The centre cannot hold…

View 821 Thursday, April 24, 2014


“Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.”

President Barack Obama, January 31, 2009


If a foreign government had imposed this system of education on the United States, we would rightfully consider it an act of war.

Glenn T. Seaborg, National Commission on Education, 1983


It has been a busy day and I got some work done. I’ll do more tomorrow.

Here is an essay by a reader that is well worth your time:

the future of work and everything else

Dear Dr. Pournelle;

Some time ago I sent a missive to you on the subject of the future of work. If the subject has not run it’s course, I would like to ruminate with more care than last time.

The question is thus: What would a society that requires 50 percent or fewer of it’s population to run it look like? Personally, I think 50 percent is an optimistic figure given the advances in computer technology, but I won’t beat that drum too much. Let’s say half of everyone born has insufficient intelligence and potential to serve society in any meaningful way. These poor souls we relegate to the status of ‘irrelevant’. Those fortunate enough to be blessed with good genetics and make favorable choices in life (don’t become artists or philosophy majors) will have a role…potentially.

Of course, what we are really asking is ‘what will the next 50(40, 30, 20) years look like." and this question has been asked 50 years ago by luminaries and laypersons alike and with very little to distinguish between them in the area of predictive accuracy. But in the words of Kenneth Boulding, "What can we really know about the future? Precious little! But that little is precious."

We know for a fact that a trend exists in Western societies that is eliminating roles in favor of automated systems. These roles range from factory workers to junior lawyers. The technological sophistication that permits the replacement of Human workers is not standing still; presumably more and more Human roles will fall into the category of, ‘cheaper to perform with a computer/robot’. The cost to a firm or an industry of course, is not necessarily the same as a cost to society. I’m not a socialist…I don’t believe in penalizing ability or shackling industry. The process of replacing work with invention is not new after all, but our previous experience is not going to be our future experience and I will tell you why I think so.

Until quite recently, most invention created more work than it replaced, or at the very least supported a change of environment that was conducive to more Human involvement rather than less. I won’t debate this. I’m not sure I would win, but it seems that the printing press replaced scribes but helped create the modern era and it’s plethora of previously unimagined roles.

Now, however, we are finally creating man plus, only it is not a man. Where before we created tools to solve specific questions, i.e.; how do we print many copies of books without requiring an army of monks to transcribe them? or, how do we facilitate the production of goods beyond what the craftsman/apprentice model can produce? Now we are creating a pre-cursor tool; a tool that answers every question; How do we do ‘X’, answer: use an intelligent robot. It doesn’t matter what ‘X’ is, the answer is the same. No new Human roles will emerge from this paradigm because ‘X’ will always be ‘not-Human’.

Alright, let’s assume that in the early stages 50 percent of the available workers will still be needed. They will be needed to make executive decisions, for oversight and overall planning, perhaps even some limited software engineering and whatever other role that software and robotics haven’t developed the flexibility and sophistication to replace. I can’t believe that the current economic model could support this, but it will certainly try. Will the current model shatter or transform? Will political instability, grinding poverty and ossification of a new social class system become our future (presumably just prior to total collapse), or will some new system replace it?

What are some of the other factors that will likely mold our future? Additive manufacturing for a start. In it’s more mature form additive manufacturing becomes molecular manufacturing and drives down the price of ‘things’ to effectively zero. Imagine a nano-factory where you have a hopper at one end with a colony of nano disassemblers into which you shovel debris of any kind and at the other end is an output of any particular device you want, provided the raw elements on hand are what is required for it’s manufacture. This may not be so far distant as many suspect and certainly in the mean time additive manufacturing will drive down the price of manufactured goods dramatically.

Another likely development will be the development of control over the aging process. Once thought of as centuries away if ever, now most in the industry argue over whether it will be possible in 20 years or under a century. Since most of the most dramatic advances in microscopy have been developed only in the last 3-5 years I think sooner rather than later. There are still conservatives in this field, but I suspect that they pander to the peer review and grants infrastructure, rather than any objective assessment of the field.

And this brings me to an important point: Advances are progressing many times faster than institutions that exist to monitor/regulate. The economy and political systems of today are no different than they were decades ago, at least not substantively so. The technology which is set to tip everything on it’s head is simply running ahead of our civilization’s demonstrated ability to adapt.

This may not be as dire a prediction as seems implicit, for society changes only when it must and never before has so much been required of it. Since there has never been a time like now and the coming decades, it still remains to be seen if adaptation is possible for our existing system of governance and economics.

So back to the beginning and still no answer to the basic question. In fact I seem to be further from an answer than when I started. I simply don’t know what a society that does not need that many people to work would look like or how it would function. When I was a lad I wanted to be Jack Holloway on Zarathustra, or fight for a chance on Tanith or if I’m lucky on Sparta, or ship out with Col. Falkenberg. Alas, in spite of the great and terrible changes on the horizon, still no FTL to propel us to new homes and frontiers. If the experiment fails here, no back-up somewhere else. Whatever the near future looks like, humanity is going to know what obsolescence feels like.

Thank you for putting up with my near endless rambling. I hope it adds rather than detracts from the discussion and that my many omissions, errors and oversights will be forgiven.

With respect,

Eric Gilmer

And all that assumes that it will continue to be stable. But I note that the rules for college debate are no longer in vogue: “F—the rules. F—the time. I will talk as long as I like.” The rules change, and the very notion of an orderly society is denigrated.

The center cannot hold. That seems awfully true.

Perhaps the thingmaker will make enough things to distract everyone. And surely someone will still be needed? Hope spring eternal. 


Marx pronounced that capital is barren – that is, it took more labor to produce and maintain capital investments than they generated.  He came to this conclusion from examining industry and commerce as he saw it in the 1840’s, particularly in Thuringia, and perhaps it was an accurate observation for its time and place; but clearly that is no longer true.  In Marx’s time 80% and more were devoted to farming and food production.  Now the percentage of laborers required to see that a modern society is fed is well under 10%, and if you ignore the boutique markets it is less.  And as the robots get smarter, they take less supervision.

And again I really urge those interested in robots and the future to invest the time to read Freefall from the beginning. You will enjoy it, and it won’t make sense if  you skip to the end. Start at the beginning and go to the end.  I’ve done that twice now.  Worth it.



    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

William Butler Yeats

Written in 1919


Nightmare Number Three

Stephen Vincent Benet

We had expected everything but revolt
And I kind of wonder myself when they started thinking–
But there’s no dice in that now.
I’ve heard fellows say
They must have planned it for years and maybe they did.
Looking back, you can find little incidents here and there,
Like the concrete-mixer in Jersey eating the wop
Or the roto press that printed ‘Fiddle-dee-dee!’
In a three-color process all over Senator Sloop,
Just as he was making a speech. The thing about that
Was, how could it walk upstairs? But it was upstairs,
Clicking and mumbling in the Senate Chamber.
They had to knock out the wall to take it away
And the wrecking-crew said it grinned.
It was only the best
Machines, of course, the superhuman machines,
The ones we’d built to be better than flesh and bone,
But the cars were in it, of course . . .
and they hunted us
Like rabbits through the cramped streets on that Bloody Monday,
The Madison Avenue busses leading the charge.
The busses were pretty bad–but I’ll not forget
The smash of glass when the Duesenberg left the show-room
And pinned three brokers to the Racquet Club steps
Or the long howl of the horns when they saw men run,
When they saw them looking for holes in the solid ground . . .
I guess they were tired of being ridden in
And stopped and started by pygmies for silly ends,
Of wrapping cheap cigarettes and bad chocolate bars
Collecting nickels and waving platinum hair
And letting six million people live in a town.
I guess it was that, I guess they got tired of us
And the whole smell of human hands.
But it was a shock
To climb sixteen flights of stairs to Art Zuckow’s office
(Noboby took the elevators twice)
And find him strangled to death in a nest of telephones,
The octopus-tendrils waving over his head,
And a sort of quiet humming filling the air. . . .
Do they eat? . . . There was red . . . But I did not stop to look.
I don’t know yet how I got to the roof in time
And it’s lonely, here on the roof.
For a while, I thought
That window-cleaner would make it, and keep me company.
But they got him with his own hoist at the sixteenth floor
And dragged him in, with a squeal.
You see, they coöperate. Well, we taught them that
And it’s fair enough, I suppose. You see, we built them.
We taught them to think for themselves.
It was bound to come. You can see it was bound to come.
And it won’t be so bad, in the country. I hate to think
Of the reapers, running wild in the Kansas fields,
And the transport planes like hawks on a chickenyard,
But the horses might help. We might make a deal with the horses.
At least, you’ve more chance, out there.
And they need us, too.
They’re bound to realize that when they once calm down.
They’ll need oil and spare parts and adjustments and tuning up.
Slaves? Well, in a way, you know, we were slaves before.
There won’t be so much real difference–honest, there won’t.
(I wish I hadn’t looked into the beauty-parlor
And seen what was happening there.
But those are female machines and a bit high-strung.)
Oh, we’ll settle down. We’ll arrange it. We’ll compromise.
It won’t make sense to wipe out the whole human race.
Why, I bet if I went to my old Plymouth now
(Of course you’d have to do it the tactful way)
And said, ‘Look here! Who got you the swell French horn?’
He wouldn’t turn me over to those police cars;
At least I don’t think he would.
Oh, it’s going to be jake.
There won’t be so much real difference–honest, there won’t–
And I’d go down in a minute and take my chance–
I’m a good American and I always liked them–
Except for one small detail that bothers me
And that’s the food proposition. Because, you see,
The concrete-mixer may have made a mistake,
And it looks like just high spirits.
But, if it’s got so they like the flavor . . . well . . .

Stephen Vincent Benet :



Freedom is not free. Free men are not equal. Equal men are not free.




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