The Tasmania Effect

by Henry on August 2, 2010

Charlie Stross has been blogging about the minimum population needed to sustain an advanced industrialized civilization (and why he thinks this means no colonization of space etc). This is a topic I have no expertise on beyond a broad interest in the less Sunday-supplement inclined versions of evolutionary anthropology, which have given this question some thought. See, for example, Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson’s account of “the Tasmania effect” (p. 272 of The Origin and Evolution of Cultures ) as excerpted below. While I can’t vouch for this argument myself (and it seems to be based more on modeling than on empirical evidence, which is reasonable when you don’t have as much direct evidence as you would like, but not entirely satisfying), it is interesting and (to me) plausible,. Further, it suggests an additional twist to Charlie’s argument – that because human beings cannot learn precisely what their teachers are trying to convey, you need a larger population to counter for the lossy transmission of useful techniques.

What is less well understood is the extent to which technology is likely a product of large-scale social systems. Henrich has analyzed models of the “Tasmanian Effect.” At the time of European contact, the Tasmanians had the simplest toolkit ever recorded in an extant human society … Archaeological evidence indicates that Tasmanian simplicity resulted from both the gradual loss of items from their own pre-Holocene toolkit and the failure to develop many of the technlogies that subsequently arose only 150km to the north in Australia … Henrich’s analysis indicates that imperfect inference during social learning, rather than stochastic loss due to drift-like effects, is the most likely reason for this loss. This suggests that to maintain an equilibrium toolkit as complex as those of late Pleistocene hunter-gatherers likely required a rather large population of people who interacted fairly freely so that rare, highly skilled performances, spread by selective imitation, could compensate for the routine loss of skills due to imperfect inferences.

{ 201 comments }

1

PHB 08.02.10 at 10:08 pm

Well that can happen in a pre-literate society. But we have a highly literate society and pretty much all relevant knowledge is available in written form.

I find it pretty hard to see the relevance of the analogy. The number of people required to sustain an industrialized society is arguably falling. Provided that you can maintain access to your information store (kind of a necessity if your spaceship is going to continue to work) you can re-establish any necessary skill.

Some skills would not be necessary at all. Medicine would not need to deal with any bacteria or virus not present on the ship at launch. So that leaves cancer and broken bones. It would not be necessary to have the full US legal code.

2

LizardBreath 08.02.10 at 10:13 pm

Provided that you can maintain access to your information store (kind of a necessity if your spaceship is going to continue to work) you can re-establish any necessary skill.

There’s a fair amount of discussion of that issue in Stross’s comments, most of it arguing that the documentary record for anything technical is going to be insufficient to preserve skills unless there are live experts to convey the subtleties. That seemed overstated to me — anything technical got built for the first time at least once by someone who’d never done it before and didn’t have a manual, so duplicating that achievement with a manual shouldn’t be impossible. But it’s an interesting question.

3

F 08.02.10 at 10:55 pm

This was the thesis of Piers Anthony’s 1976 novel “But What of Earth”

4

PHB 08.02.10 at 11:17 pm

@LizardBreath 2

In the past year I have constructed a Dalek in GRP from scratch building all the plugs, moulds etc without any formal instruction. I took a course in welding (to mend my MGB) but I suspect that I could have managed without if that was necessary.

This is the type of question that really cannot be answered by some random social scientist pontificating in print from histories of primitive societies. If the case is going to be made or disproved we need experiments.

Now if any member of the BBC programming staff is reading this, I am more than happy to submit a proposal for a TV series based on examining this premise called RTFM. We take a bunch of random students and drop them off onto a secluded island to work on a series of ‘survival skill challenges’ in which they are required to master complex skills by RTFM alone.

5

piglet 08.02.10 at 11:35 pm

I try to imagine a small population on a secluded island maintaining our current material culture by building everything from scratch – cars, telephones, computers, telecommunication infrastructure. Oh and of course they’d also have to build and maintain all the machines and production facilities, mining equipment (assuming the raw materials can be found on the island), refineries, waste disposal facilities, waste water treatment plants, etc. etc. They can’t import even a screw. Sounds like a tough challenge to me. Yes, it may be possible to figure out how to build each of these items from manuals alone but how many lifetimes would be spent even reading all the required manuals???

6

F 08.02.10 at 11:38 pm

PHB, you presumably bought all the parts, equipment and tools from the store, rather than mining, processing and assembling them yourself?

7

PHB 08.03.10 at 12:15 am

@F

Well I do have machine tools for metal working. So in theory I could make the tools myself. This should be rather easier once I have the lathe and mill converted to CNC and tool production essentially becomes a turnkey operation.

I do produce my own models in SolidWorks. But these could be supplied as a library.

If your society can start off with a set of tools capable of building themselves, the prospects for survival become quite good. For example, say you start with a 3D printer. First you print out copies of the mechanism, then you have to construct the motors.

Sure there are limits here, but they are in the number of tasks, rather than the skills required for the tasks. You are going to need people to mine raw materials, smelt ores to make metal. You are going to need people to plant and harvest the crops. You are going to need people to perform childcare and so on. At some point you have to build a silicon fab and start making microprocessors so that you can continue to support a Hi Tech civilization.

There would be huge challenges, but the lack of skills would not be a limiting factor. That is the sort of thing that someone who is not an engineer is going to think is a real obstacle because they haven’t really attempted anything of that sort themselves.

8

Jake 08.03.10 at 12:19 am

That seemed overstated to me—anything technical got built for the first time at least once by someone who’d never done it before and didn’t have a manual, so duplicating that achievement with a manual shouldn’t be impossible.

True, but the person who built it for the first time did so in an environment that had an existing level of technology and a bunch of other experts, so they were only building one thing for the first time. If you gathered up all the equipment used to make one computer, it’d probably cost several billion dollars. Making all of that for the first time is going to be tough, no matter how good the manual.

9

L2P 08.03.10 at 12:38 am

There’s a fair amount of discussion of that issue in Stross’s comments, most of it arguing that the documentary record for anything technical is going to be insufficient to preserve skills unless there are live experts to convey the subtleties. That seemed overstated to me—anything technical got built for the first time at least once by someone who’d never done it before and didn’t have a manual, so duplicating that achievement with a manual shouldn’t be impossible. But it’s an interesting question.

IMHO, it seems virtually certain that someone could “duplicate” any reasonable task from records. Going to straight physical skills, kids learn how to do really complicated moves from watching “and 1″ videos. You’d think it’d be impossible to learn a reverse crossover off your knee without some sort of teacher, but no. Just watch a video, practice, and do it. My dad learned how to rebuild all of his model trains watching videos and practicing, and he’s not a technical guy. I think it’d be relatively easy to learn most modern skills from records.

10

John Quiggin 08.03.10 at 12:56 am

Reproducing stuff from the manual seems at best to get you a static technological toolkit. And most things just can’t be built by hand – the processes involve thousands of workers producing different parts, as Stross says.

11

Tyranosopher 08.03.10 at 1:31 am

I have read Stross’s considerations. When he speaks about 100 million people on Mars, to get started, he is wrong. As a commenter pointed out above (PHB), numbers are falling to maintain high tech (computerized nanotech will make it ever more so). If we had the means to create a lot of energy with the vacuum, or simply the sun, or thermonuclear fusion, we could start to do geoengineering cheaply.

Athens maintained the highest high tech with 80,000 citizens max, whereas Persia failed to do it with 100 million (or something of this order).

The Tasmanian Effect is similar to the American Effect. Americans do not mind devolving into an inert, plutocratically manipulated blob. Because, like the proverbial frog, the simmering is done just so.

So it was in Tasmania. It’s not a question of small population. The polynesians had much smaller populations, but their more advanced philosophy and more ferocious motivations kept them searching for more progress and technological solutions.
PA

12

LizardBreath 08.03.10 at 1:33 am

Well, a static technological toolkit was the question Stross originally asked: how many people do you need to sustain our current civilization, not continue to develop further.

And the ‘working from the manual’ question is getting a little confused: there’s “how practical is it to build a fighter jet if you start from iron ore and a bunch of textbooks and plans”, to which the answer is, not very. But as I understood the concern in Stross’s comments, it was more along the lines of if you’ve got enough people for some sort of functioning industrial civilization — metal workers, factories, that kind of thing — are you going to be able to recover particular skills like building nuclear power plants if you lose everyone with direct relevant experience and only have plans to work from? And to that question, the answer seems, pretty clearly, to be ‘yes': a society with a general level of technology around the 1940s level will be able to build a nuclear power plant from a set of plans, because we did it the last time without plans.

13

PHB 08.03.10 at 2:00 am

The entire Internet was assembled from first principles in my lifetime. Nobody knew how to build an Internet in 1970, twenty five years later it was a solved problem. When I came it the Internet it was already built. I immediately started re-working the parts I thought crap.

I can’t see how a pioneer society could survive if it didn’t have a huge amount of inbuilt innovative capability. But that does not mean they have to work out everything from first principles. For any given technology they are going to have to be constantly bridging the gap between what the documents describe and what the existing resources can provide.

It all depends on what your assumptions are for the preparation work. One assumes that these colonists are being sent off to a location that is known to be habitable and that there has been advance surveying and terraforming. So you pretty much have to assume that there is already a population of self-replicating robots at work on the planet. And given the distances involved you probably have to have had them there for a millennia or so.

So basically by the time the human colonists arrive there has to be a pretty large infrastructure waiting for them. And their job is pretty much going to be to procreate as quickly as possible.

In fact the way that you would probably work it is to send out your terraforming self-replicating robots and the DNA code to clone up your set of target organisms. In fact that is likely what you are going to be using to do the terraforming.

Heck, all you need to do is to hide a few dinosaur bones and the colonists don’t even need to know where they came from.

Someone had to be the first person to fly a plane, weld a piece of metal, program a computer and everything else. It really is not as big a deal as is being made out.

14

PHB 08.03.10 at 2:21 am

Suggesting the lower bound is a hundred million is just nonsense. The industrial revolution started in Britain because the British isles are small, not because they are large. Britain was small enough and isolated enough to manage to stay out of the wars that Europe kept itself busy with.

A better way to look at the problem is to look at how many people it takes to run an small university. You don’t need the arts faculty at all. No need for languages (apart from English). You can pretty much do it all with the engineering and maths depts.

I would put the number at less than a thousand. Maintaining genetic diversity is going to be a bigger problem.

15

ohwilleke 08.03.10 at 2:36 am

Simply having books available, or even a small smattering of talented people isn’t enough. If it were, the Third World would be economically developed to a much greater extent than it is today.

There are choke points. One of the choke points in the Middle Ages in Europe was the loss of a critical mass of literate people; the church developed a core of monks living in privation to preserve what it could, but was straining to preserve written knowledge, much of which was made available via the Middle East afterwords but lost in Europe.

Before that developing mining and metallurgy was a major choke point. Developing the excess resources in society to locate resources that have to be mined, operate mines to get the metals, and maintain facilities to refine it and process take a certain scale, and even after mining was established, villages rose and fall based on whether they could find a competent smith before larger scale metal production was developed.

Similarly, energy is a choke point. The industrial revolution was largely a product of a post-metallurgical discovery of efficient ways to exploit coal and later oil, with steam and internal combustion gasoline/diesel engines respectively. The fuels aren’t the only options, but you need fuel, and exploiting it takes large scale enterprises.

Manufacturing and medical specialties are two of the most scale dependent technologies in our tool kit, and the most scale dependent technologies drive the whole. If one has access to a top rate hospital and medical complex, and can import manufactured goods and non-locally available raw materials, one can probably replicate our society’s way of life in a sustainable way with a few hundred thousand people. Moreover, if one deliberately sets out to have more generalization in key professions, one can downscale further with only modest compromises in quality. But, a manufacturing base (even with patents in hand, a la Stross’s books), requires a very large scale. It takes a modern society of at least tens of millions and probably hundreds of millions of people to support a half decent automobile industry, for example.

Interplanetary colonization is still a far way off, but the big problem is more lack of motive than societal scale. Simply put, lots of virtually uninhabited places on Earth, like Antarctica, Siberia, the Canadian Tundra, Northern Alaska, Nebraska, the Sahara, the surface of the oceans, the ocean depths, and floating in the atmosphere perpetually, are all much cheaper, easier places to colonize than the Moon, Mars, or any planetary satellite in the solar system. In all of those places getting their is relatively cheap, atmospheric pressure and breathable air aren’t nearly as serious problems (if they don’t have it, it can be imported cheaply from nearby), gravity is normal, and existing technologies can show us how to do it. Overcrowding or economics doesn’t make space colonization attractive until some point in the hundreds of billions or more of population, unless space has things that we don’t have on Earth, which modern chemistry and physics have pretty definitively ruled out. There is no Unobtainium out there to making mining it on another planet worth the trouble. Tourism, scientific experimentation, freedom to be socially deviant, and perhaps very small scale mining of very pure lodes of very high value materials (e.g. gem quality diamonds) are the only reasons to be in space for the foreseeable future and permanent sustainable colonization isn’t a sensible business model in three out of four of those situations. Unless you are the man-boy love association or Earth is nuked out of habitability, it doesn’t make much sense to develop a sustainable space colony.

16

ohwilleke 08.03.10 at 2:52 am

“A better way to look at the problem is to look at how many people it takes to run an small university. “

It takes about two million people to support a modern medical school, and without a modern medical school you can’t develop the medical specialties that distinguish medicine ca. 2010 CE from medicine ca. 1940 CE. Much earlier than that and you have general practitioners, surgeons, pediatric general practitioners and ob-gyns. If you want to have anything approaching the modern range of medical specialties, you need that kind of scale. If you can consult and confer with Earth based medical experts, you can get a lot of the benefit from telemedicine without having them physically present and can get away with few local medical experts in those fields at the cost of true sustainability. But, telemedicine is a poor substitute for having a skilled neurosurgeon on hand when you need one, or if you want to do medical research on locally emergent syndromes. Also, manufacturing for the medical industry is a particularly scale sensitive matter because the materials for drugs are often diverse, the precision required for medical instruments is often very high, and the volumes needed in any given community of specialized items (e.g. stents or MRI machines) makes it hard to get the economies of scale needed to be efficient without a very large society.

17

ohwilleke 08.03.10 at 3:04 am

“IMHO, it seems virtually certain that someone could “duplicate” any reasonable task from records.”

A surprisingly important and large chunk of our society isn’t well documented. There are, for example, cases of factories being built with precisely the same equipment and plans in two different places that are not in contact with each other having dramatically different productivity and quality control.

The R&D cost of restarting a major weapons system from plans and exemplars and available records is only marginally less than reinventing one from scratch. The problem comes up quite a bit in areas like fighter aircraft and nuclear submarine production. Similarly, the software that administers the United States Tax Code for the IRS is so ill documented and esoteric that the only way to efficiently maintain it is to hire the people who did it originally as consultants to revise it for tax law changes each year. There are problem a dozen people in the world with a good grasp of the software code. Simply knowing that an outcome is possible is helpful, and more documentation certainly helps, and it is possible to learn a lot from books (I taught myself two years of high school mathematics and five semesters of college mathematics entirely from books, but not many people do that), but it is a very costly and inefficient way of getting something done and in a largely isolated community, cost constraints matter a lot.

18

Moby Hick 08.03.10 at 3:18 am

I would put the number at less than a thousand.

Leaving aside the rest of that absurdity, let me point out that most modern countries have between two to four doctors per 1,000 people. Even if you increased that ratio by three or four times, most medical skills will be forced to reside in somebody’s book, not a brain. I’m sure you’ll enjoy sitting around in pain while somebody flips through a reference manual to find the kind of slightly rare disease that would be recognized in about five minutes by an experienced specialist who doesn’t exist because nobody could possibly get sufficient experience.

Only the most common surgical procedures will be done often enough for somebody to get passable at it. Muscle memory, rote training, and the like do matter, especially since there often isn’t time to do any research if something doesn’t go to plan. Don’t even think about how long it would take a couple of guys to fix the only MRI machine if it requires many new components that only exist in a manual.

19

ohwilleke 08.03.10 at 3:25 am

“I try to imagine a small population on a secluded island maintaining our current material culture by building everything from scratch”

Starting civilization from scratch on another planet is impossible, we’d die before we got our first harvest in and breathable air. You need the right initial tool kit and it is going to have to last you a while until you can reproduce it.

You also need to be able to prioritize what you develop so that you don’t hit bottlenecks and can meet your needs without interruption, which usually requires redundancy. You can’t afford to have just one person know how to keep the air supply system running; what if he or she gets hit by boulder and dies. Sustainable air, water and food production need to be early on. The bulkier it is to bring in the initial tool kit the faster you need to be able to make it yourself. You need sustainable energy production before you run out of whatever form of fuel you brought with you. You need a mining industry before you build things with metal beyond your initial supply. You need graduate schools a couple of decades after you start having children. You need something for your specialists in things you can’t do yet to do until it is possible for them to use their skills. What will professors do until they have students? What will metalworkers do until you have metal? What will miners do until you find deposits?

You also need to be very efficient very fast. For example, our society’s economic and technological culture is very sensitive to the percentage of the population needed for agriculture and raw material production; if you don’t get your base industries not just up and running, but up and running very efficiently, you stall.

The sensitivity of all of this to careful management also means that you need some combination of very good leaders and slack in the goals you must meet to survive. One mediocre leader early on means that your society will probably die out, if not during that administration, then while trying to recover from it. Yet, picking good leaders in advance is a notoriously hard thing to do, and picking them in an acceptable way in a small closed society is even harder.

20

Barry Freed 08.03.10 at 3:31 am

In the past year I have constructed a Dalek in GRP from scratch building all the plugs, moulds etc without any formal instruction.

Davros, is that you?

21

ohwilleke 08.03.10 at 3:37 am

“Heck, all you need to do is to hide a few dinosaur bones and the colonists don’t even need to know where they came from.”

Yes, I get the joke. But, no dinosaurs (and more generally, no history of flora and fauna prior to colonization) means no fossil fuels of any kind. You need renewables and nuclear power and perhaps imports of methane from Jupiter or something, or you bust. This also means that a huge piece of the tool kit needs to be redesigned for a fossil fuel free economy; since it didn’t arise under those constraints.

For example, plastic becomes far more precious in a fossil fuel free economy, so substitute materials may be needed for things built with plastics on Earth. Ditto petroleum based fertilizers. Ditto natural gas based home heating. Ditto internal combustion engine transportation and industrial machinery. Eventually, you can make renewable biofuels, but that means you need a much larger ag sector than the one on Earth with a different mix of crops (more saw weed, less tobacco). Not innovating is not an option. The “by the book approach” simply won’t work.

22

John_A 08.03.10 at 4:07 am

I think the more relevant question may not be “how many to you need to do it” but rather how many before you want to (have to) do it. You will not create a fab to build chips for cell phone infrastructure when you only have 1000 people, even if you have the technical know how. It is simply overkill for your current needs.

23

PHB 08.03.10 at 4:18 am

Moby,

Modern medicine only got to the point where it cured more people than it killed sometime in the 19th century. And much of that progress was the result of improvements in hygiene. Sure the efficiency of various surgical procedures are going to be lower, but how much disease are the colonists going to be taking with them? One would imagine that they would have pre-screened to avoid genetic diseases and avoided bringing bacteria or viruses.

It seems more likely than not that surgery is going to be performed by robots long before we have technology capable of sustaining inter-stellar travel.

Stross’s claim is based on the number of people you allegedly need to carry in the spacecraft to establish a self-sustaining technological society capable of maintaining itself. My argument is based on the considerably smaller number of people that are sufficient to create a society capable of progress.

It really does not matter if the society cannot perform heart transplants on day one. The question is whether the society established can re-create that capability from books without having to re-discover it from scratch.

It took Abraham Derby and his sons half a century to work up to modern iron production. If they had started with modern high school chemistry they could have worked out the process in a few years.

When I taught myself assembly language programming at 14, I did not know anyone with formal training, let alone receive any. The same is true of pretty much all Victorian science and engineering. There are very few self taught mechanical engineers in developed countries today because pretty much anyone who shows some aptitude can find some degree of formal education in the field if they choose. That is not the case in other parts of the world where learning from a book is still a pretty common way to learn.

Oh and Davros uses Dalekanium, not plastic.

24

william u. 08.03.10 at 4:24 am

Dinosaur Comics addressed a similar question.

25

dveej 08.03.10 at 4:35 am

@PHP:
1. The Internet was not built from first principles in your lifetime; there is a direct connection stretching back at least to the Pony Express. It has its roots in 19th century technology and institutions.
2. A university doesn’t need the arts faculty at all? or languages other than English? Even in terms of a hypothetical university on a recently colonized Mars, that doesn’t seem feasible for more than the time it takes to get the most basic survival structures up and running.

26

Allen Hazen 08.03.10 at 5:31 am

Two comments.
A. Several people have suggested low numbers with the argument that past societies managed to innovate technologically with populations below Stross’s suggested lower bound. He’s got an (implicit) reply: MODERN modern technology is intrinsically more complicated than the high technology of Victorian Britain or Classical Athens, in the precise sense that its characteristic artifacts need more people (with more different specialized skills) to create, so wouldn’t be possible for a smaller society. (Simple historical example: a steam locomotive needs — in addition to some mechanical engineering knowledge to do the design — some basic ferrous metallurgy … To build a diesel locomotive requires that AND (i) higher level of metallurgy (diesel engine asks more of metal than a steam engine, and, e.g., crankshaft and crankcase are made from very different alloys) (ii) electrical engineering, including both (ii-a) electronics for the controls (ii-b) the materials engineering (not a subset of the skills set needed for steam) needed for heavy electrical gear (generators, traction motors). Stephenson could design the rocket and build it with available early 19th C labor: he would not have been able to find people with appropriate skills to recruit if he had tried to build a diesel.

B. Speculative application to another historical situation. Why are we here and the Neandertal not? “Cro-Magnon” culture was more complex than Neandertal, but NOT obviously because of any individual cognitive deficits of the Neandertal: when they met “us” they were able to imitate our complex culture (make jewelry, etc). Maybe the population density of Neandertal people just wasn’t great enough to allow for cultural evolution!

27

DiSc 08.03.10 at 5:51 am

Stross is one of my favourite SciFi authors, his book Glasshouse is majestic.

In a way, we see material culture go backwards in Europe, as people get older and children get fewer. A lot of European industries are just the evolution of pre-industrial techniques handed over from father to son, one century after the next.
Think of cuisine, textiles, pottery, agriculture, small shops, artisan crafts.
When industrialization came along, it was easy to let machines do what families had been producing until then.

Now, with less and less European children (and immigrants creating their own parallel societies) it is just not possible for only children to learn everything their parents and grandparents could teach them.

So once-productive industrial clusters in Southern and Central Europe are dying, their production gets outsourced to Asia, the social, tacit knowledge which made them possible has all but disappeared, and new generations lead their lonely existance surrounded by products made somewhere else.

28

NomadUK 08.03.10 at 6:10 am

The entire Internet was assembled from first principles in my lifetime.

Sweet Jesus.

29

Martin Wisse 08.03.10 at 6:44 am


Provided that you can maintain access to your information store (kind of a necessity if your spaceship is going to continue to work) you can re-establish any necessary skill.

BWAHAHAHA

Your information store will have at most ninety percent of the knowledge you need to do your work, (if and only if the work you do is a desk job) but the most crucial ten percent will be scattered around the heads of twelve different people, half of which are unreachable at any given time.

Talk physical skills and it gets worse: look at how much of the old traditional professions can be learned from books and how much you have to learn it while working at it, how many simple tricks were lost as the last practitioners died and had to be relearned undsoweiter. It’s no different with modern professions.

Doesn’t mean these things can’t be learned of course, but to conclude from a bit of diy welding, how quickly kids pick up dance routines from video and an overinflated faith in IT that you don’t really need real people to instruct you? Somebody has been reading too much Heinlein…

30

dsquared 08.03.10 at 6:57 am

Even if you increased that ratio by three or four times, most medical skills will be forced to reside in somebody’s book, not a brain. I’m sure you’ll enjoy sitting around in pain while somebody flips through a reference manual to find the kind of slightly rare disease that would be recognized in about five minutes by an experienced specialist who doesn’t exist because nobody could possibly get sufficient experience.

This would differ in precisely what fashion from how things are now?

31

shah8 08.03.10 at 6:58 am

Sweet jesus indeed.

Some of you people are freakin’ scary to me in the same way that people who advocate reducing population are freakin’ scary.

Okay, something is pretty evident to anyone’s who’s read a bunch of decent science history books…say, right now I’m reading Green Imperialism by Richard H Grove. Cool book. However, the thesis pretty much contradicts what so many of you all up above thinks. That something is that technical knowledge changes. Our interface with technology changes. There is no *static* society that does not rely on *dynamic* approaches to technology (at least recognizably capitalist static societies). A calculus book is fine for knowing calculus. The technical books for *coal mining* will easily be out of context of local situation in many if not most circumstances. Most of what we’d say is high utility knowledge is *collected*, from a wider base than the local society. In fact, monetising the collection of talent and knowlege is kind of what capitalism *does*. A self-contained society with a limited number of cultural stories has too few reference frames to actually take advantage of static technical knowlege. A rather recent and big pet peeve of mine is really realizing just how little people understand Huckleberry Finn. It’s not hard to read, the moral isn’t hard to grasp, and most teens *do* get it on a shallow level. It doesn’t stick though, and the deeper awareness is always overwashed by the dominant media themes that contradict that story. Same failure of process happens for *all* knowlege, which is why real knowledge and talent has to be collected from diverse groups and situations.

32

lemuel pitkin 08.03.10 at 7:07 am

Boldface in blog conversations = spittle-in-face in offline conversations.

Just saying.

33

lemuel pitkin 08.03.10 at 7:11 am

The number of people required to sustain an industrialized society is arguably falling. Provided that you can maintain access to your information store (kind of a necessity if your spaceship is going to continue to work) you can re-establish any necessary skill.

I’m pretty confident this opinion is held only people who don’t possess any necessary skill, by even a generous definition of necessary. The map is not the territory.

34

Harald Korneliussen 08.03.10 at 7:23 am

Talk physical skills and it gets worse: look at how much of the old traditional professions can be learned from books and how much you have to learn it while working at it, how many simple tricks were lost as the last practitioners died and had to be relearned undsoweiter. It’s no different with modern professions.

Examples would be interesting. I’m sort of generally aware that preservationists struggle with doing things “right” in order to make them correct and durable, but I can’t think of many examples – other than that flat roofs and standing boards on houses turned out to be a bad idea in certain climates. But those are still being built, so what do I know.

35

Vincent Archer 08.03.10 at 8:13 am

It seems we get the same “I believe in the tooth fairy” people here as we do on Charlie’s blog :)

The original challenge from Mr Stross was to keep a society working at a functional and economical level of a 2010 western society; meaning you get to keep your standard of living. You have fast travel anywhere on the planet, instant com, tracking of everything, etc, etc.

Once you accept that you don’t have GPS anymore, or you can’t take a plane to the other side of the world without bankrupting yourself, then the numbers required start falling. The example given there was the neurosurgery team. If, like PHB thinks, you have 1000 people around, then if you have a problem requiring intervention… why, you die. With 1000 people around, there’s no neurosurgery specialist : you’re going to be operated by your general MD. Going from manuals. We all can guess how it’s going to end.

The other argument is economical. Most of our production/occupational niches in a modern society require a lot of customers to exist. In the 70s, an estimate was made that you needed over 150k people to justify the existence of ONE microchip designer. Less than 150k? It’s not economical to have a full-time designer, so instead of a professional, you get an amateur chip designer, who does other things inbetween designing new chips, and thus has less experience (and, of course, no peers – he has to be able to design the chip on his own).

At 1000 people, you have a pre-industrial society (with post-industrial knowledge lying around). There are no factories around: each item you use has to be crafted individually or in small batches, which means it costs a lot more than the chinese mass-produced items we’re now used to have. Your cell phone will probably cost more than your monthly wage, so you’ll do without probably. And so on…

You probably could recreate the modern 2010 society starting from 1000 people. If you’re willing to wait a thousand year or so while they grow back to multi-million population.

36

Tim Worstall 08.03.10 at 8:48 am

“So it was in Tasmania. It’s not a question of small population. The polynesians had much smaller populations, but their more advanced philosophy and more ferocious motivations kept them searching for more progress and technological solutions.”

Deeply unconvinced of that. The Tasmanians did not have seagoing technology. The Polynesians did. While individual Polynesian island populations might have been smaller than the Tasman one, they were still linked to each other.

37

Seeds 08.03.10 at 9:08 am

Boldface in blog conversations = spittle-in-face in offline conversations.

I don’t know. I read it as some kind of secret code:

static dynamic coal mining collected does do all

??

38

Doug M. 08.03.10 at 9:18 am

“While individual Polynesian island populations might have been smaller than the Tasman one, they were still linked to each other.”

…not really, no.

Pacific long-distance sailing technology blinked on and off over time; various groups kept it, lost it, and regained it again over centuries. To give the most famous example, the Hawaiians at the time of European contact had lost the ability to sail beyond the Hawaiian archipelago. They remembered the ancestral home islands to the south, but had not visited there in centuries.

Similarly, at the time of the high _latte_ stone culture, the Chamorros of the Marianas islands regularly undertook blue-water journeys covering hundreds of miles, and very probably visited the Philippines. (When Magellan showed up, they knew perfectly well what iron was, even though they no longer had any.) However, the latte stone culture collapsed catastrophically in the 13th century, and the shipbuilding skills were lost; by the time Magellan showed up, no Chamorro had sailed beyond the Marianas for at least 200 years.

On the other hand, the Carolinians retained their long-distance navigation skills through at least a century, and probably two or three, of near-complete disuse. When a massive typhoon rendered most of their largest atoll uninhabitable in the early 1800s, they undertook a successful mass migration over nearly 1000 miles of blue water to the Marianas. (Which is why the island of Saipan, even today, has two distinct ethnic groups — Chamorro and Carolinian.) As far as we can tell, the crucial shipbuilding and navigation skills were preserved for generations by a combination of oral tradition and string-and-shell charts.

Not to niggle. But the Pacific was huge, and complicated; the relevant history is 3,000 years deep and covers a quarter of the planet. Sweeping statements like “they were still linked to each other” are, well, wrong. Some were, some weren’t.

Doug M.

39

Seeds 08.03.10 at 9:34 am

Also (since it seems to have caught a lot of imaginations) is Charlie’s question the right one to ask in terms of space colonisation? Do we need a maintain our current level of civilisation while colonising space?

Traditionally, colonists have had to put up with much more risky conditions than they would have had to suffer back home, which makes me wonder about the medical specialist argument. As a volunteer in an extreme environment, is it reasonable to accept that there are a greater number of otherwise treatable injuries that can kill you? (e.g. mountaineers, or soldiers in warzones)

And a final, possibly irrelevant and certainly poorly-thought-through point: Charlie notes that “Cars are no longer user-serviceable because they’re nearly as complex as 1960s airliners” but 1960s airliners could still fly between continents… and the Apollo guidance computer, which got us to the moon, had 2k of memory. In some respects we might have more complex technology than we need for certain tasks.

40

Doug M. 08.03.10 at 9:59 am

Here’s a data point: the Spanish colony on Guam. (Chosen because it is tolerably well documented.) The Spanish decimated the native population in the late 1600s, but by 1720 a stable Creole colony was well established, and it lasted with very little change for the next century-plus.

With the possible exception of the Greenland Norse, Spanish Guam was the single most isolated European colony anywhere ever. It was nearly three years travel away from the homeland and several weeks sail away from the next closest colony. The Manila galleons visited once per year; otherwise, the island was left almost entirely alone. The Guamanians could build small fishing craft, but not galleons or blue-water ocean vessels, so they were completely isolated.

The population was pretty stable between 3,000 and 5,000 for most of this period. There were almost no economically significant imports beyond modest amounts of iron, which were imported and then endlessly recycled by local smiths.

So: in ~150 years of near complete isolation, how far did they regress?

– Hardly at all. They were very isolated, and not much changed, but there was never any sort of regression.

Colonial Guam — with a tiny resource base and a population that never exceeded 5,000 people — maintained an early 18th century level of technology and social organization. They had iron tools and blacksmiths to work them; forges and bellows; needles and razors; a small printing press; oil lamps and candles; cotton and linen cloth; sugar, coffee, and tea, and locally made teacups to drink them from. They had a glassblower. They could make parchment for official documents (goatskin; a bit too hot for sheep), and cheap paper (from cloth scraps) for less important stuff, to feed the one printing press. The Governor held a reception on the first Friday of every month, and if you squinted you could think you were in a provincial town in Castile.

If Guam c. 1750 had been cut off from human contact, but allowed access to metals somehow… well, in a few hundred years, they’d probably still have an early 18th century level of technology. I could see some skills getting lost through chance (the one glassblower and both his apprentices are killed in a fire), but they’d still have razors and pulleys, tread looms and needles, oil lamps and candles, barrels, nails, saws and axes, hinges, latches and locks, boats with cotton sails and rudders… pretty much the whole technological array of a small Mediterranean town c. 1700.

The population of Spanish Guam is of the same order of magnitude as the population of precontact Tasmania (3,000 – 5,000 versus an estimated 10,000). On one hand, the Guamanians were only imperfectly isolated for about 150 years, not completely isolated for 13,000 years. On the other, Tasmania is almost 200 times bigger than Guam, with a correspondingly larger and more diverse resource base.

Anyway. I’d take Guam as a proof-of-concept for the proposition that “A few thousand people, with a modest resource base, can maintain an advanced pre-industrial culture roughly equivalent to Europe around 1700, with agriculture, metalworking, books, and a wide array of complex tools, sustained over generations if not centuries.” I’m willing to go a lot further than that, but I’d say Guam sets a baseline.

Doug M.

41

Emma in Sydney 08.03.10 at 10:00 am

‘Sure the efficiency of various surgical procedures are going to be lower, but how much disease are the colonists going to be taking with them?’

Well, without effective surgery, about 15% are going to die of appendicitis. And a significant number of women and babies will die in childbirth. That’s not nothing, and that’s without infectious diseases.

42

Harald Korneliussen 08.03.10 at 11:03 am

Tim Worstall, Doug M:

Yes, Pacific islanders were pretty isolated, and they did indeed lose quite a bit of useful technology (bow and arrow, pottery) because of it. Heinrich reminded me of that in the linked article, although I first learned it from Jared Diamond (like so much else).

The differences from Tasmania are comprehensible enough. A couple of hundreds of years of fragmentation and partial isolation, vs. ten thousand years of absolute isolation.

43

Doug M. 08.03.10 at 12:09 pm

“Yes, Pacific islanders were pretty isolated, and they did indeed lose quite a bit of useful technology (bow and arrow, pottery) because of it.”

…um. Some Pacific groups lost the bow and pottery; some groups kept them. Polynesians lost both, it’s true. On the other hand, Polynesians made a huge number of other advances, in everything from shipbuilding to agriculture. Hawaiians c. 1700 AD were overall quite a bit more advanced than their Lapita Culture ancestors back on New Caledonia had been c. 1700 BC.

“although I first learned it from Jared Diamond (like so much else).”

OK, wince. Jared Diamond is sloppy at best, riddled with errors at worst. The nicest thing you can say about him is that he’s a good gateway drug for a lot of interesting topics. But you really don’t want to use him as a primary authority.

Doug M.

44

Irrelephant 08.03.10 at 1:10 pm

Well, Oliver Evans never saw a steam engine, yet he built one from scratch. In fact, he built a high pressure steam engine, which never existed before. It helps that he lived in an “open shop” society of skilled generalists (debunking the myth: plenty of skilled specialists around in colonial America, just no demand for their services, so…). It’s not the brain and book, it’s the brains that matters. Interacting brains. So, yes, there is some minimum number of brains (and hands and bodies to conect them) required, but that minimum is probably quite small. And yes, we can perform inhuman experiments to determine exactly how small.

But, personally, as someone who is interested in technological history (some people collect watches, I collect skills), if civilization falls tomorrow, I on my own could get us back to 1830 pretty damn quick – with no tools, and no books.

45

bianca steele 08.03.10 at 1:31 pm

Clearly, there is a continuum, from knowing how to do something immediately by just looking at the problem, to being able to figure it out if you thrash around enough, discuss it with colleagues, etc., and it’s true that this is probably related to the distinction between having access to the written information and not having the information written yet, but that this has little to do with how large a number of people you have to have to get something done.

That said, I hope by this, I immediately started re-working the parts I thought crap., PHB means something different from what was meant the last time I heard someone say that.

46

Irrelephant 08.03.10 at 1:31 pm

Oh silly me. Ishould have read Stross’s essay first. 100 million sounds about right.

But! (and it is big but) I suspect that number goes down in a more advanced tech society. If we offload the entire thread of an article onto robots, a von Neumann replicator system, we need far less people. And by thread, I mean the entire chain of events required to produce the article. Take a cob of corn. What does it take to automate the production? Quite a lot. Robots to plant, tend, harvest, store, transport to market, plus robots to build/maintain those robots, plus robots to take of them. We are not there yet, but let’s say we were. How many people are needed in a robot farm world?

47

Tim Worstall 08.03.10 at 1:35 pm

“I could see some skills getting lost through chance (the one glassblower and both his apprentices are killed in a fire)”

Yes….

“On one hand, the Guamanians were only imperfectly isolated for about 150 years, not completely isolated for 13,000 years.”

And there will be an awful lot of accidents over 13,000 years.

“On the other, Tasmania is almost 200 times bigger than Guam, with a correspondingly larger and more diverse resource base.”

I think this works the other way around. 5,000 people over 200 times the area isn’t “a society” in quite the same way. The Tasmans were more likely to have been in groups of what, 30-50 as hunter gatherers all over Tasmania rather than mostly urban in Spanish Guam? So many societies rather than one?

But then what do I know about it, I’m relying upon Diamond…..

48

alex 08.03.10 at 1:38 pm

But, Irrelephant, have you had your appendix out? If not, it sounds like we’re taking an awful chance relying on you. Or do you do self-surgery without anaesthetic too?

49

BureauCat 08.03.10 at 1:41 pm

How many colonies are self-sufficient, at their original level of technology, from Day One? Most of the colonies set up by European powers weren’t even self-sufficient in food (many of them starved) in their early years. But they established a beach-head, scouted the area, and cleared some land. Then, over time, the specialists arrived. On Day One, all you need is survival skills.

I love Jane Jacobs’s example of a colony that imports bicycles, and then learns bicycle-repair, and then starts to make some bicycle-parts locally, and in time it makes its own bicycles and even exports them.

Also, if we put a colony on Mars, does it need to be able to build a spaceship to Mars? At that point, Mars is already occupied. They won’t worry much about moving off Mars until many generations have passed.

Third, colonists have a large head start that comes from just knowing a technology is possible. Several non-literate societies got a mere glimpse of literacy (seeing a European writing in a journal) and, without further instruction, invented their own systems of writing. Or– Knowing the general shape of the Internet, colonists could really focus their R&D along the direct path to success, rather than stumbling along. Finding something the first time is agonizingly hard; finding it a second time is, well, less hard.

50

Doug M. 08.03.10 at 1:41 pm

“Well, without effective surgery, about 15% are going to die of appendicitis.”

Hm. Cite?

“And a significant number of women and babies will die in childbirth.”

Obstetrical death rates in premodern societies seem to be consistently around 1% or a bit more. (By way of comparison, the obstetrical death rate — also known as the “Maternal Mortality Ratio”, or MMR — is about 12 per 100,000 births in the US today That’s high for a developed country, but tiny compared to ~1,000 per 100,000.)

Doug M.

51

Pete 08.03.10 at 1:49 pm

I think social institutions are probably more crucial than the simple number of people involved. Ultimately they determine what’s feasible in terms of tasks that require more than one person, or involve economies of scale, or affect collective survival or public health. This can be seen in the spread and decline of the Roman empire: most places the Romans weren’t overrun or driven out, they became less Roman and more local, giving up the habits of public buildings and legal institutions.

This isn’t a well-developed idea, but I’d be interested to see CT’s thoughts on it.

52

ajay 08.03.10 at 1:53 pm

without effective surgery, about 15% are going to die of appendicitis.

About 1 in 10. So, close.

Cite, for Doug: Addiss DG, Shaffer N, Fowler BS, et al. The epidemiology of appendicitis and appendectomy in the United States. American Journal of Epidemiology. 1990; 132: 910-925.

53

Doug M. 08.03.10 at 1:59 pm

“The Tasmans were more likely to have been in groups of what, 30-50 as hunter gatherers all over Tasmania rather than mostly urban in Spanish Guam? So many societies rather than one?”

The best evidence we have is that the Tasmanians were in nine fairly distinct geographical groups — you could call them “tribes” — each of which, in turn was divided into a number of bands. If you think of 10,000 people divided into groups of ~1,000 each, divided in turn into bands of 50-100 people each, you probably wouldn’t be far wrong.

OTOH, there seems to have been a high degree of linguistic and cultural unity. AFAWCT, all the groups spoke mutually intelligible dialects of the same language, performed similar or identical dances, songs and rituals, and had exactly the same technological toolkit.

So, not exactly “many societies”. One culture, just spread out rather sparsely across the landscape.

Spanish Guam was a collection of villages plus one small town — I’m not sure you could call it “mostly urban”. The largest community was Aganya, the capital, with 1,000 – 2,000 people.

Incidentally, the exact number of Tasmanians remains a hotly disputed topic; that figure of “10,000” is probably close to the current median guess, but there is definitely not a clear consensus. Archeological evidence plus the few records of contact point towards a somewhat lower number; what little genetic evidence we have, towards a higher one. It’s still very much a live and open debate.

“But then what do I know about it, I’m relying upon Diamond…”

In all seriousness, quoting Diamond as an authoritative source will make you look stupid. Don’t take my word for it! Start a discussion with someone who knows his/her stuff in one of the relevant fields, then throw in ‘well I learned from reading Diamond that’ and watch the reaction.

Alternately, two minutes with google will reveal the existence of a fairly large corpus of literature critiquing Diamond. (Also a rather hair-raising lawsuit against him personally for just making stuff up out of whole cloth, though that’s perhaps only marginally relevant.)

Doug M.

54

Doug M. 08.03.10 at 2:06 pm

Thanks for the cite. Let’s see: “A life table model suggests that the lifetime risk of appendicitis is 8.6% for males and 6.7% for females”

The given risk of an /appendectomy/ is higher, but presumably that’s because there are a certain number of prophylactic appendectomies.

Anyway. The net lifetime risk of appendicitis would seem to be around 7.5% — half what the original commenter gave, but still rather high. Interesting.

Doug M.

55

shah8 08.03.10 at 3:09 pm

Lemuel Pitkin, I did not intentionally bold the words. I put * on each side.

AAAAAaaanyways…trade maintains knowlege by reinforcing support structure for knowledge.

56

Henry 08.03.10 at 3:11 pm

We have textile formatting enabled for comments – stars on both sides of your text will do that.

57

Tim Worstall 08.03.10 at 3:39 pm

“In all seriousness, quoting Diamond as an authoritative source will make you look stupid. “

As I gathered from your earlier comment which is why I mentioned it. Reinforcing my usual positioning around here…..

58

roac 08.03.10 at 3:47 pm

Some Pacific groups lost the bow and pottery; some groups kept them. Polynesians lost both, it’s true.

Is the raw material for pottery (clay) available on a coral island? Just asking.

59

Henry 08.03.10 at 3:56 pm

Just to note (since no-one else has noted it) that the title of this post is itself an unintentional example of lossy transmission …

60

LizardBreath 08.03.10 at 4:34 pm

58: I’m not sure about the answer to your question about coral islands, but plenty of Polynesian islands are volcanic, and there are archeological remnants of locally produced pottery in Samoa at least (and I assume lots of other places, but I know about Samoa offhand).

61

Tracy W 08.03.10 at 4:35 pm

Isn’t the problem the rate of production even more than the rate of learning? One of the reasons we have high living standards is not just because of the new ideas, but because of how many things we have. For example, we can use a needle once for a medical injection and then chuck it away, lowering the risk of spreading infection by sharing needles, because needles are really cheap to make. Why are needles really cheap to make? Because we use a lot of them, so it’s worthwhile specialising in the skills and machinery to be really good at making needles. We could make needles with more generic machinery and skills, but then they would take up more of people’s resources, so we would have to economise more on needles, so at some point, as the population size falls, people would start reusing needles or having to go without. Or we could have specialised equipment and skills for making needles, but the time spent making and maintaining that would mean less time for making and maintaining something else.

62

LizardBreath 08.03.10 at 4:46 pm

Right. You get a very different answer (not that I know within a couple of orders of magnitude what it is) if you’re looking for a society that can, if necessary, accomplish or produce any particular thing or task that we can now accomplish or produce, as opposed to a society that’s indistinguishable from our current society in terms of standard of living. The second is going to be a lot bigger than the first.

63

Doug M. 08.03.10 at 5:03 pm

“Is the raw material for pottery (clay) available on a coral island?”

It’s an excellent question. The answer is, yes and no. Yes if you’re on a “high” island, like Guam, Samoa or Hawaii. (Anyone who’s spent time on Guam will tell you that the southern half of the island is all red clay soil, which turns into astonishingly slick red mud when wet.) No if you’re on a “low” island, a coral atoll — you get coral and maybe limestone and the sands they produce, and that’s it.

So maybe the Polynesians lost pottery because they bottlenecked through coral atolls for a while at some point? Well, maybe, but there are problems with that. OTOH, there are problems with the other proposed explanations too. It’s tricky.

Doug M.

64

Hungry Bear 08.03.10 at 5:19 pm

The current appendicitis rate of 7.5% is higher than it would be if we had no surgical care. A little googling shows that diet plays a role in the risk. Today we eat whatever we want because appendicitis is rarely fatal. When we are in primitive or remote parts of the world we change behaviors to counter increased risks, don’t we?

65

Irrelephant 08.03.10 at 5:24 pm

alex@48,

I think you missed the point. Brains plural. Just in case I get shot in the head or something, I don’t hoard information. I pass it around, you know like in human society?

66

bvir 08.03.10 at 5:46 pm

Talk physical skills and it gets worse: look at how much of the old traditional professions can be learned from books and how much you have to learn it while working at it, how many simple tricks were lost as the last practitioners died and had to be relearned undsoweiter. It’s no different with modern professions.

Examples would be interesting.

Some time ago, I heard a radio programme with an archaeologist discussing his work on investigating and preserving everyday artifacts (made of textile, leather, wood, etc). Restoration requires an in-depth knowledge of the way these objects were manufactured, and he specializes in reconstructing them on the basis of techniques used originally. He gave the example of a cobbler technique involving sewing with boar bristles. He had at his disposal several books giving detailed descriptions of how to perform the procedure, some dating back to the 17th century, but despite this, he never managed to get it right. When he met an old cobbler who had made his apprenticeship before WWII, it went like “Oh, that? It has been ages… But no problem, sit down, I show you how to do it.” A few minutes were then enough to learn the trick.
He gave knitting as another example. With very few exceptions, nobody ever learns knitting from books, but by sitting beside mother/grandmother/aunt/older sister, seeing how it is done, and reproducing the movements.
As for re-establishing technology from documentation, I hope everybody realizes the importance of solving a few non-trivial questions: Is the technology of interest fully described in books (everything of interest must be documented)? If so, in which ones (everything must be classified, tagged, indexed)? If so, where are they (everything must be collected, preserved, accessible, searchable)? If we have them, are they usable (every terminology, language, script must be intelligible)?
As an aside, there is one technology that was developed in the early 20th century, was lost in the 1940s, and was then re-born in the 1990s: the zeppelin. Interestingly, the technology was not so much ressuscitated as re-invented: it was not only tedious to comb for engineering archives and fill the missing parts, it was deemed more practical to elaborate novel technical solutions to design the zeppelins of the newer generation. The current ones might look like the older ones of the 1920s/1930s, but they are not just smaller, they are also structurally quite different.

67

alex 08.03.10 at 5:47 pm

Sorry, but when you say things like “if civilization falls tomorrow, I on my own could get us back to 1830 pretty damn quick – with no tools, and no books”, really what do you expect?

68

alex 08.03.10 at 5:49 pm

Meanwhile, I think we’re close to acknowledging that there are complex and contingent historical explanations for every up and down of a particular culture or group of cultures. Connecting any of that to speculation about what might happen in a future, unrelated scenario is, as Peter Snow always says early on Election Night, just a piece of fun.

69

LizardBreath 08.03.10 at 5:56 pm

So maybe the Polynesians lost pottery because they bottlenecked through coral atolls for a while at some point? Well, maybe, but there are problems with that.

The sort of thing that could happen, but given that there was pottery in Samoa, and there’s clay in Samoa, and pottery wasn’t being produced at contact with Europeans, it can’t have been lost there by bottlenecking through a coral island.

70

Aulus Gellius 08.03.10 at 6:09 pm

“Obstetrical death rates in premodern societies seem to be consistently around 1% or a bit more.”

The implications of this could stand to be made more clear. That’s 1% of all births, not all women who give birth (right?). If you want your space colony to survive, the average woman who lives to adulthood has to give birth more than twice (depending on the rates of infant and child mortality, which are also going to go up without a lot of specialist doctors). So that’s a lot of women dying in childbirth, and, of course, taking their own specialist skills with them.

71

mpowell 08.03.10 at 6:47 pm

I don’t like Stross’ chain of reasoning: given the population needed to maintain current living standards, space colonization is impossible.

First, I will tell you right now that cell phone technology would be developing at a vastly slower pace with 100M people. The industry sells 1B phones a year and that funds an enormous R&D effort. With a base of 100M people, you would get cell phones, but they would suck more and also be more expensive. I don’t think this is really the right question anyhow (why would it be?). The question is probably one of simply maintaining technical knowledge or capability. And right away you realize the Tasmania example is not very relevant for many reasons. First data storage and secondly, is this space-going civilization really isolated or not? Postulating a interstellar colonization effort with slower than light travel just seems really odd. There are some extremely light high value items and expertise that could be imported more cheaply than locally constructed if you are only talking about Mars. So while the 100M number sounds about right to me for the definition Stross proposes (though I could be talked down a bit, probably), I don’t think it’s at all the right number for inter-system space colonization. Interstellar, perhaps.

72

Landru 08.03.10 at 7:02 pm

Wow, but everyone seems to be off the beam here. What limits technological progress, invention, and building is not learning and knowledge, but political organization.

Plunked down in any reasonable part of the world with a start-up food supply, I and a group of say 50 dedicated generalists could build a mine and a forge and start building tools within, say, a few years using only what’s printed in books. We’ll be ready to re-start the industrial revolution … right up until another group comes up with clubs, axes and spears and takes it away from us, after which they dole out hammers and sickles (but not spears) only in exchange for serf-level devotion of servitude.

Technology can hum along at a very high level with educated generalists, as long as the society as a whole supports them. In real history, though, this rarely if ever happens; oligarchies seize wealth, and entrenched interests prevent progress. Western civilization right now could end dependence on fossil hydrocarbons for energy, for example, for a relatively trivial amount of money, pennies on the dollar of the whole economy; the reasons it won’t happen are not technical, they’re political. The American moon landing is often described as a technical triumph, but really it’s better described as a political triumph which allowed that amount of wealth to be gathered and smoothly dedicated to such a goal.

Given protection, direction and resources, technology is easy; it’s the politics to arrange that which is hard.

73

Zamfir 08.03.10 at 7:15 pm

mpowell, Charlie Stross’s case is argued against a very specific science fiction wet dream, where the high and mighty spacers live their advanced free lives on the frontier while the commoners deservedly toil away at earth. I am afraid the L-word is involved.

It’s one thing to have space colonies the way Spain had Guam. But it’s quite another to have the US-in-space, complete with Even More Freedom, which is what he is arguing against.

Also, a particular brand of space fans like to talk about the need for a “backup” in case earth get wiped out like the dinosaurs. Combined with the Advanced Spacers vs lowly Earthers idea, people thinking about such wipeout scenarios look a bit, well let’s stay polite.

74

Barry Allen 08.03.10 at 7:39 pm

Fundamental problems in the concepts in question are the notions of a necessity for complexity in and of itself to meet goals of sufficiency, and an a priori assumption of decline. First case: bicycles. My first multi-speed bicycle required a large number of tools to maintain it-wrenches, pin spanners, specialized wrenches and clamps. My newer bike requires far fewer tools-allen wrenches in three sizes, crescent wrench, and one pin spanner. Is my new bike less capable because it requires less complex tools to maintain? In a similar vein one could compare the Volkswagen Beetle to British marques of the same time. VW required only a few tools to maintain, and few parts, while an MG for example requires a vast array of tools and parts to maintain. Which one is more sufficient for transportation duties?
Second, the assumption that things decline from the outset is not borne out by facts in any case I can think of. Things change and adapt to meet the needs and desires of a population. In space that would mean the evolution of a simple space suit with a few robust parts that could be repaired by a capable user in the field, and not the hyper complex monkey suits NASA tailors for each user. Another adaptation would be the acceptance of “slop” and field engineered solutions, e.g. duct tape, krazy glue, and JB weld. Solutions designed to increase overall efficiency with acceptable losses of efficiency in less critical subtasks of the enterprise.
In cars, airplanes, and computers, it is important to remember that the early adopter is an enthusiast who is also his or her own mechanic and engineer. Space flight and colonization will be no different once it leaves the NASA/military mindset that demands gold plated quadruple redundancies everywhere. Think Firefly as opposed to Star Trek.

75

chris 08.03.10 at 8:03 pm

There are some extremely light high value items and expertise that could be imported more cheaply than locally constructed if you are only talking about Mars.

And the same argument holds even more strongly for information, including education carried on partly or entirely by telecommunications. If you can e-mail complete specs of your prototype and video of what it’s doing that wasn’t what you expected back to Earth for consultants to mull over, the fact that the man on the spot on Mars may be a semi-amateur is far less important.

Of course, for that to be viable in the long term, Mars has to be providing something of value that Earth wants. The market for information about Mars is probably rather limited, so if you assume tourism is impractical, what else do you do when that runs out? (This is, of course, tied into the bigger question of *why* colonize Mars in the first place?)

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Doug M. 08.03.10 at 8:20 pm

“The implications of this could stand to be made more clear. That’s 1% of all births, not all women who give birth (right?).”

Yes, it’s around 1% of all births.

Further details: that’s around 1% of all births in premodern agricultural societies. It doesn’t cover hunter-gatherers; the data there is scantier, and disputed, but the rate seems to be lower there. A tentative guess is that back in 10,000 BC, for premodern hunter-gatherers the MMR was maybe half that.

In a few very-messed-up modern societies it’s over 1%. Last time I looked, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone were holding down the bottom slots, both with rates approaching 2%. Which is pretty hair raising, especially when combined with the high number of births per woman, but that’s probably a topic for another thread.

However: in agricultural societies, those numbers are skewed by inequality. Agricultural societies tend to have more people who are suffering from malnutrition and disease. Obstetric mortality tends to hit the poorest of the poor much harder. A rich but very unequal society is likely to have a higher MMR than a poorer but more equal one.

Anyway: a key point to keep in mind is that it’s possible to drop MMR dramatically with a fairly short list of cheap, low-tech interventions. Midwives with basic OB training + basic hygiene + access to cheap, simple medicines* = the rate drops below 0.5%.

Case study: Uganda. Uganda is about as poor as Sierra Leone; they’re both among the poorest countries on earth. But while SL is still recovering from a vicious, protracted civil war that completely trashed the health system, Uganda has had a generation of peace in which to rebuild a functioning public health network. Very very poor, but functioning. And they’ve done a decent job of getting the stuff listed above out to the villages. Result: Uganda’s MMR is around 450 per 100,000, about a quarter of SL’s.

Obviously one can adjust the bars on a thought experiment to taste, but I’m having trouble imagining a hypothetical colony that’s poorer and more screwed up than Uganda.

* Basic painkillers, antiseptics, and antibiotics. “Basic” here means stuff that can be made in a basement by someone with a few hundred bucks of equipment, widely available ingredients, and a couple of good books. That list is longer than you think; it includes several good basic antiseptics, a couple of painkillers, and most of the drugs that end in -cillin. (Maternal health is not my field! but pharmaceutical supply chains in developing countries, those I can talk about.)

Doug M.

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piglet 08.03.10 at 8:23 pm

Doug M or anybody else, could you cite some good critiques of Jared Diamond?

When I read Diamond, I was impressed but also suspicious – it normally doesn’t happen that somebody with really good and innovative ideas becomes famous and widely read and gets so much praise from the mainstream media. So I was looking for critical reviews from experts but found very little. Almost all reviews I found were positive if not glowing and had at most minor criticisms. If anybody has references that are really critical and point to major errors, those will be highly appreciated.

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Doug M. 08.03.10 at 8:23 pm

Lizardbreath @69, yeah, that’s kind of a big stumbling block. The fact that we’re still not completely sure just when the Samoans gave up pottery is an additional complication.

I love this debate — I used to live on a Pacific Island — but it’s for sure not my field, and I’m not qualified to take it any further. But if you know more, I’d really be interested.

Doug M.

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Omega Centauri 08.03.10 at 8:29 pm

A lot of interesting discussions. I have a related (but actually very important to the future) question. “Given the gradual -or perhaps not so gradual depletion of a lot of material resources, what level of civilization is sustainable over the long haul?” And recycling of used materials is rarely 100%, so scarce materials are gradually dispersed into a form that makes them uneconomical to maintain. And going to ever decreasing quality of Ore has its limitations. Add in Landrau’s correct (but depressing) observation and it is an open question whether a high level of technology is sustainable over thousands of years. Perhaps the answer to the Fremi paradox (very roughly:If there are so many planets and the universe is so old, why hasn’t ET visited us?)is that perhaps high tech is only sustainable for a few hundred years, and decays long before ET can travel through space.

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David 08.03.10 at 8:40 pm

As long as you can brew decent beer.

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mpowell 08.03.10 at 8:42 pm

Zamfir,

I suppose that’s fine and all, it just becomes very vague when you are looking at those types of scenarios since they are so far divorced from the current state of technology. Space travel will be far too expensive for the foreseeable future to have any economic rationale, so it’s hard to say what we’re talking about. But I could imagine a couple possibilities that might make a libertarian giddy. One simple example would be a society where independent space-travelers run about mining minerals or performing some other useful economic activity which they use to trade with an earth or planet bound portion of the population for the few things they need to maintain their existence. In that case, the technological infrastructure is being maintained planet-side, but it is not limiting the activity of spacefarers. And if multiple planets are populated it becomes increasingly less likely that political organizations could constrain the activities of these individuals. This seems plausible in a future with very few resource constraints (there is plenty of energy out there after all).

I think Stross is correct that maintaining an advanced civilization would require a substantial population base. But the connections between the separate elements of this society required to maintain the technology may be more tenuous than what is required for political elements to use them for coercive purposes. So drawing any further conclusion is problematic.

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Geezer 08.03.10 at 8:48 pm

To get back to the original point, I agree partially with Stross’ argument in that a lot of people would be required to create a completely isolated society that was actually thriving. With the appropriate food stores and survival equipment, I’m sure a group of 100 could survive on the moon for a few years. One the other hand, it is unlikely that the same number of people would be around 50 years later without an incredible amount of luck. In fact, if the population were unlucky a random storm, earthquake, or roving band of Cylons could wipe them out immediately.

Regarding Stross’ example of the space suit, it would take a lot of people to build, repair, and improve upon space suits for the existing population and new children born in the colony. The same argument can be made for any essential item required for a thriving population (e.g. food, shelter, communications). Of course they wouldn’t need luxury items to thrive, but they would need enough people build, repair, and improve every single item in the colony. Even if the colony is organized like a commune, this is still a large number of people.

The only thing I don’t necessarily agree with is the 100 million person number. I don’t see why a much smaller community numbering in the hundreds of thousands wouldn’t have enough experts, laborers, and eager apprentices to survive. Either way, I think Stross’ main point was to chastise space enthusiasts who are quick to assume that this could all be accomplished with minimal improvements upon our existing society. More specifically, he was arguing that we need to learn how to crawl before pulling high-g turns in our fighter jets.

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Marc 08.03.10 at 9:12 pm

Re Diamond: I am honestly suspicious of the criticisms of his work that I typically see, largely because they tend to reflect generic weaknesses of professional critiques of science popularizers. One very typical line of criticism is pedantry: e.g. in a good popular account one wants to highlight the essential elements of complex issues, and this always requires some degree of simplification. Those buried in the details frequently get upset. There is also professional jealousy (“why is Carl Sagan so famous when I think my science is better”) and what I’d classify as boundary maintenance. The latter is especially relevant for someone like Diamond. Diamond also seems to attract ideologically charged opposition from anthropologists; see the Savage Minds blogs for examples which I thought went away with the academic PC fights of the 1980s.

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LizardBreath 08.03.10 at 9:27 pm

I love this debate—I used to live on a Pacific Island—but it’s for sure not my field, and I’m not qualified to take it any further. But if you know more, I’d really be interested.

Sorry, I’m right where you are — I know a tiny bit because I used to live in Samoa, but no more than that.

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roac 08.03.10 at 9:28 pm

Doug M, lizardbreath, whoever: Can you point me to a good & accessible source that summarizes current thinking about how, when & by whom the various Pacific archipelagos came to be populated? Evidently a fascinating topic & one I know little or nothing about.

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Matt L 08.03.10 at 10:35 pm

didn’t Douglas Adams already prove this point? You know the story about the planet where the elites concoct a narrative of imminent planetary destruction by Asteroid? They build three space ships: one for the smart people, one for the worker bee types who make things, and a third for all the inconvenient middle men (real estate agents, phone sanitizers, etc). The middle men jet off into deep space, the other two stay behind. The society prospers for a couple hundred years and then dies off suddenly because of a disease passed on by an sanitized telephone. The middle men survive as intergalactic nomads who sponge off of others…

I think there is a Simpsons reference to this in one of the later seasons…

Does anyone on this thread really believe that there is just one part of society we can do without? or that there is an expert that can be replaced by a few manuals and an Anorak with INTERNET access and a lot of time on his hands?

If so I’d like to invite you to prove your point by coming over to my house and fix the plumbing for free.

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Irrelephant 08.03.10 at 10:59 pm

Well, I didn’t mean to brag, but I think that my example refutes some of Henry’s argument. I can identify the ore, smelt the copper, cupola the iron, wootz the steel, hammer out the boilers, grind the machine tools, machine the cylinders, and stoke the furnace using flint and coal. And all these skills which get you from paleolithic to a locomotive are – through trial and error – from people who have been dead for hundreds of years and have imprecisely transmitted their knowledge. The important parts which I gratefully store in my head and all too willingly parcel out when the need arrives. Which is all to say, yes, this is all good fun, doesn’t prove anything, but I’ll bet some of you will want to hang with me in the post apocalypse.

As to tool kits, you know, speaking of context and contingency, there is alos a holism involved in our toolkits. You might want to look at the colonial American tool kit. The tool kit brought over from Europe (hammers, chisels, adzes, axes, etc.) changed little from the Middle Ages, and why should it? Any modification or addition inconventiently upset the entire repertoire of tool usage. Easier to lose a tool from the kit (as there is redundancy) than to add a new one. It is only when circumstances change that you see tool changes. Look at the axe. An American axe has a heftier head, a borader bit, and a curved blade on it, compare to the sturdy English axe. Amateurs needed to cut down lots of trees in America, not bash heads in when called to arms. And so the axe changes.

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JLR 08.03.10 at 11:54 pm

Can you grow flax, grow cotton, raise sheep, build a power loom, build a reaper, full and dye cloth, make paper, make ink, make a rope, dig a mine, quarry marble, make a rifle, make gunpowder, make a cannon, build and sail a three masted ship, design and build a cathedral?

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Irrelephant 08.04.10 at 12:00 am

Yes to most, and yes to the rest because I know people who can, and I’ll bet you do to, without knowing it.

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JLR 08.04.10 at 12:05 am

You would do Leon Battista Alberti proud.

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Emma in Sydney 08.04.10 at 12:52 am

Doug M @ 54 “The net lifetime risk of appendicitis would seem to be around 7.5%—half what the original commenter gave, but still rather high. Interesting.”

Sorry, I made the mistake of going on what a doctor told me after he removed my ruptured appendix and treated the incipient peritonitis, which was ‘roughly 1 in 7′. But even at 7.5%, given that it is more common in younger people and is always life-threatening without surgery, it would be quite an issue. It takes out young, useful, otherwise healthy people, in a way that is, as I can attest, agonising.

There’s little likelihood that it would have been learned about and guarded against in traditional societies, as even now, we don’t know what causes it, as there’s no pattern to it. Some people just got very sick and died.

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PHB 08.04.10 at 1:10 am

@Barry Allen

“In a similar vein one could compare the Volkswagen Beetle to British marques of the same time. VW required only a few tools to maintain, and few parts, while an MG for example requires a vast array of tools and parts to maintain. “

Oh complete rubbish. The whole point of MG was that it was a car that a man could run without the need for a chauffeur. The cars are amongst the simplest made in their era from the point of view of maintenance. An MGB can be repaired by a complete novice from instructions found on the Internet and in a small number of hobbyist manuals. That is at least my project after the dalek.

Stross strikes me as the sort of person who thinks that because he can’t do something, nobody can. And I think many others in this thread fall into the same trap.

We are not talking here about preserving knowledge in the manner of sad medieval monks from the name of the rose. We are talking here about how many people does it take to preserve the idea of progress and of how to acquire knowledge. A colonist mission is not going to need to preserve the entire corpus of modern arts, all they need to do is maintain the knowledge to recreate it when they find a need for it.

Arts are disposable knowledge since our colonists are going to have little else to occupy them during their multi-generation voyage. Even if they did somehow lose the ability to do a decent rendition of Shakespeare, they will produce their own.

And no, the principles of the Internet actually have very little to do with the work done by Babbage and precious little of what was done by Turing. Theoretical consideration of what happens when you connect one computer to another for a conversation started remarkably late. And in any case, very little of that thinking made it into the specs. They didn’t even start using even minimal formalisms like BNF until they had email going.

When we write Internet specifications, a key test of the spec is if it is possible for someone to write code to it from the spec alone. Now most times it turns out that getting one thing to work with another tends to take interop testing and such (the X.25 spec famously deviated from practice). But its pretty rare for the spec to be so bad that people can’t build something that works with itself. Seeing if people can do that is what we do routinely.

The reason space travel is implausible is that the stars are a heck of a long way a way and the speed of light is quite slow. It would take about 100 generations at 1 million mph to make it to the nearest star. The amount of energy required would be colossal and you would at minimum require one if not two fusion reactors to generate the energy, plus a store of mass to shoot out the opposite direction when accelerating and decelerating.

The idea that people cannot learn skills from books and videos is nonsense as is the idea that someone who cannot learn skills from books alone is capable of research quality work.

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Rebel Robot 08.04.10 at 1:19 am

Irrelephant @ 46: How many people are needed in a robot farm world?

NONE, PUNY HUMAN!

Bwahahahaha!

.

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PHB 08.04.10 at 1:23 am

@Omega Centauri

Some materials are rare and will possibly be exhausted. But there will never be much danger of running out of water, iron, carbon or silicon plus quite a few other basic materials, provided that is you have sufficient power.

We will probably exhaust out petrocarbons before too long, at which point we will end up growing food for plastic. There is very little you can’t build with steel, glass and plastic plus VLSI.

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Will McLean 08.04.10 at 2:50 am

Doug M @ 40:

Spanish colonial Guam? The local craftsmen could work iron, but not mine it or smelt it: that’s King Tut tech. Local textile and clothing technology was such that imported cloth could be marked up 800% and still sell.

If a fleet of ships arrives every year, and can import tools and cloth and soap and iron at a profit, that’s not truly isolated.

And those are the basic, essential goods. You can live without wine or chocolate, but I’d rather not.

Oh, and they could bring in schoolteachers and skilled craftsmen as needed.

18th century technology? Where are the lens grinders for the telescopes? The antimony smelters? The type founders? The craftsmen in the gunpowder mill? The shipwrights?

As a related data point, the local population arrived with the ability to do deepwater ocean voyages using neolithic technology. And once truly isolated, they lost it.

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garymar 08.04.10 at 2:59 am

What people are saying about Jared Diamond here is what, a couple of generations ago, they were saying about Toynbee: every expert respected Toynbee’s scholarship and conclusions except in their own field.

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Chris Crawford 08.04.10 at 5:52 am

I have long held that technological sophistication is driven primarily by population size. I realize that this is an eccentric belief, but the controlling factor, I believe, is the ability of workers to specialize. You really can’t have an iron industry until you have gotten a sufficient number of workers who can devote all their energies to mining the ore, transporting it to the smelter, gathering the wood for fuel, making the charcoal, and so on. Every technology we use is based on an ever-increasing number of support technologies. Your mobile phone is a wonder: it contains plastics that were machined in one factory, manufactured elsewhere from petroleum imported from elsewhere and so on. The electronics involves programmers, hardware designers, wafer fab plants, e-beam mask machines, silicon purifiers, and so on and on. I wouldn’t be surprised if the total number of people whose efforts contributed to getting that mobile phone into your hands would run into the tens of thousands. But then we must also consider all the people working on the stuff that makes it useful: the programmers, engineers, electricians, cable layers, antenna designers, HR people… again, the list gets longer and longer.

What we’re seeing is a system in which each person does a smaller and smaller portion of a task that is applied to a larger and larger number of instances. It’s just economies of scale at the macroeconomic level.

My conclusion: the number of people you need to sustain industrialized society at any designated level is probably close to the number of people participating in industrialized society at the point in history matching the level you designate.

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Harald Korneliussen 08.04.10 at 7:16 am

For the reality TV show about rebuilding an advanced civilisation on an isolated island, I propose the first match should be between PHB the Dalek-maker and Irrelephant the Heinleinan anti-insect. I’m rooting for the former until the latter confirms that he actually has hammered out a couple of boilers on his own.

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Doug M. 08.04.10 at 7:45 am

“Spanish colonial Guam? The local craftsmen could work iron, but not mine it or smelt it: that’s King Tut tech.”

…quick: what metal ores are available on Guam?

“Local textile and clothing technology was such that imported cloth could be marked up 800% and still sell.”

I’d like to see a cite for that. Imported clothing was expensive. Wool and cotton cloth they could make themselves, and — towards the end of the colonial period — small amounts of linen.

“If a fleet of ships arrives every year, and can import tools and cloth and soap and iron at a profit, that’s not truly isolated.”

…I already said that, yes.

I note in passing that the galleons were frequently disrupted by war; it was not unusual for them to skip a year, and on at least one occasion they skipped three years in a row.

“Oh, and they could bring in schoolteachers and skilled craftsmen as needed.”

The total number of “schoolteachers and skilled craftsmen” imported to Guam after the first two generations of colonization could probably be counted the fingers of one hand. For roughly a century there were almost no permanent immigrants whatsoever except for (1) the very occasional sailor jumping ship from a galleon, and (2) priests sent out from Spain. I suppose you could count the priests as “schoolteachers”, since they did serve that function sometimes, but it was mostly teaching basic literacy and religion to a small group — the children of what passed for Guam’s upper class.

(Incidentally, the first couple of waves of colonizing immigrants? Mostly from the Philippines, not Spain.)

“As a related data point, the local population arrived with the ability to do deepwater ocean voyages using neolithic technology. And once truly isolated, they lost it.”

…the Chamorros arrived on Guam around 2,000 BC, and kept the ability to make bluewater ocean voyages for the next 3,000 years or so. They seem to have kept it until at least 1200 AD, and may still have had the knowledge (without making regular use of it) when Magellan arrived. (This was much more common in the Pacific than people realize; see the example of the Carolinians, given at 38 above.) The high latte stone culture (c. 900 – 1300 AD) certainly had regular contact with the Carolines and Yap, and probably with the Philippines as well; as has been noted many times, when Magellan arrived, he met natives who knew perfectly well what iron was, even if they didn’t have any.

“18th century technology? Where are the lens grinders for the telescopes? The antimony smelters? The type founders? The craftsmen in the gunpowder mill? The shipwrights?”

…I specifically said Guam was comparable to a similarly sized European town around 1700. You seem to want to compare them to _ancien regime_ Paris.

Doug M.

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NomadUK 08.04.10 at 8:26 am

Zamfir@73: Also, a particular brand of space fans like to talk about the need for a “backup” in case earth get wiped out like the dinosaurs. Combined with the Advanced Spacers vs lowly Earthers idea, people thinking about such wipeout scenarios look a bit, well let’s stay polite.

I trust you’re not implying that those who subscribe to the first concept are necessarily adherents of the second.

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ajay 08.04.10 at 8:43 am

With the appropriate food stores and survival equipment, I’m sure a group of 100 could survive on the moon for a few years. One the other hand, it is unlikely that the same number of people would be around 50 years later without an incredible amount of luck. In fact, if the population were unlucky a random storm, earthquake, or roving band of Cylons could wipe them out immediately.

It would indeed be unlucky to be wiped out by a storm or an earthquake on an airless, seismically inactive world… the Cylons, however, are a constant threat.

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chris y 08.04.10 at 9:33 am

As a semi-data point, the population of Pitcairn was reduced to 34 by intracommunal violence after the original Bounty settlement, but had recovered to 66 and growing by the time contact was re-established in1810. They appeared to be doing alright but they were in fact depleting their natural resources slowly (see also Diamond, passim), and some of them even recognised this.

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Doug M. 08.04.10 at 10:41 am

roac@85, not offhand! Sorry. I used to read a lot of papers, back when I had academic access, but that hasn’t been for a while now.

Emma @91, no worries. Although I suspect that ~7.5% figure for late 20th century Americans might not be the same as the figure for other groups.

Doug M.

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Tracy W 08.04.10 at 10:59 am

Geezer – the contention was not just to survive, but to survive at current living standards. A society numbering in the hundreds of thousands might have ample experts, labourers and eager apprentices to survive, but not have enough experts, labourers and eager apprentices to churn out stuff at the scale that we use in 2010. Switching costs take time. Irrelephant might be able to hammer out the boilers, machine the cylinders and stoke the furnace, but switching from one task to the next will take him(?) time. Even just the “moving to the next work station” time adds up. And that time spent moving between tasks is time not spent making stuff, which either means less stuff coming out, or less leisure time.

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soru 08.04.10 at 12:29 pm

Geezer – the contention was not just to survive, but to survive at current living standards.

There seems to be some bait-and-switch going on here. The current living standards of a group that can colonise another planet implicitly includes the ability to travel to another planet. Even given out-of-context (magic, aliens) transportation, current capabilities include radio and (I think) internet communications to anywhere in the inner solar system.

The word ‘colony’ not only implies such contact, it carries the strong indication that it is economically significant, maybe dominant.

Saying ‘colonisation is impossible, because if you do it, then what you get is a colony’ is a rather weak argument, no matter how many annoying people it annoys.

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Omega Centauri 08.04.10 at 2:07 pm

Chris 297, conomies of scale indeed. But pop size is a neccessary but not a sufficient condition. I suspect that the pop size for maintenence of the level of technology is much smaller than the pop size needed to reach that level in the first place, my wild eyed guess would be a half to a tenth the size. Possibly even smaller if the society develops an obsession with the avoidance of the slippery techno-regression slope. In the later case they will continue to maintain manufacturing capability for a gadget, even if it doesn’t make immediate economic sense to do so.

Also if you take an industry with a major economy of scale, say micro-chips. It would probably continue advancing with a market size several times smaller than today. But the rate of improvement would be several times lower, i.e. the cash flow devoted to R&D would be much lower, but not nonexistant.

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Chris E 08.04.10 at 3:00 pm

The lower bound might still – for all practical purposes – be in the 100s of millions/billions range.

Absent some kind of massive social engineering, you still need all sorts of things to serve as motivators for different types of people.

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chris 08.04.10 at 3:29 pm

They appeared to be doing alright but they were in fact depleting their natural resources slowly

Has there ever been a human society that wasn’t? Even hunter-gatherers, so frequently the poster children for “living in harmony with nature”, apparently caused the extinction of the American megafauna (and IDK what the first humans did when they arrived at Australia and Tasmania but I bet it wasn’t pleasant for all of the indigenous species).

It’s not so much that the Native Americans lived in harmony with nature as that all the parts of nature that weren’t living in harmony with *them* had already died off before white men arrived to observe them.

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Tracy W 08.04.10 at 3:49 pm

Soru – Stross specifies that he’s talking about an autonomous colony. Which is a common enough idea in SF – eg the inter-generational space ship needed to colonise the stars if FTL travel is impossible, or the space colonies rebel against Earth story.
Incidentally, Internet communications are a protocol, called the Internet Protocol and can be implemented over radio or any other communications device. IP has been implemented by carrier pigeon. If you have radio, you can have the Internet. However the bandwidth of the communications device might well make the Internet more frustrating to use than it is in 2010.

Omega Centauri – why do you neglect economics-in-scale from production? If a process has fixed costs, then everything else being equal the more you produce of it the cheaper each unit is. And production is as vital as innovation for living standards.

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piglet 08.04.10 at 3:52 pm

The argument Stross makes seems to be that our complex society relies on so much specialist knowledge embodied in specialists. This I don’t find fully convincing. He seems to ignore how many of us are actually doing menial, unskilled work.(*) And even most of those who count as skilled workers are not specialists in the sense of Stross’ arguments. How many here think that if you drop dead, some significant and hard to replace expertise will be lost to mankind? Anybody? From my experience in software development I would say that the relevant technical skill is not to know the manual, but to know how to read the manual. Specialization is overrated.

(*) One might object that menial work is also necessary to uphold civilization but that at least is different from saying that expertise is a limiting factor in a small population.

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shah8 08.04.10 at 3:57 pm

One thing I forgot when I really shouldn’t have, given my present obsession with the topic.

Insurance.

You need lots and lots of insurance to do even basic agriculture (graineries, sometime reservoirs in the ancient days). Insurance is a phenomenon that is ultimately dependent on many unrelated people doing unrelated things, doing well. So for things like refineries of all stripes, decent power plants, and many other rather dangerous (to itself or to the workers or to the populace at large or all three) but capital intensive physical implements, there is a de facto bottom population floor to provide the needed insurance, formed however the local society and governance chooses. Not only is a huge and diverse population base needed for customers to drive plant utilization, but also to contribute resources anticipating or remediating failure of said plant without a whole lot of political grief.

I obsess about insurance, because I am tending to believe that lots of micro insurance disasters leading to core financial meltdown is the primary threat that global climate change poses. Lots of localized flooding events like the ones in NE, Atlanta, and Nashville wear down the interrelated insurance structure, formal and informal.

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Omega Centauri 08.04.10 at 4:17 pm

Tracy (109). I don’t exempt manufacturing from economies of scale, I argue the the scale needed to maintain a steady state is much smaller than the scale needed to support rapid progress. Today’s bean counters use net present value to determine whether an investment should be made. NPV roughly means that the economic payback time must be inversely proportional to the discount rate or less. In a steady state economy the discount rate (which is a proxy for the opportunity cost of money) would be much lower than in an expanding economy. So a production facility, which today would have to payback its cost is say ten years today, might still be built with a payback time of say twentyfive years in a steady state economy. Then cut out the R&D expenses, not needed for the steady state and the “cost” becomes lower still.

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Doug M. 08.04.10 at 4:21 pm

“You need lots and lots of insurance to do even basic agriculture (graineries, sometime reservoirs in the ancient days). “

Um, no, actually. You don’t.

You really /want/ to have insurance. But need it? No.

I do development work, mostly in Africa these days. Trust me when I say that the average Ugandan farmer has neither reservoirs, nor irrigation, nor access to warehouses, nor crop insurance (or any other sort of insurance), nor hybrid seed, nor credit.

And yet Uganda manages to feed its people, most of the time, and even produce a modest surplus for export.

Doug M.

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sg 08.04.10 at 4:36 pm

piglet, if I die tomorrow it may be the case that there are other people who can replace my skills; but it’s pretty likely that if I were one of a thousand people in a community, I would be irreplacable. I’m pretty sure it would be easy to find a large number of people in modern industries for which this is true, without being particularly arrogant about their (or our) skills.

And that’s without considering the huge cost of replacing those people when their time has come. Training a replacement for me should take, in theory, 5-10 years. No big deal … unless you have only 1000 people in your colony.

Sadly my skills are irrelevant to any important survival tasks. But I’m sure the same applies to people with actually relevant skills, e.g. doctors.

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shah8 08.04.10 at 4:42 pm

The average Ugandan farmer, over the course of his life, must have insurance, and when I’m talking about insurance, I’m talking about all forms of it, like family members who are well off and can help if said farmer gets in trouble. Of course, when disaster strikes, it’s actually pretty hard to kill people via hard times. That does not mean it is not extraordinarily unpleasant.

On the more general frame, Uganda manages to feed its people because Uganda is part of the world trade system, one that *does* insure. If the world trade system fails because it loses the ability to insure, many people in Uganda would very much feel the strain.

Narrow thinking will get you in trouble…but hey, read stuff Ward-Perkins writes about the archeological reconstruction of the period immediately after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and hey, incidentially, grab a book or two about modern Ugandan history, and maybe one might grab a clue that just because that Ugandan farmer doesn’t use insurance products we middle class American might percieve doesn’t mean that said farmer does not benefit from insurance.

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ajay 08.04.10 at 4:58 pm

The average Ugandan farmer, over the course of his life, must have insurance

Is this a normative or a descriptive statement? Because a lot of Ugandan farmers, and poor farmers more generally, don’t, and when disaster strikes they are knocked down into penury.

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Tracy W 08.04.10 at 5:16 pm

Piglet – how many people are doing menial unskilled work nowadays? And how many of those jobs’ productivity aren’t dependent on a lot of specialised capital? I worked as a nurses’ aid one summer during uni – it’s a lot faster to bathe someone when you have hot water on tap, and an automated machine to lift them into the bath, oh and every bath has an automated attachment so you don’t need to wait around for the only one in the facility to be free, and a wheely bin to take the dirty laundry down to the laundry room rather than lugging it by brute strength, and the wheely bin is made of plastic so it can be cleaned easily, and etc.

Omega Centauri – why would the discount rate in a steady state economy be much lower than in an expanding economy? My memory of Econ 101 is that this is one of those topics we know theory can’t answer one way or another. If interest rates fall, then the return from lending money is lower, so according to the substitution effect people will want to lend less money (because they get less back), according to the income effect, people will want to lend more money (because they get less back), and there’s no theroetical reason to assume that one effect will dominate over the other. To put it in more concrete terms – say you’re considering investing in a production facility. This is a risky investment. The facility could get wiped out by an accident (eg a fire, or meteor strike, it could break down, it could be wrecked by a dishonest manager, or people could decide that they don’t want whatever you’re selling, or another company could turn out to be a bit better at marketing and grab all your potential customers. You can buy insurance against some of these events, but this reduces your rate of return even further. You can take steps to reduce the odds of some of these other events happening, but like buying insurance that reduces your pay-back. If you’re only going to get a low pay-back on it, why not just stash your money under your mattress, or whatever the low-risk option is in this steady-state world?

And your argument only applies to long-term capital investments. Fixed costs include everything that isn’t totally changeable in the short-term (what is short and long term varies depending on what level of analysis we want to look at). If Irrelephant is churning out the same thing every day with his/her tools, he/she can set up the workplace so as to optimise the speed of switching between tasks for that job. If it’s a different thing to make every day then more time is needed to switch between tasks, which means less time actually producing the goods.

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Doug M. 08.04.10 at 5:26 pm

“grab a book or two about modern Ugandan history”

Um. I write blog posts about modern Ugandan history.

I’m trying to be polite here. Let’s see: I have been to Uganda, multiple times. I work in development. Logistics and supply chains are one of my schticks. The last time I was in Uganda, I was writing a… big report, let’s say… on agriculture.

So when you say stuff like “Uganda manages to feed its people because Uganda is part of the world trade system, one that does insure”, I’m like, WTH? That’s not even wrong.

Doug M.

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Will McLean 08.04.10 at 5:30 pm

Doug M @99:

Destiny’s landfall: a history of Guam, By Robert F. Rogers, quotes William Haswell, who visited Guam in 1802. He says that the inland inhabitants usually went naked. They owned clothes, and put them on when a European appeared, but didn’t wear them most of the time because they were so dear, “as the governor gains 8 hundred per Cent on all he sells them”. That hardly sounds like there’s a lot of local homespun being produced.

Like a small European town of around 1700, Guam presumably had a lot of technology that couldn’t be produced locally. For example, the governor probably had printed books that would be uneconomic to print for only the tiny local market. He or his subordinates probably had a telescope that could not be replace locally, and so on.

Even a small number of specialists from outside would have made a big difference: a doctor from someplace big enough to support a medical school, an engineer, etc.

Yes, no local metals. That means that the local economy lacked a whole subset of specialists that knew how to extract and refine them.

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Doug M. 08.04.10 at 7:38 pm

Will @ 119: Haswell — and Kotzebue, who came by Guam a decade later — are not considered very reliable sources. In fact, there isn’t an outsider’s account of Spanish Guam that’s considered very good from the time Crozet left (around 1770) until the Freycinet expedition in the 1830s.

Guamanians c. 1800 were certainly not “naked”, though they may have been lightly clothed. Keep in mind that Haswell was coming from early 19th century New England; by his standards, everyone on a New York street in a hot afternoon in August would be “naked”.

The Spanish priests and governors had strong opinions about public nudity — in fact, clothing the “savages” was one of the first things they did once they got the Guamanians herded into the concentration camp-like “settlement villages” in the 1680s and ’90s. There’s also a whole of sketches and lithographs from the Freycinet expedition, just a generation later; they show the Guamanians in a wide range of garbs, from formal regalia on a village mayor to the equivalent of cutoff jeans on a working man. Most of the clothes are clearly not “European”, but neither is anyone close to what we’d call naked.

Also: one reason Haswell is considered unreliable is that he had a whole “legenda negra” thing going with the Spanish generally and the Spanish governor of Guam in particular. He depicted the governor as a brutal, greedy tyrant who oppressed the hapless natives without pity. At this distance it’s impossible to make out the truth, but it’s worth noting that Spain in 1802 was in the middle of a disastrous series of wars (this was one of the periods when the galleons became very irregular, isolating Guam for years at a time). So the governor had to raise taxes and build defenses at the same time that imported goods were soaring in price, while money from exports (beche-de-mer, pearls, tobacco, and supplies for the galleons) had disappeared. So this was a period of some economic disruption and unrest. The Spanish government later conducted an investigation of the governor, and not only acquitted him of all charges but commended him for his diligence and fairness.

“That means that the local economy lacked a whole subset of specialists that knew how to extract and refine them.”

As did the local economies of most European towns of 3,00o – 5,000 people. You’re really reaching, here.

– BTW, it was a bit of a trick question about the metal deposits. You see, Guam does have iron ore. It’s just in the form of black magnetite sand. You can turn it into iron, but it’s a PITA. The Spanish knew about it, but it wasn’t worth the bother; they brought iron on the galleons, and then the local blacksmiths just endlessly recycled it.

Doug M.

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Omega Centauri 08.04.10 at 8:38 pm

Tracey; my argument for alower disount rate in steady state, versus technologically advancing society is based upon two things.
First, a component of the discount rate is prevailing interest rates. These are competitively set against alternative investments. Since there is only a limited amount of capital of be rebuilt there will be a lot of capital chasing this investment, and the real rate of interest should decline.

The second component, is the risk factor, say accidents plus market risk. In a steady state economy market risk is near zero (tommorrow will be like today, no new disruptive technology is likely to obsolete my widgets). I claim accidental risk is likely to be lowered too, as the industry has had a long history with the technology and has them both well categorized and minimized. In the rapidly advancing technology case, we haven’t had the time to optimize and evaluate the risks (we just haven’t had enough data yet).

Alternatively one should expect that investment returns look something like the rate of economic growth, plus a bit more. So when growth stops overall investment returns should go down (which implies low interest rates).

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piglet 08.04.10 at 9:03 pm

114 and 117, what I am questioning is the validity of Stross’ argument about the number of specialists being a limiting factor for the minimal population size required to maintain complex civilization, with the lower estimate given by Stross as 100 million. I doubt there are really a 100 million specialists on the planet in that sense of having rare, potentially irreplaceable knowledge.

“how many people are doing menial unskilled work nowadays?” A lot. There is a myth about how creative and skill-based the modern labor market has become and I don’t buy it.

“And how many of those jobs’ productivity aren’t dependent on a lot of specialized capital?” Pretty much all of them, but that is not the question.

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Chris Crawford 08.05.10 at 12:27 am

Omega Centauri, I’d like to offer another argument in favor of your thesis, if I may; I’m curious to learn if you think it makes sense. If an economy is stable, neither growing nor shrinking, then we should have a perfect match between production and consumption. Moreover, stability implies that equilibrium between prices and costs of manufacturing has been achieved. Which in turn means that, if you expend capital to reduce the cost of manufacturing an item, you should be able to obtain only a small increment in efficiency, which in turn implies a small reduction in manufacturing cost, a small reduction in price, a small increment in sales, and therefore a very small profit. If capital can’t earn much profit, then the ROI is small, and interest rates must be correspondingly small.

Does that work for you?

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Will McLean 08.05.10 at 12:31 am

Doug M @120:

Rose de Freycinet reports that when she visited Guam “Because there are no clothing manufacturers here, everything is imported from Manila”

What’s your source on the printing press? When the Americans took over they were under the impression the one they brought in was the first on the island.

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shah8 08.05.10 at 12:48 am

ajay, it was a descriptive statement.

Doug M., at this point I don’t actually care about your quals. You can miss the point all you want, but insurance, a means of redirecting resources and activity when neededn (or the prospect of such), is pretty much mandatory. Across all kinds of services, from health to water access. Without such, most if not all activities withers. Again, insurance activities can be pretty diverse, from state schemes to private/communitarian themes.

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Irrelephant 08.05.10 at 1:30 am

Well, how to validate my sturdy blue collar vocational school working class credentials (via ginning up some links to Youtube videos for some “internet proof”, and I guess I might as well be a really handsome artisan/hobbyist in those videos)? Maybe use improper grammar or misspell a few words? Feh.

Here’s the point you all smort people is done missing. If civilization falls at different points throughout history (meteor strike, slate wiper plague, too many people testing positive for Alexander the Great), how many brains (people) does it take to get back? How far back do we go for one? Ten? A hundred? Why frame the question thus? Because it includes Henry’s transmission loss, which eventually – once civilization becomes complex enough) does rear its ugly head. But here’s the deal. Our information is encoded in such a redundant fashion, that precision doesn’t matter. Accuracy does. Close enough is good enough, the blanks can be filled in.

If we just look at the minimum number to maintain the status quo, it is already assumed they know what they are doing, and can therefore prime other people to do what they are doing.

I’m going to pick some completely arbitrary dates and levels of organization.

Let’s say that at 500BC, one brain could recreate all of civilization. Too small? Let’s say a hundred then. A tribe of brains can store enough of the raw tech “vital” information and act as a seed, a catalyst. The rest occurs through cleverness and trial and error. Let’s call this Singularity v1.0 (because Kurzweil don’t own it yet). And things stayed that way up to about, oh, say 1848. (And See? I done proved-ed my 1830 date with eighteen year to spare on the internet).

Why 1848? I like that date. A lot of interesting things occured. Social movements in Europe. The US is really starting to get ornery. The first scientific teaching institutions are forming. And it is, in my opinion, the beginning of the Modern Age. With the tech toolkit in a thousand peoples brains, atom bombs are inevitable. Now it takes the stored knowledge in a thousand brains (a corporation? a consortia?) to get us back from the brink. Singularity v2.0

What next? Well, computers helped. Shall we say 1937, with a nod to Johnny von Neumann? Now, how many, a million? Ten million? That’s a nation of necessary brains. Singularity v3.0.

And version 4.0? It probably already happened. All that dark matter and energy, formerly just stars and planets and stuff, and now reconfigured and organized to run the largest MMPORG in the universe. And we live in the preserves, what’s left of the luminous wilderness.

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Chris Crawford 08.05.10 at 2:11 am

I notice that people here seem to be concentrating on “know how” as the controlling factor in abruptly changing society sizes. I don’t think that’s the crucial factor; I think that population size is the key, because that’s what enables specialization. Technological civilization relies on having more and more people to do tinier and tinier parts of the task, permitting economies of scale that enable growth. It’s true that, if you erased the knowledge of a billion people, they wouldn’t be able to re-create their civilization. But in that case, they wouldn’t be able to support such a large population and their numbers would decrease until they reached a supportable level — and then they’d start growing from there by population growth.

Here’s another way to put it: suppose I had a time machine that could send books back in time. So I send a book on modern integrated circuit manufacturing back to, say, 1850. Do you think that the residents of that year would be able to make any use of their new book? Of course not! Indeed, we can extend this thought-experiment further: what if we sent it to 1900? 1950? 1970? I claim that, even if we sent it back just ten years, they wouldn’t be able to derive much benefit from it because none of the attendant technologies exist. This is what the knowledgable recipient of our book would say:

“You want water purified to THAT level?!?! That’s impossible! And where am I going to get electromagnetic coils tiny enough to control a beam that small? Besides, the facility I’d have to build would cost at least a billion bucks, and the market for these chips just isn’t large enough to justify that kind of capital expenditure!”

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Dan S. 08.05.10 at 2:24 am

Relevant-sounding, perhaps mentioned in the original discussion:

High Population Density Triggers Cultural Explosions

ScienceDaily (June 5, 2009) — Increasing population density, rather than boosts in human brain power, appears to have catalysed the emergence of modern human behaviour, according to a new study by UCL (University College London) scientists published in the journal Science. … High population density leads to greater exchange of ideas and skills and prevents the loss of new innovations. . . . In the study, the UCL team found that complex skills learnt across generations can only be maintained when there is a critical level of interaction between people. . . . Using genetic estimates of population size in the past, the team went on to show that density was similar in sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and the Middle-East when modern behaviour first appeared in each of these regions. The paper also points to evidence that population density would have dropped for climatic reasons at the time when modern human behaviour temporarily disappeared in sub-Saharan Africa.

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Omega Centauri 08.05.10 at 2:53 am

Chris Crawford your argument works for me. But I’m not an economist. I’ve done a few thought experiments about the steady state economy, but that doesn’t make me a bona fide economist. Of course if we reached a true steady state -and it might take generations to reach the asymptotic form where change is minimized. But, in any case at quasi-steady state investment would be confined to rebuilding things that have worn out. The volume of this activity as a percentage of GDP would be a lot smaller than during the buildup phase. There would also be more incentive to increase the usable lifetime of infrastructure than there is today, so we could stomach longer payback periods on this “investment”.

Not so convinced about your book and time machine argument. Assuming the recipients gave credibility to the books contents, it would provide strong motivation for the pursuit of certain types of tech. Also knowing which paths led to valuable results and which ones were dead ends would avoid a lot of misdirected investment. Of course they couldn’t read the book and start constructing a fab for sub 30nanometer designs. They would still have to start out with the basics. And build up a vast support industry. Intel would be nowhere with outfits like Applied Materials etc. to create the machines they use, and Applied Materials would be nowhere without a bootload of other suppliers, and on and on. The reality is that to recreate from scratch current microelectronics probably requires decades and pehaps a trillion dollars. But knowing that there was a fabulous destination, and having some clues about how to get there should greatly accelerate the journey.

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PHB 08.05.10 at 2:58 am

@Harald Korneliussen 98

My offer was to be the presenter, not the test subject. I was planning to use teams from technology universities round the world.

On the issue of the complexity of modern civilization, a huge amount of that complexity comes from the fact that we have achieved an incredible population density. A modern city simply cannot exist without power and water and communications. When we lose power, even for a short time, people die.

We even have a huge portion of our population whose job is to give people something to do with their surplus time. The Romans had to invent the gladiator show because the alternative was to wait for the riots to break out. They had a million people living in the city. Without Panem et Circenses, the city would self-destruct.

The pioneer society might want such capabilities, but they certainly are not a necessity until the population density has begun to exceed the carrying capacity. And wouldn’t the entire point of such a venture be to avoid that situation?

Equally, the requirement for major sanitation plants comes from the density of modern cities. If you only have a thousand colonists, you can do perfectly well with a septic tank.

The colonists are not going to have an immediate need for mass transit or airports. They are not going to require roads until they have more than one settlement. They are not going to have a major need for vehicles of any type until that point.

If you start to think about the type of people who would sign up to be part of the launch group, they would have to be completely committed ideological types. Most probably some form of religious cult.

The whole project is not going to be feasible at any level until we have a space elevator built. An the human colonization mission is only going to be possible after a non-trivial number of unmanned voyages. And with a 2500 year trip time, that is going to take a very long time. It is not at all unimaginable that we would do that, in fact it is probably inevitable that we do if we don’t let the US Republican party commit ecocide on the planet first.

Using current technology as the base is ridiculous. Long before the first rivet is laid of the first interstellar planetary lander, the book will be long dead and so will the idea of learning skills from a static text. I don’t just learn from books, I learn from You Tube and online forums. There are going to be generations of experiments in building the colony from first principles. And there is going to be a full electronic records capture on their experiences and commentaries.

The colony is going to be within contact of the home planet. So it is not going to need an army of research scientists in every specialty. On the contrary, there are going to be legions of scientists working on earth with rather little to do apart from work on tackling problems facing the colony. In fact that would be the main reason to do the project in the first place: to give the people back home something to think about and occupy themselves with.

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PHB 08.05.10 at 3:53 am

@Chris Crawford 127

But the main text on VLSI design is Mead and Conway. And that was written thirty odd years ago. The technology has certainly changed, but not in ways that are unimaginable or unpredictable. In fact the whole of the valley works to the metronome of Moore’s Law.

What Stross claims is that space travel is impossible because you need the number of people to preserve knowledge. But really, once you read about something called a transistor formed from doped silicon, you don’t need to muck about with valves. You are going to skip that generation. Equally you are going to read about the dead ends that Babbage met trying to push ahead too far with mechanical, but unlike Babbage you will know that the thing you are trying to build exists and is possible.

If someone had sent Babbage a copy of Mead and Conway he would certainly have understood the principles being described. He would also realize that the foundation technology he should be building on was electrical, not mechanical. He would not be able to construct the systems from transistors, but he could build fairly large systems with electromagnetic relays. http://web.cecs.pdx.edu/~harry/Relay/

The key concept that Babbage lacked was the idea of building a computer from one simple component that was mass produced. His machine had hundreds of different components.

When I wrote my first Web browser, I worked from only the specifications and a 30 minute presentation by Tim Berners-Lee. If I had not had the specifications, I would have written my own protocol layer. The insight in that design is not the protocol, it is that you don’t need a database to do hypertext, all you need is a common format for universal resource locators.

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Dan S. 08.05.10 at 4:32 am

” if civilization falls tomorrow, I on my own could get us back to 1830 pretty damn quick – with no tools, and no books.”

Ok, here’s a scenario: You and 10n people wake to find yourselves on a reasonably comfortably hillside. After initial confusion, it becomes clear that you have all somehow been transported to an alternate, unpeopled Earth; one where, as the saying goes, the hand of man has never set foot. On the plus side, it’s a world where game large and small is ludicrously abundant, & where significant and quite easily-reachable deposits of various ores might well exist nearby. On the other hand, it’s a world of wild grasses, bitter greens, and depressingly tiny fruits, where domestic animals, well, aren’t. Your companions turn out to be a mix of PR people, party planners, retail folks, philosophy professors, clerical workers, cleaning staff, sysadmins, life coaches, etc. Their interests & hobbies, while varied, do not include the SCA/living history, primitive tech, DIY-ness, wilderness survival, homesteading, field medicine, etc; their ethnobotanical knowledge is limited to “leaves of three, let it be,” and a vague recollection that acorns are edible but require some sort of processing (in fact, at this point the group already numbers 10n – 1, due to an unfortunate mixup between wild grapes and moonseed fruits). Tools and possessions are limited to whatever people were holding or wearning (clothes, the contents of handbags, briefcases, etc., so on) at the time.

What do you do?

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alex 08.05.10 at 7:37 am

Start a cult…

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Doug M. 08.05.10 at 7:55 am

“Rose de Freycinet reports that when she visited Guam “Because there are no clothing manufacturers here, everything is imported from Manila””

…think that one through. By the time of the Freycinet expedition, the galleons had stopped coming; Spanish communication with Guam was carried out by the “Cavite” ship, a sloop that ran from Cavite. Like the galleons, it was supposed to run once per year, but frequently was late or skipped a year altogether.

All clothing and all cloth for 5,000 people carried on a single sloop? Possible, but it wouldn’t leave room for much else on board…

Anyway: the precontact Chamorros had hand looms, which they used to weave pandanus and banana fibers into cloth. Cotton was introduced by one of the better Spanish governors in the mid-18th century, along with the cotton gin. Within a generation there were gins in most villages and looms in almost every household. Again, there are plates from the 1830s showing Chamorro women spinning cotton into thread. They didn’t have spinning wheels, but used handheld drop-spinners. (Actually, now that I think about it, those would be the lithographs from… the Freycinet expedition.)

One of the later Spanish governors made cotton ginning a state monopoly and restricted it to a couple of gins in Agana and Umatac, which probably did spike the cost of cotton thread and cloth.

“What’s your source on the printing press? When the Americans took over they were under the impression the one they brought in was the first on the island.”

They were wrong. The Jesuits had one for at least a generation before their expulsion (1768 IMS). They shared it with the governor. It was used to print religious posters and official proclamations for posting in the various villages. The governor took it after the Jesuits left. It’s not known what eventually became of it; the last known printed document was from the early 1800s. After that they seem to have gone back to handwriting and drawing again — it’s true that, by the time the Americans arrived, there hadn’t been a printing press within living memory.

(I will admit I was puffing a bit with the printing press. They had it for 50 years or so, but on an island with 80% – 90% illiteracy, it was a luxury item.)

Doug M.

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chris y 08.05.10 at 8:23 am

Dan S @132: What you’d need to make it through to the end of the month would be fire (for warmth and defence against predcators) and sharp objects, preferably points and edges (for collecting and dividing food and creating shelter). If you have a source of exposed igneous rock, you could probably achieve something like an Oldowan tool kit by trial and error reasonably quickly, because you’d know what you were looking for. Fire might be harder – any ex-scouts in your group? Posit that somebody has a lighter, and the group has the ability to prevent the fire going out.

If you achieved both those before everybody starved, your group might last ten to fifteen years before succumbing to starvation in a different season, predation (the bears are not frightened of you in this world), further accidents with poisonous plants and perinatal fatalities.

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ajay 08.05.10 at 8:45 am

132: ah, but in order to be constantly prepared for ludicrously unlikely hypothetical scenarios, Irrelephant always carries with him a small bag of seeds for various staple crops, some fish hooks, needle and thread, a space blanket, a couple of bottles of broad-spectrum antibiotics, a knife, a folding saw, a metal file, fifty metres of para cord and a hunting rifle.

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alex 08.05.10 at 9:05 am

Well, the rifle might come in handy getting ‘volunteers’ for the toxicology testing on the native plant life.

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Tracy W 08.05.10 at 10:42 am

Omega Centauri – but the amount of capital is endogenous, not exogenous. How do you know that there will be a lot of capital chasing this investment? That’s the point of the Econ 101 story – that we can’t answer that question from theory alone. Lower interest rates may induce more savings or less savings.
– On the other hand, the steady-state world reduces the “risk” of a big upside.
– Why should I expect that investment returns look something like the rate of economic growth? And even if you get lower interest rates, that doesn’t mean that we know whether we get more capital or less capital available to invest. The point of my Econ 101 story was that theory can’t tell us what effect a fall in interest rates will have on people’s savings.

Piglet: ““how many people are doing menial unskilled work nowadays?” A lot.”
Do you have numbers? Percentages?
I know how to look up percentage of workforce without a formal qualification, but I don’t know of any data on the proportion of jobs that are menial and unskilled.

Pretty much all of them, but that is not the question.

Funny that I’ve never come across it then. Can you please list some of the modern-day menial and unskilled jobs that you think aren’t dependent on specialised capital for their current productivity?

PHB – the question was how much of a population is necessary to sustain 2010 living standards. While I can live without gladiators, living without big budget movies would be more of a pain. (Give them bread and special FX!)

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Kevin Donoghue 08.05.10 at 11:19 am

Tracy W: “the amount of capital is endogenous, not exogenous.”

In a steady state the capital stock is optimal. Gross investment merely covers depreciation, there is no net investment. It’s very hard to see how the IRR in such a situation can be equal to that in a growing economy, where the existing capital stock is sub-optimal. Your “Econ 101″ argument, as I understand it, merely relates to the trade-off facing the individual saver, for whom the income and substitution effects of a interest rate change work in opposite directions. That’s fine as far as it goes, the textbook is properly agnostic, but it doesn’t alter the fact that when you’ve built all the property you will ever need the rents are going to be lower. You can dodge that conclusion by some far-fetched assumption (that preferences are different in the steady state for example). But it’s hard to get that result with a reasonable argument.

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Irrelephant 08.05.10 at 11:23 am

132: Isn’t it obvious? We gang press the philosophy professors into building modern conveniences out of bamboo and coconuts.

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PHB 08.05.10 at 11:49 am

@Doug M 134

In the times, an outfit of clothes was a major investment. Most people would have one. So it is actually quite possible that all the cloth came in by ship.

Is there any particular reason the space colonists would need clothes on their voyage?

The basic premise is faulty for several reasons. First it is assumed that ‘maintaining 2010 living standards’ is an essential criteria for space colonization. Clearly it is not. Second it is assumed that more advanced technology would not include better learning and education methods.

The colonists are not going to be learning from books because they are already functionally obsolete. And the space ship is certainly not going to tolerate the extra mass of dead tree technology.

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Steve LaBonne 08.05.10 at 1:01 pm

As long as the space colonists always know where their towels are, they’ll be OK.

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chris 08.05.10 at 2:01 pm

@135: Even though the bears are not afraid of you, they probably have no instincts particularly aimed at eating you either (although eating your stored food is another matter). The most dangerous predator you have to worry about is the 10^n-2 other humans who came with you, IMO; therefore politics is your most immediate concern.

Ideally you want to have your political situation dealt with to mutual satisfaction *before* you start deploying sharp object technology throughout the population, because otherwise, bears and even starvation are going to become the least of your worries. The winners of a civil war would be guaranteed at least one food source.

I know how to look up percentage of workforce without a formal qualification, but I don’t know of any data on the proportion of jobs that are menial and unskilled.

Zero. Anyone who describes a job as “unskilled” has never tried to do it. Otherwise they’d become aware of their own lack of skill at it compared to people with even a few weeks’ experience, and/or how they became better at it when *they* had a few weeks’ experience — which is proof that it is, in fact, a skill.

If you want to say “well, I mean low skilled”, then you have to draw a line on a continuum before you can start measuring how many jobs are on which side of it.

Anybody can deliver a pizza — you just need to be able to drive, read the receipt, communicate with the customer in a mutually intelligible language, read the map or directions that leads to the customer’s house, call them on a cell phone if you need clarification, possibly make change…

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chris y 08.05.10 at 2:15 pm

Chris @143. But at the outset of this scenario you have no food source. You have no idea which available plants are nutritious; your only information is that one type, which you may or may not be able to identify again, is lethal. Absent sharp objects, sufficient animal food is unavailable unless you’re lucky enough to find a recent kill and skilled enough to drive the hyaenas off it. I would estimate that you have a maximum of 24 hours to do your politics before you need to start food gathering. If your group is unable to agree this as a priority, you’re dead. (You’re dead anyway, really. Telephone sanitisers can only populate a planet in the Douglas Adams universe)

Also, why would a bear not run down something approximately deer sized but much slower, given the opportunity?

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sg 08.05.10 at 2:17 pm

Zero. Anyone who describes a job as “unskilled” has never tried to do it

Never tried teaching English in Japan, have you?

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Chris Crawford 08.05.10 at 2:34 pm

PHB, you wrote: “But really, once you read about something called a transistor formed from doped silicon, you don’t need to muck about with valves. You are going to skip that generation.”

That’s an interesting thought; I gave it much mulling and concluded that I disagree. The key consideration here is not the the know-how, but the industrial base. It’s not enough to know how to build a transistor: you need inexpensive sources of all the stuff needed to build a transistor. Think about all the factors leading into the production of doped silicon: liquid nitrogen, I believe; ovens that remain clean at high temperatures; instruments for precise control of temperature; devices for vaporizing a precise quantity of the doping agent; and so on. It’s so easy for us to take for granted the technologies that feed into the devices we build. But if you trace the components used to manufacture a transistor, you’ll find that you need a large set of factories to build those components. And then there are the components required to feed those factories, and so on and so on in a tree that expands geometrically. When you end up drawing out the entire tree, you’ve got an industrial base that requires millions of workers.

That’s the thing about an economy: it’s a system for optimizing the productive efficiency of the society’s members, and that optimization is achieved by specialization, which in turn requires a large workforce. An efficient economy connects everybody together to the maximum extent possible. In a theoretically perfect economy, the goods and services that I consume are produced by every other member of society; there are no pockets of workers whose labors ultimately serve a small subset of society. “All for one and one for all” is the desideratum for the perfect economy.

Thus, the controlling factor on achieving any given level of industrial technology is NOT the technical knowledge: it’s the size of the workforce. This in turn leads me to a surprising conclusion: In order to establish a stable independent colony that operates at a specified level of technological sophistication, you must provide the population large enough to accomplish that. That population is going to be very large. A previous commentator observed that he could reproduce the technological sophistication of 1830, and I believe him — but only in the sense that he would know HOW to do so; he couldn’t actually pull it off unless he had millions of people in his colony.

I must confess, I find this conclusion pretty radical, but it has withstood the initial assaults I have thrown at it. Would anybody care to mount an assault?

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Will McLean 08.05.10 at 2:40 pm

Doug M @134:

Ok, so Guam had early Gutenberg level single sheet printing capability for a while, but eventually lost it because in the long run their economy was too small to sustain a compositor, let alone a type founder. That’s evidence that sustaining true 18th c. technology took a good deal more than 5,000 people.

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shah8 08.05.10 at 3:26 pm

Chris Crawford, I’d like to add to that comment. One aspect of Kenneth Pomeranz’s Great Divergence was in analyzing why techological transfers did not happen between NW Europe and comparable political ecologies in India and East Asia. A key example was asking why Chinese people weren’t wowed by clocks and other advanced manufactures that the English were trying to sell to them. Apparently, it wasn’t that Chinese looked down on such things, on an individual basis…Plenty of them were fairly fascinated by clocks and tried to replicate them. It was more that the technological ecology of the Chinese toolset (toolset tolerance being mentioned before) had no real niches for clocks to be present. Nobody ran average lives by clocks. There were very few actual capitalized (like export pottery) industries that could take advantage of clocks. Lastly, there were no contemporary potential industries to clock-making (other things that used concepts and similar parts to clocks).

This contradicts size of the workforce arguments (given how large the Chinese workforce was). I’d say it supports quality of capitalization arguments, such as tendency to throw manpower at problems of all sorts compared to capitized thoughts (like the developemental growth strategy of the US South vs North).

I know my science history too well to take the arguments by PHB seriously. Ideas need other ideas to grow and flourish. They’re alot more like arborculture rather than plantation culture. If you sent a technical manual back in time, it will be used to clean backsides, even if you got it to a schmaht guy. If you send a culturally prepared doctor back to 1848, with the latest meme-tech to overcome 19th century willful stupidity, you’ll get something, but probably not what you thought you’ll get.

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shah8 08.05.10 at 3:32 pm

Also, the schmaht people of the 1830s were very, very sophisticated. Industrial and cottage production techniques were not especially simple then, and can arguably said to be more complex in the baroque sense than the later techologies. I seriously doubt a person can know enough to make decent pottery, let alone decent ships of the styles present then. There was a tremendous amount of knowlege present then that are lost now.

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Omega Centauri 08.05.10 at 3:38 pm

That’s evidence that sustaining true 18th c. technology took a good deal more than 5,000 people.

I would add that you need a trade network that is spread across enough geological diversity to make whatever material/mineral inputs needed available. And the population near these far flung mines must be large enough to sustain the mining colonies…….

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Chris Crawford 08.05.10 at 4:05 pm

Shah8, your point regarding technology transfer from Europe to Asia is excellent; I agree that social context controls technology acceptance. However, I don’t think that this point is of compelling importance to my claim that a large workforce is necessary to obtain a specified level of technological sophistication. Societies adapt to technologies as they become available. American society 100 years ago was not well-adapted to the automobile. But the automobile changed society in a manner that made it increasingly valuable. Suburbia was one social response to the automobile. An even better example is the personal computer. The personal computers of the early 1980s were quite capable of providing a lot of value, but society wasn’t quite ready. Not that many people could type, people weren’t used to word processors, the concept of a spreadsheet was still alien to a lot of people, and so forth. Americans are an amazingly adept people at embracing new technologies, and American business rapidly transformed itself to utilize the benefits of the computer. Thus, the availability of the personal computer in the early 1980s was not immediately seized upon by society — it required some adjustment of the social context.

The social context, then, is very important to the initial adaptation of the technology, but I don’t think that this constrains the equilibrium technological level achieved by a society. Perhaps you’re seeing a connection that I’ve missed?

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shah8 08.05.10 at 4:17 pm

Modern Japanese history, of coz!

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Tracy W 08.05.10 at 4:25 pm

Gross investment merely covers depreciation, there is no net investment.

The question is what interest rate would induce this needed gross investment.

It’s very hard to see how the IRR in such a situation can be equal to that in a growing economy, where the existing capital stock is sub-optimal…

Well, one way would be if the subsitution effect dominated over the income effect. So whenever the rate of return fell on investments, the marginal investors would withdraw their money and spend it on consumption now, (or some other consumption good), thus reducing the available capital stock, and thus driving up the IRR back to the original level. And of course, another option is that the IRR would be a bit lower than in a growing economy, but still high enough that the payback period on capital investment doesn’t fall enough to offset the loss from production gains of scale.

…the fact that when you’ve built all the property you will ever need the rents are going to be lower. You can dodge that conclusion …

Total rents will be lower, I agree. I’m not dodging that conclusion, and if I ever wrote something that implied I was dodging it, it was entirely by accident and only a reflection of my poor writing skills. What I don’t know is whether interest rates and thus the needed IRR would be higher or lower or the same.

Omega Centauri’s argument was that a lot of capital would be chasing this needed investment, driving down rates. But a possiblity is that as rates fall, people decide to consume now rather than save, so they’d pull out capital, keeping the needed IRR up. Or perhaps they’d save even more, trying to keep up their income in the long-term period, driving down interest rates even further (and if I remember my Keynesian theory right, and that theory is right, driving the economy into a recession and thus no longer steady-state). Higher IRR might be needed to induce lower rates of capital, as people more easily reach their desired future incomes from rents and thus need to save a lower share of their incomes. I don’t know one way or another.

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Chris Crawford 08.05.10 at 4:41 pm

I just came up with some numbers that have some relevance to our considerations. The population of the USA in 1830 was 22 million; at that time the American economy was somewhat decoupled from the world economy in manufactures, largely because of the high tariffs that the government exacted from imports. Thus, we can say that 22 million represents the lower bound of what is necessary to achieve the level of technological sophistication in 1830 America. Imports of technology allowed America to tap into a larger workforce, which is why 22 million represents a lower bound. There is one counterargument: the American economy was nowhere near equilibrium: it was growing rapidly and there was a lot of westward colonization. These would serve to lower the lower bound somewhat, but I think this example gives us some rough idea of the numbers required.

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Irrelephant 08.05.10 at 5:17 pm

Chris,
If I can recollek my history (I don’t), 1830 the canal craze is about over, the railroad craze is about to begin, they are figuring out what to do with anthracite, they are just starting to gear up the iron industry, wood working is at its craft-quality best, the inland waterways are snag-free and filled with steamboats, and the population is procreating at probably biological maximum, the South, due to chattel slavery a moribund technological backwater. For lower bound to maintain which area, the Northeast?, you have to subtract out the seed effort for the Western diaspora, or can you? Maybe the static South is a better model.

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piglet 08.05.10 at 6:05 pm

Tracy 138: I misspoke in 122. I meant to affirm, not to deny, that pretty much all of us are dependent on specialized capital. The question is how many of us are required to maintain and reproduce that specialized capital?

chris 143: “Anyone who describes a job as “unskilled” has never tried to do it.” I’m not interested in hairsplitting. I used the term “unskilled” as shorthand for “not requiring more than a few weeks of specialized training”. I tacitly assume basic literacy as a given. Maybe you would object to that but I don’t think anybody would argue that a large population size is required to maintain basic literacy? I further pointed out that even in those jobs that do require years of training, that is not necessarily due to a high degree of specialization. For example, school teachers. I mentioned the example of programmers. There are millions, tens of millions of highly trained people working in some IT related field. But that doesn’t mean that all of them are really needed to maintain our basic IT infrastructure. Think of it. Saying that isn’t condescending. I used to be one of them myself. I helped write business applications. Was any of that of any consequence for civilization? Please!

154: Your argument would the upper bound, not the lower bound, at 22m. We could also think of modern-day medium-sized countries. It is a truism that each country now is integrated into a global economy and none of them is self-sufficient but does that really mean a country of 10-20 million couldn’t conceivably be? Is population size really the limiting factor?

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Chris Crawford 08.05.10 at 7:17 pm

Irrelephant and Piglet, you’re both right that the 22 million figure is too high as a lower limit for the minimum population necessary to sustain a culture at the level of technology of the USA in 1830. So what say we cut it in half, and then round down, to get 10 million souls? That, I think accounts for the points you make. I think that my point remains sturdy: it takes millions of people to maintain a given level of technological development.

Let me approach this from another angle: you’re some sort of very powerful entity trying to establish the minimum sized colony capable of sustaining itself at 1830-level technology. Your goal is to keep it at one million total population. Now, I believe that the percentage of farm workers in the USA in 1830 was well over 90%, so let’s use that number. In other words, for every non-agricultural worker, you need 9 agricultural workers to grow enough food to feed all ten people. Thus, you need 900,000 of your million people just growing food for the other 100,000. To put it another way, you’ll have 100,000 people to work industry.

So you’ve got food covered. But now you need clothing. You’ll need to allot some of your surplus workers to cotton production. How much cotton do you need to grow to clothe a million people? I have little idea, but let’s make a wild guess: say, 2,000 people to grow the cotton. Then you’ll need some transport workers to move the cotton to the mill, and some mill workers; once you’ve put the cotton through the gin you’ll need a spinning mill to make thread and a cloth mill to make cloth. Finally, you’ll need seamstresses to sew the cloth into clothing. If I weren’t so lazy, I could look up productivity figures for that period, but I’ll take the easy way and just make a wild guess: one seamstress can make enough clothing to keep 200 people clothed perennially. So you’ll need 5,000 seamstresses. Guess all those other workers at a nice round 1,000, and you’ve got a grand total of 8,000 people dedicated to making clothing for the others.

Now let’s turn to housing. You’ll need woodsmen to chop the wood, teamsters to drag it to the sawmill, saw wrights to cut it into lumber, more teamsters to transport it to the housing site, carpenters to assemble the whole thing. How many carpenters do you need to provide housing for a million people? Let’s assume a depreciation rate of 1% in housing — each house must be replaced every hundred years. If each house holds a family of ten, you need 100,000 houses, of which a thousand need replacement each year. How many carpenters will you need to build a thousand houses per year? Let’s say one carpenter = one house per year (including the woodsmen, saw wrights and teamsters into the process. So we’ve expended another thousand of our excess laborers.

OK, so we’ve provided for food, clothing, and housing for the population, and we still have 91,000 workers left. Of course, we still have a ton of other tasks to deal with: miners to dig the iron ore, more teamsters to haul it, ranchers to raise the horses, farmers to grow the hay for the horses, carpenters to build the mine support structures, supervisors to keep everybody working properly, accountants to figure out everybody’s pay, workers to run the smelter, more workers to run the iron works, more teamsters to transport the iron goods out to the farms, store clerks to distribute all the consumer goods, more teamsters to distribute all those consumer goods, more horses for the teamsters, more farmers growing hay… are you starting to get an idea of just how many people are required to get this civilization functional? I still haven’t talked about shoemakers, cattle ranchers, politicians, gunsmiths, powder manufacturers, paint makers, miners to dig up all the stuff for these guys, cement makers… it’s just huge. The odds that you can get all those services taken care of with the surplus labor you’ve got are very low.

It takes a LOT of workers to make a society function.

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piglet 08.05.10 at 7:56 pm

“It takes a LOT of workers to make a society function.”

No doubt, but let me point out that your argument is distinct from the one Stross is making. It is one thing to say that ancient Egyptian civilization relied on the surplus labor of a huge mass of poor peasants. It is another thing to say that its cultural complexity required a large number of specialists to maintain. It probably took 100 peasants to feed one specialist, so it wouldn’t be wrong to say that population size was a limiting factor but not I think for the reasons that Stross cites.

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chris 08.05.10 at 8:38 pm

I helped write business applications. Was any of that of any consequence for civilization?

Yes, of course it was. I don’t know what specific industry your customers were in, but it almost doesn’t matter — they bought your applications because they believed it would make their businesses more productive/efficient at whatever business they did do (compared to whatever methods they were using before), and they were probably right. (I suppose you theoretically could have had a string of customers that were changing things for foolish reasons, or went out of business before they could implement your work and derive any benefit from it, or the like, but it’s very unlikely, and the more customers you have the more likely that you improved the operation of at least *some* of their businesses.)

The fact that just such underappreciated, but in the aggregate significant, minor improvements undergird practically everything our modern civilization does is precisely Stross’s point, isn’t it? The inventory tracking system at Old Navy *is* relevant to cancer research, it’s just in such an indirect and obscure way that we normally can’t or don’t trace it. If we tried to get along without a modern garment industry (at least, short of all becoming nudists, which only works in suitable climates anyway) we’d notice the effects soon enough, and eventually have to start, and bear the costs of, a less-efficient garment industry. And since it was less efficient, it would take more resources away from something else, possibly cancer research.

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Irrelephant 08.05.10 at 9:06 pm

I used my U of Google degree to check out my statements (because this seems like the kind of place where people will correct you pretty quickly). In 1830, US Population was 12 million, so halve whatever the lowball figure we’ve arbitrarily determined. It was the year of Tom Thumb, first locomotive, so railroads were not even started.

I also found an interesting quote fom John Fitch, bankrupt inventor of the steamboat, circa 1787″There is such a strange infatuation in mankind that it seems they would rather lay out money for balloons and fireworks, and be a pest to society, than to lay it out on something that would enrich America three times as much as all that vast country north west of the Ohio”. Point being there is a lot of frivolity in any economy. And as Stross points out in a later post, any space colony is more likely to look like North Korea than libertarian vision of Wagon Train to the Stars.

So, I think it is agreed by everyone here that it takes a lot people to run a civilization, even more to run a biosphere, which is basically what you got to do. Say we set up a moon colony in 2030 (okay, yeah, stop laughing). It is doubtful there will be any fun to be had at all. As Stross goes further, it (enormous expense of colonizing) would neatly explain the Fermi Paradox.

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piglet 08.05.10 at 9:22 pm

chris, I think you are now making the argument that whenever there is a market demand for a product, that product is a necessary ingredient of our civilization. When you accept that, this whole discussion becomes redundant: everybody is needed.

I happen to disagree with the market argument – I do not see the market as a normative authority and I do believe that civilization could do without a large chunk of our current economy (yes, I’m probably a snob). In addition, a large part of our economy is simply scale dependent. Take teachers as an example. Ceteris paribus, a larger population needs more teachers than a smaller population. We probably agree that the teaching profession is relevant to sustain civilization. But we don’t think of a larger population as having a higher level of civilization just because there are more teachers. It is a matter of scale. To estimate “the minimum population needed to sustain an advanced industrialized civilization”, we want to identify only that part of the population that really sustains those functions that are required for “civilization”. Of course that raises the question what we mean by civilization. The whole debate so far has relied on the assumption that we differentiate between more and less advanced levels of civilization – not everybody agrees with that but again without that assumption, the discussion becomes pointless.

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piglet 08.05.10 at 9:31 pm

Btw I’m not interested in the space colony angle at all. The laws of physics pretty much rule interstellar space travel out. I’m more interested in the complexity argument – what does it really mean when we say our civilization is complex? How far is that complexity related to population size? Can we reduce that complexity and still maintain a decent living standard? There is a related argument from Kunstler saying that industrial society is bound to run into trouble precisely because of its complexity, which makes it vulnerable and can only be sustained thanks to cheap oil providing the energy subsidy to stave off the law of entropy.

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Chris Crawford 08.05.10 at 9:57 pm

Thanks, Irrelephant, for correcting my population number. I downloaded the Census report from 1840 trying to get an idea of distributions of labor, but could only get state-by-state numbers, not aggregate figures, so we need to take my 90+% number with some skepticism as well.

Both you and piglet advance the argument that a civilization has a lot “fat” in it, goods and services that are frivolous or unnecessary. I would agree with you, but the problem is that when we sit down to write our lists of things to cut out, we will probably disagree with each other. I might reject nice clothes while you declare them necessary. So, who decides what’s necessary and what isn’t? Your basic argument is in favor of a command economy, and those things never work very well. I suppose that it might be workable if the shape of the economy is declared upfront and every colonist signs on to the sacrifices that are required — but then, can you really ask people to sacrifice their little pleasures indefinitely? Can you imagine forswearing for the rest of your life some stupid little pleasure that you must admit is not necessary to your survival? Chocolate ice cream? Videogames? Porn websites? SUVs? Soap operas? Guns? Let’s get real here! ;-)

Piglet, I like your point about a metric for the complexity of a civilization, and I think that I can offer one that, while not actually measurable, is theoretically conceivable. Do you know what the Gini Index is in economics? It’s a measure of the uneveness of the distribution of wealth in society. A Gini Index of 1.00 means that one person has all the wealth and nobody else has any wealth. A Gini Index of 0.00 obtains for a perfectly equal society in which each person has precisely the same amount of wealth as every other person. The Nordic countries have Gini Indexes of about 0.2, most of the OECD countries come in between 0.30 and 0.40, the USA comes in at 0.41 (if memory serves), and some of the plutocracies and kleptocracies come in around 0.5 to 0.6.

What if we applied the concept of the Gini Index separately to a) production and b) consumption? That is, we pick a person at random and trace the path of every economic contribution that person makes to society until it reaches a consumer. Then we add up all those consumers so that we can say something like: Person X’s output reaches 3,456 people. (This count should probably be weighted by value). Then we figure out the average value of every person’s figure, and divide by the total population. In some sort of “perfectly complex” economy, that average would be 1.00. In an impossibly inefficient economy, that number would add up to 0.00. The average gives us an indicator of economic integration, which in turn implies maximum specialization.

We can also do the same thing in reverse for consumption: for a given person Y, how many laborers contributed to the economic benefits that Y enjoys? This would give us another index. I’d expect that the two indexes would be concomitant, but not necessarily equal.

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Omega Centauri 08.05.10 at 10:13 pm

I think we all agree that maintenence of a given level of civilization requires a certain miniumum population. I doubt we can come up with a lower bound that is very accurate -we could easily be off by an order of magnitude. Obviously cultural and leadership issues can have a huge effect on what that number is. We are mainly arguing from historical -mainly western examples, which had their own cultures. No-one designed these culture and leadership models with the goal of minimizing the population needed to sustain a given level, the cultural values can be considered to be practically accidentally acquired as far as this issue is involved. Then a lot depends upon the envirnoment our culture ends up in. If it is like modern Hawaii, then maybe a clothing industry is a luxury which could be jettisoned. If it has fertile lands, and good crop species the fraction of agricultural workers will be much less than if it starts with poor quality seed corn and/or degraded soil fertility. So a handful of historical examples just don’t sample the “space” of possibilities enough to make more than some wild guesses as to the true minimum.

Then, what do we mean by stability? Short term stability is one thing. How about the ability to recover from an unexpected catastrophe -say a thousand year epidemic, or supervolcanic eruption, or ??? I’d bet the needed pre-catastrophic population is much much higher than a more narrow minded version of stability would indicate.

Also, what if the environmental difficulty isn’t constant? The soil degrades? The climate changes? Certain ore bodies play out? There is no guarantee that maintence of anything above for example the level of plains Indian technology is longterm sustainable starting at any population level.

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piglet 08.05.10 at 11:16 pm

Chris Crawford: My argument doesn’t depend only on the notion of “fat” in the economy, “goods and services that are frivolous or unnecessary”. I’ll try to explain this by going the reverse path. Suppose there is a society of population N that maintains a civilization level X. Now that population might increase, perhaps to N1= 10*N, but still culturally stay at level X. In that case, civilization X could clearly be maintained at population N even though the population happens to be N1. This thought experiment doesn’t imply that the additional N1-N people are all superfluous and don’t do anything useful. Those N1 people are probably needed to provide for the needs of N1 people. Still, you could imagine a smaller population providing for its needs just as well.

To object to this argument, you would have to claim that an increase in population necessarily implies an increase in the civilizational level X. That would be quite a leap, though. It seems reasonable to assume that there is a weak correlation between N and X (I would guess some sort of power law) but it is clearly conceivable that a population can grow without reaching a “higher level” of civilization [assuming that we know what that means], or that it can become more culturally sophisticated without growing in population at all.

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Will McLean 08.05.10 at 11:59 pm

I would look at the minimum population size question a little differently. To sustain certain skills produced on the market at a given technological level and social organization, there’s a minimum population size. If a government is the ultimate source of funding, the population the government controls determines the available funding, all other things being equal.

Second case first, 20th century. A government that buys at least six dreadnought battleships every 25 years can probably keep domestic producers of the heavy guns and armor in business. Less than that, probably not. Italy had an economy barely big enough, Argentina, Brazil and Chile, not.

Another example: high quality medieval armor. Italy ca. 1400, with a population of about 7 million and significant armor exports, could support specialists capable of the making the highest quality armor. England, with a population of about 2 million, could not

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Chris Crawford 08.06.10 at 1:42 am

Piglet, your idea raises a fascinating question: can a society abstain from technological progress as it grows larger? I can’t think of any case of such a society in history, although I have to admit that there are a lot of societies for we lack sufficient knowledge. The Mixtec/Aztec culture didn’t seem to show much technological progress, but then its population appeared to be limited by availability of protein. Egyptian civilization might provide our best counterexample. It was certainly a static society: we have lots of artifacts from all periods that are technologically indistinguishable. The problem is, we don’t have good enough estimates of population to determine if the population really grew during the life of that civilization. Agriculture began there by 8,000 BCE at the latest, and the classic Egyptian civilization was in place by 3,000 BCE. That’s 5,000 years for the population to fill the Nile Valley. It seems unlikely to me that the population would have had much opportunity for non-technologically-driven growth after having 5,000 years to build its numbers.

The single biggest technological development of that era — and a big one it was — was the development of iron-working; perhaps this can give us a handle on the problem. Early experiments with iron go back as far as the Sixth Millennium, but we don’t see it on an industrial scale until the late Third Millennium in Anatolia. It was picked up fairly quickly (by the standards of the day) by Mesopotamians and Egyptians alike, but iron-working took more than a thousand years to penetrate Europe. I suggest that this is attributable to low population densities in Europe; there wasn’t enough surplus labor to permit iron workers.

So I’m a little queasy about considerations based on the presumption of a population-dynamic but technology-static society. That seems like an impossible situation. Can you think of any good counterexamples?

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Will McLean 08.06.10 at 1:48 am

Imagine this scenario: you have the magical/technology indistinguishable from magic ability to transport the entire population of the United States in 1830 to an alternate universe exactly like ours in 1830, except that there are no living humans outside the borders of the United States in 1830.

Is that enough people to sustain the culture of the 1830s United States? I say no. You need more people to harvest coffee, tea, chocolate,wine, indigo, cochineal and so on. You still need the people growing cotton and wheat for export, because you need some way to pay for the imports.

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sg 08.06.10 at 2:09 am

No will, because with that magic technology you have a perpetual motion machine, so you just skip all the epochs between 1830 and 25000, and turn your colony into the Culture.

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sg 08.06.10 at 2:11 am

Chris, didn’t Japan do that for 150 years, eschewing gunpowder and modernizing industry in favour of a feudal rural idyll [for some]?

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Omega Centauri 08.06.10 at 4:20 am

Piglet, If you apply some of Malthus’s arguments, with respect to limited resources, after a certain point well being declines as population increases. So we have to play off the benefits of the networking effect against declining per capita natural resources as population increases. Even worse some of these resources aren’t supplied at a constant rate but are better modeled as a fixed size resource which once used up is gone forever. I.E. some natural resources can be modeled as flows, and some as stores. If we just have flow related resources, there will be an optimum population that maximizes per capita well being. At that point the margin harm caused by increasing resource scarcity with population just balances out the marginal increase in the networking effect. For stores, you can have greater well being as population increases, but the final depletion of the resource comes quicker.

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PHB 08.06.10 at 4:23 am

@Shah8

“I know my science history too well to take the arguments by PHB seriously. Ideas need other ideas to grow and flourish. They’re alot more like arborculture rather than plantation culture. If you sent a technical manual back in time, it will be used to clean backsides, even if you got it to a schmaht guy. “

Yes, we have such a rich history of setting up interstellar colonies for you to base that claim on.

The colonists are not 18th century peasants, they are starting from a literate society and they have sufficient engineering skills and infrastructure to maintain their ship over a 2500+ year voyage. And apart from their maintenance tasks they have very little else to do apart from learn skills and keep them alive.

@Chris Crawford

Yes, the question of what level of tech is necessary to make VLSI circuits is a tricky one. But I am going to cheat there and point out that to last a 100 generation voyage, the ship is going to have to have a silicon fab on it. Albeit possibly a fab the size of a photocopier. I also think that in order to make the project feasible in the first place you are going to have to pre-terraform the planet before the colonists set off. And so you are going to be sending out robot probes that have the capacity to self-replicate.

The really tricky parts are the sheer amount of energy required to keep the system going over the voyage. it takes a huge amount of energy to cross interstellar distance in a feasible time (10,000 years say). I tend to think that any colonization effort would be primarily a robot driven exercise and the self-replicating robots would only clone up humans and other animals from their DNA as their terraforming efforts made those forms of life viable.

That said, the question of how many people you need to do the physical work necessary to make a viable society is an interesting one. But again, the problem is that you are looking at a society where limited population is not a constraint and so the technology we have developed is dependent on that fact. That does not mean that we could not have an equally good standard of living if we had had to develop tech for the smaller society.

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Chris Crawford 08.06.10 at 4:48 am

Will, the best way to answer your question would be to get import figures as a percentage of GDP for the USA in 1830. I’m sure that they’re out there somewhere, but I’m too lazy to dig them up. Nevertheless, my own hunch is that imports did not play an important role in GDP for the USA in 1830. Remember, all imports had to come in by ship, which was pretty expensive and so worked only for products with high value to weight, like spices and manufactures. The high protectionist tariffs of the time blocked out many of the manufactures. That leaves spices and tea and some other special foodstuffs. Certainly nothing to sneer at but, I suspect, not large enough to throw off my already wild guesses.

sg, thanks for reminding me of Japan. Yes, that’s a very interesting example, because they cut themselves off from all economic intercourse with the outside world. We have no evidence suggesting that their population grew during that period, so we can’t directly test my hypothesis with Japan. Nevertheless, it’s interesting because it provides us with the good example of a truly isolated economy. What we need to reject the hypothesis is an economy with a growing population AND a dearth of technological progress.

Here’s another angle to approach the problem: population declines. I can think of two good examples of civilizations that suffered population declines: the Bronze Dark Age in the Near East of about 1200 BCE to 900 BCE, and the European Dark Ages of 400 CE to 1000 CE. In both of these cases, there were marked population declines, and there was also a decline in technological sophistication. This does provide some bass-ackwards support for the hypothesis.

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sg 08.06.10 at 5:38 am

what about the Maori? Did they improve technologically in the 6 centuries since their arrival in NZ? I think their population did grow.

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John Quiggin 08.06.10 at 6:07 am

As I think I’ve observed before, a society that could travel across interstellar distances wouldn’t need to settle on planets. At most, an occasional flyby of a solar system to replenish resources.

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chris y 08.06.10 at 6:45 am

Did they improve technologically in the 6 centuries since their arrival in NZ? I think their population did grow.

It certainly didn’t decline. However, according to Diamond, the Chatham Islanders, who were originally either part of the same migration as the Maori or moved on from NZ, abandoned agriculture for a food gathering economy because of lack of resources. No lack of resources in NZ, even if you kill off the megafauna in your first hundred years.

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Cyrille 08.06.10 at 6:55 am

sg (and others making the same kind of points) “what about the Maori? Did they improve technologically in the 6 centuries since their arrival in NZ? I think their population did grow.”

You do realize that civilisation is not limited to technology, right?

When Irrelephant claims to get back to 1830 pretty quickly all by himself starting with no tools (a laughable claim I guess, even if one were to know a lot of skills. By the time you reach something approaching it enough for your teachings to make sense to the others so they can make the last step, you’re probably long dead), I say that’s an unfair request, 1830 is too late. So let’s prove you can get us back to 1600.

Make a violin.

(I’m not even asking for Guarneri del Gesu standards, but something making noise won’t do. It needs to be good enough to be played by a musician from the national orchestra of a major western country).

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PHB 08.06.10 at 11:40 am

@Chris Crawford 173

The US could probably have been self sufficient long before 1830. One of the causes of the revolution was the colonists being prohibited from making their own manufactured goods.

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Barry 08.06.10 at 11:56 am

Which is not the same as being self-sufficient in all things.

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chris 08.06.10 at 2:20 pm

I do believe that civilization could do without a large chunk of our current economy (yes, I’m probably a snob).

There’s a theoretical sense in which it could, but in practice it won’t. One of the earliest forms of technology was the invention of brewing. Unnecessary? Arguably even counterproductive. But if you try to exclude it from your model colony, someone is going to reinvent it by improvisation, out of whatever other materials come to hand — which is probably going to wind up *more* costly than if you had just built a brewery in the first place. The same goes for clothing (even in environments where it is never a survival necessity) and other forms of personal adornment and for forms of entertainment other than recreational drugs.

On top of that, if you actually politically banned alcohol or music or whatever, you’d have political instability — unless you’re also postulating some kind of cultural tabula rasa so that the colonists don’t remember that those things ever existed, and even then, they’ll probably reinvent them. Inefficiently.

Now of course there are some recreational drugs that *are* currently banned in much of Western civilization, very inefficiently, and you could make some efficiency gains by not fighting them (and therefore not trying and imprisoning nearly so many people). But eliminating whole sectors of the economy just because they’re not survival-related in a simple sense isn’t going to wash as long as your economy is composed of humans. It’s as realistic as saying you’re not going to need a law enforcement industry because everyone will just agree to get along for the common good.

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piglet 08.06.10 at 4:14 pm

“There’s a theoretical sense in which it could, but in practice it won’t.”

That’s a lot of assertions here (and in several other comments) without evidence. Do I have counter-evidence? For example, GDP per capita statistics across developed countries differ but the differences do not correspond in any meaningful difference in technological or otherwise defined cultural sophistication, if you compare, say, the US and Denmark. Your examples are red herrings. Nobody has suggested that brewing or music are not a significant civilizational achievements. But then, those have been around for millennia without a need for large populations.

Piglet, your idea raises a fascinating question: can a society abstain from technological progress as it grows larger?

Honestly, this question is neither very fascinating nor difficult to answer. There is no automatism towards “progress” however defined. Whether and how a society progresses depends on complex factors and there is no plausible reason to assume that population size must be linearly related to technological progress. Statistically there is probably a correlation between population size and technological complexity, but then there is also a very strong correlation between my shoe size and global computer power, as well as with world population. Global population has been almost monotonically increasing for thousands of years. Technology has also been almost monotonically increasing. Correlation is not causation.

Omega Centauri, you seem to be addressing a totally different question. I mentioned earlier (162) that some doubt whether our industrial society can be maintained at all at its current level of complexity given environmental constraints and the law of entropy. Maybe the answer is no but that would be hardly due to population size being too small.

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Alex 08.06.10 at 4:15 pm

I don’t know anywhere as near as much as Doug, as this thread amply proves…but we do have current examples for people painfully and successfully mastering new technology from examples and books. Clandestine nuclear/missile development is just that.

Even if, like North Korea, you were able to import a bunch of old gear and some old Russians, this isn’t far off importing one example device and a ton of documentation. After all, that’s essentially what A. Q. Khan was to Pakistan’s nuclear program – KRL’s role was to basically take the URENCO docs he nicked and his memories of working there, and bash metal until they got a working centrifuge. That was also roughly what Khan’s private operation was selling.

Similarly, I doubt that ocean-going submarine the Colombians found up a river in the jungle was imported from Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft. It’s an example of a group with access to general metalworking and shipwright’s skills progressively improving until they successfully built something much more complicated. It’s possible, but unlikely, they had a submarine designer tucked away, but my money would be on kaizen.

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Chris Crawford 08.06.10 at 4:59 pm

Hmm, the Maori… good example, because their population definitely grew (no way that many Maori came over in those small boats). The tricky part here is the cause of population growth: they found a lot of fauna that were easy pickings. This was the pattern all over the South Pacific: a small group of people discover a new island and colonize it. The population grows very rapidly as they exploit the abundant resources. Then they get into population overshoot, exhaust the resources, fight a lot among each other, and drive the population back down to a level commensurate with the few renewable resources. (That, in microcosm, is what humanity is doing to the entire planet). The problem here is the rapid pace of population growth. I have to modify the basic hypothesis to take that into account. The modified hypothesis would state that technological progress lags population growth by several generations. Thus, an expanding population will experience technological progress several generations behind its growth curve. If the growth is very rapid, the technological progress will lag far behind the population. If the growth is not sustained, the technological progress will never arise.

This of course gets us into a new problem: what happens when technological progress completely outpaces population growth, as is happening with humanity in the 20th and 21st centuries?

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Chris Crawford 08.06.10 at 5:31 pm

Piglet, you reject entirely the hypothesis that population growth drives technological progress. I agree that correlation doesn’t mean causation, but that doesn’t serve to disprove the hypothesis; it simply weakens the support for it. We still haven’t found a good example of a society whose population grew significantly without subsequent technological progress. Even the case of Japan (where we don’t know if population grew) doesn’t serve us, because there were likely advances in other areas of technology. In particular, I believe that the technology of manufacturing swords continued to improve during the period when Japan cut off contacts with the outside world. So I think the question remains unanswered: can anybody think of a society that abstained from technological progress even as its population was growing?

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Will McLean 08.06.10 at 5:36 pm

Actually, I’d say North Korea supports the Stross argument: in spite of starving non-military consumption to throw resources at the problem, they can’t seem to make 1950s era missile technology work. Their society is too small.

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chris 08.06.10 at 5:52 pm

Nobody has suggested that brewing or music are not a significant civilizational achievements.

Well, you didn’t specify precisely *which* “large chunk of our current economy” civilization could do without (in your opinion). If that wasn’t the sort of thing you meant, then what did you mean?

For example, GDP per capita statistics across developed countries differ but the differences do not correspond in any meaningful difference in technological or otherwise defined cultural sophistication, if you compare, say, the US and Denmark.

The US and Denmark (as of today) are in constant trade and information exchange. IMO that makes them two parts of one civilization, not two civilizations, in the sense relevant to this thread. The US and Denmark are tied together at similar technological and cultural levels *because* they are in constant contact and any innovation that occurs in one is available to the other for the cost of a translation or an import. Of course this is a continuum — it’s possible to be in contact but only with such expensive or unreliable transport that the spread of ideas or technology is greatly hindered, and there are many historical examples.

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piglet 08.06.10 at 7:00 pm

Chris Crawford:

“Piglet, you reject entirely the hypothesis that population growth drives technological progress.”

Piglet:

“It seems reasonable to assume that there is a weak correlation between N [population size] and X [“technological progress”] (I would guess some sort of power law) but it is clearly conceivable that a population can grow without reaching a “higher level” of civilization [assuming that we know what that means], or that it can become more culturally sophisticated without growing in population at all.”

I leave it to you to figure out whether I “entirely” reject your (hitherto unspoken) hypothesis. I do reject any mechanistic interpretation of progress as a function of population growth.

chris:

“Well, you didn’t specify precisely which “large chunk of our current economy” civilization could do without (in your opinion).”

Indeed I didn’t, first because it is not vital for my argument (see 161), but also because I assumed it redundant to restate what should be a familiar observation. Few economists these days deny that GDP is not a good measure of material progress, let alone civilizational advancement. GDP measures bads as well as goods, it doesn’t adjust for depreciation of either natural or man-made capital, etc.

If you press me to give examples, ok, ever heard of mortgage-backed securities, credit-default swaps and the like? A financial sector out of proportion with productive economy; a prison sector that in the US has grown much faster than almost any other sector of the economy (some civilization!); ditto the health care and insurance industry; lawyering and litigation that also have grown out of proportion; the military of course; an inefficient construction industry that has in recent decades destroyed large amounts of natural capital while building little of value [call me snobbish if you wish, but consider all those cookie-cutter houses that have become practically worthless since the bubble deflated]; etc. etc. Our economy is full of inefficiencies. Your market-optimistic approach is astonishing and strikes me as anachronistic after the economic experience of at least the past decade.

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Zamfir 08.06.10 at 7:13 pm

Alex, I am not sure how telling the Pakistani example is. The problem isn’t that learning from books and blueprints is impossible, the problem is that it is highly time and resource consuming.

You can do it for singularly important goal like building nuclear weapons, but if you have to do it for every piece of technology you need you will soon decide that you are better off without.

Also, Pakistan is hardly an isolated small group of people. It is a huge country in itself, and even in its poverty it could pull up a significant amount of resources. It could order many difficult components of its systems abroad, and it did. In fact, I think one of Kahn’s main contributions was his knowledge of the suppliers of Urenco. Besides Kahn, many other of its engineers had foreign experience, and Pakistan had at least some amount of backing from China.

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piglet 08.06.10 at 7:16 pm

The US and Denmark (as of today) are in constant trade and information exchange. IMO that makes them two parts of one civilization, not two civilizations, in the sense relevant to this thread.

Global integration has been vastly overstated by several commenters on this thread. What you refuse to see is that the vast bulk of economic activity in any economy is scale-dependent to that economy (resp. its population). Providing for the needs of any population requires an effort roughly proportional to the size of that population. You seem to argue that aggregate economic activity is an indicator of civilizational advancement [assuming we know what that is]; I say it is not. Quantity does not automatically translate into quality.

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Zamfir 08.06.10 at 7:23 pm

Piglet, are you suggesting that Denmark is a mostly self-sufficient civilization?

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chris 08.06.10 at 8:59 pm

Your market-optimistic approach

My what? My position has been that activities common to all or nearly all civilizations throughout history, while they may be strictly speaking unnecessary, are not something you can count on getting rid of in order to more efficiently build your shining city on a hill, even if you wanted to. Financial shenanigans, fraud, rent-seeking, crime, dispute resolution, and fads or mass mistakes all *definitely* fall under this heading, IMO (alongside the more benign arts and recreation). If you have a plan for how to reliably eliminate any of those things, I’d like to hear it, but I don’t hold out much hope for its success (and certainly wouldn’t stake the survival of my colony on it).

That’s not only not optimistic, it’s cynical. At most, you could paraphrase Churchill and say that the market is the worst way to allocate resources, except for all the others that have been tried, but I’m not sure even that isn’t being too favorable to the market. IMO a modified or supervised market is proven superior to a laissez-faire one, so you have to be somewhat careful with what you mean by “the market”.

If you’re *really really* isolated you don’t need the military, but I suspect people would be paranoid enough to build one anyway. Or divide against each other and then militarize — if the US and Denmark are one civilization for self-sufficiency purposes, then our hypothetical colony could be politically divided while at the same time the parts rely on each other for resource sufficiency. Or be politically unstable enough that the military and law-enforcement functions aren’t clearly divided (which they often aren’t anyway).

I am optimistic enough to think that the War on Some Drugs could be eliminated for a net efficiency gain, but in the kind of rough estimates we’re talking about here, it seems more like a rounding error.

What you refuse to see is that the vast bulk of economic activity in any economy is scale-dependent to that economy (resp. its population).

Who refuses to see that? The vast bulk isn’t the whole story. Some of the small parts are really important.

If you shrink the whole society to the point that it has less than one microchip fab and the specialists that staff it, then you don’t have microchips and everything made from them. The facts that the vast bulk of the economy has nothing to do with microchips, and that with fewer people you need fewer farmers or nurses, are both irrelevant. Hyperspecialists are the focus of the argument that you need a large population; the fact that the whole population isn’t composed of hyperspecialists is beside the point. You can’t shrink the rest of the population without also shrinking the hyperspecialist segments or distorting the ratios between one and the other; the former runs into the granularity limit and the latter is not proved possible.

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Chris Crawford 08.07.10 at 12:30 am

Piglet, sorry if I misrepresent you; I was responding to this statement of yours:

” There is no automatism towards “progress” however defined. Whether and how a society progresses depends on complex factors and there is no plausible reason to assume that population size must be linearly related to technological progress. “

I think that there is a fundamental connection between population growth and technological progress. Here’s the theoretical basis for that hypothesis:

1.Population growth increases the supply of surplus labor. There is one situation in which this would not be the case: when the increment in population must farm on marginal land so poor that one farm laborer can generate only enough food to feed himself.
2. The increment in surplus labor, when applied to existing economic functions, increases the degree of specialization used in handling those functions. For example, if you’ve got ten people making pottery, and suddenly got another ten to help, you’d break the tasks down more finely, attaining greater efficiency from greater specialization.
3. Greater specialization increases the productivity-enhancing character of tools. For example, suppose that one your original team had the task of going out, digging up clay, carrying it back to the workshop, and piling it up. Suppose that you get a second person to help the first. You could break the task down into a) digger and b) transporter. Because the digger is now devoting all of his time to digging, the purchase of a shovel yields greater benefits than it would have earlier. The same thing goes for, say, a wheelbarrow to transport the clay.
4. Greater productivity-enhancing use of tools encourages the search for better tools. For example, when there was just one guy doing all that work, he never bothered to think about getting a shovel, shovels not having been invented yet. However, once the guy starts digging full-time, it’s likely that he’ll realize that he could do a better job if he could get a thin slab of metal to pry underneath the clay with, with a handle on it. Maybe this guy won’t figure it out, but if you get more and more people digging in the dirt like that, eventually one of them will get the inspiration.
5. The search for better tools yields improved technology.

Thus, population growth yields improved technology.

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piglet 08.07.10 at 6:58 pm

“I think that there is a fundamental connection between population growth and technological progress.”

So you say that the internet wouldn’t have been developed without population growth happening, and you claim that once global population stabilizes, which will probably happen by the mid 21st century, further technological progress is IMPOSSIBLE. Well these are extraordinary (and rather implausible) claims for which you haven’t provided a shred of evidence (your above arguments at best support a weak correlation, which I don’t even object to, but none of them supports a strong correlation). So at this point I’ll just rest my case. If you have evidence for your strong hypothesis, let us know.

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piglet 08.07.10 at 7:04 pm

Zamfir: “Piglet, are you suggesting that Denmark is a mostly self-sufficient civilization?”

No. Now let me ask you, are you suggesting that Denmark depends on every single one of the world’s 7 billion people?

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piglet 08.07.10 at 7:10 pm

And chris, you are saying that the market is always right. How dare I call the wisdom of the invisible hand into question! Good grief.

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Chris Crawford 08.07.10 at 8:33 pm

Look, piglet, I’m here to discuss curious ideas with bright people. If you prefer to argue with antagonists, count me out. You don’t accept the hypothesis? Fine with me!

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Chris 08.08.10 at 2:41 am

@piglet 195: You’re really not even reading the posts you’re responding to, are you? I admit some of them are kind of long, but come on.

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Tom Womack 08.09.10 at 8:10 am

Alex@182 immediately made me think of the various machine-tool embargoes that supposedly exist to deny Chinese submarines and Pakistani missiles the benefits of microinch finishes on their propellers and turbomachinery. That’s an area which is written up reasonably comprehensively in freely-available books with names like “The Foundations of Mechanical Accuracy” and in large chunks of GPL’d code developed at US national laboratories; moreover, machine-tool exports are one of the big value-adds of some quite large chunks of the first world, developing an indigenous machine-tool industry almost makes sense even if you don’t want to make quiet submarines and reliable rockets with it.

I suppose it’s just that the embargo isn’t very tight, you can ship two-ton bits of precision machinery from Darmstadt to Bahrain and from Bahrain to Dubai and from Dubai across the straits and across the Baluchi desert much more easily than you can develop the equipment yourself.

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Kragen Javier Sitaker 08.09.10 at 1:34 pm

Answering Dan S. @132:

Robinson Crusoe was based on the story of Alexander Selkirk, who survived for four years on an island off the coast of Chile, retaining and reproducing fire, language, religion, agriculture, pastoralism, tanning, sewing, small boats, small huts, metalworking, and I believe pottery, but failing to produce gunpowder, shipbuilding, masonry, smelting, and so on.

Ultimately, of course, a society of a single person is fairly fragile. They cannot reproduce, and so the society cannot survive longer than their lifetime; and their lifetime is quite likely to be cut short by illness or accident. The fictional Crusoe spent a day or more in delirium and easily could have died; the real Selkirk fell off a cliff
and lay unconscious for the rest of a day.

Aside from these drawbacks, though, a single-person society is evidently capable of sustaining at least a Neolithic lifestyle, given sufficient natural resources.

So, what’s different in your scenario? Selkirk had the opportunity to choose, within limits, what resources he brought with him from the boat he abandoned; your 10n life coaches and cleaning staff did not. And the flora and fauna are perhaps even more unfamiliar than were the ones on Selkirk’s island, although they’re apparently Earthly, since it was a moonseed fruit that laid low our one careless experimenter.

Still, most people can survive for a couple of weeks without food; most poisonous plants are detectable as such by careful incremental approaches to eating them and careful record-keeping; you can probably kill big game with the sysadmin’s Leatherman; with more than 10 people there is no chance of anyone dying of exposure before you get a shelter set up; the file on the Leatherman is also adequate to turn briefcase latches and the like into steel spear points; out of the 10n people, at least n will be smokers, and will thus have cigarette-lighter equipment; no bear or wolf pack would be so foolish as to attack an encampment of 10n people; the party planner’s wine glasses will make admirable skinning knives when you break them; and so on.

So the elements themselves pose no real risk of failing to survive, as a group. As long as you can get along.

Instead, you need to figure out how to bootstrap some more advanced tools from the resources at hand: stone spearpoints for hunting; saws for cutting trees; kilns for making pots and refractory for smelting iron and copper; soap for preventing infections; penicillin for treating them; finely divided magnetite for making fertilizer from air; Portland cement for buildings and compositing with bamboo fiber; quicklime for painting; rubber for condoms and gloves; leather for piston gaskets; glass for scalpels, lightweight vessels, and greenhouses; tamed animals for multiplying the available energy until you get heat engines built; polylactide for lightweight, sturdy objects that don’t merit the expense of Portland cement or iron, or need to be shatterproof; alumina smelting pots for the Hall-Héroult process; vacuum deposition chambers to make huge mirrors for solar collectors; and so on.

Of course, this depends on the abundant game. If everyone has to look for non-poisonous berries for 80 hours a week, you’re going to have a hard time.

One person who has these industrial processes in their head could bootstrap the whole thing pretty quickly, given 10n people to work on it — but only if they have the charisma to persuade the other people it’s really possible, and that risking their lives welding up a steam engine or breaking a mustang is a better use of their remaining lifetime than getting drunk and reminiscing about Camus with the former clerical workers.

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garymar 08.13.10 at 6:14 am

Chris Crawford said:

…Japan. Yes, that’s a very interesting example, because they cut themselves off from all economic intercourse with the outside world. We have no evidence suggesting that their population grew during that period, so we can’t directly test my hypothesis with Japan.

Well, here’s an interesting page from a Japanese website called Social Conditions Data Illustrated that shows a rather dramatic population increase (2.5X!) from about 1600 to 1700: and the last “National Isolation Directive” came out in the 1635 or so (it had been going on step by step since Tokugawa assumed control in 1600). Of course the isolation was never total: they traded a bit with Ming China and Korea and the Dutch kept a small station going in Nagasaki.

The increased population was probably the result of the political and economic stability provided by the military dictatorship: they had just come off 100 years of anarchy and civil war, after all. Looks like they reached their Malthusian limit right around 1700.

On the other hand, look at the far right of the graph to see the prediction for Japanese population decline. I think they’re being overly pessimistic there!

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P.M.Lawrence 08.15.10 at 6:50 am

Robert Graves wrote a historical novel, “The Isles of Unwisdom” – curiously enough, about Spanish colonising efforts in the Pacific. In it, he mentioned in passing a mediaeval European tradition about the basis of technology. Apparently smiths knew they needed tools to make tools, but in almost every case they could work out how to improvise the first step. However, they did not know how to make tongs without using a previous set of tongs, so a myth sprang up that God had given the first smith his first tongs – the tongs of Tubal Cain. I suppose it might even have been poetically true, if (say) some precisely shaped pieces of stone with the right shape and physical properties had happened to turn up. Can any of our techno-historians comment on whether that or anything else presents a similar bootstrapping problem, i.e. one that needs special accidental resources to overcome rather than human inspiration and ordinary materials?

By the way, shovels are not much use for digging; spades are far better.

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