The Dim-Post

August 10, 2016

More grist

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 9:36 am

A reader sent me a link to this Guardian interview with Elon Musk:

[Musk] was influenced, he says, by Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, a science fiction saga in which a galactic empire falls and ushers in a dark age. “It’s sort of a futuristic version of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Let’s say you were at the peak of the Roman empire, what would you do, what action could you take, to minimise decline?”

It takes me a moment to realise it’s not a rhetorical question. Um, poison the barbarians’ water supply, I joke. Musk smiles and shakes his head. The answer is in technology. “The lessons of history would suggest that civilisations move in cycles. You can track that back quite far – the Babylonians, the Sumerians, followed by the Egyptians, the Romans, China. We’re obviously in a very upward cycle right now and hopefully that remains the case. But it may not. There could be some series of events that cause that technology level to decline. Given that this is the first time in 4.5bn years where it’s been possible for humanity to extend life beyond Earth, it seems like we’d be wise to act while the window was open and not count on the fact it will be open a long time.”

I dunno. Musk sounds a little like the beeper king from 30 Rock here. ‘Technology is cyclical, Liz!’

20 Comments »

  1. Sounds like Musk’s been reading Spengler and Toynbee.

    Comment by Conrad — August 10, 2016 @ 9:56 am

  2. [Musk] was influenced, he says, by Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series,

    So was Bin Laden, possibly: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/aug/24/alqaida.sciencefictionfantasyandhorror

    Foundation can be translated into Arabic as al-Qaeda

    Comment by richdrich — August 10, 2016 @ 10:30 am

  3. I suspect that the likes of both Musk and Thiel (radical Libertarians, happy to make fortunes off the back of public infrastructure / handouts) like to see themselves as incarnations of Hober Mallow
    Mostly because he has better laser-guns than John Galt or Howard Roark.

    Comment by Gregor W — August 10, 2016 @ 11:05 am

  4. Most historians don’t like to analyse things in terms of “civilisations”.

    Comment by Ortvin Sarapuu — August 10, 2016 @ 11:07 am

  5. the Babylonians, the Sumerians, followed by the Egyptians, the Romans, China… There could be some series of events that cause that technology level to decline

    We all know the stories of ‘barbarians’ being astonished by 300 year old crumbling Roman aqueducts and asking “what the fuck is that and who put it there?” … But I don’t think there’s much compelling evidence that, on a global scale, the average level of technology available to the human race ever really “declines”, is there?

    Comment by Phil — August 10, 2016 @ 11:31 am

  6. @ Phil – on a global level, no.
    Technological devolution at a societal level tends to be as a result of either isolation (think Easter Island) or when a controlling power exits the scene via displacement or decline; the net result being no fresh ideas coming in via trade etc. or knowledge becoming arcane/controlled by priests and the like.

    Comment by Gregor W — August 10, 2016 @ 11:37 am

  7. The Lombards and Ostrogoths knew what aqueducts were for and who built them. It was just that as a latifundia based rural aristocracy of cavalrymen they couldn’t see the point of keeping them in good repair. Technology falls into use, or disuse, due to cultural and economic change, not by forgetting what it was somehow.

    Comment by Sanctuary — August 10, 2016 @ 12:36 pm

  8. Thiel’s libertarian days are behind him now, according to The Economist:

    http://www.economist.com/news/business/21699954-tech-billionaire-has-morphed-libertarian-corporate-nietzschean-evolution

    “The tech billionaire has morphed from a libertarian into a corporate Nietzschean”.

    Comment by Bill Bennett — August 10, 2016 @ 6:45 pm

  9. One could argue that it has been quite some time since it was possible to buy a normal airline ticket to fly at Mach 2. I’m still bitter that I never once flew on the Conchorde. To me, that was a moment of peak something, anyways….

    Comment by Ben Wilson — August 10, 2016 @ 8:37 pm

  10. To me, that was a moment of peak something, anyways….

    Probably extravagant fossil fuel consumption.

    The plane had a fuel capacity of 26,286 Imperial gallons (119,500 litres) and consumed 5,638 Imperial gallons (25,629 litres) per hour.

    Comment by Flashing Light — August 10, 2016 @ 9:31 pm

  11. It did also get all the way around the world in half the time. And 5,638 gallons/hour divided among 128 passengers at a speed of 1354 miles/hour comes to 30.7 passenger miles/gallon = 13 passenger km/liter. That’s about the same as my little car (when there’s only me in it). So I’m still roughly this naughty every time I get into my car, something I do for hundreds of hours every year. Nowhere near as much fun as going Mach 2. Still bitter.

    Comment by Ben Wilson — August 10, 2016 @ 10:26 pm

  12. So I’m still roughly this naughty every time I get into my car, something I do for hundreds of hours every year. Nowhere near as much fun as going Mach 2.

    Then you’re not driving your car properly … I hit Mach 2 before I leave my driveway.

    (Mach 2 means second gear, right?)

    Comment by Flashing Light — August 11, 2016 @ 6:52 am

  13. I’m still bitter that I never once flew on the Conchorde. To me, that was a moment of peak something, anyways….

    Back when I lived in London my flatmate and I both wound up in New York at the same time, for work. He’d managed to get his company to fly him back home on the Concorde, and he gloated elaborately about how he’d be home HOURS before me. But the Concorde had troubles mid-flight, as it was wont to do at that late stage in its life, and was forced to limp over the Atlantic at sub sonic speeds and emergency land in Cork airport Ireland. My flatemate got home an entire day later than me. Pretty sweet.

    Comment by danylmc — August 11, 2016 @ 8:14 am

  14. Concorde was profitable when retired. The fleet was phased out because the airframes were aging and Airbus (successor to original manufacturers) stopped making spare parts. A new SST won’t be built because the massive government subsidies required to develop such an aircraft are no longer available, and without them the unit cost of the airframes would be prohibitive.

    Comment by Sanctuary — August 11, 2016 @ 8:37 am

  15. Actually, the general retreat from from high mach numbers since the 1960s (when even a standard production jet like the F-4 Phantom was capable of over Mach 2.0, and specialist aircraft like the MiG-25, SR-71 and the futuristic bomber the XB-70 all exceeded Mach 3.0) is a fascinating example of technology falling into to disuse due to changed political and economic circumstances.

    Comment by Sanctuary — August 11, 2016 @ 9:00 am

  16. Concorde was only ‘profitable’ because all the R&D costs were written off by the British and French taxpayers rather than passed to the airlines, and then the cost of the aircraft had been written off by the airlines in turn, so the expenses were down to maintenance, fuel, pilots, caviar and coke. (I assume that you could ring your call button and get ‘special caviar’ included in the GBP7k fare).

    Comment by richdrich — August 11, 2016 @ 9:45 am

  17. One could probably consider those R&D costs sunk, now, though. Presumably the same basic design could be modernized, making available again an amazing service. It might even be simpler due to better electronics, the pivoting nose might no longer be necessary.

    But I’d expect the money was simply better invested elsewhere in the industry. It doesn’t really need to show off any more. Well, that said, there is Branson.

    Comment by Ben Wilson — August 11, 2016 @ 11:04 am

  18. Much of the R&D on 1960s SSTs was subsidised because of overflows into cold war nuclear attack defense projects. The US SST program fed into, and from, programs like the B-58, XB-70, F-111 and B-1A while the Europeans were also interested in high mach, high altitude penetration of the USSR. However, from the 1960 Gary Powers shootdown on it was increasingly obvious that no matter how high and fast you flew a missile could easily fly faster and higher, aaway.nd interest in high speed flight, and the R&D spending across all sectors asssociated with that, died

    Comment by Sanctuary — August 11, 2016 @ 11:44 am

  19. However, from the 1960 Gary Powers shootdown on it was increasingly obvious that no matter how high and fast you flew a missile could easily fly faster and higher, aaway.nd interest in high speed flight, and the R&D spending across all sectors asssociated with that, died

    Also missiles are super cheap.

    It seems weird though that the same logic hasn’t been applied to the various stealth and 5GJF initiatives.
    Saying that, ratcheting up tensions with China and Russia is probably the prime marketing technique utilised to keep the various Pentagon boondongles like the F35 programme going.

    What else are they going to spend money on. Infrastructure and shit? Snore!

    Comment by Gregor W — August 11, 2016 @ 12:02 pm

  20. If I was around at the peak of the Roman Empire, and had the power to make changes to it, I’d do something about eligibility to be emperor – ie so it doesn’t just go to whoever gets a big enough army together to overthrow the current emperor. There are a lot of things wrong with heriditory monarchy, but at least it means you don’t get civil wars every ten years.

    I’d probably look at replacing the lead water pipes as well.

    Comment by helenalex — August 12, 2016 @ 9:50 am


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