October 2015

The cover for Robert Bryce’s book, Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper, repeats its title five times in different sized font. Within the pages of the book, this mantra is continuously emphasized by capitalizing the words of the title wherever they appear—smaller is always Smaller, faster is always Faster, and so on. This stylistic trick is very revealing. Bryce’s book is a quick, easy-to-understand read, with clear signposting and a modern style. Its central thesis is also somewhat simplistic.

Bryce provides many examples of the human tendency to move toward smaller, faster, lighter, denser cheaper products, communities, and methods of production. We get quick walk through history with a look at everything from the printing press to digital communications to the movement of people into cities. This information is uncontroversial. Human progress and wealth is undoubtedly correlated with increased efficiency. However, the second part of Bryce’s thesis—that our ability to do more with less “continually proves catastrophists wrong”—is less well supported.

In order to justify his optimistic view, Bryce would have needed to prove that our collective drive toward Smaller, Faster, Lighter, Denser, Cheaper will minimize environmental damage by either:

  1. causing dematerialization, and/or
  2. creating a system of production that is so noninvasive and nonpolluting as to not be a problem.

Instead, his only argument to prove his thesis is to say that “density is green” and we have a tendency to move towards dense technologies.

Bryce spends much time arguing why various other “green” solutions won’t work. Specifically, he focuses on why any approach to energy that is not smaller, faster, lighter, denser, cheaper will fail, both for environmental and economic reasons. Solar and wind power only produce 1 watt per square meter. Enormous quantities of land would have to be set aside in order to effectively replace fossil fuels. Additionally, turbines are loud and kill birds, and there is something ironic about the growing food crops for fuel in countries that have problems with hunger. Therefore, while various green groups may champion renewables, they do so without acknowledging their crippling and wasteful inefficiency.

Meanwhile, oil is dense. Natural gas is also dense. Nuclear power is the densest. The areal power density inside the center of an average reactor is about 338 megawatts per square meter. That’s huge! If we embrace these solutions, energy use will become increasingly efficient. The one hiccup in the plan? Coal. Since we embrace cheaper even more than we embrace denser, and coal is cheapest, coal continues to dominate, despite being heavy and polluting. Therefore, we must make other options cheaper as well. This is quite feasible as long as excessive legislation does not stand in the way. In fact, the combination of natural gas and nuclear energy has already reduced America’s carbon dioxide emissions by about 54 billion tons over the last six decades.

Bryce declares himself an agnostic when it comes to climate change, writing only that carbon dioxide levels are rising. His emphasis on efficient energy has more to do with spreading smaller faster lighter denser cheaper ways of life to developing countries than saving our ecosystems. However, the question still stands: can density alone minimize environmental damage? Bryce does not attempt to answer.

Divergent Technologies is certainly smaller, faster, lighter, denser, and cheaper. Considering humankinds preferences and economic trends (as discussed by Bryce), we feel optimistic about the future of DM, even if we remain more concerned about the future of the planet.

Hunters and gatherers, nomadic herdsman, the wheel, Machu Picchu, alchemy, atomic theory, Galileo, relativity, Darwin, the atom bomb, Mendel…!

In The Ascent of Man, J. Bronowski walks us through the most important moments of human progress, by chronologically documenting what he considers our most interesting breakthroughs and achievements. The text is elegant. Illustrations are plentiful. Much of the information is review from high school history class, but having it all laid out makes it easier for the reader to examine the overall effect. While it is a decidedly white male history (no woman is mentioned in either a professional or power context) this work was penned in 1973, so we will forgive the author and examine the truths he does illuminate.

Through Bronowski’s writing, we see clearly how knowledge builds on knowledge. While our modern society is infinitely complex, human progress occurred gradually, as often by accident as by genius. One small discovery led to large-scale innovation. The humble arch enabled the construction of the medieval cathedral. Meanwhile, seemingly disparate fields feed into each other. Innovations in art lead to innovations in science. Pythagoras’s triangles are deeply tied to the Moorish exploration of symmetries at the Alhambra. In Florence, artists painted using perspective before scientists understood how light works. Seeing the building blocks of human history fit together, the reader feels both humbled and awed.

However, Bronowski does not simply want to map the development of modern civilization. He also wants to explore human nature. Man is a builder, a shaper of the landscape, a “tool making animal” with the flexibility of mind to recognize inventions and turn them into community property. This concept is common knowledge. What is newer is the way Bronowski’s stresses our physical engagement with the world. “The hand is the cutting edge of the mind,” he writes. We must interact with the world in concrete ways in order to continue evolving. Additionally, human desire to create is separate from the achievement of a particular purpose. The most powerful drive in the ascent of man is his pleasure in his own skill. Finally, creation is largely possible because society allows children to grow up to be different from their parents. Before the brain is an instrument for action, it has to be an instrument of preparation.

More interesting perhaps than his tale of ascent, is Bronowski’s warnings about stagnation and decline. Visiting the gas chambers of Auschwitz, he remarks, “when people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with not test in reality, this is how they behave.” Certainty is death to diversity, and therefore to innovation and to progress as well. When people itch for absolute knowledge and power they create distance between “the push-button order” and the human act. Again, the author stresses the importance of direct engagement. Bronowski even goes so far as to say that intellectual leadership and civil authority ought to be separate affairs.

Science should be the recognition of man’s unique talents and pride in his creations, divided from power or monetary gain. “It is not the business of science to inherit the earth, but to inherit the moral imagination, because without that man and beliefs and science will perish together.” Though science itself is amoral, its application can be either good or bad, and since this application causes great shifts in culture, it must be developed along moral lines. The best way to insure this happens? Make sure that science is never sequestered away. “We must be a democracy of the intellect,” Bronowski writes. “Knowledge [must sit] in the homes and heads of people with no ambition to control others, and not up in isolated seats of power.”

Talking to my dad about Bronowski, we discussed the role science is given in our modern society. Too often, we concluded, science is now in the hands of elite moneymakers. Science is developed to fit the needs of corporations. By subjecting workers to sweatshop conditions or considering them as replaceable by machines, the dignity of man is infringed upon. There is a disconnect between creator and creation that can kill innovation. Moreover, the strict adherence to the bottom line goes against Bronowski’s vision of science as a pure principle. We fear that rather than man shaping machines, machines (the machine of capitalism, the internet, iphones) are beginning to shape man. Since machines are algorithm driven and therefore static, development of human culture might stall. At Divergent, we seek to put tools back in the hands of man, allowing for continued creative development.