Friday, 25 February 2011

Back To The Future



For those of you of tender age the device above is called a Slide Rule. It is a mechanical device that was used to make complex calculations before the age of computers, and, unimpressive though it may appear, it was these contraptions that put men on the moon and built Concorde.

I was a member of probably the very last generation of schoolchildren who were taught how to use a slide rule, but even in our day they were seen as a curiosity, as the new-fangled pocket calculators started to appear. Nevertheless, quaint as this item may appear, not only is it the technology of the past, it is also the technology of the future.

As the world's oil resources enter the depletion stage, there will be greater pressure to convert other types of fossil fuel resource, such as coal and natural gas, into forms suitable for the maintenance of our transport infrastructure. This increased demand burden will be felt most heavily in the domestic sphere, especially with regard to heating and electricity production, and the tariffs charged for their provision. We're starting to see this even now, although the trend is partly hidden by private monopoly price-gouging.

This crisis in the provision of energy will also result in a re-assessment of what aspects of our complex society we can safely jettison and still maintain a reasonable quality of life. Almost certainly the first victim will be the internet, as Western civilisation will reluctantly recall that such trivial activities as sending thank you letters, ordering bargain clothes and perusing pornography can just as easily be done on paper. Home computers and even business computers will follow thereafter, as our spheres of activity necessarily become more localised, and the economies of scale needed to build and ship these items make their production prohibitively expensive. Eventually, this squeeze will even reduce the availability of more utilitarian plastic items such as the humble pocket calculator.

If you're a gadget fan, or rather what Morris Berman terms a techno-buffoon, you are going to find the future at best somewhat disappointing, at worst an incomprehensible nightmare. If you're the sort of person who likes collecting antiquated machinery and putting it back in working order again, you are going to find yourself very much in demand in the years to come.

9 comments:

W. Kasper said...

Unfortunately, some of us are only equipped to write on blogs! The Soylent Green factory awaits...

Phil Knight said...

Actually, if you've learnt to wheel and deal and survive on very little money, you will be superbly equipped for the decades ahead.

W. Kasper said...

Good point. Especially if you can do it without committing any serious crimes.

I recall a Chomsky speech many years ago when he pointed out the incredible levels of skill and managerial aptitude required to manage a house or raise children in extreme poverty. Came to mind when there were all those press sob stories about "cutting back on school fees and four holidays a year" around 2009...

bat020 said...

Slide rules are still an excellent way of teaching people about logarithms. It's the perfect way of visualising how you can multiply numbers by adding their logs.

W. Kasper said...

I can live without a TV, but feel kinda naked without a ruler in the house.

Charles F. Oxtrot said...

Nicely done!

Thank BDR for bouncing me here.

W. Kasper said...

Welcome, Zen Man!

joey deacon blues said...

Calculators would be one of the very few things not to be affected by energy shortages, as most of them are solar-powered nowadays. Was this blog actually written in the 70s?

Phil Knight said...

Well, yeah, but the plastic casings are an oil product, and the printed circuit boards are dependent on energy-intensive mass production.

You only need a skilled carpenter and a reasonable-quality piece of wood to make a slide-rule. And a shed, of course.