Thursday, March 05, 2015
Once upon a time there was a beautiful planet full of animals and plants, all of which could be described as being alive, so long as you did not think about what being alive was for too long. On the planet there were a small number of people who roamed around the place hunting the animals and eating the plants.
One day, a space ship sailed past with very clever astronauts. They looked out the space craft windows with very powerful binoculars and saw all sorts of things moving on the surface and many beautiful colours. Everything looked so complex and chaotic that they became confused. If they zoomed in with their powerful binoculars, they could see self-replicating patterns almost everywhere. They realised that entire canopies of forests and small sections of forest floors looked quite similar. They saw that tributaries going into rivers looked quite like the main arterial rivers carving their way through the great land masses. Their clever binoculars could look into termite mounds and saw them all working together as a single organism, and each of these mounds grazed on the savannas almost as if they were herds of animals.
They looked at each other in the space ship and pondered if what they were seeing was life and if it was, which bits were alive. It was difficult for them to decide even though they thought about it long and hard.
Perhaps it was the ability to replicate that made something alive, but then they realised that the tributaries of rivers replicated themselves on a bigger scale to make the main rivers and they really could not believe that a river was alive, but then they thought about it a bit more and decided that perhaps a river could be described as being alive. Then they thought that it was the ability to change oxygen to carbon dioxide by breathing that made something alive, but they realised fire did this. Finally they had a thought, perhaps it was the ability to think that made something alive, but then they realised that single cell bacteria and plants could not think, even though they seemed to be alive.
After looking out the window for some time, they decided it was too difficult to decide what was alive so they would go for a drive around the galaxy for a million years and come back to see how things would develop. Maybe then they could have a new look and perhaps decide what is meant by being alive.
Meanwhile, down on the planet, despite things being so beautiful, life was hard for the few people roaming around. They were often eaten by the animals and sometimes they were so cold they died. At other times, they were so hot they also died. Ironically though, despite these hardships they generally always had enough food. This was because there was always an animal nearby to eat, so long as it did not eat you first. If you could not eat an animal there were often plants on the ground or juicy bugs in the soil. So life was generally so good you could have lots of children knowing that a few would live to be old enough to have some themselves, and that generally not too many would get old enough to have too many children.
Eventually after many hundreds of thousands of years of wandering around the people got fed up, so decided to stay in the same place and start farming. It seemed like a good idea at the time. If they farmed too much in one place, they could always move somewhere else and farm there instead.
The great thing about farming they discovered, was they had time to ponder new things, just like the astronauts when they looked down from their space ship. With this pondering they were able to make things to help them along the way; simple things at first like spades and ploughs, but the things they made got bigger and bigger and cleverer.
Soon with the help of the things they made they did not have to let so many of their children die and their numbers started growing. The numbers grew gradually at first, but as this was growing at an exponential rate the numbers would eventually become very large, it just needed time and they certainly weren't going to let this future problem spoil the day. In fact they were so happy and proud with their new found ability to make all the things they were making that they invented a new name, it was called the “thing making industrial complex."
The “thing making industrial complex” initially started quite small. It was mainly quarries for the iron ore and coal and they made kilns of clay to smelt the materials. As importantly, they also needed fields for growing food for the people in the “thing making industrial complex.”
It looked great. Everyone was happy and everyone had some sort of job to do in the new “thing making industrial complex.” People learnt to read and write and count with numbers. They had to do this so that they could trade the various things that were now being made and teach each other how to make new things and better things.
Occasionally though, things started happening that the “thing making industrial complex” could not solve. The first problem was famines, which happened when the fields became exhausted from feeding all the people making things, and because of the “thing making industrial complex” which they had built the thing makers could not just get up and start farming somewhere else. Sometimes, lots of thing makers died because there was not enough food, so they called this a population correction because it sounded better.
However, they weren't going to let a few famines and population corrections put them off. Instead, they increasingly looked forward to the day when the “thing making industrial complex” would be able to make anything they wanted.
Eventually they found a solution to their problems of repeated famines; if their “thing making industrial complex” could be used to make things to kill other people who have more food and space to live, any problem could be solved. So, the thing makers set about making things that were great at killing other thing makers. They soon discovered that all that was needed was that the things you make to kill the others who have the things you want had to be just a little bit better than the things they had to kill you.
This seemed great at first, so long as you could kill the others, you would never go hungry, no matter how many children grew into promulgating adults. It did of course assume that the others would always have food and space that was worth killing them for, but this was detail and we really want to keep to the strategic picture here.
Strangely, despite all the things that the “thing making industrial complex” was making and the new found ability to kill people who had more food, things were not looking better. In fact things were looking an awful lot worse. The thing makers had to work long and hard hours to continue making things, lots of them became sick with all the smells and much of the lovely landscape was being destroyed. All the lovely animals had also been eaten or died, so the thing makers had to rely on the farmers for food who also had to rely on the “thing making industrial complex” to make the things to grow the food.
Some of the people in the "thing making industrial complex" were so busy making things, that they never even went out to see the trees and the animals that were left and they forgot what these looked like. In fact some of the thing makers could not even name a single tree or bird - imagine that! Because the thing makers forget what it was like outside the "thing making industrial complex" they didn't realise that it was wrong to use the landscape as a dumping ground for all their rubbish.
Eventually the “thing making industrial complex” got very big and needed a big and powerful government to manage it. The people knew this was important, because without the "thing making industrial complex," they would not have any things. This would be very serious. Without things, they would not be able to grow food or kill people who would not give them their food. By now they were very concerned that the people they used to kill would make their own things that they would use to kill them. It caused a nasty things race.
As the things race got going and went faster and faster, people became even less happy but strangely they thought their government was even more important as without it they would not have someone who would make all the decisions on how the things were to be managed and what things to make. At first, no one thought that it would be silly if just one person made all the big decisions on their own on the things to have, so one person (perhaps with a few friends from the “thing making industrial complex”) was allowed to make all the big decisions on his own. Some called it democracy and others called in dictatorship, but really there wasn't much difference, the most important thing was to have the best things on the planet and to win the things race.
Eventually nobody had a say in the things that were being made. The “thing making industrial complex” just seemed to keep on making things. Some things initially seemed to be quite good, but there nearly always turned out to be a down side and other things were just plain bad from the very beginning. Some things were especially important because they could kill lots of other people, and these were the things that the people who were running the "thing making industrial complex" really liked.
If this didn't sound like a bad enough problem, the "thing making industrial complex" ran into another strange problem, that seemed so strange nobody could really understand it.
But really it was quite simple, and consisted of two separate but related problems. The first problem was somewhat obvious. It was that the things that the "thing making industrial complex" was making had become so big and complex that lots and lots of money was needed just to be able to make the first of a new type of thing.
The mathematicians that the thing makers employed tried to explain the second problem, they said that the ratio of utility enhancement over the previous thing that was being replaced against the upfront investment costs for the new thing was going steadily down.
A lot of people said they didn't understand this because the words were too big, but it is not too difficult. By the time that this had become a real problem the "thing making industrial complex" had started building planes so the exhausted thing makers could go on holiday, so we can illustrate the problem with this example: One day the thing makers built a big plane that could fly hundreds of people thousands of miles. It was a great utility enhancement over steam ships, which in turn were a great utility enhancement over sailing ships. It cost a lot of money to develop and build the planes that could do this, but once this was done the "thing making industrial complex" needed to continue building better planes. The next planes were better because they could more economically fly the same number of people over the same distance while watching television. This sounds good but the utility gain over the previous plane is far less than the previous plane over a ship and it cost the "thing making industrial complex" over thirty times more to develop this new plane. And really, what is the long term utility gain of building thousands of planes simply to take exhausted thing makers on holiday.
The only way that this problem could be solved was by borrowing money to keep the "thing making industrial complex" in business and to keep it making things. It was a strange idea with some fairly obvious contradictions.
The "thing making industrial complex" was now forced to make things that would provide most of their benefit in the future, so the people in the future would be made to pay for the things even if they did not want them, but the benefit they would get in the future to pay for the initial costs would be less because of the diminishing utility improvements. As the people in the future would all be thing makers in the new and expanded "thing making industrial complex," they would simultaneously have to pay off the debts that the previous generation of things makers had created for them while creating even more debts for the next generation of thing makers.
Oh, what a mess the "thing making industrial complex" was starting to look! It was obvious that it could only survive if it could keep growing faster than the exponential build up of debt that it was creating.
And if this wasn't enough of a problem, the "thing making industrial complex" had to start building more and more things to kill more people because every other thing maker was having the same problem. Rather strangely now, the thing makers just needed to be able to kill the other thing makers and weren't even that interested in fact they might have food. The other problem was that "thing making industrial complexes" had to make things to keep their own the people under control because they were getting so upset with having to keep making things while always being in poverty.
People started to blame everyone they could think of for the problem. They blamed the bankers, the capitalists, the communists, the other thing makers, the foreigners, anyone. Strangely, the one thing they didn't blame was the "thing making complex." In fact rather bizarrely, many really started supporting the "thing making industrial complex" more than ever. They believed it would now make things to stop all the bad things happening that were being caused by all the things that had been made. They even had specially big shows to show all the biggest and cleverest things that the "thing making industrial complex" could make.
Eventually the space ship came sailing by after its long drive around the galaxy. The astronauts looked out of the window again to see what life they could find. All they could see was a "thing making complex" that covered the entire world. There were no people, no trees, no animals, no beautiful colours, just blacks and greys. Perhaps they thought, the "thing making complex" was what life had become and it had eaten everything else. After all they thought, it self replicated, it consumed oxygen to produce carbon dioxide and seemed to have a mind of its own. They were sure they were right, because the thing makers put more effort into feeding and nurturing the "thing making industrial complex" than they did the plants and animals, so they must have thought it was alive as well, even as it killed them.