Paul Raven @ 19-05-2011

Another day, another newly-coined paradigm label for the unnamed (or rather polymonikered) present: this is expostmodernism [via Justin Pickard].

The force most people want to talk about is social media and wireless devices, and they are often treated as the only causes of the culture shift happening right now. But that’s a very narrow view. I see a number of major factors driving ExPoMod, including:

  • A new boogieman. The Cold War ended in the 90s. Nuclear attacks still pose a risk, but are unlikely to wipe out entire continents. Terror attacks are the new spook, and while devastating, they tend to be localized. When the world is not in danger of ending, there is less motivation for cynicism and apathy.
  • The maturing of the internet. In the early 90s, the savviest internet users were teens. The internet was a place of dubious information and anonymity. In the Oughts those users grew up and harnessed the internet professionally. Now people use their real names and information is as accurate (or more accurate) as offline sources.
  • The depreciation of privacy. Throughout the postmodern period there was a concern for privacy of personal information. Only government and corporations had the resources to collect and use repositories of personal information, and they weren’t trusted. Since the late 90s there has been increasing value to putting one’s personal information online, and increasing difficulty in keeping it private. With real advantages to sharing personal information, privacy has become a polarized issue and more people are comfortable giving it up.
  • A new type of war. The wars of the last 20 years tend to kill thousands or tens of thousands of people, a sharp contrast to the millions of dead in the World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam. Nationalism is less polarized, and discussion of war is more openly couched in economic terms.
  • Economic shift. As the housing market fails, people find less security in staying in one location. More people take advantage of the ease of travel and communication, and they spend money differently. Sectors that delivery creativity, information, technology, and experiences are seeing growth.
  • Change in education. As the price of college soars and more jobs require Master’s degrees, people increasingly seek ways to self-employ or work creatively. Many people prefer focused training through workshops, conferences and online materials to be preferable to formal institutions of higher learning. With the breadth and depth of information available online, this strategy has become a viable alternative to college for launching a successful career.

Together these factors shape a multi-generational move toward new beliefs, views and lifestyles. The single most notable shift is the decline of alienation. Alienation, the banner trait of postmodernism, occurs when an individual feels their existence has no point—either because their work provides no satisfaction, or because they don’t feel like they fit in with their community.

Not sure how much newness is in that pseudomanifesto, or that I agree with everything it says, and I definitely think “altermodern” has a better ring to it… but the sense that we’re on the cusp of a transition? Yeah, I get that. Hard to look at the news and not get that, really.

Path dependency: why we still use rockets

Paul Raven @ 03-02-2011

Very interesting piece by ubergeek Neal Stephenson over at Slate, where he wonders why it is that we’re still stuck in the rocket paradigm of space launch tech. In two words: path dependency.

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

The above circumstances provide a remarkable example of path dependency. Had these contingencies not obtained, rockets with orbital capability would not have been developed so soon, and when modern societies became interested in launching things into space they might have looked for completely different ways of doing so.

Before dismissing the above story as an aberration, consider that the modern petroleum industry is a direct outgrowth of the practice of going out in wooden, wind-driven ships to hunt sperm whales with hand-hurled spears and then boiling their heads to make lamp fuel.

It’s this sort of thinking that makes Stephenson’s novels so fascinating to me… and, I fully expect, what makes other people bounce right off them. To Stephenson, everything is a system, and a system is a sort of story. Or maybe it’s the other way around? Anyway, the point is that for all our talk – and worship – of innovation, we’re mired in a whole interconnected set of path dependencies, a kind of civilisational stasis where we don’t do amazing new things so much as we find new ways to do the same things we’ve always done, only bigger, faster and with greater consequences of failure.

… the endless BP oil spill of 2010 highlighted any number of ways in which the phenomena of path dependency and lock-in have trapped our energy industry on a hilltop from which we can gaze longingly across not-so-deep valleys to much higher and sunnier peaks in the not-so-great distance. Those are places we need to go if we are not to end up as the Ottoman Empire of the 21st century, and yet in spite of all of the lip service that is paid to innovation in such areas, it frequently seems as though we are trapped in a collective stasis. As described above, regulation is only one culprit; at least equal blame may be placed on engineering and management culture, insurance, Congress, and even accounting practices. But 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.

A fascinating and provocative read: go see the whole thing.