Why are things cheaper when we buy them in bulk? Because the cost of producing and shipping goods decreases when we do so in large batches. Not only does this principal apply to production, but also to engineering.
I have seen massive air conditioning units, more than triple the size of my house, used in climate control for hospitals. The Scale of these units is far more efficient at delivering hot and cold air, and in reducing electricity/repair costs, than putting a window-mounted air conditioner in every single window of the hospital.
Centralizing, and applying a greater Economy of Scale, tends to be more efficient than dispersed, independent units. However, every single system will be held back by its weakest component, or the component that simply won’t scale with the others.
This, in many respects, comes down to the human element.
Let’s say future engineers develop aerodynamic designs and efficient gasoline engines which allow cars to achieve 100 miles to the gallon, and at over 200 miles per hour. Obviously, the highways we currently have are not up to the task. So let’s go one step further and assume that other future engineers are able to develop highways which can accommodate thousands of drivers all going over 200 miles per hour, day after day, in hot and cold conditions, in any weather element.
All of these things have been scaled up for increased efficiency. It sounds like a futurist’s wet dream. But what is the weakest factor?
The weakest factor is the human element. Certain humans can handle the dangers of Nascar or Formula-One racing, but the 80 year old grandmother or the 16 year old newbie driver, or the mother trying to keep control of her kids in the back while simultaneously going over two-hundred miles an hour, are likely going to cause some havoc on the roads. I mean, we already have multiple accidents on our metropolitan highways every rush hour, and there’s nothing we can do about it because every safety feature of the highway or automobile cannot rule out someone texting while driving. Despite the best efforts of the engineers, it’s the human element that puts a cap on the economy of scale.
Sure, one could argue that driving software could be developed to counter this, but then you’re employing thousands of developers, researchers, human factors psychologists and software engineers to make up for the human element. There goes your economic efficiency from Scale.
So then you’re likely going to tell me to eliminate the human element altogether and simply have self-driving cars, and I’d say you’ve just proven my point. As my dad used to say: “You can’t fix stupid.” Well, you also can’t redesign the human for your machines.
The human element will soon be the limiting factor as technology starts to outgrow us. Not only that, but the ability to develop more and greater technology rests on the human element keeping up. Unless someone has the brain power grasp the complexity of ever more complex systems then technology will start to plateau. I’d argue it has already happened… 50 years ago.
Consider the social aspects of Scale. Dunbar’s Number suggests that our psychological programming is not wired to recognize every single person we pass by as a fully-fledged human being. People like friends, family, and coworkers are considered by our brain to be actual people, the people we care about and will help out in times of need. However the cashier at the grocery store is merely a mannequin – a human-shaped thing that scans your groceries and tells you when to swipe your card.
We simply cannot feel the same level of empathy toward strangers like we do for kin. It’s just how it is and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Our primitive ancestors lived in villages numbering between dozens and hundreds. In this environment, you can connect with every single person there, holding them within you kin group, or “monkeysphere.”
Increase the scale of the village to five-hundred and half the people stop being kin; they’re now acquaintances. You’ll be less reluctant to help them out and care less for their plight. But in such a small community, it is still easy to have a network of support. Maybe you won’t help them, but your brother will, and you’ll help your brother.
So what happens when you increase that village to a small town of five-thousand? It’s still small enough to recognize people, despite not knowing their name. People help each other less, unless brought together by a larger bond, like town unity.
And at fifty-thousand? More people mean more people you’ve never met before: more strangers. Those you pass by are human-shaped meat-machines, who could disappear from the face of the Earth and you would not care, or even notice. Your relationships aren’t as close-knit, and those relationships take place in little enclaves within the network of strangers. You become guarded from people on the street because you don’t know who they are or what their intentions might be. As strangers, it becomes easier to wrong someone, since they aren’t someone you personally know, and might not ever meet again.
Increase the scale to five-hundred-thousand and you’re now almost completely isolated despite living in a decent sized city, because every single person you run across has no relationship with you. There is no connectivity outside our little, self-imposed groups, and there can’t be. At this scale, crime is easier to commit against the androids around you, and you, in turn, further distance yourself from strangers.
The following is a video about the addiction.
Sure, the goofy graphics clearly indicate it is the typical strain of shallow pop-sci, but it does provide some useful information.
Keep in mind that, according to our brain, every pleasurable experience is just a dopamine rush. It doesn’t matter if it’s triggered by an orgasm, a piece of cheesecake, a great joke your friend just told, or a syringe of heroin. To the neurons, it’s all the same.
As said in the video, addiction changes depending on the environment you’re in. An isolating and cold environment without meaningful social interaction leads to increased rates of addiction, precisely because there is no better dopamine rush available. In an environment with good friends and experiences to provide such, abuse and addiction fall because they are no longer necessary.
Consider too that larger cities are a result of greater technological advancement, and technological advancement combined with consumer capitalism leads an endless buffet of dopamine rushes. Processed foods, sugar, drugs (designer and street), media, and the internet, are enough to satiate anyone with artificial comfort. In this context, there is no difference between taking a hit of morphine, drinking a Mountain Dew, and getting a hundred likes on Facebook.
In essence, the modern world of Scale is both the cause of psychological injury, and the producer of its corresponding toxic band aid.
And thus, in the end, the destruction of the human psyche leads to the destruction of humanity and all it has created. Scale ends up leading to its own destruction because the most essential component will not fit. This means that there cannot every be a totally efficient economic system, because the keystone of that system – humans – are not efficient.
But I still believe there is a chance for human advancement, though considering the effects of Scale it means such progress’ inevitability is not so, well, inevitable. Truly, in my heart of hearts, I believe is Paleo-Futurism – technological progress built with primary consideration for the primitive – is the only way to go.