We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Samizdata quote of the day

GR: Do you think our technological civilization *is* fragile?

SS: On the contrary, I think it’s immensely resilient. Note that famines generally occur in countries where peasant farmers are still the majority! It’s precisely the complexity that makes it so hard to damage; economies are like ecosystems, they’re more stable as they grow more complex. They work around damage.

– Science Fiction writer S.M. Stirling (interviewed by Glenn Reynolds), stating something that is pretty obvious when you think about it. I think I would also argue that the global communications and global supply chains that have come into existence in the last few years make it dramatically more resilient rather than less. There are vastly more brains linked together and these supply chains actually contain massive redundancy.

10 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • I used an analogy of a power grid to illustrate the same point to some greenies (who were stylishly sporting their Fuck Bush badges) at a party. The aforementioned point went over their heads somewhat, although they used it as a pretext to change the subject and start slagging off fossil fuel consumption. Nice dodge.

  • Isn’t the problem that technologies that can hurt societies advance fast(er)?

    A single EMP could take out all electrical systems in the US.

    I suppose this is an overly simplified view.

  • veryretired

    The recent tsunami disaster is a perfect case in point. Who was it that could bring relief and aid? Those from low tech cultures, or the high tech fleets of the developed countries?

    The mythical Eden of pastoral simplicity is just that—a myth. Pre-industrial/ technological life was nasty, brutish, and short.

  • hm

    It all depends on how what sort of “fragility” we are talking about here.

    As things stand now, SM Stirling is right, of course. But if certain types blow up a few big ones around some big cities, what most of us will be missing is basic survival skills, i.e. how do I make/preserve food etc.

    I think that is what Glenn might have meant.

  • hm


    Sorry, there’s a redundant “how” in there.

  • David Mercer

    Remember though that as absolute efficiency increases that a system can withstand fewer shocks or interruptions.

    For instance when an internet backbone link is running at near to capacity, picking up the slack for another failed link will cause all traffic trying to traverse it to slow to a crawl as it is overwhelmed. That’s why internet traffic engineers consider a link ‘full’ at 50% of absolute capacity.

    Now imagine the same types of effects in a distribution network, and you interrupt fuel, road, or other basic supply networks. There’s 1-3 days of food in most major cities in the US. When things are less efficient they are in some ways more resilient, as there’s more slack in the system.

  • Daveon

    Interesting. I was on a Panel at last weekend’s World Science Fiction Convention in Glasgow on this very topic and we came to the completely opposite conclusion.

    Unfortunately, for some reason, none of the Liberatarian or more Conservative SF Writers (Such as Stirling, no liberatarian he…) didn’t make it. That made a number of the panels which in previous years have caused fights i.e. last year’s Eric S Raymond V. Charles Stross, rather passive in comparison.

    It was a facinating discussion though – we did focus on the core elements of a highly technological civilisation rather than something like farming. The problems of maintaining Silicon fabrication lines without a serious global and local support infrastructure was one of the key topics discussed.

  • David Mercer

    Yeah, a chip fab clean room is fragile, and some gear in it has never been OUT of a clean room or multiply sealed shipping container. You can’t just ‘blow out’ dust or smoke from some of that gear; irreversible damage is easy to inflict. It’s a lot easier to wreck than to repair a $1-2billion chip fab.

  • J

    “It’s precisely the complexity that makes it so hard to damage”

    Hmmm. Didn’t work for Byzantium, did it?

  • The Last Toryboy

    The petrol tax demonstrators showed that within a very short period of time – weeks – this country could be seriously inconvenienced if not brought to its knees by a petroleum shortage.

    In times past the NUM was doing likewise.

    These are pretty minor catastrophes in the great scheme of things, so yes, I would say it’s extremely fragile.