Monday, May 9, 2011

The Ratchet Effect

"The Ratchet Effect -

Why Technological Progress and the Expansion of Man's Habitat is Irreversible"
(c) 2010, 2011 by Jordan S. Bassior


A common science-fictional scenario is the post-apocalyptic story, in which some war or disaster has destroyed civilization and the human race must rebuild from a low-tech foundation. And in real history, we see abundant evidence that civilizations are mortal: Toynbee ( made a famous study of their life cycles.

This has led to a theory that humanity can never engage in the long-term colonization of any region (such as the Moon or the sea floor) which we could not survive in without an "advanced technology." (1) The obvious analogy is made with the Greenland colony of the Vikings, which perished when Greenland became too cold for medieval European farming technology.

However, if one looks at actual history, one will see that the actual loss of a technology, especially in the sense of it being lost to all humanity, is very rare. For instance, while the technology of civil engineering definitely declined in the post 5th-century AD Roman West, in what became Western Europe, it remained in practice in the East (2). As Robert Wright points out in Nonzero, it is rare for anything important to be forgotten by the human extended mind (

Why is this?

Knowledge As Self-Replicator

Technology is a form of knowledge, and knowledge is a self-replicator, whose habitat is the mind. A useful piece of technology -- such as the principle of the wheel or how to smelt and forge iron into tools -- unless it fails to spread at inception -- will be passed on to many other minds, and thus spread so widely that it is very difficult to exterminate (3).

This is why, as we observe the passage of centuries, we see a steady rise in human technology. This rise is independent of the occurrence of "dark ages" -- in fact, since a "dark age" is the early springtime of a new civilization, a period in which the cold restraints of the winter of the last civilization have been slipped, thus technological progress may actually accelerate in a dark age, as happened to agricultural technology in the Western Dark Age of the early medieval period (4). It is easily noted that each civilization starts from a higher level of technology than did its predecessor (compare Europe in the 7th-10th centuries AD to Greece in the 10th-7th centuries BC) and rises to greater heights (compare the Classical Greco-Roman world of the 1st century BC to the American-Anglosphere-European world of the 21st century AD).

The Technological Ratchet Effect, and Cultural Competition

This is because any human culture is based upon certain technologies, which for this reason are important to that culture. These technologies will be strongly embedded in customs which ensure that they are taught to the next generations, and hence cannot be forgotten. What is more, because "human culture" is composed of numerous "sub-cultures" (or will fragment into such given protracted political breakdown), if by horrid mischance some human culture manages to forget an important technology, it will simply be outcompeted and displaced by other human cultures which have retained that piece of technology (5).

The important point here is to realize that we speak of humanity as a whole, and in terms of centuries or even millennia. It is quite possible for an important piece of technology (such as the construction of aqueducts) to be lost locally (as it was in Northwestern Europe following the fall of the Roman Empire) for centuries. But note that building aqueducts is only important if one wishes to build large cities, and it was precisely in Northwestern Europe that cities were of only minor importance for everything save imperial administration (6). In Southeastern Europe and the Levant, the technology was never lost, in fact was taken further with wind and water-mills -- and eventually spread back into Northwestern Europe, to aid in the rebirth of the cities in the High Middle Ages and Renaissance. The modern West builds water supply systems which are far more sophisticated and extensive than anything Rome managed at her height (7).

Think of this as a "ratchet" effect. A ratchet gear permits motion in only one direction: it is easy to push forward, but extremely difficult to push backward. The technological ratchet is somewhat less reliable than the mechanical one, but it makes forgetting a technology extremely difficult. In general, once anything important to a civilization at a time is discovered, it will not be forgotten (8).

Failed Colonies

But what of failed colonies? We can point to examples in which attempts to implant higher civilization failed: Late Classical Britain, Viking Greenland, and the like. Surely this could happen to humanity if we attempt to plant colonies on other worlds?

Yes, it could. But locally, temporarily, and only to a limited extent (9).

First, note that Late Classical Britain succumbed not to natural cultural decay (the withdrawal of Roman authority led to political fragmentation but not technological decline) but rather to a barbarian invasion (that of the Angles and Saxons).  As for Viking Greenland, the problem there was a change in the climate: medieval Viking technology would have sufficed indefinitely to permit organized survival in the Greenland of the Medieval Climatic Optimum, but survival in the Greenland of the Little Ice Age was a much tougher proposition.

(Incidentally, climate change might have also been a factor in the fall of Roman Britain; note the extreme cold snap of 535-536, as described in There was also a barbarian invasion in the case of Greenland, in the form of the arrival of the Eskimos).

Secondly, note that neither Britain nor Greenland remained permanently barred to civilization. The modern West has recolonized both territories, in the case of Britain producing a brilliant culture which proved highly-influential in the spread of the West worldwide; in the case of Greenland, at least rejoining it to the wider cultural sphere.

Finally, note that in each case the catastrophes were local. The fall of Roman Britain into darkness did not mean the fall of the Classical legacy everywhere; its survival in Italy, Gaul and Ireland, in fact, proved decisive in eventual the restoration of civilization in Britain. The fall of Greenland did not mean the collapse of all Scandinavian-derived cultures, nor even of Norse seafaring. Because the technologies survived elsewhere in the mass human memory, they could eventually replicate back into the regions from which they had been extirpated.

A Spacefaring Analogy

Imagine that, in the far future, humanity has colonized a star system possessing no planets habitable to unprotected higher Earthlife, such that the maintenance of artificial habs is vital to human survival. Assume that there are at some point six cultural zones in this system; call them Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon and Zeta. Each of these zones exploits various local resources, and trades them with the other habs.

Suddenly the star suffers a nova flare, causing great damage to the human civilization in that system. Alpha is caught directly in the flare and vaporized; Beta takes lethal thermal effects, and computers are scrambled throughout the system so that Gamma, Delta, Epsilon and Zeta all suffer losses of some of their knowledge. On Gamma and Delta the loss of knowledge is so extreme that people no longer know how to run the hab life support systems very well, and over the ensuing decades, most of the people in these colonies also perish. Epsilon manages to preserve life support knowledge through embedding in cultural ritual, and on Zeta they used superior hardened computers and hence very little knowlege is lost -- but with only limited trade from Epsilon and no trade from Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta, the Zetans are impoverished.

Now, what are the effects of what has happened?

Well, to begin with, the surviving cultures, Epsilon and Zeta, are clearly not going to be vulnerable to further nova flares of similar magnitude. They have already survived the worst, and learned to buffer their cultures against the deletrious consequences of such a nova.

Secondly, Zeta has both a clear motive and opportunity to attempt the recolonization of Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta. This may be slow due to limited resources, and of course in the case of Alpha there is a lack of infrastructure and Beta perhaps a lack of optimism about operations so close to a lethally-variable star, but such recolonization is inevitable barring an immediate recurrence of the catastrophe.

Thirdly, though the knowledge on Epsilon may be limited to bare-bones survival tech, it won't stay that way for long. The technologies lost to the nova flare will return, in the form of copies carried by Zetan traders; this is inevitable even if the Zetans don't want it to happen, because people will accidentally say too much, or deliberately defect: and in any case, the Epsilonians will be shown by example what is possible.

On Gamma and Delta, small populations may survive. We may suppose for the sake of argument that the population of Gamma completely fails (a "Greenland colony"), while on Delta ("Iceland") a small population persists using less-than-optimum life support techniques in straitened circumstances.

Eventually, the culture of Zeta becomes decadent and inward-looking, but not before the Epsilonians have learned Zetan technologies, perhaps from ambitious Zetan engineers who seek opportunities no longer available in their moribund society. Their culture reborn by the influx of Zetan ideas, the Epsilonians trade with both Delta and Zeta, recolonize Beta and Gamma, and eventually not only build new habitats in the long-lost Alpha region, but go on to found new colonies at Eta, Theta, Iota, Kappa and Lambda! And the new civilization, aware of the nova peril, hardens all its habs from the start, so that future novae will do far less damage to their economy.

How long does this take?

Who knows? Decades, centuries, millennia. The point is that something like this is fairly inevitable (10). And if things went worse in this system (call it Aleph), no doubt it would have been re-colonized from Systems Beth or Gimel. This or that pocket of a self-replicator may be extirpated, but extermination is far more difficult.


Science marches on. Technological progress is irreversible. Catastrophes are local, and recovery inevitable. Assuming that the human race is not annihilated, we have nowhere to go but up.



(1) -  Which of course begs the question of what constitutes an "advanced" technology, as opposed to an ordinary one.  A moment's thought shows that the "advancement" of a technology is always relative to the overall level of advancement of that technology in that civilization:  thus, to people living in the year 1850, coal-fired steam locomotives and simple mechanical lathes are "advanced" technologies, while to people living in the year 1900, they are "ordinary" technologies and to people living in 1950 they are "old" technologies.  The same logic applies to high-density integrated circuits:  "advanced" today, they will probably be "ordinary" in 2050 and "old" by 2100.

(2) - Many of the common implicit assumptions about the rise and fall of civilization are overly parochial to the Mediterranean and European world (the fall of the Western Roman Empire was a local catastrophe, and even around parts of Europe and the Mediterranean (specifically in Eastern Europe and around the Black Sea basin) the level of civilization continued to climb in the centuries immediately after the fall of Rome.  They also tend to be too much focused on things which emotionally or politically affected scholarly chroniclers:  in particular, they miss the immense advances in power and agricultural technologies that spread through Europe and the Mediterranean in the last half of the 1st Millennium CE, because monastic scholars didn't often concern themselves with such grubby base mechanic details. 

This is ironic, since the very monasteries in which the scholars were writing their chronicles were centers of the invention and diffusion of such technologies, and, had they appreciated how important these technologies were to become, they would have proclaimed their achievements to the greater glory of their Mother Church.  But the Medieval Church had inherited Neo-Platonism from the Classical world, and consequently viewed these technological achievements as things of which to be philosophically ashamed rather than proud.  I strongly suspect that this attitude was more common the higher one rose in the Church, since monks who were themselves the children of peasants and artisans probably took a more positive view of labor-saving and labor-multiplying devices.

(3) - Think of the idea as a fast-breeding life form.  We have difficulty enough eradicating destructive memes, such as Communism, Naziism and Islamism:  consider then how hard it is to eradicate a constructive or even an essential meme, such as how to farm in a medieval society, or how to efficiently and safely generate oxygen and hydrogen from mined ices for a hab located on Callisto.  Cultural selection by survival of the fittest works against the eradication of the essential meme:  any settlement that starts to lose the meme will begin to fail and die, while those which keep and grow the meme will succeed and reproduce.

(4) - Classical Greco-Roman labor-saving technology suffered from the assumption that a large percentage of the population were "natural" slaves and that keeping them at slave labor was essential to the maintenance of civil order.  Hence Greek and Roman philosophers and emperors saw advances in such technology as <i>un</i>desirable, as potential threats to the civil peace.  As the Empire broke down, it became increasingly difficult to get and keep slaves, and the central authority which could suppress technological progress was replaced by a multi-national feudalism in which any one Power which sought to rein in such progress would simply be outcompeted by others.

What technologies are our assumptions likewise suppressing, which would flourish with the fall of Western Civilization and the Springtime of its successor Civilizations?  Nuclear energy and propulsion are obvious candidates, and there are bound to be many more.

This is not to say that the fall of a Civilization is an inherently good thing:  it is accompanied by horrible human suffering and the loss of much accumulated knowledge.  While core technologies are rarely lost, peripheral ones may be forgotten, and many beautiful albiet non-essential knowledge (particularly art, music, poetry and prose) may be lost forever.

Better for a Civilization not to suppress useful technologies, that it may live all the longer in peace and prosperity, rather than fall to the Barbarians.

(5) - To put it another way, the fall of a Civilization is the cultural analogue of a biological mass extinction event.  Those cultures which survive the fall will undergo an evolutionary pulse, rapidly re-radiate, and fill most of the now-empty niches.  Note how soon after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire rose the first barbarian kingdoms:  Merovingian France, Ostrogothic Italy, and Visigothic Spain.  Power politics abhors a vacuum. 

Also note how the monasteries rapidly morphed from religous retreats to scholastic-technological libraries, museums and then research institutions.  When people know that something was once possible to do, they will try to do it again in the future.  The fall of the Roman Empire was really more a collapse of order and trade than of technology.

(6) - Priorities changed when the Empire fell.  This resulted in a loss of technologies which required large political units to function, but a gain of technologies which could be applied locally.  Great aqueducts (for example) required a general absence of war in their vicinities (else the next invading army would simply wreck one's laboriously-built waterworks as part of the general despoilation of one's lands); mills and iron plows, on the other hand, could respectively be rebuit with relative ease or hidden from the invaders.  Likewise, small Early Medieval polities lacked the labor to build miles-long aqueducts, but once they knew the techniques could construct watermills, craft horse-collars, or forge iron-bladed plows with local resources.

In fact, the breakdown of international trade meant that one could no longer selectively farm each crop on the soil best suited to it, even if said soil were hundreds of miles from the point of consumption:  now, one had to learn how to make the best possible use of the farmland close enough to one's local military forces for such forces to meaningfully protect and patrol.  Hence, there was a strong pressure to devise and adopt a more advanced agricultural technology.  Because Medieval Europe was balkanized, once long-distance trade began to return with the revival of Britain, France and Germany, economic competition then rewarded successful early adopters and penalized the (literal) stick-in-the-muds.

(7) - The technological superiority of Western to Classical Greco-Roman Civilization is utterly-obvious now (we fly into orbit while they merely rowed and sailed around the coasts of their world) but came as a big surprise to the men of the 15th century, who suddenly began to realize that they could do many sorts of things (one of them to sail across oceanic expanses) which were impossible to the men of the Roman Empire.  Europe had been so long overshadowed by its Roman past that Medieval Europe had not noticed that they had already attained a more advanced technology:  this advance was further masked by the fact that Medieval scholars generally paid no attention to technological context.  Note the many Medieval romances which depict Julius Caesar and his men as clad in armor and riding warhorses utterly unknown and far superior to any cavalry, actually available to the Romans of a thousand years past.

(8) - The stipulation "important to a civilization at a time" is vital, because many things not very important to the civilization on a fundamental cultural or economic level will be forgotten.  For instance, we have lost large parts of the corpus of Classical Literature, simply because much of it was irrelevant to the cultural and economic survival and vitality of the people of the Medieval world.  We did not, however, lose much if any high-level Classical marriage or property law, since such was absolutely necessary to maintaining the economic and political order.  The monks failed to copy many secondary literary works, but they did not fail to copy and recopy legal codes.

(9) - It is important to grasp that this or that extra-terrestrial colony might fail, without necessarily causing the failure of all the others.  There is a tendency by pessimistic writers on the topic to implicitly assume that one and only one such colony will ever be founded, and its failure mean the eternal failure of Mankind to expand beyond the Earth, or conversely that if one such colony fails, it means that all such colonies will fail.  Neither assumption makes much sense.

(10) - I'm not trying to be flippant, or blind to the obvious death and suffering involved in my scenario.  What I'm doing is taking a long-term cultural-evolutionary viewpoint.  Evolution is not necessarily a kind process, but nevertheless in the long run it tends to result in improved adaptation to one's environment, whether that environment is the Mediterranean of millennia ago or extrasolar planetary systems of millennia hence.


  1. The same logic applies to high-density integrated circuits: "advanced" today, they will probably be "ordinary" in 2050 and "old" by 2100.

    I don't entirely agree. However, there are technological refinements being announced even now which mean that the density of those circuits, recently thought to be approaching an insurmountable physical limitation, will probably be able to increased by literally orders of magnitude over the next few decades. (To understand what I'm writing about, Google Intel's Tri-gate transistor technology. Jordan, you're one of the few people I know (even at this remove) who can probably understand the implications without having them explicitly pointed out.)

  2. I suspect it's much more likely that the formidible expansion of techniques -- such as the massive use of the watermill -- didn't register. The sack of Rome was an enormous catastrophe and visible as such. The diffusion of milling grain spread year by year in such a manner that it was probably taken for granted, either as trivial or as something that was always there.

    Monks, after all, were obliged by their Rule to work.

  3. My point regarding IC's is that they follow a general law of technological progression. At any point in technological history, something is "cutting edge" and producible only by expert specialists using the most advanced and expensive tools, in a few key factories. But as technology continues to advance, this item becomes "normal" technology, producible by many factories; as technology advances further, it is obsolescent, and manufactured by hobbyists who wish to build and restore old-fashioned equipment.

    In the 18th century, for instance, steam-engines were "cutting-edge" technology: only a few really expert engineers could build or maintain them. Had those artisans been slain or their workshops burned, the effect would have crippled advanced 18th-century technology much as bombing the integrated-circuit factories would cripple our most advanced technology today.

    But time passes and not only does the formerly cutting-edge technology become widespread, but the tools improve. I think that in 2100, making integrated circuits as good as the best avaialable in 2000 will be a task easily achievable by garage hobbyists, while some new ultra-tech will have appeared and be producible only from a few key sites, just as in 2000 making internal-combustion engines as good as the best available in 1900 was a garage-hobby endeavour.

    The relevance of this to the endurance of extraterrestrial habs is that the bottleneck technologies of 2100 or 2200, which the habs will have to import from Earth (or perhaps, in 2200, from Luna) will almost certainly not be the bottleneck technologies of today. Critics who ask "From where will they get their electronics?" are missing the point: a century or two in the future, the key technologies which they will have to import will be of some other nature.

  4. The Classical and Medieval world was not intellectually oriented toward an understanding of technological progress in the modern sense. Particularly astute scholars might realize that techniques had advanced over time, especially in their own personal fields of expertise, but they did not realize that this was part of a general advance in technology over time, nor did they grasp that such progress meant a steady and important increase in societal wealth and power.

    Indeed, the Classical and Medieval model was of a decline from an imagined "Golden Age" of perfection through increasing degeneration. In the Classical model this was because the world fell away from the Platonic Ideals; in the Medieval model because Satan corrupted the world: the effect was the same. The past was one of greater good, the future of greater evil. The fall of the Roman Empire could obviously be seen in such terms, especially after the Empire had become Christian (before then, the Christians were looking forward to the fall of the Empire, as detailed in Revelations

    Another problem was that the concepts of historical demography and economics had not yet been invented. One might take a census to assess taxes, and one would certainly try to trade shrewdly, but neither Classical nor Medieval people grasped the importance of tracking changes in population and wealth per capita over time. Hence, they could see only in the grossest way the steady enrichment of Europe in the Middle Ages, and "history" to them was solely a matter of the deeds of great men. Thus, technological change -- which, remember, happened more slowly back then -- was largely invisible to the scholars: nor, had they been aware of it, would they have appreciated its importance.