Friday, November 20, 2009

15: Somewhere over the Rainbow

Last month I clocked 60; years that is, not MPH. All of a sudden I have my Bus and Rail Pass, and people offer me their seats ... I still joke, despite my advancing years. But it dawns on me that the reason old-people (choke) reminisce of days gone by is that there are definitely more of them, than days to come. It’s amazing how different things look, when you realise your next Microsoft Project plan may well outlast you.

So at pain of dwelling on good times gone by, I am going to drift back; back to my youth; then back even further ... to 1750 in fact, the inflection point of The Industrial Revolution. I’m guessing that most of you are of scientific persuasion, so what you ever knew about history is quietly gathering dust in a seldom visited annex of your mind. The phrase probably fired a forgotten neuron who’s small spark of interest flared briefly, but was consumed by the glare of your normal mental process. In fact it was a hugely important point in time for all of us, it was the time when Philosophy and Science eventually handed their dominion to the practical science of Engineering.

Cro-Magnon Man (that’s us) has been around for about 30,000 years; but not much went on for most of that time. Around 2,500 years ago societal conditions had reached the point that some people were able to start thinking about stuff other than survival. Mankind had taken the first steps up Maslow's hierarchy of needs, on the road to Self Actualisation ... They didn’t realise the can of worms they were opening! It was the dawn of the age of the Philosophers; their self appointed challenge was the Understanding of Nature and for the next 2,000 years they had the field to themselves. But around 1500ad something changed; a knowledge threshold had been reached, some of the pieces joined-up. Quite suddenly Manipulation of Nature became possible and for the next 250 years Scientists took centre stage demonstrating how indistinguishable from magic a little applied knowledge can be. You have probably worked out by now that The Industrial Revolution was the emergence of Engineers who began the Exploitation of Nature. Encapsulating convenient chunks of Philosophy and Science, into valued and valuable functionality, and delivering it to the masses; the engineer caused the Industrial Revolution; quite literally, giving The Economy fiscal value as he did so ... and as he/she has continued to do ever since.

The text books tell the first steps in the Industrial revolution were the introduction of machines to significantly automate the process of cloth production, displacing the Cottage Industry predecessors. This created huge societal upheaval and the formation of cities, as people started to congregate to where the machines and paid work were located. The canal structure was developed to transport the quantities of food, fuel and materials needed by the factories and cities; and to carry away waste and goods produced. Before that time it had not been practical to have cities, as people had to live close to their food sources. We also know that Dickensian Cities (c1800) were not pleasant places, though conditions in them were undoubtedly an improvement over what existed before, as the Global Population growth rate changed from ~0.1%pa where it had been for all measurable time, to the 2%pa common today. The Raw Birth Rate hadn’t changed; life expectancy had. The cities clustered all kinds of beneficial crafts ... Butcher, Baker and Candle-Stick Maker; but also Surgeons, Midwives and Alchemists (a sub-set of Scientist incidentally).

So in 1750 the world population was 800M, with grounds for believing that the un-industrialised peak would be reached at ~ 1B. The next 100yrs of engineering brought food, clean water, sanitation, improved housing, warmth, transport and basic medicines to the masses ... fighting back natural depredations enabled the population to grow by 50% in that time. Subsequent engineering achievements have kept them at bay, to allowed it to grow to its current 6.7B. It can truly be said that 6 out of 7 people in the world today owe their existence to the continuance of that engineering revolution ... All too soon, it will be 9 out of 10.

... It seems that almost all engineering products benefits somebody’s wellbeing, which improves overall living standards and thus life expectancy. But the threats still wait patiently on the sidelines for engineering to falter: Ebola; Bird Flu; Swine Flu; HIV-Aids; CJD; etc. And for earlier achievements to breakdown: MRSA; Global Warming; Running out of fossil fuels; Breakdown of power, water, sewage and transport infrastructure; etc. Anyone who has built a sand castle knows that once you have gone higher than a few cm, you have to put a lot more sand at the base to gain more height. Engineered solutions are not one-offs that don’t need any more attention, they must be supported and maintained, and their expansion may not be linear ... society ignores this at its peril.

Blind faith belief that Scientists will find an answer to all of our problems, whilst ignoring the practical need to sustain its ecology is dangerously naive. Engineering is capable of wonderful things but only if it is fed by new Science, which in turn needs to be fed by new Philosophy (or Physics as it is now known) ... we must all remember this and encourage it where we can. We must also remember that The Economy is a side-effect of Engineering; and those who do party tricks with coins and tumblers are not building The Economy for the many; just re-distributing it to the few.

The same social conditions that enabled the Natural Philosophers 2,500 years ago, also prepared the ground for the Social Philosophers, the Social Scientists and Social Engineers. Undoubtedly facing a much more complex subject, there can be little surprise they haven’t achieved much (yet). So though we live our lives in this highly Engineered Environment, we are still the same Cro-Magnons underneath ...

... Which means a crock of gold trumps logic any day!


PS: I have been writing this Blog for about 18 mth during which time just 7 people have told me they read it (at least once), or have commented on something I wrote. If you would like me to continue to write, drop a line of encouragement to (a one-off mail account to prevent spam) and I’ll let you know the outcome in about a month.