Disruptive Technologies and Diminishing Returns

11 thoughts on “Disruptive Technologies and Diminishing Returns”

  1. Paving is much much cheaper than you think.

    We have a number of streets paved with brick around here. It lasted about *100 years* before needing repaving. If you actually add up the cost of brick paving and then amortize it over 100 years, it’s a pretty good deal.

    Asphalt appears cheaper (because it’s essentially a waste product from gasoline production) but doesn’t last as long. I’m guessing we’ll go back to cobbles and brick, or maybe concrete in spots.

    The problem is that we’ve set up a system where we have to rip up the roads to repair the water and sewer lines, and often even the electric lines. *This is insane*. There should be tunnels containing those lines. Such tunnels last effectively *forever*, as far as we can tell in the cities which have them.

  2. There are, of course, economic and technological reasons for the lack of productivity gains in Western economies. One quite compelling argument is that our economies are currently so productive already that new innovations can only increase productivity marginally – we are bound by the law of diminishing returns.

    1. There’s also the problem that the more productive and efficient a system becomes the less it needs human workers. Or perhaps, the more it needs a handful of highly educated and skilled workers at one end of the economy, with a whole lot of people left out on the margins doing menial work for bubkes at the other. That’s not a great recipe for a stable society.

        1. Basically what the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in the 1930s. That by the end of the 20th century, productivity would be so good people could work half the time for a better standard of living. Funny how it didn’t work out that way. Not that Keynes was wrong about productivity, but because much of it was hoovered up by the upper crust, and a lot of the remainder squandered on inflated lifestyles by the hoi polloi.

          Some countries like France and Germany appear to be working toward this by limiting work hours, without hurting their economies. No surprise, as studies show conclusively that overtime has sharply diminishing returns. While in earlier times households produced more goods and services for themselves, which don’t appear in GDP stats.

          1. There’s the old economic example of the milk maid. Mechanizing milk production allows fewer people to generate the same amount of milk. The labor saving machines can 1) Raise the pay of the remaining milk maids 2) Lower the cost of milk 3) Boost profits for whoever owns the cows. Ideally a blend of the three would be wonderful. It isn’t the fault of the milking machines that society decides to go all in on one of the options at the expense of the others.

  3. Hey, Johnny, thanks for the shout out. In my defense, I don’t expect solar thermal seasonal storage to be used for highways or freeways (and I expect in the future highways and freeways will be largely toll-based and low-use roads returned to gravel, reducing their use considerably), but rather it will be used for prime blocks of cities that currently spend a lot of money and energy clearing snow from roads. (These cities also usually leave sidewalks largely unshoveled, making walking miserable several months of the year.) It isn’t that much money to put in the system when a road is going through major reconstruction, a periodic process that happens once a decade. And extra heat can be taken from the road beyond winter snowmelt needs and added to district heat systems. There are estimates that urban use of seasonal thermal storage under asphalt can lower city summer nighttime temperatures by as much as ten degrees. This in turn would save a remarkable amount of energy now spent air conditioning. So while the upfront cost is significant, it would make cities that get snow in the winter and hot in the summer much move livable and energy-efficient and divert current fossil fuel combustion to better uses.

    As for autonomous cars, I predict they will only be used in cases that save money–to replace current taxis/rideshare that require drivers. I think very few people will have personal autonomous cars, and most long-distance travel between towns will be by some form of rail.

    I’m getting more and more interested in the principles of exergy. Because combustible fuels create very high level BTUs (that can be used to make electricity or very high heat) and because these fuels are finite, they should be used for those purposes that truly need them–largely industrial processes, in some cases electricity. Low level heating (space, water, snow removal) should be done through captured waste heat from industrial processes or through solar thermal. Gasoline is especially mis-used because 75% of its potential energy is wasted in internal combustion engines. (Electric motors only waste 20%.) If we care at all about future generations, we will husband precious fossil fuel resources not only to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but to preserve these high level fuels for those things future generations may truly need them for.

    I agree with you that affording anything will be more difficult once the Fed-induced finance ponzi scheme falls apart. However, I don’t see humanity going back to medieval times immediately. There are many useful, efficient, not-that-expensive technologies already at our disposal that will allow us a decent standard of living with low energy use and low greenhouse gas emissions if we would just be sensible about it. (Clotheslines, bicycles, and home insulation and sealing, to name a few.)

  4. Yes, we should all be tehcno-skeptics. Remember when Segways were going to revolutionize transport in cities? The future is indeed likely going to be more about managing limited resources than speniding big. I’d expect most of these changes to be toys for the wealthy and ways to eliminate labor costs for larger companies instead of mass individual adoption

  5. I hope the technologists do not beguile the politicians into printing money for the national roll-out of their fantasies.

    Driverless cars seem to me a recipe for yet more mechanised space, a sinister prospect in my mind. They may rejuvenate the tendency to think about public space in engineering-led ways. Again, I hope I’m wrong to worry about this.

    In many ways, absence of the people seems most odd where the spaces are large-scale. It is often associated with systems key to economic performance i.e high speed cars (motorways, freeways), modern railway sidings (see Eurostar siding in east London), server farms, agri-business sites, container docks (a huge one has recently got going on the Thames Estuary). In all these cases, mechanisation has reduced the need for workers and made it more and more practical to exclude most people.

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