caved to the wingnuts of the time worried about “the deficit” and pulled back his stimulus and government spending which resulted in (surprise! not) a reversal of the recovery and an economic mini recession in 1937-38. He promptly reversed course again increasing government spending programs, inched toward recovery and then the war effort was the final death knell that accelerated the end of the Great Depression.

        What was that trite little ditty by George Santayana again?

      • CaptSternn says:

        Yeah, great work there. “Hey look, people are starving and food is cheap, let us cut the food supply and make what there is more expensive.”

      • CaptSternn says:

        “Oh, the Great Depression might end and then we can’t change the nation for the worse? Let us extend it.”

        He probably had the idea of not letting a good crisis go to waste. After all, the democrats could then do things they wiould not normally been able to do. Sound familiar?

      • bubbabobcat says:

        Yes Cappy you found a “Libertarian” economist’s website and and a couple of outlier supply side economists who somehow blame Roosevelt for “extending” the Great Depression despite the obvious real data that is out there. Whoop te do.

        That bubble is pretty impenetrable ain’t it Cappy?

        The intellectual equivalent of thumb sucking to delusionally self soothe ain’t pretty dude.

  13. bubbabobcat says:

    It’s a shame that all this boundless computing power is not focused on space exploration due to lack of finances and political will (we need lower taxes! No more big Gub’ment spending!). I think the original space shuttle orbiter in 1981 had the equivalent computing power of an Intel 8088 8 bit processor. I don’t think that could manage a basic old monochromatic cell phone from the 90’s that just handles basic voice calls, much less today’s smartphones.

    Imagine the technological progress we can achieve if we focused our technological and financial resources on basic scientific research rather than consumer commodity products such as an Xbox or an iPhone for maximum profit.

    Though I do love my cell phone/music player/camera/GPS navigator/internet/email browser/portable WiFi router/game player/radio/alarm clock/calculator/compass/flashlight.

  14. Tuttabella says:

    I would point out that the earlier discoveries and inventions, such as fire and the wheel, no matter how slow in developing, these earliest developments were much more important and had much more impact on civilization than, say the doubling of power of a computer over 10 years. For example, the fact that we moved quickly from landline to basic cell phone to smartphone over 20 years does not compare to the impact of the very first phone, no matter how basic, to going from nothing to being able to communicate by telephone.

    Exponential growth is impressive, but we should not be fooled and dazzled into thinking that it’s necessarily better than the slower developing phenomena that came earlier.

    • Tuttabella says:

      So, if we apply this concept to politics, even though technological change and growth have been exponential recently, does it necessarily mean that our entire world order would be radically transformed as a result, on the same scale as the change in world order brought on by industrial capitalism?

      • DanMan says:

        Perhaps. However the optics of the transformation when projected across the horizon of scalibilized perception would likely make the conclusion meaningless to the original endeavor to even understand the question.

        or not.

      • Owl of Bellaire says:

        Tuttabella, I think that’s essentially what powers many of Chris’ speculations about the necessity of a “minimum income” and that sort of thing.

        Monarchy worked when you had a wealthy royal family, supported by a small nobility, over a crowd of uneducated and poor peasants in a resource-poor and low-technology community. It’s no coincidence that capitalism and representative government rose to prominence together in history.

        However, it looks like technology may well produce a society dangerously like and unlike that medieval monarchical model. You’ll still have the 1% of extreme wealth (whether inherited or acquired through clever inventions and lucky breaks), and the “nobility” who enable, support, or cater to them. But the “peasants” will still exist in a resource-RICH and HIGH-technology community. That’s extremely dangerous, if the “peasants” feel oppressed.

        One solution is to use that high technology to ruthlessly control the peasants, and we rapidly get dystopias of the sort people cite here, from earlier examples like *Brave New World* and *1984* to more recent cyberpunk and surveillance-society extravaganzas.

        But another solution, of the kind Chris seems to be preaching, is to shrug and agree that “sharing the wealth” hasn’t destroyed capitalism, and that a society in which wealth is continually created at an ever-increasing rate (as Sternn loves to point out) can surely afford to ensure a minimum level of existence to everyone within it. Does that partake, a bit, of socialism? Sure. And even though Marx and Engels were more than often quite full of it, the trajectory of our society and technology suggests that there may be a place for such programs.

    • Owl of Bellaire says:

      We were at Café Express the other night, and my spouse stopped to boggle momentarily at the signs posted in the temporary parking spots for those picking up food, remarking that, “These would make absolutely no sense to a person from the 1970s.”

      The signs instructed folks to pull into the spots and then call the restaurant to let them know you were there. But, from the vantage point of the 1970s, if you had to get out of the car to find a telephone, you might as well go into the restaurant to pick up the food for yourself!

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