Bootstrapping Society

Thursday, July 19th, 2007

I recently read Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, and I realized that it made terrible bed-time reading — because it was entirely too thought-provoking, and I couldn’t get to sleep.

The premise is that a comet collides with the earth — or, rather, that many mountain-sized chunks of the comet collide with the earth — boiling the oceans, hurling tsunami waves to shore, triggering earthquakes, and sending enough water and dust into the air to ruin any hope of farming until next year.

Civilization breaks down, and few people are prepared for the disaster, which defied astronomers’ calculations. What do you do when there’s enough food for everyone for one month, and no more is coming for another year? One way or another, 11 out of 12 “survivors” are going to die. You’d better decide what to do quickly, because the refugees are on their way…

One of the heroes of the book, an übergeek JPL scientist, races back to his home as soon as “the Hammer” falls and frantically packs in plastic all the books mankind will need to rebuild civilization.

This is something I’ve been thinking about since I read Earth Abides years ago. What books go on the list? How do you rebuild 21st-century America, knowing that we haven’t been able to bring most of the existing world to that level, even with a working example?

Kevin Kelly has given the notion a bit of thought over at his Technium blog. There he notes that “A favorite fantasy game for engineers is to imagine how they might re-invent essential technology from scratch”:

Occasionally tinkerers get to engage their fantasy. In February 1942, R. Bradley, a British Officer in the Royal artillery in World War II was captured and then held prisoner by Japanese in Singapore. Their camp was remote, supplies were almost non-existent, and they were treated roughly as POWs; when they rebelled they were locked in a confinement shed without food. But they were tinkerers, too. Together with some other POWs in his camp, Bradley stole hand tools from the Japanese soldiers and from these bits and pieces he transformed scrap metal into a miniature lathe. The small lathe was ingenious. It was tiny enough to be kept a secret, big enough to be useful. It could be disassembled into pieces that could be tucked in a backpack and moved in the camp’s many relocations. Since large pieces of metal were hard to acquire without notice, the tailstock of the lathe was two steel pieces dovetailed together. The original bed plate was cut with a cold chisel.

The lathe was a tool-making egg; it was used to manufacture more sophisticated items. With it the prisoners machined a duplicate key for the solitary confinement shed (!), and manufactured a hidden battery source for a secret radio. During the two years of their interment the lathe remade the tools — like taps and dies — which were first used to create it. A lather has those self-reproductive qualities.

That is a wonderful story, and he presents another such wonderful story of a fellow named Gingery who was able to bootstrap a full-bore machine shop from alley scraps by making rough tools that made better tools, which then made tools good enough to make “real” stuff.

Kelly runs with the notion of bootstrapping and suggests a Forever Book as a seed for regrowing society (or the technium):

Clearly such a library would have to be able to convey, among all the other things, how to make a library full of books, since that is in many ways an essential part of civilization. Thus we have the library that can self-replicate, the forever library. What is the smallest possible self-replicating forever library? It is possible that with digital technology it will someday be no bigger than a book today. And since it contains primarily information we could think of the self-replicating forever library as a self-replicating book, Forever Book.

Of course, engineers generally side-step the much larger issue of creating a society where technological progress is likely to happen, where it’s rewarded, and where the fruits of ingenuity aren’t immediately seized or declared heretical.

Would texts on anthropology and economics be more important than texts on engineering?

One colleague made the interesting suggestion of using texts full of practical know-how to ensure literacy. If everyone learns the basics of daily survival through books like The Foxfire Book — which covers “Hog Dressing, Log Cabin Building, Mountain Crafts and Foods, Planting by the Signs, Snake Lore, Hunting Tales, Faith Healing, Moonshining” — then perhaps they won’t need literacy foisted upon them.

At any rate, I’d love to find a good book on bootstrapping technology.

When I read The Mysterious Island years ago, I realized that — unlike the Victorian-era engineer protagonist — I had no idea how to perform any useful chemical reactions without nicely labeled jars of simple compounds.

Frankly, in primitive conditions, I’m afraid I’d end up like the 20th-century American in Poul Anderson’s “The Man Who Came Early” (which is reason enough to buy The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century). In Viking-age Iceland, without modern infrastructure, he finds himself useless, as none of his technical innovations are practical.

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