Friday, January 15, 2010

Technology and Trash Compactors [Updated]

[updated Jan 11, 2011]

Sci-fi has a special place in my heart. I was raised on Star Wars, so I guess that makes me a geek. But isn't it just fun to see the imaginings of the future, and ponder whether it will really be that way? Well, can it?

Robots of all kinds populate the universes of sci-fi stories, from mechanical Swiss army knives like Star Wars' R2-D2, to neurotic, useless androids like Douglas Adams' Marvin from Hitchhiker's Guide; and from personable trash compactors like Pixar's WALL-E, to human-simulants like Star Trek: NG's Data that have all the personality of a trash compactor. Robots fill numerous roles in stories, they are characters or props, friends or enemies, humanoid or mechanoid.

One thing seems to be a constant through all this: robots are immortal. I've seen them be destroyed, of course, but I've never seen them age. Now you might think, "Well, they're robots!" Good point, but do you own any piece of technology that is immortal?

WALL-E has been at his job (unaided by humans) for 700 years. Marvin and Bender (Futurama) both get left in time, to be recovered more than a millenium later. Will we ever create technology that outlives the pyramids?

Somehow, I think it is impossible. Even if technology didn't have the lifespan of a gerbil, most becomes obsolete before a child learns to use it (which is at 3 years, in my experience). As long as technology continues to improve, it will continue to generate obsolesense and waste. The wasted products can only be reused to the degree that they still operate, and only be recycled to the degree that they are made of quality components.

But then, if they really are made of quality components, wouldn't they tend to operate for a longer period of time? Longer? Yes. Forever? Not so much. I don't endorse slowing the progress of technology coersively, but I would encourage those in the market for progressive technology to consider how much waste "forever" will produce if we continue to treat non-consumable products as if they were biodegradable. For a wonderful illustration, I encourage you to watch WALL-E, even if you don't have kids.

I will say that there is nothing inherently wrong with "buy'n large" culture, provided that we can squeeze every ounce of value out of the products we consume. People make their living through the production and sale of goods and services. It is accurate to say that the more we buy, the better the economy gets, but this is not the whole truth. The truth is that when you pay for a product, you also pay for its waste. So when a given product is "used up" its remains represent the volume of trash that you bought and wasted money on. Therefore, an economy that is based upon a high volume of purchases, but not upon high value products, is actually degenerating.

Ideally, "buy'n large" economies should focus on producing and marketing items that have zero waste. Even with the sale of information, it is difficult to say that this is possible because it depends so much on the individual's ability and will to extract the value. One man's junk is another man's treasure, after all. Perhaps the best way to encourage prosperity in a consumer culture is to focus on producing food—the ultimate consumable.

Our bodies have a built-in trash compactor: our systems absorb all useful nutrients from our digested food, and whatever we can't use gets excreted in a reduced form—and even a biodegradable one. If science is to benefit us in the future, it seems to me that it ought to invest its time in making better food, not better robots.

What would be the point if our technology outlives us?

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