reading with hindsight: Superiority and beware the shiny

I recently reread the Arthur C Clarke story Superiority, which is a story I’ve always enjoyed. An outline of the story is that there is a war, in which one side (represented by the narrator) embraces technological innovation, fancier and fancier weapons, whereas the other side (represented by the victorious side in the war) makes good use of existing technology.

The first lesson I took from the story, which is I think a common lesson to take, is that sometimes we have to beware the shiny. That is, making use of untested new technology in a time of stress might not be the best of all ideas.

But there is a bit more there than this; the use of this new technology can become a trap. Once we start down that path, as the losing side did in Superiority, it may not be possible to revert to the old, well tested, tried and true technology that we eschewed in our pursuit of the shiny. In this way, the shiny can almost become something of a doomsday device, in that once we start, we cannot then stop.

Just over a year ago, Dyke, Watson and Knorr wrote in the Conversation about climate change, the rise of the gospel of net zero (my words, not theirs) and the growing move towards narratives of technological salvation. They are climate scientists and they have been thinking about this for a lot of time, and their articles resonated with me, particularly in this rereading of Superiority.

I will admit that I’m still working through the consequences of this juxtaposition, but this resonance seems to be strong, and the distant memories of physics experiments past and the Tacoma Narrows bridge all combine to make me nervous of strong resonance.

We live in an interesting time. We are able to build great machines that do great things and advance the cause of human civilization, but I am struck by the old thought that perhaps we are not yet capable of wielding these machines and this technology sufficiently well to keep ourselves out of trouble.

This is also an old idea, that our ability to make tools outstrips our ability to use those tools, and one that I have a distant memory of reading about in John C McLoughlin’s Toolmaker Koan, which I read many decades ago now (and which I hope I’m not conflating with another book).

The basic idea of Superiority, as I read it, is slightly different. It’s less that we can’t wisely use the tools we build, it’s that the tools we make don’t actually do what we need them to do and it might be too late once we figure that out. But the two ideas are close, and I think they are very important to us in our current world, this current civilization we’ve constructed.

This also ties, at least in my head, to the Surak moment of the Vulcans in Star Trek, which I suppose can be viewed as one way of working through this particular koan. I’m not persuaded that we in our current state would be able to take the Surak path, but given everything we now know, we do pick our own path to get through our current crises.

~ by Jim Anderson on 8 May 2022.

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