Realtechnik, Nausea and Technological Longing

This entry is part 2 of 15 in the series Psychohistory

The story of barbed wire is one of the most instructive ones in the history of technology.  The short version is this: barbed wire (developed between 1860 to 1873) helped close the American frontier, carved out the killing fields of World War I, and by spurring the development of the tank as a counter-weapon, created industrial-era land warfare. It also ended the age-old global conflict between pastoral nomads and settled agriculturalists (of animals, vegetables and minerals) and handed a decisive victory to the latter. Cowboys and Indians alike were on the wrong side of the barbed wire fence. Quite a record for a technology that had little deep science or engineering behind it.

Barbed wire is an example of a proximal-cause technology that eventually disturbed multiple human balances of powers, starting with the much-mythologized cowboys-versus-ranchers balance. When things finally stabilized, a new technological world order had emerged, organizing everything from butter to guns differently.  Barbed wire was not a disruptive innovation in the Clayton Christensen sense. It was something far bigger. Its introduction marked what Marshall McLuhan calledbreak boundary in technological evolution: a rapid, irreversible and wholesale undermining of a prevailing planet-wide technological equilibrium. So ironically, the ultimate boundary-maker of physical geography was a boundary breaker in technology history.

The story of barbed wire illustrates the core principle that I want to propose: an equilibrium in technological affairs is necessary for an equilibrium in political affairs. There is no possibility of a realpolitik equilibrium without a corresponding realtechnik equilibrium: a prevailing, delicately balanced configuration of technological forces across an entire connected political-economic-cultural space (which today is always the entire planet).

Technological Détente

I mean the term realtechnik in the obvious way suggested by the analogy to realpolitik:  a pragmatic, rather than ideological approach to arranging human affairs in relation to the technological environment (I can’t claim credit for the term; as far as I can determine, it was introduced by Sherry Turkle in her 2011 book Alone Together, which I haven’t yet read. Her definition seems sufficiently close to mine, so I won’t attempt to distinguish between the two).

Realtechnik is a conscious, pragmatic human process and stands in contrast to the sort of “what technology wants” view I explored earlierRealtechnik is about what humans want and what they do to get it. And I am increasingly beginning to believe that it is humans who ultimately prevail. They do so primarily by abandoning certain technological possibilities in favor of others.

The sorts of coherent and active agency implied or assumed by various forms of the question “what technology wants” (ranging from the Singularitarian notion of self-improving AI technology to “constructal theory” to my own relatively modest proposal of a “baroque unconscious”) are entertaining to think about, but cannot yet be taken seriously. They do not represent any kind of agency that competes with human agency.  At best, we can  project our own hopes and fears onto blind technological forces. Andrew McAfee’s recent revival of 1960s style automation anxiety is a recent example. The threat of collapse triggered by technological complexity and entropy is another sort of projected agency.

Realtechnik equilibria do not just happen. They are consciously engineered by key architects, the Bismarcks and George Kennans of technology. The last two such architects in America were J. P Morgan and Vannevar Bush.  In terms of my terminology from my earlier post on future nausea, they defined the contours of the “new normal” for technology. Such definition usually happens via the creation of powerful new institutions that govern future technological evolution. In the United States, Morgan was responsible for catalyzing the emergence of institutions ranging from the Interstate Commerce Commission in its modern form to the Federal Reserve. Bush was responsible for the creation of what is now DARPA, as well as the modern research university (through his introduction of funding models that favored institutional development along certain lines over others).

Like the realpolitik equilibrium that follows it, the realtechnik equilibrium has the characteristics of a détentenot only is there an equilibrium, but there is a general easing of tensions and competitive fervor. The technological forces that participate in the balance of power ease up. The action shifts to new loci not just because technology wants to, but because realtechnik architects decide it needs to.

But realtechnik equilibria do not represent an across-the-board slowing of technological change. Merely the replacement of an era of unbridled, violent change with one of measured, controlled change, characterized by détente on some fronts and intensified activity on others, with the aggregate of all deployed energies experiencing a certain reduction in magnitude.

The RealpolitikRealtechnik Tango

Realpolitik in the political sphere is about pragmatically assessing the capabilities of all actors and figuring out a way to accommodate their motivations through pre-emptive design rather than through direct competition (which in politics amounts to open warfare between or within nations). It is a natural behavior for a species smart enough to simulate futures and skip ahead to inevitable outcomes.

If adopted by a large enough quorum of powerful agents, the process tends to lead to political détente: stable equilibria that allow for a temporary relaxation of on-edge vigilance, a slowing-down of arms races and active maneuvering for advantage.

This kind of equilibrium requires an all-around consensus that no side has a decisive advantage, and that there is no point to active conflict. Or put another way, the impact of the last big shock to an established political order has run its course. All actors affected by it have factored the new capabilities all around into their calculations and concluded that the bulk of the power shift is over.  The dust has settled. People believe they know how things will end, and agree to skip to the end. Old actors may want to begin negotiations while they still have power, and emerging ones may want to delay, but all agree to avoid more painful routes.

Doing those calculations and convincing all parties of their correctness constitute the work of engineering a realpolitik equilibrium. A “New Order” is recognized by all with power to disrupt it. This recognition includes early legitimization of any new political actors who might have earned a place at the table,  graceful delegitimization of any political actors who have lost power, and collective intimidation-into-submission of any minor remaining parties who might disagree with the premises of the new order.

I want to make a strong claim:  realpolitik equilibria are only disrupted by technological changes. If there is no major technology change, political actors who are unhappy with the prevailing order, no matter how cleverly they attempt to reorganize, will not succeed in creating a stable new order with a different power structure. A reason to do things differently is not sufficient. Different means must become available.

Unhappiness with the prevailing order is generally embodied by nascent political classes that have not yet coalesced into coherent political actors with defined institutional forms. I suspect every major equilibrium shift is accompanied by the rise of at least one new kind of political actor, and the eclipse of one existing actor.

Efficient Politics and Efficient War

A new realtechnik equilibrium must emerge before the corresponding new realpolitik equilibrium can emerge. This is simply because the realpolitik calculations are intractable before the technological dust settles. Once they start to settle, the emerging patterns of power become relatively obvious, and can be efficiently codified in the form of new institutions.

In fact, making politics tractable again is the whole point of seeking a new realtechnik equilibrium, even if it means giving up some potential technological value. The dangers of unbridled technological change are precisely the dangers represented by an ever-widening gap between technological and political capabilities.

This is a sort of loose Efficient Politics hypothesis, with consensual appreciation of technological capability playing the role of market information: the marketplace of political power (eventually) correctly values and reflects the new distribution of technological capabilities.

You could even say that politics is the continuation of technology by other means, just as war is a continuation of politics by other means. Finishing the loop, we can note the military origins of most major technological shifts, and argue that technology is the continuation of war by other means.

In fact, extending the argument about nascent actors coalescing in each new technological era, we can speculate that this class becomes militarily active before it becomes politically active. The relationship between the rise of the English yeoman and the longbow,  the labor movement and the industrial factory and most recently, Middle Eastern peoples and the cellphone, illustrate this point (McLuhan has much to say about this sort of thing and his notions of hot and cold media are mildly helpful in predicting what sorts of new political actors might be favored by specific new technologies).


Let me add a speculative sidebar about an analogous phenomenon in military affairs.

Military equilibrium is distinct from either political or technological equilibrium. There is no word (that I know of) for the phenomenon of war being pragmatically conducted for the purposes of arranging a new, purely military equilibrium rather than a victory in the immediate conflict, but examples exist.

At the tail end of World War II, once the fall of Germany became a certainty, the Allied military objective shifted to creating a favorable military equilibrium with the Soviet forces advancing from the East, for future purposes. That reasoning drove the race to Berlin.  The purpose was not to win the current war, but to define positions for the potential next war (and the politics and technology in between).

We might say that this is Efficient War: military events designed to create configurations that reflect actual military power, factoring in the lessons of the current war. This is a more generous reading of the modern conduct of war than the normal one: rather than generals being prepared to fight the last war, you could say that once outcomes become relatively certain, they finish current wars with an eye on future wars.

We could call this speculative kind of pragmatism realconflikt. Speculative because I am not entirely certain the history of war admits this reading, outside of isolated regions and eras. By contrast, realpolitik and realtechnik appear to be the default way of conducting affairs in the respective spheres, with ideology only occasionally gaining primacy, during the startup phase when new political actors cohere. Once they cohere, the inertia of their new institutions takes over and the ideology becomes dispensable.

Technology as Sufficient Cause

I want to propose a stronger model: technological change is not only necessary for political change, it is in fact sufficient. At least when the change is sufficiently large (a weasel clause, yes). By political change, I mean substantive change in realpolitik equilibrium arrangements, primarily via the introduction and/or elimination of specific actors (or in lesser cases, a refactoring of old actors, such as the replacement of institutions based on ethnicity with ones based on class, with no change in the individuals represented).

It is important to note that the domestic versus international distinction is irrelevant here, because nation-states themselves are political actors whose institutional forms are determined by realtechnik dynamics. In the ongoing political churn for instance, we might argue that nation states might end up as relatively weak institutions on the Internet, compared to corporations and multi-state groups.

This is a relatively strong form of technological determinism in the spirit of Joel Mokyr and Marshall McLuhan. Technology confines politics and defines the canvas on which realpolitik evolves.  So Industrial Age technology, you might say, eliminated non-ceremonial monarchies, colonialism and certain varieties of large-scale fascism everywhere it went (even as it appeared to initially enable some of them). It left enough room for only two political ideologies: liberal democracy and communism. Electronics technology we might speculate, further narrowed the space to allow only one ideology: liberal democracy. This is an alternative technological way to understand Fukuyama’s End of History argument, and in my opinion a more powerful argument.

The technological determinism argument is implicit in Fukuyama’s models of history and institutional evolution, via the idea of the Hegelian Slave self-actualizing through “work” (i.e., technology-making), which is an activity that is different from the Hegelian Master (Barbarian-Sociopath in our little universe here) business of zero-sum war-making. But it is much easier to see the logic of the “End of History” argument when the role of technology is made explicit.

Not everybody buys this argument. Fareed Zakaria in particular, argued that illiberal democracies were also possible. I used to find that argument compelling a few years ago, but now that the pattern of the impact of the Internet on illiberal societies is becoming clear, I no longer believe it. Even the Middle East is going to slowly liberalize as it democratizes. It is a tiny, but meaningful sign that Saudi Arabia sent women to the Olympics for the first time in 2012.

But I am not married to this argument about the sufficiency of technological change for political change. Necessity is sufficient for me. Sufficiency is not necessary.

Transforming Technological Power into Political Power

Realtechnik equilibria are expedient arrangements of technological affairs. When a government uses its research funding budget to fund a multibillion dollar nanotechnology laboratory, it does so by not funding something else.

The most consequential of such decisions arise precisely when a new wave of technology, rushing from a break boundary, is creating new wealth and power in ways not comprehended by existing political institutions. So it was with the huge Robber Baron corporations in an era where the American political mind had been shaped by small businesses, free agency and an entrepreneurial workforce. And so it is now with the Internet.

This means that old political institutions aren’t just weak with respect to the new challenges. This weakness begins to undermine their legitimacy and erode their power even where they are capable of operating effectively.  While such undermining is going on, the early work of arranging the new technological equilibrium is done by new actors with de facto political power, but no de jure political status. So until nation states learn to engage Facebook and Google, they are effectively outlaw political entities that issue the equivalents of passports and currencies. They might pass a more basic test of political legitimacy (tacit consent of the governed, given that we are not fleeing en masse), but they are not themselves governed in any meaningful way via accountability mechanisms. We are forced to rely on imperial don’t be evil affirmations.

When the momentum of such ungoverned technological self-organization builds to a certain point, new political institutions start to emerge. When these institutions are recognized and engaged by existing institutions with nominal legitimacy, the work of realtechnik engineering slows down and the work of realpolitik engineering begins. Such was the transition of power from J. P. Morgan (a private banker who effectively managed the US economy for almost a decade) to the Federal Reserve between 1910 – 1913, for instance. Other examples include the “governmentization” of standard time zones first introduced as de facto standards by the railroads, once “national time” was recognized as a new institution worth absorbing into existing political processes.

This process of gradual politicization of technology is contentious, but not in the usual sense of big government versus small government debates. Those tend to involve old technologies that have already been normalized into the mainstream (in America, they include guns, birth control and the rest of the laundry list of usual suspects).

The new political debates revolve not around the extent of government involvement in governing newly normalized realities, but the form of involvement. The debates triggered by the new technologies — SOPA/PIPA, Bilski, Net Neutrality, the role of the SEC in governing things like Kickstarter — are much murkier than those triggered by old ones like guns and birth control pills.

How murky?

It is my belief that notions of “liberal” and “conservative” (which map to nominally big and small government today) will get refactored before the new debates get resolved. Because the new technologies make nonsense of old political constructs and boundaries.

As an example, in the ongoing Obama-Romney race, the debate around making a living revolves around saving manufacturing jobs from China, whereas the technological edge has already concluded that the real debate revolves around saving information work from automation

And this is not just a fringe Silicon Valley view from Rent-and-Ramen free agents oblivious to their own deluded destitution. Mainstream  thinkers are now reaching similar conclusions (an example is technology-skeptic Pankaj Ghemawat with his save work, not jobs slogan).

Technological Triumphalism and Technological Longing

If an attempt at engineering a realtechnik equilibrium succeeds, evolution slows down or stops entirely on some fronts (occasionally even reversing, as in the case of ballistic missiles), but intensifies and accelerates around others.

This is because the détentebesides creating new power equations, also abandons certain possibilities in order to pursue other possibilities more aggressively and systematically (that is, with suitable catalytic institutions in place).  Usually the logic is macroeconomic: partition the frontier of possibilities into those representing diminishing returns and those representing high returns, and concentrate (declining in the aggregate) energies on the latter.

This is not very different from military commanders choosing to concentrate forces.

In American in the early 1900s, the front abandoned was the vast interior. The front chosen for more intensive development was the emerging urban landscape. Though there were still interesting possibilities to be pursued in things like railroads, mining and oil, it was the emerging urban landscape that was far more attractive. New entrepreneurs sprouted up in second-order industrialization sectors like retailing, real-estate development, construction, bicycles, automobiles (more a local than cross-country vehicle), leading to suburbanization and the rise of the new middle class.

But this shift, while suggested by naturally shifting patterns of economic activity, was not entirely natural. Regulatory mechanisms clamping down on the closing frontiers, and new amplifier institutions emerging on the chosen opened-up frontiers, helped direct and intensify this activity.

(It may help to think of this as a sort of technological crop rotation: closed frontiers may be reopened for further cultivation at a later date).

This collective rejection of some possibilities and embrace of others creates two basic narratives around every new realtechnik equilibrium: narratives of triumph and narratives of longing.

Around the turn of the last century, Americans mourned the closing of the interior and the Wild West. They also celebrated the rise of the new, urban middle class, the emergence of new art movements and urban institutions involved in new patterns of urban economic expansion.

More recently, the equilibrium following the second world war opened up the frontier represented by electronics and computing but closed down the frontier represented by aerospace engineering

This last point can be difficult to appreciate. Post World War II American aerospace engineering was after all, a spectacular triumph in many ways. It got to the Moon.

Nevertheless, it represented a détente: a slowing down of the frantic and unbridled development in the industry between 1905 and World War II.  Instead of a thriving entrepreneurial scene, aerospace became a government-dominated domain that experienced gradual consolidation.

The drama of the Space Race blinds us to the fact that aerospace was effectively reined in as a technological frontier not in the 1970s after Apollo, but around 1945. From a purely engineering point of view, the biggest leaps ahead happened before 1945. Today, all aerospace engineering around the world is a heavily regulated government sector.

The cost of the abandonment of a frontier is a sense of collective failure. A society whose imagination has been stretched by the possibility of colonizing the Moon will necessarily view any reality that does not actualize and normalize that possibility as a failure. But note that the imagination-stretching began long before the end of the Moon Race. Flash Gordon began exploring other planets in 1934.

Triumphalist narratives on the other hand, represent actualities rather than pure fictions. The American Dream based on home ownership, the idea of marrying the boy or girl next door and raising a nuclear family, keeping up with the Joneses, the idea of college as a necessary life stage — these form the canvas for realist fiction rather than science fiction or fantasy.

Technological Longing versus Future Nausea

This position I am outlining in this post is weaker and more conservative than the one I outlined in my recent post on the idea of future nausea and manufactured normalcy.  There, I argued that there were social orders (for example, “Dark Age” eras or a polycentric condition of lots of little normalcy bubbles) that might represent a condition of sustained nausea (or equivalently, failed realtechnik engineering, with consequences similar to a reactor meltdown).

I now think sustained future nausea is unlikely to get too extreme. We give up on what cannot be economically normalized, settle for lesser realtechniks than the ones we anticipated, and experience a sense of failure and technological longing.

A lot of people (at last count, these included Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling, Peter Thiel, Elon Musk — who appears to be doing something about it — and perhaps Obama, with his rather nostalgic call for a new Sputnik moment) are currently expressing a great deal of technological longing, but it is a longing that belongs in the last chapter of technology evolution, not the current one, since it concerns the aerospace frontier, abandoned in 1945, as its main motif (Curiosity notwithstanding).

In terms of the concepts I introduced in the future nausea post, extended nauseous futures are simply rejected by human societies and the future is limited to what can be normalized.

The creation of a new realtechnik equilibrium is in a sense the “back end” work corresponding to the design of new “user experiences” (the manufactured normalcy field). I am not yet sure what the mechanism might be, but I suspect it is simple social darwinism, consciously amplified by a handful of people who happen to be in the right places at the right time. Attempts to create non-normalized realities simply fail and die, or turn into marginal futurist subcultures of the sort I talked about in the Future Nausea post.

Towards an Internet Realtechnik 

Where does that leave us?

Inevitably headed towards another equilibrium. Parts of the Internet as a frontier are going to be decisively shut down, despite tantalizing possibilities remaining. Too many people are throwing up. The sociological g-forces are too high for the majority to handle.

The technological peace being gradually brokered by the big players will eventually make enough sense that even politicians will get it. They will then step in to transition to a realpolitik conversation. In twenty years, we will be making up “we did not return to the Moon” type narratives around the abandoned possibilities of the Internet (Semantic Web anyone?), and living out new normal lives on the frontiers not abandoned.

What remains unclear is what frontiers are being opened up.

Like urbanization in the early twentieth century, which rested on the new industrial foundations sprawling across the continent, the new frontiers will certainly need to rest on the capabilities of the newly quiescent Internet. The stable foundation is clear. In some sense, the Internet will recede from our lives as an active presence and become part of the quiet background, much like farms, oil refineries, ballistic missiles and container ships today.

What sort of new way of life will be built on these foundations, with new-normal folkways,  is not clear.

My approach to figuring it out is to follow the most visibly transforming folkway: work. Cities represented the locus for the transformation of agricultural labor (animal, vegetable and mineral — green and brown collar) into industrial (blue and white collar) labor. Along with the new workways came a whole new way of life.

But for now, the future remains nauseatingly foggy. The settling techno-geological layers are still too prone to Moore’s Law aftershocks. Governments still have no real clue how to engage Google, Amazon and Facebook (they are just starting to figure out Microsoft and Apple). New institutions are just twinkles in the eyes of social revolutionaries. Lifestyle designers represent isolated individual lives rather than new-normal lives.

And for some of us, the new normal cannot arrive soon enough. We could use a break. Technological détente can start to seem pretty attractive if you’ve been violently throwing up for more than a few years. I am not among the discontents of realtechnik.

Peace and Excelsior!

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. I’ve usually seen the siege of Atlanta tagged as the start of industrial land warfare, not WWI – with the Europeans seeing where Grant and Sherman’s bloody-mindedness would inevitably lead and retooling their armies for grinding trench combat over the next 50 years.

    I’m not knowledgeable enough about European history to defend that position, but it somehow strikes me as more likely the heart of the matter than barbed wire.

    • I am less interested in debates about starts and ends than the S-curve inbetween. There is no one cause of course, and many stages of evolution. Barbed wire is interesting because it triggered the maturation and realization of possibilities first envisioned in the civil war. For tank-and-trench warfare to evolve, barbed wire was a key piece. Machine guns were another.

      • This is why I think the Atlanta thing might be more than a nit pick: Atlanta and Petersburg had trench warfare despite no barbed wire or useful machine guns.

        It’s possible that the cause in this case was more human adoption of the low tech trench than technical innovation – that ever since the invention of the useful gun trenches were the right answer, but it took someone winning a major war using them to popularize the idea. Not saying that’s true, but it might have bearing on the broader theory.

        • I think what barbed wire specifically made possible was long, straggling frontiers where stalemate persisted for long periods without much movement (movement returned in WW II). In previous eras, creating this sort of extended (spatial and temporal) static condition this took walls (Great Wall, Hadrian’s Wall etc.) or natural boundaries. You could say barbed wire created military suburbia. So instead of rapid movement between cities and localized “battlefields” where the action took place, you had more extended conflict zones.

          It’s going to be subjective to some extent (for some, you won’t get to industrial age warfare until you include night carpet bombing and tank maneuver warfare for example), but I like barbed wire as a logical marker for great changes in doctrine. Infantry small arms had already been around for a while by then, but were used in battlefields whose structure was still more like pre-firearm days.

          I don’t really want to press this point about the symbolic trigger significance of a single technology in a complex interconnected set. The main point is that there was a rapid evolution from one era to another due to a sort of Cambrian explosion worth of changes. If you prefer to think of (say) the machine gun or a specific rifle (say the Hall carbine, which I discussed in the Hall’s Law post) as the better symbolic boundary breaker, the rest of the model still hangs together I think.

          • Is the wall, built by Israel on Palestinen land which cages the Palestinens , a modern version of your barbed wire theory ? Hence straggling frontiers where stalemate persisted for long periods without much movement

          • I think you need to re-examine the use of barb-wire simply from the sense that tanks (even our modern ones) are hampered by wire, and trenches. Tanks defeated the machine gun which defeated the closed formation infnatry rush, etc. Overly symplified. you are right that the Machine gun is a better example from a military prespective, but even then the idea of combined arms (greek or older) and the application of industrical forces to it is the concept that bares out your line of thought.

  2. I’m not sure that we are as far long on the cycle as you seem to suggest in your last section. I do not think that we have yet seen most of what, 50 years from now, will be understood as the Internet. We are now seeing the emergence of big data, sensor omnipresence, intelligent device swarms, networked drones, digital payments, and other manifestations that are making explicit the informational-physical duality of pretty much every physical object or bit of information.

    Put crudely, first we ‘internetised’ books and bulletin boards, then entertainment, then – most recently with social media – ourselves. And it was only with the last that we began to realise that ‘internetisation’ is a bidirectional flow (the physical influences the informational, but the informational also influences the physical). Most of the world is still largely untouched by the process. The Internet is still frequently perceived as a world apart, or onto itself, in parallel to the ‘real’ world. These misconceptions are about to crumble hard.

    • I think there’s definitely technological potential left. In fact, maybe 80% of the potential is untapped. And there are definitely entrepreneurs eager to make their fortunes with those technologies.

      The missing piece is new economic classes who might emerge and rise to power on the back of any of those new technologies.

      Blogging (and user-generated web content in general) is an example. Google, Facebook wouldn’t really exist without it, since so much of search and social networking is about finding and sharing stuff. Those things matured and grew because there were people economically motivated to do things with the new capabilities.

      We need similar such nascent classes that are waiting to be empowered by each new technology. For example, I still don’t quite see what group is really empowered by Square that is under-served by Paypal, regular merchant credit card accounts and plain old cash. I assume there is one, but so far, I only see fancy existing retail stores using card readers on phones/tablets instead of regular checkout. I don’t see random private individuals selling me stuff on pavements with Square.

      Presumably that will happen, but I assume there are structural constraints (regulation around physical retail perhaps?) that are holding people back.

      Same thing with Big Data, sensors, maker revolution, etc. New politico-economic classes aren’t yet clear around each of those new technological capabilities.

      On the other hand, across the global middle class, outside of a narrow gadget-happy fringe, I *do* see growing exhaustion with the never-ending deluge of tech that creates new demands on people. That exhaustion is going to take its toll.

      • Economically, I see the trend as going towards decentralisation. Smarter (and denser) connective tissues allow flatter meshes to be just as organised as, but more flexible than hierarchies, leading to diseconomies of scale.

        So we have big media falling to bloggers. ‘Big consumer’ starting to fall to the likes of Etsy, and Kickstarter, and the ‘artisanal’. Mobile payment networks are just starting to scratch at the possibility of decentralising big banks… and smart grids big utilities. And in the future, with sufficient data and automation, perhaps a large number of individuals – each owning a few 3D printers, or sensor clusters, or self-driving cars – providing manufacturing, or operating data, or transportation systems. Perhaps we’ll even see the re-emergence of “3 acres and a cow”, just measured in automatons.

        Of course, it still seems difficult to crowdsource the bleeding edge, so there will still be scope for capital intensive, IP producing R&D labs, or perhaps design consultancy-style organisations floating around to bring together a group of independents around more sophisticated products.

        Hell, even politically, given the current partisanship and vitriol paralysing large polities, power may shift from nation states down to city or commonwealth (e.g. city and the land and water required to sustain it) or cluster levels.

        Or does it all sound too fanciful? I’ll admit to having a soft spot for resilience, adaptability, and smaller power distances/imbalances, so perhaps I am seeing a rise in decentralisation where there is none.

      • Same thing with Big Data, sensors, maker revolution, etc. New politico-economic classes aren’t yet clear around each of those new technological capabilities.

        There isn’t a free segment for a new social class. It might be possible to see a tide change in the transition from a worker-as-a-tool to management-as-a-tool ( something you briefly addressed in a previous post ) but then the information worker just inherits administration and middle management tasks while everything else is kept the same. This notwithstanding herein lies a potential for future normalization, once it goes viral and Realpolitik is able to cope with it. Since I don’t believe anymore that 20th century style agreements between big business and big government which serve a consumer society can prevent a decay into anarchy I see little else, actually.

    • The Internet is still frequently perceived as a world apart, or onto itself, in parallel to the ‘real’ world. These misconceptions are about to crumble hard.

      As a country dweller who lives a short-ways outside of a small city I think this is somewhat of a misconception. People in the cities, who are wired to their local crowds (and thus able to exploit their local weak-link connection and the information they provide) might see some sort of a breakdown (or perhaps are already seeing one). Yet, ask any normal country internet user, who might have smart phone and internet access at the house, about the new “infonomics” of a twitter, or a new blog format and they will tell you that it will do little affect/effect local change, or export “informative” opinions from those locations. All, we need is another fascimile of tumbler to share our Sherlock pictures and quotes on.

      By the nature of both the local population density and the local cultural habit I think it is a bit grand to suggest a total interleave. Of course how people communicate always affects things in the real world but communication is never anything but communication.

      The exploading growth of the power of social media’s must have something to do with their linkage to possible “crowds” and thus the main place you find crowds which is the city. So sure there is room for technological innovation, but any suggestions that the technology will uniformly benefit, (or uniformly crumble) for everyone is taking it just a hair to far.

      I don’t deny the changes or the power, I just think that most people using technology mostly form their thoughts in area that already have established crowds, and as such they aren’t attuned to how those technologies will or will not affect those who live in less populous areas.

      • What I am trying to argue is that social media is just the tip of the iceberg. The future I see is not just more social media, but the applying of similar mechanisms to other objects. A solar-powered aerostat drone, say, live monitoring ground humidity, and checking against the weather forecast (as well as maybe optimising with your neighbour, to save on fuel) to create ad-hoc crop-watering maps and schedules. In some sense, it’s the plants ‘tweeting’ their needs – it’s the real-time capture and broadcasting of an informational component of physical entities (whether plant needs or human thoughts) that were previously too expensive to capture and broadcast in real time.

        Indeed, it will doubtlessly become much more trivial than the humidity monitoring example. With the costs of capturing, communicating, and storing information falling precipitously, ANY information that can be captured, will be captured, communicated, and stored. Chairs knowing when someone is sitting on them. Ice-cube trays knowing when the ice is done.

        • That’s sounds great. My counter-point is that all that data doesn’t help you in any imaginable or useful way when it comes to things such as droughts or matters of creative use of those resources being monitored, which are often beyond human control. You can’t find your stolen bike in the country with a tweet, unlike New York City where its at least possible; and you can’t use a tweet to find water that isn’t there…

          It won’t make much difference if the crops tweet, “water me” when there is no water to be had. This is what I’m getting at with the practicality angle, whether it is crops or cities or whatever else. All that extra information is great, but what happens when that extra information its applied to problems where that answer is already known?

          In this manner, expansive information isn’t so much innovative for those in which-ever industry, instead all this information is packaged as a sort of way for those not associated with that industry to hold that industry “accountable”.

          So those tweets might help some farmers, but what if a farmer ignores some of those tweets for his/her own, likely resource related, reasons? Will those tweets now simply be a means to polarise the layman’s opinions over what the farmer should do?

          In essence, in matters of crisis, (or really in all matters), that extra information serves to “democratise” the crisis and place a, “self-selected” committee in lieu of the farmer’s opinion. Of course the farmer will still make the call when to water, but in the end we have a mechanism that adds layers of politics where there was none previously, that’s my concern.

  3. The internet has brought porn-en-masse to a new generation, with parental controls quite hopeless. Further, the content of these films is delving deeper and deeper into the dark and violent parts of our psyche. I don’t want to turn this into a moralistic argument, as the history of pornography, even its very taxonomy, is full of hypocrisy, and further, you may wonder what any of this has to do with the main article posted. It’s just that this talk of technology and its power always seems to want to raise itself above what is an even more fundamental and powerful, though often scorned, topic – and yet still porn (the glamorisation of sex) remains the main driver for internet consumer technology. However, the effects on our children’s collective psyche of the rampant consuming of images they simply are unable to assimilate emotionally provides the proverbial spanner in the works for any projections on whether technological advancements will get more hectic or calm down. Who cares? What matters is the kind of society we live in. In this sense, any discussion of technology, even the “we inform our technology which then informs us”, remains secondary to the archetypes driving the human experience, the manipulation of these, and the overall will to survive and hopefully thrive.

    • Actually, this is not true. One of the weirder insights from traffic analyst firms like Hitwise is that the porn industry is getting hammered by social media. The industry went into declined in sync with the rise of social networking to a large extent. This was a few years ago. I don’t know if a revival has happened.

      It was probably a mix of carrot (the allure of voyeuristic exploration of the lives of clothed friends instead of naked stranger-actors) and stick (viruses, malware).

      I forget the source, but there is some sort of law that was proposed about how every medium is first discovered and used by the porn industry.

      I don’t know about your broader thesis though. I haven’t thought about the effects. I think Zimbardo has a book about it (“the demise of guys” or something).

      • Daniel Clee says

        Hmm, not sure if that’s valid. Stats are open to all sorts of interpretation and presentation techniques. That’s not to knock your response here, but really, it’s like comparing apples and oranges. How can social media and porn be competing when their offerings (and the archetypal drives pushing the desire for the offerings) are so very different? (Ok, except maybe for viewer time and attention, but even still I can’t help but feel the two are so completely separate.) Your writing impresses me, and your handle on technology vis-a-vis marketing provides such a fresh approach to the subject that I’m very glad I landed on your site a few months ago. However, as you admit, this one article is perhaps not your strongest, and no philosophy is complete without the study of sex (a bit odd that I should bring these two together in this instance, but my instincts say this is a major issue that is being avoided generally, and the consequences will loom at some point soon to throw any of your projections into doubt). I would be very interested if you presented your thoughts in a different, new article on the general issue raised here – namely, that the ‘unique throughout all history’ impact of the availability of progressively more violent sexual content will have a massive, detrimental effect (or maybe not) on this present young generation. If you can find it, one documentary to watch is “The Price of Pleasure – Pornography, Sexuality and Relationships” by The Media Education Foundation.

        • Try “Click” by Bill Tancer for more on the porn/social networking anti-correlation. I don’t agree with your claim that it is apples to oranges, but more informed people than me have explored the issue.

          I am sure this post has weaknesses, like all my posts, but I don’t think leaving out a sex angle to the story is one of them. I am basically not in the “everything is about sex” camp. I think we are philosophically at odds here.

          • Daniel Clee says

            Fair response. I wasn’t criticising for criticising’s sake, nor is everything about sex – agreed. I’ll take Jung over Freud six days out of seven. It’s just that in your post you make predictions about the future, and while reading this the great tangent of ‘but today’s kids are being seriously screwed mentally’ came to mind, where any hope of a future for civilisation (I felt wonderfully handled in your previous future-nausea post) is thrown beyond prediction because of this unexplored known-unknown-but-let’s-avoid.

  4. Another factor in the next realtechnik frontier seems to me to be the ubiquity of the internet via smartphone technology. No longer tied to a desktop or wifi-enabled laptop, netizens can engage 24/7 in any environment where a cellular tower provides access. In the urban environment, that is approximately everywhere.

    But I don’t greet this new reality with enthusiasm. Everywhere I look, people on the streets have their gazes focused two feet in front of their noses on a small 11.5cm x 6cm screen. Moments that used to be taken up with polite, non-consequential conversations or the serendipitous discovery of things that aroused curiosity or aesthetic admiration are now lost to the cravings associated with email, social media, and hypertextuality in which vast tides of meaningless information threaten to dilute the vastly smaller occurrence of useful knowledge (a negative instance of the Pareto principle).

    The fact that this technology materially assisted in the potential liberalization ushered in by the Arab Spring revolutions does nothing to mitigate the collapse of human civility brought about by the disintermediation of other human beings, at least in face-to-face engagements, in the process of sharing information.

    Of course, this blog is the exception because it does not shy away from the long-form essay and the thoughtful parsing of ideas. And Venkat graciously makes an effort to meet with his community of readers in actual meatspace.

    • It strikes me that the greatest technological innovation that has not yet been made is a braking mechanism for technology itself. I am sure I am not alone in wishing that I could simply hit ‘pause’ in some areas of my life (like cellphone evolution) without paying serious costs.

      Every passing year, I begin to see the merits of the Amish approach to technology adoption (“if you can’t normalize it, reject it” adopted as an explicit design principle).

      • Pardon me Venkat, but isn’t that somewhat absurd? Technology is a decentralised human enterprise not a collective bandwagon with a tangible drive-train.

        I have hit pause on the cell phone non-sense and that decision hasn’t given me much grief. Anthropomorphising technology, or scripting life into something that is not living, can be dangerous, at least outside of fiction.

        The only “brakes” on technology are “later” adopters, like myself, (though not quite Amish) who insist on wide-spread practicality over the insistence for the necessity or sufficiency of the change itself (the next killer app to redefine how we all view text online – like the most twitter offshoot), for its own sake.

        Who needs all those extra apps and their advertising? Its a choice you make I suppose, and everyone makes their own decisions regarding what technology they use personally. Facebook as dealt with this in various forms throughout its lifetime. Changes too often to the format cause unrest… “brakes” are applied and the changes slow but don’t necessarily stop, even if it is just changing formats.

        I realise that, this decided stubbornness earns us, in this modern day, a bad reputation, as “Luddite” or worse; but heck what can you do? Maybe in your situation you would pay serious cost for letting go of modern cell-phone technology, but not everyone will.

  5. wirrbeltier says

    One nice example of the longing for previous-tech-generation promises, and the amount of normalization (of things that were not even promised back then) is in this 4-pane webcomic:
    The guy complains about the lack of jetpacks (previous-gen prediction of the Future), and the girl replies that actually, there is much more breathtaking stuff available. The point is the same as in your article: Although we now have things inifitely more wonderful (that were unthinkable in the framework of previous tech generation), but they are so ubuquitous, that they have become the integrated into the normalcy field, and cause only a few idealists to be amazed anymore.
    I think that in the context of normalization of new tech, an interface-user coevolution has to take place: In the beginning, tech is rough, error-prone, and the interfaces can only be controlled by specialists (I think you made that point in one of the previous posts). The end is one-click, ubiquity, and automatization (and inevitably, dumbing-down). Maybe in 20 years, everyone will have private-surveillance quadrocopters with a one-click “follow my spartphone’s position” interface; similar to many russian car drivers installing always-on dashboard cameras for insurance claims in case of an accident – maybe mandated by powerful institutions of the day (i.e. health insurances or similar).
    Funny also that powerful state-industrial complexes tend to form in the slowing-down end of one of the tech generation curves: Nationalization of railways (in Germany, for example, railways were built by private consortiums in a speculation bubble in the 1870s, and nationalized around 1890), creating a railway-state complex; The emergence of the military-industrial complex in the 1950s; and the emergence of the surveillance-industrial complex we witness in the last 2 decades. Will facebook and google be “nationalized” one day by a future worldwide internet interstate consortium?

    • I’d be more concerned about Facebook or Google vying for super-political positions. Lost among the new features that increase engagement with these companies is the production of their own currencies and identities that are becoming more difficult everyday to escape. Today, if you had to choose between becoming an exile of Facebook and Google, or becoming an exile of your country, which do you choose? That question will become more difficult to answer in the next decade.

      • Might very well happen that megacons gain much influence over people’s life in the future (think cyberpunk-style multinational-controlled dystopia), but I don’t think that they will be executing much power beyond their particular market segment – Apple probably will not want to administer rules about tax policies, for example.
        I think that the whole copyfight is only the first instance of industries (not really single companies, rahter industry associations) inducing political changes, by lobbying and political pressure in many states. Still, the state here is the integrator of these pressures, but is in a rather powerless situation, compared to the past. France’s HADOPI might be an example of what happens when the stsate gives way: Importantly, the companies don’t finance anything about the actual prosecution agency, but rather convinced the french state to do it (and get most of the bad PR for it as well). The mega-corps have acquired vast powers, but *still contained within the state*. Thus, we might well be seeing weakened national states “docking” onto megacompanies for specific purposes, but I think it will be sometime until a facebook account will be (even a voluntary) part of your ID card.

  6. Aaron Davies says

    I’ve seen several shoe-shine guys taking Square–in an airport, at my office, etc. It’s also quite popular in the “physical Etsy” world–craft bazaars and street fairs and so on.

  7. Aaron Davies says

    Can you see any trends in the timing involved in these cycles? E.g., if governments are really just starting to figure out Microsoft and Apple, but the world has already moved on to Google and Facebook and Twitter, is it normal for normalization to be that far behind the curve?

    I guess what I’m getting at is whether this says anything about the Singularity–if equilibrium-disrupting breakthroughs are coming closer together, might they outpace normalization completely? I wouldn’t be particularly surprised if normalization speed were actually getting slower, now that I think about it–e.g., maybe it’s an inverse function of population.

  8. Mini-détentes and continual probing between business entities in an attempt to manufacture the next realtechnik structure is a more wide-ranging extension of the Horace Dediu’s post on asymmetric competition.

    As usual, lots to chew on.

  9. martin langhoff says

    This is a very roundabout “discovery” of historical materialism — –.

    Yes, technology underpins our modes of production, and modes of production shape our political structures. New technology leads to changes in politics. Karl Marx wrote it, long long ago, and became part of the thinking of our era. When you talk about feudal times, and describe that the political structure of that time was a result of the farming technology, you are… pretty much quoting Marx. :-)

    I hope people still read Marx widely as a thinker, leaving Cold War politics aside, for he is one of the great ones.

  10. I want to make a strong claim: realpolitik equilibria are only disrupted by technological changes. If there is no major technology change, political actors who are unhappy with the prevailing order, no matter how cleverly they attempt to reorganize, will not succeed in creating a stable new order with a different power structure. A reason to do things differently is not sufficient. Different means must become available.

    I think this claim is only defensible if you include new systems of social organization under the umbrella of “technology”. However, such a broad definition of “technology” seriously weakens the claim (in the sense of making it less informative, not more difficult to defend). Consider two heavy infantry units facing off with roughly equal forces, armaments, etc. but one unit has drilled in phalanx maneuvers. Or even better, one unit has a greater degree of in-group loyalty than the other due to some contingent cultural factor.

    Another example might be the cult of assassins led by Hassan-i Sabbah in the eleventh century. They were able to exercise significant political control in the Islamic world primarily due to their system of social organization. Alternatively I suppose you could argue that whatever brainwashing techniques they employed were the technologies whereas the social organization was a downstream effect of those techniques.

    I suspect it’s a bit of a “pornography” situation. There’s stuff that’s clearly technology rather than social organization and there’s stuff that’s clearly social organization rather than technology but I’m not sure there’s a clear distinction to be made between the two.