Posts Tagged ‘ephemeralisation’

Space, Time, Energy, Mass, Information – 1

Samhain 17, 2008

Technological design as a substitute for space, time, energy and material:

MORE Braiiiiiiiiiiins!

MORE Braiiiiiiiiiiins!

Buckminster Fuller came up with the concept of ephemeralization: “the principle of doing ever more with ever less weight, time and energy per each given level of functional performance”. (Fuller, Synergetics 2, 792.52)

This is a similar riff to STEMI Compression (thanks to John Robb – Global Guerrillas Wednesday, 12 November 2008) which I paraphrase here:

STEMI compression in design evolution, as applied to Resilient Communities –
– Space: less volume/area used; “localization… reduction of space needed to support human activity”;
– Time: faster; Just-In-Time production;
– Energy: less energy, higher efficiency; Just-In-Place production reduces transport;
– Mass: less waste; made to order versus mass production;
– Information: “higher efficiency, less management overhead… radical simplification”;

As an example – an important one to which I will return in the next post:

Fuller uses as an example of this the Telstar satellite which. while weighing only one-tenth of a ton, out-performs 75,000 tons of transatlantic cable…
… substitution not only in materials but in functions… may vastly alter our lives, effecting how we otherwise spend our energy and time. For example, communications as a substitution for transportation can effect such savings to a great extent…
A society that exercises this option of using communication in place of transportation in many of its activities … can conserve many resources.
(Searching for source, 081117)

Compare this with the cybernetic or computational trend – in the ability to manipulate and produce information – known as “Moore’s Law”:

Poverty on the world level has decreased from over 70% in 1960 to 30% at present. Averaged over the different decades, a yearly increase in GNP of about 2% seems normal for the developed countries. This increase is primarily due to an increase in productivity of about the same amount…
The increased productivity means that less resources and labor are needed to produce the same amount of goods. Buckminster Fuller (1969) called this on-going trend to do more with less “ephemeralization”. Perhaps the most spectacular illustration of the underlying
technological progress is Moore’s Law, the observation that the speed of microprocessors doubles every [24] months, while the price halves.
This improvement results mainly from miniaturization, so that more (processing power) is achieved with less (materials).
Ephemeralization explains the stable or declining prices (corrected for inflation) of physical resources and energy. The decline is particularly evident if the value of a resource is expressed as a percentage of the average income (Simon, 1995).
(Received 1 April 2000; Accepted 15 June 2000)

(The ability to generate knowledge – as opposed to simply transmitting information – is a subject also touched upon by Drucker in “Post Capitalist Society”; here it is described in an evolutionary or anthropological sense, again with reference to Fuller, and in a manner reminiscent of Popperian falsification:)

… evolution in this age is not primarily biological, but cultural: what is selected are no longer the genes, but the memes, i.e. the ideas, beliefs, habits, etc. that are transmitted from person to person (Heylighen, 1997a; Dawkins, 1976).
If a new design can achieve more than a previous design, while requiring the same its fitness will be higher in all environments.
Achieving more means being able to cope with a larger variety of problems or getting better results on any one problem. Requiring less means being less dependent on what the environment provides. Together, they imply more power, productivity and efficiency, that is, increased control over the problems that threaten QOL or survival.
…doing more with less (called “ephemeralization” by Buckminster Fuller) is conspicuous in the evolution of our society.
Economic development can similarly be seen as an increasing control of social needs (Heylighen, 1997b).
Unlike biological evolution, cultural evolution has developed a number of shortcuts for the tortuous process of blind variation and natural selection. It is knowledge in its diverse forms which allows us to anticipate to some extent what will happen. This allows us to avoid blind alleys, without first needing to explore them. Campbell (1974) has conceptualized knowledge as a “vicarious selector”. Knowledge selects the most adequate actions from the variety of potential actions, in the same way that natural selection selects by destroying inadequately behaving systems. The difference is that knowledge does not destroy actual systems, it only eliminates unpromising potentialities.
…progress in one domain will make society more competent to push for progress in another, by increasing its overall capacities.
The growth of knowledge obviously benefits all other domains:
the growth of wealth will benefit all other domains, including the domain of knowledge:
more healthy people will be more productive in general, whether it is in the material, the intellectual or the social domain. Similarly, people who feel more secure will invest more resources and energy in developing themselves or the economy.
The same positive feedback or mutual reinforcement can be observed within each of the major domains.
…progress feeds on progress, thus continuously promoting its own development.
(Received 1 April 2000; Accepted 15 June 2000)

One of the arguments regarding Peak Oil and resource depletion, is that this kind of ephemeralisation means less resources are needed to maintain equivalent or higher standards of living. One of the best champions of this case is Julian Simon in e.g “The Ultimate Resource”. The issue I have with Simon is: he is following a line of reason first successfully argued by Henry George against the Malthusians (that increased numbers of people are not a burden, but a greater source of ingenuity and specialisation), but he misses the problem of externalities and Political Economy. George argued that certain resources and collectively manufactured sources of economic value properly belonged in commonwealth, not private hands. Otherwise there would be the Chomskyist problem of “socialised costs and privatised profits”, which would destroy and act as a set of perverse incentives regarding overall productivity. Bearing this warning in mind, ceteris paribus



In exponential growth, we find that a key measurement such as computational power is multiplied by a constant factor for each unit of time (e.g., doubling every year) rather than just being added to incrementally.
…an exponential curve approximates a straight line when viewed for a brief duration. So even though the rate of progress in the very recent past… is far greater than it was ten years ago …, our memories are nonetheless dominated by our very recent experience.
…what would a thousand scientists, each a thousand times more intelligent than human scientists today, and each operating a thousand times faster than contemporary humans (because the information processing in their primarily nonbiological brains is faster) accomplish? One year would be like a millennium. What would they come up with?
Moore’s Law Was Not the First, but the Fifth Paradigm To Provide Exponential Growth of Computing
Each time one paradigm runs out of steam, another picks up the pace
…the most appropriate measure to track is computational speed per unit cost.
…the exponential growth of computing didn’t start with integrated circuits (around 1958), or even transistors (around 1947), but goes back to the electromechanical calculators used in the 1890 and 1900 U.S. Census. This chart spans at least five distinct paradigms of computing, of which Moore’s Law pertains to only the latest one.
Each stage of evolution provides more powerful tools for the next.
The “chaos” of the environment in which the evolutionary process takes place … provides the options for further diversity.
Specific paradigms, such as Moore’s Law, do ultimately reach levels at which exponential growth is no longer feasible. Thus Moore’s Law is an S curve. But the growth of computation is an ongoing exponential…
In accordance with the law of accelerating returns, paradigm shift, also called innovation, turns the S curve of any specific paradigm into a continuing exponential.
The Law of Accelerating Returns
Ray Kurzweil

Coming back to earth from these dizzying heights, we can see how – in line with the Technocracy movement that stemmed from the old Technical Alliance – design can reduce energy and material inputs if implemented societywide:

From the first clean sheet of paper to the first customer delivery of a new car, 1.7 million hours of research and development time is required: the equivalent of 8000 person-years or 2000 people working for four years at 40 hours a week. At $50 per hour, the cost is $850 million. But with the industry average production run of one million cars, that design cost is amortised to only $850 per car. So the consumer cost for the full benefit of 1.7 million hours of research amounts to only four percent of the average new car price of $20,000. (At $20,000 and weighing 1700 kilos, a car costs $11.70 dollars a kilo. That’s cheaper than steak and it comes with a three-year guarantee.)
For a 40 storey prestige office building costing $110 million, architectural fees are likely to amount to 2.1 percent and the full fee schedule (including quantity surveying) would be about 5.2 percent. At $50 per hour, that bill covers only 117,400 hours of thought or 57.2 person-years (less than .1 percent of the time spent designing your car).
Title: Tomorrow’s dynamic house. Authors: Trudgeon, Michael Source: Architecture Australia ; Nov/Dec98, Vol. 87 Issue 6, p80, 6p

Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute came up with the idea of “Negawatts” – units of electrical efficiency (power not used) that would be paid for, similar to regular “Megawatts”; here’s the parallel idea from Mumford:

“In the neotechnic phase, the main initiative comes, not from the ingenious inventor, but from the scientist who establishes the general law: the invention is the derivative product.”(217) Improvements in the internal combustion engine provide a new source of power which changes the social order. Rapid transportation is possible by the automobile and the airplane. Communication is further enhanced by the telegraph and the telephone. But, “whereas the growth and multiplication of machines was a definite characteristic of the paleotechnic period, [Mumford says] one may already say pretty confidently that the refinement, the diminution, and the partial elimination of the machine is characteristic of the emerging neotechnic economy.”(258)
Quoted from Technics & Civilization (seeking source 081117)
By Lewis Mumford