Part I

Electricity, Kaizen, and the Devil On Our Shoulder

Consider the electric generator. Whereas the steam engine burned fuel to create motion, a generator uses motion to make fuel. Spinning a copper barrel in a magnetic field makes electricity start to flow. It is something of a misnomer, though, to call this electricity ‘fuel’ or even ‘energy’. It is actually a byproduct of using up fuel and energy. Split hairs aside, this new ‘energy source’ was heavily favored over the old source (fire) as seen in the fact that people will burn combustible fuels for the sole purpose of spinning an electric generator. Reliable electricity would have to be the crowning achievement of the engine revolution and the seed of a whole new series of revolutions.

Good enough
An apparently limitless source of electricity handed a new tool to the innovators, and they ran with it. Experiment followed experiment, leveraging each breakthrough to the end of further exploration. Send current through a coil of wire in a vacuum-sealed glass bulb. Electric light. Send electricity through a highly-resistant alloy inside a metal box. Electric oven. Modern life came into view. The discoveries were only limited by the materials on hand. Conveniently enough, parallel to all these experiments, those mechanical engines had been scouring the earth above and below not only for their own fuel[1], but for any other new ore to further the innovation. Keeping the front lines of progress well-supplied. This was highly lucrative, but also very destructive. Materials ripped as quickly as possible from the earth and often burned have left quite a few scars. Our appetite for mechanical haste and efficiency, though, emerged unscathed.

It must be something innately human to always want to improve. No good world is good enough. Innovation piles on top of innovation, each building on the last, each begging the next. If we try to take some notion of all of this expansion into our minds, it’s hard not to see innovation itself as one great engine. One of such potency that it fuels itself, improves itself, grows itself. A vast, whirring array of component parts each united in an intricacy of doing, always trying to outdo. This engine, with all its fecund potency must be no less than the human imagination, the very thing, stretched out over generations, stretching out to unknowable ends.

Measuring the full impact of this imagination engine, wouldn’t we have to admit that it hums inside a head with the devil at one ear? For every power we unleash, we endure a power struggle. For every innovation, the fear of eradication. Our acts of creation germinate in our acts of destruction. Lately, this so-called ‘creative destruction’ has been quite fashionable, but this concept refutes the very essence of creativity. We should call it what it is. A mere rearrangement of dwindling resources both cultural and material. Treading water.

The advances of engineering—mechanical, electrical, soon giving birth to the software engineer[2]—have brought us into the digital age and left a wide trail of exhaustion in its wake. We must pause, though, to answer the objection again. Innovation itself is not the problem. Taming the world around us, drawing out its best potential through care and study, this is the most fundamental charge of being human and one of our great pleasures. This act of drawing forth, though, must be held in check. Much is possible, but less is good. More than that, though, apparent good can be deceiving, hiding deep consequences that unfold much more slowly than the initial reward. Innovation must be held in check by care and sober foresight, by prudence.

We are as naturally inclined to prudence as to innovation. We all balk at something new and strange, even if only for a moment. We sense normality very strongly, like an instinct. This instinct gives us pause as we exercise our urge to create and in those pauses we have the blessed opportunity for wisdom. In that moment when we must contain two opposing forces inside us, navigating an animate balance, we are most alive[3]. Yet when two impulses must live in tension like this, we become vulnerable to motives that would have us choose one side or other as a default and so choke out wisdom. Our sense of normality is either contracted to accept no change, but on the whole, I think it’s more likely that it has greatly expanded to accept even alarming changes as a matter of course, or at least as an acceptable price to pay for whatever dazzling newness is promised to us. We have been conditioned to a fast-paced world.

But, speed always eventually spills the banks of control with destructive consequences. How have we kept at it for so long, continually destroying good worlds for the sake of continual change? Why has ‘good enough’ eluded us? For a complex variety of reasons, but the list would have to at least include the availability of profit, the dopamine surge sponsored by newness, and our desire for an anesthetic for the conscience. We were hungry and we didn’t want to feel bad about it. Subject to these motivations, our sense of normality has evolved to meet the changes wrought by the human dynamo. This was not an unattended happenstance. No, there was a devil at one ear soothing and urging. One last engineer, maybe the only one that matters. The social engineer.

The Art of Dissatisfaction

This engineer lives inside us all. It does our constant work of self-justification. In a broad and external sense, this role is occupied by anyone with a vision for the direction of culture and who tries to bring others along. I’m attempting social engineering right now, one might even call it essaying. But, like the engineer is the technical embodiment of our spirit of innovation, this justification impulse is specialized in the salesman, the marketeer. Paid to make every innovation desirable and therefore profitable.

Social engineering is possible because the human conscience is up for grabs. It is so because the conscience has been severed from its creator, its original guide and limit. Or, if you prefer (though I do not), it has risen out of a long chain of natural selections and so has no moral origin and is constantly waiting to be formed. Either way, the human conscience is up for grabs and the social engineer reaches for it to mold it to accept the world he or she most wants to see. If you can admit that people might occasionally act out of self interest, even if that interest comes at the expense of harm to others, then you can see that the social engineer is dangerous[4]. They sculpt our culture, our bounds of acceptability that all other engineers operate in. Because we invest in what we love, our affections are a battleground. We ought to know the combatants.

Who has an interest in how the world turns out? Well, who is building engines? Who wants to use them? Who wants to sell them? And who would rather the engines not be used against them? This is far from a two-sided story. It is a tribal story shot through with contrary motivations, allegiances, and betrayals. All of this chaos has created ample work for the social engineers to mold the conscience to accept a long succession of innovations, each offering some victory to the more powerful players in any tribe, and even convenience and pleasure to those of middling power. That this innovation has been predicated on destruction is due to the fact that the model of competition is on par with that of roaches. Animal impulses. Do or die. Success is not just comfort, it is your very survival. Victory at all costs.

All along the way, the story has basically been this: if a gadget is potentially profitable, potentially offering a pathway to consolidated power for those in possession of it, then the attached social engineers go to work turning our affections to the immediate gratification offered with the use of the new technology. The conquest of enemies and securing of ‘freedom’, the dopamine release in the brain from watching images flicker across a screen, or just cheaper anything. These pleasures are used to separate the conscience from any hesitation between us the ‘purchase decision’, the moment when we put to death any notion of a world without this new device. We are asked to love the quick profit. In doing so, we accept the economic engine that ever-renewing (and ever obsolescing) technology helps crank. We are all supposedly beholden to this economy as the source of modern wealth, life, and even joy. Unending progress must be considered normal, this fast and accelerating evolution of new means and new things can never be considered reckless because to slow down and consider would be tantamount to an act of terrorism. Sabotaging with concern the world we all rely on.

Indeed, trying to quickly fix the deep errors of the past would be violent. The people responsible for old wounds are either dead or have profited from them so immensely that to challenge them would require a power play on their own destructive scale. You can’t build that kind of power without the recklessness and obliteration they had to expend to gain it themselves. And all the while you’re trying to rip up the past someone keeps building on it. I believe the better resistance starts with slowing the progress of the future-builders, not with authoritarian ploys, but by eroding the tacit assent they rely on to cast forth their vision. If the power for unchecked innovation rests on a sleeping conscience, how can you wake one up? What are the social engineers, those in service to unaccountable profit and power, what are they up to now? Perhaps we could meet them there and dull the cutting edge.

Part III   |   Part IV

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[1] It is notable that the mechanical revolution was entirely dependent on fuel that requires a machine to dig up. The destruction of mountains in my state to access coal, the disastrous failures of oil and natural gas wells and tankers, and other such calamities all begin to paint a picture of this vicious cycle where machines require destruction for the fuel they consume, and in turn put in our hands the means to be even more destructive through even greater machine power.

[2] Brought into being by the alchemy of silicon turning electricity into information.

[3] It’s funny that this degree of living can drain us. We are such frail creatures.

[4] And, of course, the most dangerous social engineers are not the ones who aim their marketing at us, but those who market only to power, behind closed doors so they can emerge armed with law.

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