“The Day It All Ended”: Thoughts of a Technologist

Brad Allenby, President’s Professor of Civil, Environmental and Sustainable Engineering; Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics; Professor of Law, Arizona State University 

The most immediate response to the nice little piece by Charlie Jane Anders, “The Day It All Ended,” is pleasure at reading an optimistic story. This is more rare than you would think, primarily because writing dystopian fiction is so much easier than writing happy fiction. Dystopian fiction wins you prizes and the adulation of millions – to the extent they still read, of course – whereas cheerful stories, or, worse yet, actual humor, may get you an occasional shot at The New Yorker, but you will never be taken seriously. Exploring noir urban niches, and the dark side of the human soul, are understood to signal engagement with what it means to be truly human, and to establish one as an intellectual struggling, often painfully, with ultimate meaning, angst nipping at your bloody ankles. Optimism not only confuses people, but, especially in our cynical age, lies entirely without the reigning zeitgeist. So hats off to happy. And yes, you might mutter that the theme of environmental redemption is somewhat trite by this time, but that didn’t seem to stop the movie Avatar from being quite a success, and I don’t see why it should be held too strongly against this work either.

Of course, this is also a pretty obvious example of the “technology as savior” genre; it can’t literally be deus ex machine because the deus is us. And that’s an interesting twist, isn’t it? The technology itself is neutral; it is the intentional design, and the institutional and individual intent, that create the desired O’Henry plot shift. Leaving aside for now the difficulty of developing and deploying such a technology, this reflects the more fundamental reality that Cassius nicked Brutus with: our problems generally arise not from our stars, or our toasters, but ourselves. Consider a recent example. There is absolutely nothing wrong with making ethanol out of corn. Indeed, without it life in the American Appalachians would have been even harder than it was, and NASCAR would not be with us (the origins of NASCAR lie in the hot cars and crazy drivers that ran illegal moonshine from the stills to the customers, a process that makes no sense without the moonshine in the first place). What has made corn based ethanol a questionable technology, in economic and social terms, is the massive scale-up implied by the legislative demands that a significant percentage of American gasoline be ethanol. That’s a political decision, and can’t be blamed on the technology without a certain level of mendacity.

In other words, Anders has not taken the easy road of blaming technology for dystopian effects; indeed, he is careful to have Jethro note that it was human nature that required the subterfuge of building salvation into the superficially destructive technology systems that DiZi sells (for those of you who follow such things, this is not unlike the Matrix complaining that it set up a utopia for humans, only to discover they couldn’t handle it, and needed unhappiness to be happy. No wonder our computers don’t understand us.). Humans are the problem, and humans are the solution. This is a useful if subtle rejoinder to the myriads who, by blaming technology, neatly create a gestalt where they have no responsibility. Technology is a human activity; indeed, is core to being human, as Hannah Arendt and Max Scheler, among others, try to remind us (homo faber).

More subtle still, Anders is implying quite a radical worldview. In his story, it is clear that humans have grown to dominate the planet and many of its systems: the obvious ones of global cycles of carbon, and biodiversity, and environmental damage; the less obvious ones of material flows (where does all that technology come from, after all?), and economics, and psychology, and institutions. Designing technology is, in fact, designing the world. This is a terraformed planet. We get so used to this in fiction that we tend to forget – or, perhaps, cringing with guilt, we are unable to admit – that this is precisely where we are right now.

And what is critical about design? It is this: if you design something, you are responsible for it. You cannot evade that responsibility. DiZi is blamed for producing the technologies that are apparently destroying the world, and appropriately so; and DiZi is, in fact, going to get the credit for saving the world. This, again, points back to many today who, in seeking to blame various institutions, people, and factors, refuse to accept their responsibility. Why do you think the world looks the way it does? Because ocean-going sailing ships combined with corned gun powder and cannon combined with expansionist European cultures sailed around the world; because coal and steam and railroads pushed humans into modernity; because jets and modern finance and intricate information systems and networks keep us there. Maybe a hundred years ago, you could pretend this wasn’t a terraformed planet. You can’t now. Not really. Not without some serious evasion of responsibility.

But come on. You want a technologist to troll through this story, bit by bit, and drily demolish the technological assumptions that lie behind it. I’ll be glad to make a few points, but let’s be clear that they don’t really matter. If this were an engineering article, I’d peer review it. It isn’t, and I won’t. That said, there are a couple of nice points to this piece. For example, the reference to being able to scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere using amines (and sodium hydroxide) is real: those technologies now exist (although you couldn’t deploy them as suggested in the story, because you’d need too much amine, so you need to cycle and regenerate your capture chemical). Whether this makes climate change a matter of choice – a global design decision, as it were – is a matter of debate right now, involving complicated issues like how much underground storage there is for the relatively large volume of liquid carbon dioxide you’d generate by deploying such “carbon capture” technology. Also, I did like the part about copyright pirates needing to put in the “hidden design” elements – if I were a pirate, it is precisely avoiding the costs of that apparently unnecessary technology that would give me a cost advantage. Moreover, if DiZi had the power to impose their full (and apparently inefficient) design on me, they could probably stop me from pirating in the first place. Makes me think they’re also playing games with the antitrust laws. But that’s a nit, and I for one am glad to live with it in the interests of a more coherent story.

Perhaps most interesting is the implicit assumption that you can reverse the path we’re on – that removing carbon dioxide will move us back towards a more stable, and more desirable, state. That isn’t necessarily true. Complex systems like the climate display what’s known as “path dependence,” and that means that what the Jethro and DiZi are moving us towards is a new state, not anything we’ve known in the past. You can’t go home again. We will never have the world we had 100 years ago. We might go back to 300 or 350 ppm of carbon dioxide (we’re now nearing 400), but we won’t go back to the climate we used to have. It will be a new climate, and undoubtedly spring new surprises on us, even if and as we lower carbon dioxide levels. The dirty little secret of climate change is that we’re already on that boat, we have been for a while, and there’s no getting off. You will never have the stability that some are claiming we can retrieve. Politically, perhaps you have to say that. But it’s not how this world you’ve already created works. That world is your design space now. You can no longer evade the responsibility that comes with it. And you can’t go back. Never.

We are all DiZi. Welcome to World 2.0.