Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Poem: The Option of a Natural Civilisation

Central Pacific, by Charles Scarborough
by Chengde Chen 

The problem that technology ultimately destroys civilisation
cannot be solved by technological development itself
It is not any problems in the technological world
but a non-technological problem – a mathematical problem
Technology may be able to satisfy environmentalists –
manipulating the atmosphere to reduce carbon dioxide
Technology may also be able to satisfy ecologists –
bargaining with nature to restore tropical rain-forests
But, no matter how advanced technology becomes
it cannot break free from its own mathematical crisis
just as the greatest force cannot make one equal two!

Mathematics is not about technology, but about logic
The acceleration of technology is an illogical proposition

We cannot change mathematics to suit the proposition
so we have to change ourselves, that is
to apply the brake of reason to stop this irrational process
to cease technological races as we cease the military one
Change the basis of civilisation:
replace technological development with natural existence
Give up the utilitarian system:
substitute the value of harmony for the value of market

Close down the particle accelerators – let nature enjoy nature
Turn science funding into literary prizes – let art enrich life
Let physicists compose music –
hearing something beyond ‘air vibration’
Let chemists write poetry –
dissecting feelings and emotions that are finer than atoms

There will still be flowers of human intelligence
There will still be the pleasure of human creation
But natural existence will not accelerate
just as art is not a function of time

No poet of today can claim overtaking Homer or Goethe
Nor can composers of today surpass Bach or Beethoven
Art is spirit, spirit is proportion
The ancients’ happiness and ours are both happiness
– no greater or smaller
The ancients’ sadness and ours are both sadness
– no heavier or lighter

Stopping the competition of technological progress
and pursuing the harmony of natural existence
is this a madman’s dream or Utopian?
No, mankind had experienced non-technological civilisations
Didn’t the Middle Ages in the mist of theological civilisation
last over a thousand years?
It was somewhat dark, but with staying power
Didn’t China in the cradle of small-farmer civilisation
continue for two thousand years?
It was somewhat idle, but in steady cycles
They might not be the most brilliant chapters of history
but have shown the possibility of other kinds of civilisations

We don’t have to invite God or emperors back
Nor need we return to Taoist Inaction
What we need is to understand that
being civilised does not mean we cannot choose –

between city flourishing and countryside tranquillity
between ‘being rich but tense’ and ‘being basic but easy’
between a costly Moon-landing programme
and the fairy-tale of Goddesses’ Moon Party
or between the scary roar of jets overcoming gravity
and melodious notes from a buffalo boy’s bamboo flute!

If we choose to have a natural civilisation
it is because we follow reason –
the reason of avoiding destruction
the reason of surviving ourselves
the reason of freeing from a dated value system
and the reason of obeying the law of mathematics
Human beings – you unique species blessed with reason –
how can you refuse this final wisdom?


Thomas Scarborough said...

The poem, I think, gets to the heart of our troubles: 'The problem that technology ultimately destroys civilisation cannot be solved by technological development itself.' The very thing in which we take the greatest pride is our destruction. One calls it hubris.

Keith said...

An interestingly provocative proposal, Chengde.

The poem asks if the proposition to undo technology and return to a state of ‘natural existence’ or ‘natural civilisation’ is utopian. Given the Greek origin of the word ‘utopia’ as ‘nowhere’ or ‘no place’, I’d venture the answer is yes.

I wonder how many people would find being thrust back to the Middle Ages, or to the ancient world, or to prehistory as in any way alluring. In fact, rather nasty, I suspect. Human beings are instinctually a tool-making species. I imagine that at least some of the following remain welcome in our lives:

Light during the night, heat during the winter, prevention and cures for lethal chronic illnesses, homes to shelter families, means to be mobile, robotic surgery and anesthesia to mend bodies, tools to educate, printing presses and digital devices to democratise information, the wheel to move great weight, yield-enhanced and pest-resistant crops to feed humanity, engines to replace backbreaking labour — and others.

Would relinquishing all these technologies’ offerings, and imaginably more, to return to the pitilessness of ‘natural existence’ really be the ‘final wisdom’ the poem says at the end? I wonder.

Chengde Chen said...

Thanks Keith for the comments. Here are my points for arguing “the end of technological civilization” , (please do point out any logical problems in them):
1, No accelerating system can last, as an infinite speed is impossible.
2, Technological advance is accelerating exponentially, so it will end, so does the civilization that bases on it.
3, How will this happen?
4, Technology has reached a level that it can destroy civilization, i.e., the possibility of self-destruction, (such as by nuclear weapons, genetic engineering, etc.)
5, Such possibility increases with time, so it will inevitably turn into reality. This is called “Car-crash Theory” in probability: a car that is possible to crash will crash given time.
7, So the self-destruction of technological civilization is mathematically determined.
8, The problem cannot be solved by technology, but by giving up the system, whether we like it or not. Sorry for sounding pessimistic, but it is mathematics to me.

Keith said...

You ask, Chengde, if I might be inclined to remark on any of the points you list in the preceding comment block.

Let me therefore offer an observation regarding your first point, from which much of the rest of your argument appears to follow:

‘No accelerating system can last, as an infinite speed is impossible’.

I think this claim confuses ‘accelerating technology’ and ‘accelerating speed’. Accelerating technology refers to the pace of change in technology, not to the increasing speed of matter. They entail two entirely different (nonequivalent) expressions of the word ‘speed’. So, accelerating change in technology can go on indefinitely, without violating the laws of physics. (To borrow your word, this is ‘natural’ science at play.) Accordingly, in the case of changes to technology, there is no risk of bumping up against the upper limit of light’s speed the way accelerating mass does. The latter — that is, the upper limit on velocity set by light — seems to be what you’re referring to in your original remark, and incorrectly applying it to both situations. In short, ‘accelerating change in technology’ and ‘accelerating velocity of things’ are very different critters.

Martin Cohen said...

I thought it was a very powerful poem, thank you Chengde. Isn't it really about 'sustainability'? And I tend to agree with the poem that a system based on continuous expansion/ growth/ "acceleration" is not indefinitely possible. The line here is thought-provoking:

"Didn’t the Middle Ages in the mist of theological civilisation
last over a thousand years?
It was somewhat dark, but with staying power"

Keith offers some "advantages" to modern life, and indeed we must accept there are some! But researchers find people are not actually happy, and claims about human health are actually debatable. We have epidemics of cancer and obesity and heart disease, not to mention the many people taking anti-depressants or just being a mad.

So I see the poem as rightly pointing at a need to find a sustainable, equitable state rather than pursuing impossible promises of new futures.

Chengde Chen said...

Many thanks, Keith. Yes, they are different kinds of acceleration, but all about “the pace of change” nevertheless. Do you really believe that any system can have infinite speed of change? Please show an example. For me, “no accelerating system can last” is a mathematical law that applies to every accelerating process, whether it is physical or biological, social or economical. (E.g., a process of free falling body, of nuclear chain reaction, of bacteria growing, of cancer development; or of population growth, of energy consumption, etc.). They all have to end in some form, including technological advance, though it seems not so obvious. Your claim that “accelerating change in technology can go on indefinitely” seems against commonsense, as I can’t even imagine it sustain unlimited speed of change. I hope you would agree that my “car-crash theory” has explained how the end will inevitably happen.
(Thank you for the debate, and please forgive me for my English mistakes.)

Chengde Chen said...

Why is ‘no accelerating process can last’ a mathematical law? Because “speed” in whatever sense is time-based: quantity of change/time. An infinite speed would mean: time=0, which is impossible for any system.

Keith said...

Thank you, Chengde, for the discussion.

Re your latest question: ‘Do you really believe that any system can have infinite speed of change?’ Actually, nowhere in my two comments above did I refer to ‘infinity’. That’s your word — whose late-to-the-game introduction in your comment (the word doesn’t even appear in the actual poem, I believe!) shifts the central axis of the discussion.

Yes, technological change can likely continue at a quickening pace, and spiral off in all sorts of promising and lucrative directions, albeit of course without any claim to attaining ‘infinity’. I'm not at all sure what the latter would look like.

That said, I suggest there’s a more interesting thread to unspool here than your question’s introduction of ‘infinity’, namely, your linking technological change with the risk of civilisational extinction. Here are your actual words, gleaned from supposition 2 above: ‘Technological advance is accelerating exponentially, so it will end, so does the civilisation that bases on it’.

I see no inevitability that advancing technology will lead to civilisation’s ‘self-destruction’. Indeed, the notion, from supposition 7, that self-destruction is ‘mathematically determined’ is pretty bold. I suggest, accordingly, the assumption calls for more than glancing references to the complexities of ‘probability’ and the statistical specificity of ‘technological advance accelerating exponentially’.

The list’s ventured conclusion, in supposition 8, is that the purported solution is in ‘giving up the system’ — the ‘system’, I assume, being the advances of technology. But, as I mentioned in my very first comment above, humankind’s relinquishing technology would return the human condition to the raw, harsh naturalness of prehistory — and many reasons to die young.

I’m not sure there’d be an upwelling of takers.

Chengde Chen said...

Thank you, Keith.
1, My reading of your claim that “accelerating change in technology can go on indefinitely” is that the speed of change can increase indefinitely, hence towards infinity. I’m sorry if this is my misunderstanding of you.
2, You said “I see no inevitability that advancing technology will lead to civilisation’s ‘self-destruction’,” but do you see the possibility? As I mentioned, I have two propositions: A) “no accelerating process can last”. This tells that technological advance will end, but not how it will. Just as from “All men die” we can conclude “Socrates will die”, but not how he will. To find how, we should identify the possible ways of human death, and prove that they will happen to him one way or another. This is my second point B): when technology has reached the possibilities of destroying civilization, according to the “Car-crash theory”, such self-destruction will inevitably happen. Do you agree that a car that is possible to crash will crash given time? Based on A and B, I conclude that civilization’s ending in such self-destruction is “mathematically determined”, namely being inevitable.
3, As for “technology advances exponentially”, it is a general view based on various studies. Most famously: D.J. Price’s Little Science, Big Science, New York 1963; J.D. Bernal’s Science in History, the MIT Press 1974; Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near, Viking 2005. Sir Martin Rees and his CERS (Centre for Extencial Risk Studies, Cambridge University) have seriously questioned if civilisation can survive the 21st Century. Stephen Hawking raised it as well in 2016, shortly before his death. But you are right, my “boldness” is to claim the inevitability of the self-destruction mathematically.
4, You have kept arguing the benefits of technology. This is obvious but beyond the point in the discussion, as no benefits can help the total destruction we are talking about. If you dispute the existence of such possibilities, or that some of them will turn into reality one day (according to the theory of probability), then we can discuss the matter further.

Thomas Scarborough said...

I wonder, Keith, whether progress depends more on observation or more on technology. In other words, could we advance as humanity through observation as opposed to technology.

I believe that Chengde is right, although my emphasis is different. In order for technology to advance, we need to reject holism. Every formula which is used in the development of technology excludes some aspect of our world. At the risk of repeating myself, when we use x + y = z, we exclude a, b, c, and every other possible variable. This became especially dangerous since about 2000, when massive processing power and vast data sets came on the scene.

Keith said...

My thinking, Thomas, is we don’t actively ‘reject holism’ so much as we take for granted that holism is impossible. We can’t realistically factor in all possible variables, as the possibilities are unimaginably vast. As are the ways in which those variables might become realizable over time. Something gets left out — the a, b, c you refer to. To that extent, holism is conceptually interesting, but only insofar as it’s an abstract figment — an academic exercise. I propose that’s true for all disciplines, not just the sciences and mathematics, and the latter’s progeny, technology. But we shouldn’t stop trying. If we demurred in the hope of first attaining ‘holism’ before venturing to advance technology — inventing the new, improving or switching out the old — I fear progress would elude us, to our detriment. In short, the unreality of holism, were holism to become a precondition to venturing progress, would prove self-paralysing.

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