Posts Tagged ‘industrial revolution’
During the David Tennant years of Doctor Who when planets or the TARDIS needed to be rendered invisible they were placed a second out of sync. The Australian technology market is a second out of sync. We’re a secondary market, hardware goes on sale weeks or months after it’s become available in America and the major European countries. The rights for digital versions of books, music and television and film are caught up in byzantine trade protection agreements from the analogue era meant to protect Australian producers and retailers from being wiped out by cheap imports of physical goods. And our experience can be coarse, many of the services and apps that build upon basic services – Outside.in for aggregating local news, for example – aren’t available here yet while they’re being incubated by venture capitalists and developing a business model to sustain their expansion into new territories.
In America for 16 years, first in New York and then Los Angeles, I researched and wrote about technology. The big F Future. Telerobotics, mathematics, engineering. Apart from buying the first Sony Walkman I could get my hands on in 1980 I’ve been a late adopter. I’m guided by William Gibson’s perspective. He told a reviewer that he wasn’t a seer: “I think I’m more of an interpreter of technologies, an amateur anthropologist. I’m a sort of Victorian weekend naturalist of technology.’
When I returned to Australia in 2002 I didn’t return to journalism. The media market was already in a downturn and my interests are too technical and arcane. I couldn’t find in them pitches for 500 word articles about the next hit consumer electronics device. The mainstream media in Australia is caught on the forward march of innovation started during the Industrial Revolution. I was at the Apple store in Sydney one day earlier this year, looking at printers I think. It was the day that the iPad went on sale in America. A local television news crew stood outside with an iPad they’d had flown in and asked people if they’d be buying one when they went on sale in Australia in a few months time.
Being completely out of the loop has its advantages though. I became atemporal. I started reading for interest again rather than to forage for morsels that might might be worked up into magazine articles. I’ve been interested in palaeontology since I was a child and it now seemed that we might be in a new geological era, the Anthropocene, where the human impact on natural systems since the Industrial Revolution has become so great that we’re driving changes in the natural world.
“Who knows what might result if more people knew they were in the midst of creating and leaving behind an unprecedented impact – one that can be measured geologically?” wrote the Friends of the Pleistocene. “Maybe humans could learn something from this change – if not about our impact, then at least about ourselves within a much longer geologic story.”
And I started reading about Australian history, starting way, way back before any human habitation, with Tim Flannery’s book The Future Eaters, and then from the time Europeans colonised Australia in the late 18th century, through exhibitions at the State Library of New South Wales. When I was a child in the middle of the twentieth century we were taught only the glories of the British Empire, and it was clear that Australia wasn’t considered one of them. Tim Flannery quoted Charles Darwin’s impressions of Australia when he visited in 1836:
“The rapid prosperity and future prospects of this colony are to me, not understanding these subjects, very puzzling. The two main exports are wool and whale oil, and to both of these productions there is a limit … Pasture everywhere so thin that settlers have already pushed far into the interior: moreover the country further inland becomes extremely poor. Agriculture, on account of the droughts, can never succeed on an extended scale: therefore, so far as I can see, Australia must ultimately depend upon being the centre of commerce for the southern hemisphere, and perhaps on her future manufactories. Possessing coal, she always has the moving power at hand. From the hospitable country extending along the coast, and from her English extraction, she is sure to be a maritime nation. I formerly imagined that Australia would rise to be as grand and powerful a country as North America, but now it appears to me that such future grandeur is rather problematical.”
I became a journalist in Australia during the punk rock era, writing about music for a few years before moving onto architecture, design and technology. At that time I didn’t have a frame of reference for the popular music the bands were inspired by, I focused on the way their own interests, in art, literature, philosophy, urbanism, science, architecture, film, theatre, dance and theology, were feeding into their music as they were developing their own musical styles.
I was in thrall to the Walkman. I had an inkling that it had the potential to change our experience of music in as profound a way as Gutenberg’s printing technologies had changed our experience of books, making them private, portable experiences. And Ridley Scott’s movie Blade Runner and William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer defined the world I was living in.
I had a detached “Victorian weekend naturalist’s” view of the music scene in the punk rock era in Australia. I was able to formulate my impressions after hearing William Gibson read from his novel All Tomorrow’s Parties at my neighbourhood bookstore in Los Angeles in 1999. In his novel the world as we know it would end as the millennium turned but no-one would notice he said. His mythology and metaphors are dense and open to many interpretations but what gradually became apparent early in the 21st century was that the Industrial Revolution’s model of mining fossil fuels and creating masses of products in massive factories in remote locations was unsustainable. Humanity was at a crossroads. One path kept going in the same direction, amping up innovation, suggesting that the answer to our environmental problems is genetic engineering of foodstuffs, geoengineering specific changes in the earth’s weather patterns, and modifying how we make things in factories, tweaking the system to make the whole process less toxic. The other path is gradually feeling for a pre-industrial society of villages within cities that are self-sustaining, growing their own food and sharing and bartering goods and services and creating a more humble, integrated connection with the natural world.
When I thought back to the punk rock era in Australia I thought about how it was a time between times, of the analogue era fading and the digital era yet to settle in. The punk rock bands were able to use that to their advantage. Somehow the notion took hold around the world at roughly the same time that musicians could record and press their own vinyl records and sell them at their shows and in independent record stores at home and internationally. It wasn’t a sustainable business model. These musicians had the instincts of todays digital social networks and none of the tools. They had to manufacture and export records and deal with complex financial negotiations that were difficult and costly at the time: currency translation and wiring money between countries, import and export duties and taxes. The most popular musicians were taken up by traditional record companies and the most successful independent labels made distribution deals with them.
The international record companies defined music as whatever they were recording and selling: “unsigned” artists didn’t inhabit the same universe. At the beginning the musicians of the punk rock era felt that the commercial, industrial record business had little to do with them, that the music being sold didn’t reflect their interests or their world. In the 1970‘s there were some commercially successful Australian musicians who used the names of American towns in their songs. Robert Forster of the Go Betweens says it’s hard to imagine now how strange it was, at the time, that the Saints and the Go Betweens would refer to Brisbane in their songs.
The announcement of Apple’s Ping social media service embedded within iTunes gave me the sensation of dejavu. At the time that we’re moving from a world of manufactured, branded media and products – collaborative consumption, the sharing and bartering and trading of services is gaining ground – Apple is behaving like a 1970’s record company. It defines music as what’s sold within iTunes. It classifies music according to sales categories. I don’t want to “follow your favourite artists with a click and become part of their inner circle”. Or “Get in on the action with artist photos and status updates. Even add comments to join the conversation”. I can already do that through Twitter. I can go to Last.fm to hear music that isn’t available for sale through iTunes in my territory.
I’m waiting this round out. I figure I’ll migrate to an open, non-commercial platform at some stage. I want I simpler things from Apple. Full composer and musician credits when I download songs. I want to be able to buy, through my Kindle iPhone app, a book that might only appeal to 10, maybe a hundred max, readers in Australia that’s “not available to customers in Australia”. I don’t want to be told by Kindle app to go to the Australian store and buy something else. I don’t want to buy the Apple TV service and stream what local broadcasters have decided everyone should watch. I want to be able to stream a season 8 of a television series that was broadcast in England a year ago and hasn’t been programmed here. If Ethan Iverson’s blog refers to pioneer jazz musicians I want my music player find samples of the music in the Smithsonian Museum’s online catalogue and queue them up for me to listen to while I’m reading his story.
“There’s breaking news at the top edge of the geologic time scale today,” the Friends of the Pleistocene blog wrote in May. They were commenting on the International Commission on Stratigraphy’s report on renaming our epoch the Anthropocene, to reflect that humans are the drivers of change on Earth. I started blogging with the new Arts section of the Huffington Post this week and my beat is going to be the cultural impact of the Anthropocene Epoch.
“Who knows what might result if more people knew they were in the midst of creating and leaving behind an unprecedented impact – one that can be measured geologically?” the Friends of the Pleistocene asked. “Maybe humans could learn something from this change – if not about our impact, then at least about ourselves within a much longer geologic story.”
The Friends of The Pleistocene have drawn up a Geologic Time Viewer that graphically represents how previous epochs connect to our own. The Carboniferous period, 354 to 290 million years ago is especially significant. It’s when foliage from plants that thrived in the humid conditions fell but didn’t decay and over time was transformed into veins of coal. The Anthropocene Epoch is considered to have begun during the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century when methods for mining and extracting energy from coal were developed, transportation systems were invented to move raw materials and goods around the world rapidly in great quantities, and civil engineering projects enabled the growth of great cities. The Geologic Time Viewer draws a line from the Carboniferous Era to the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Centre and Yankee Stadium.
“It has not been science and scientists but science fiction and science-fiction writers that have anticipated some of the greatest engineering achievements of all time,” Henry Petroski wrote in The Essential Engineer. “Jules Verne had men reaching the Moon a century before the Apollo 11 mission, and Arthur C Clarke proposed a system of geosynchronous telecommunications satellites in 1945, two decades before they became a reality.”
In 1992 Arthur C Clarke published When the World Was One: The Turbulent History of Global Communications. He concluded with predicting the importance of mobile personal communications devices. “As the century which saw the birth of both electronics and optronics draws to a close, it would seem that virtually everything we would wish to do in the field of telecommunications is now technically possible. The only limitations are financial, legal and political. But have we indeed reached the limits of communications technology? Time and again the past men – even able men – have proclaimed that there is nothing more to invent, and they have always been proved wrong.”
By the end of the twentieth century science fiction was presenting the collapse of the natural world as the end result of the ingenuity of manufacturing and building technologies. “You know what? I was always aware that this whole Earth is on overload,” Ridley Scott said in 2007, on the twenty fifth anniversary of Blade Runner. “I’ve been like that for 30 years, and people used to think I was a — not exactly a depressive, but always dark about it. And I’d say, “It’s not dark, mate. It’s a fact. It’s going to come and hit you in the head.” It’s right where we are right now, where we’re still going, arguing in circles. There’s some politicians who still seriously believe that we haven’t got global warming.”
William Gibson said of his science fiction of the 1980‘s: “In some cases, I believe that I inadvertently provided “illustrations” for technologists who might otherwise have been unable to explain what they were trying to do.” In his Bridge trilogy (Virtual Light – Idoru – All Tomorrow’s Parties) of the 1990‘s he predicted the world as we know it would end as the millennium turned but no-one would notice. “We are come not only past the century’s closing,” said Yamazaki, the Japanese existential sociologist, “the millennium’s turning, but to the end of something else. Era? Paradigm? Everywhere, the signs of closure. Modernity was ending. Here, on the bridge, it long since had.” What ended was the notion that we could keep averting disaster with large scale inventions and dominion over nature.
The ingenuity and inventiveness of the Bridge trilogy was small scale, the refugee community on the ruined Golden Gate bridge created their own power and water and waste management systems from scavenged materials.
The millennium was a fork in the road. In one direction progress continued to be equated with bigger construction projects, the maniacally complex city-structures in Dubai, for example, until the world financial crisis closed them down. In January Wired Magazine declared that the Next Industrial Revolution would give individuals access to vast factories in China. 3D printers and rapid prototyping would allow people to easily and quickly devise their own products and they’d negotiate directly with factories to get one, or thousands, made up for themselves.
The other path counters the negative effects of the Industrial Revolution, the damage to the environment caused by the mining and burning of coal and the unchecked mass production of disposable products. 3D printing and rapid prototyping technologies can be used to extend the life of products by printing replacement parts and to generate prosthetic limbs. People may find personal alternative power sources. There’s a prototype of a Wellington boot that collects power generated through the heat of the feet that can be stored and used to recharge mobile phones. And the iconic construction projects are by architect Shigeru Ban, whose primary building material is humble paper tubing, reinforced and snapped together in repeating patterns for structural strength. He builds cathedrals and museums and hip designer furniture but also refugee housing.
“Having an idea is different to the infinitely harder and longer process of invention” James Dyson says. “At Dyson we’re inspired by the ingenuity and tenacity of the great inventors. For me, design is about how something works, not how it looks. It’s what’s inside that counts. The best designs come from someone questioning everything. Designers, engineers look at the same things as everyone else. But they see something different. And they think what could be – and make it happen – even if it takes 5,127 prototypes to succeed.”
Sharing and renting products is becoming prized more than owning them. Utility and reliability matter more than design and brand. Two new models of the Dyson vacuum cleaner, the DC24 and DC25 Drawing resemble prototypes and are annotated with the tests on the various components and how long it took to develop them: “Tri-Lobular Handle. Development time: 7.5 months. Result: maximum transmission. Steering feels as light as possible.” “Hose Stretch Test Pneumatic rig stretches hose assembly. Repeated for 150,000 cycles.”
In the twenty first century William Gibson abandoned the conceit of placing his novels in the future, and stopped inventing devices and technologies for his books. As Great Dismal he tweeted a quote today from computer pioneer Alan Kay: “You can’t fix a natural system. You can only negotiate with it.”
His new trilogy (Pattern Recognition – Spook Country- Zero History) is set in the present. “The Future, capital-F, be it crystalline city on the hill or radioactive post-nuclear wasteland, is gone”, he recently told a Booksellers convention. “Ahead of us, there is merely…more stuff. Events. Some tending to the crystalline, some to the wasteland-y. Stuff: the mixed bag of the quotidian … If Pattern Recognition was about the immediate psychic aftermath of 9-11, and Spook Country about the deep end of the Bush administration and the invasion of Iraq, I could say that Zero History is about the global financial crisis as some sort of nodal event, but that must be true of any 2010 novel with ambitions on the 2010 zeitgeist. But all three of these novels are also about that dawning recognition that the future, be it capital-T Tomorrow or just tomorrow, Friday, just means more stuff, however peculiar and unexpected. A new quotidian. Somebody’s future, somebody else’s past. Simply in terms of ingredients, it’s about recent trends in the evolution of the psychology of luxury goods, crooked former Special Forces officers, corrupt military contractors, the wonderfully bizarre symbiotic relationship between designers of high-end snowboarding gear and manufacturers of military clothing, and the increasingly virtual nature of the global market.”
In January, Chris Anderson wrote a cover story for Wired called “The New Industrial Revolution”: “The tools of factory production, from electronics assembly to 3D printing, are now available to individuals, in batches as small as a single unit. Anybody with an idea and a little expertise can set assembly lines in China into motion with nothing more than some keystrokes on their laptop.”
The ease of making things in remote factories is the legacy of the first industrial revolution, and the end result has been landfills full of manufactured junk, and the pollution of air, land and waterways.
The Friends of the Pleistocene write: “Who knows what might result if more people knew they were in the midst of creating and leaving behind an unprecedented impact – one that can be measured geologically? … Maybe humans could learn something from this change – if not about our impact, then at least about ourselves within a much longer geologic story.”
Dan Hill, of Arup’s Sydney office, often talks and writes about the idea of a re-industrial city, where small scale manufacturing moves back into inner-city residential areas. It’s a new interpretation of a factory that’s more like an artisan’s workshop. It’s energy efficient, quiet, and doesn’t produce toxic waste.
“In an ironic twist, former warehouses and factories are being partially converted from apartments back into warehouses and factories. Yet the domestic scale of the technologies means they can coexist with living spaces, actually suggesting a return to the craftsman’s studio model of the Middle Ages. The ‘faber’ movement — faber, to make — spread through most Australian cities, with the ‘re-industrial city’ as the result, a genuinely mixed-use productive place — with an identity”.
Maybe the design revolution of the Anthropocene epoch will emerge from personal civil engineering. People worldwide are responding to failing transport infrastructure and environmental concerns with car and bicycle sharing programs and lobbying city governments to create bike tracks. The cool personal products might be individual alternative energy generators and urban farming implements.
“We need to rediscover the power of engineering, it’s impact and contribution,” wrote the inventor and manufacturer James Dyson in a column in The Guardian in 2009. “It can stimulate young minds and it can stimulate the economy. Let’s start with the makers, breakers and remakers – children. Children are mini-engineers and it’s their rite of passage to pull anything mechanical apart to get at the guts. As a child, I pored over Eagle magazine cut-aways that delved into the workings of everything from Bloodhound missiles to offshore oil rigs.”
He was inspired by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, an early 19th century British civil engineer who created bridges and tunnels and steamships. “I have tried in my own way, to draw on Brunel’s dream of applying emerging technology in ways as yet unimagined,” he wrote in his autobiography. “He was never afraid to be different or shocking. He never shirked the battles with the money men, and he had to overcome the most incredible resistance to his his ideas: when he applied the system of the screw propeller to a transatlantic steam ship he actually filled a boat with people and sent them across the sea.”
Two new Dyson floor fans were released last week. Dyson products are initially inscrutable. Once you’ve grasped the story, that a fan without blades is a more efficient tool for smooth air flow, for example, they take on the quality of acutely plausible objects from the future, like Stanley Kubrick’s spaceships in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Syd Mead’s household appliances and vehicles in Blade Runner.
It even seems as if Arthur C Clarke is the Dyson company’s technical writer: “Dyson Air Multiplier technology. Using an airfoil shaped ramp (like a cross-section through an airplane wing), airflow is amplified from 15 to 18 times depending on the model. This creates a smooth, powerful airflow, with no need for fast-spinning blades.”
Science fiction writers and egghead TV detective shows pay homage to Dyson products. A couple of months ago William Gibson, as Great Dismal, tweeted: “The genius that is the Dyson Airblade I’ll wash my hands just to use one!”
The illustrations and videos on the Dyson website are like the animations of scientific principles on CSI Las Vegas and Numb3rs. On Numb3rs, Charlie, the mathematician who solves crimes using algorithms and statistical analyses, is trying to explain the workings of cyclone at the FBI office and a cleaner moves past with a Dyson dual cyclone vacuum cleaner.
“That vacuum works on cyclonic technology,”Charlie says. “Constant suction is maintained by mini tornadoes in a series of tubes that separate the dirt from air using centrifugal force.”
In CSI Las Vegas in a motel room where someone has been murdered the maid is using a Dyson vacuum cleaner.