Forget the Cutting Edge – Embrace the Old-Tech Future

 By Josh Kearns
Our society is pathologically enthralled with “the new.” As scientists and engineers, we’re inculcated starting from very early in our training to seek “the cutting edge” of technological development and innovation. But if we want the results of our research efforts to stand the best chance of making a beneficial impact in the future, that’s the opposite of what we should do.
The reason is that technology ages in reverse. Or put another way, the longer a given technology has been around, the more likely it is to persist into the future. So if you want your efforts in science to matter in the future, you’d better look to the past for defining relevant research questions.
According to philosopher and risk analyst Nassim Taleb, author of Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, while perishable items (such as human beings, cats and dogs, and tomatoes) experience a decline in life expectancy with each passing day, nonperishable things (such as art, literature, cultural forms, ideas and technologies) can experience increased life expectancy the longer they are in circulation. This concept of “ageing in reverse” is known as the Lindy Effect.
Think of it this way: every morning that you wake up brings you one day closer to your death. (Sorry to be so blunt.) But for some forms of art, culture, architecture, ideas and technology that stand the test of time, each passing day that they endure increases the likelihood that they will persist yet longer.
Take the example of whatever recently released pop song just topped the charts – what are the odds that people will still be listening to this song six months from now, or a year from now, or ten or twenty years from now? Pretty low odds. But what about Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 1973 anthem Free Bird? Nearly a half-century has passed, and people around the world (especially in my native home of southern Appalachia) are still rockin’ out super hard to Free Bird

What are the odds that many decades hence requests for “Free Bird!!!” will still be shouted by countless ebulliently inebriated concert goers, long after the last member of the original Skynyrd lineup is resting peacefully in his red clay grave? I give it pretty damn good odds. But will Free Bird still be inspiring face-melting air-guitar solos two or three centuries from now? That’s a tough call (though one can be hopeful…).
In Austria nearly two-and-a-half centuries ago, Mozart was just hitting his peak. If humans can manage not to do ourselves in through climate change, soil fertility exhaustion, poisoned water, deforestation, warfare, fisheries collapse, antibiotic resistant superbugs, toxic smog, radioactive waste…etcetera, etcetera…in the meantime, will humans of the mid-twenty-third century will still be enjoying The Marriage of Figaro? Owing to the Lindy Effect, odds are they will be.
OK so the Skynyrd reference was a bit goofy, but give these a thought:

What’s more likely to be read 500 years from now: The Bible, or Harry Potter?

What’s more likely to be in use 500 years from now: Roman aqueducts, or iPads?

What crops are more likely to be cultivated successfully 500 years from now: locally adapted organic heirloom varieties, or patented GMOs requiring specialized concoctions of fossil-fuel derived chemical fertilizers and pesticides?

What’s more likely to still be standing 500 years from now: the Pyramids of Giza, or the Mall of America?
In Antifragile, Taleb asserts that our modern culture trains us to think that the new is always about to overcome the old, but that this is just an optical illusion because the failure rate of the new is much higher than the failure rate of the old. (Consider the plethora of contemporary pop music acts that in retrospect comprise “one-hit wonders.”) Taleb observes that, “in general, the older the technology, not only the longer it is expected to last, but the more certainty we can attach to such as statement.” And precisely because complex, novel technologies are proliferating at such a high rate in our contemporary world, “the old has a huge advantage over the new.”
And that’s how we have to think when we are trying to define research questions that stand the best chance of being relevant in the future. Forget the cutting edge – embrace old-tech!
It’s important to stress two things: (1) that the Lindy Effect is not about every technology, but about life expectancy as a probabilistically derived average, and (2) it’s not that all technologies don’t age, but that technologies that are prone to age are already dead or will be shortly.
I’ll illustrate with an anecdote from my own work in water and sanitation for developing communities.
Somehow, I was part of a research team awarded a massive grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations’ “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge” (RTTC). We were funded to develop the “Sol-Char” toilet – a kind of Rube Goldberg contraption that thermally converts human feces to a supposedly beneficial char soil amendment. This was accomplished via a very sophisticated and expensive system of reflective dishes and fiber optics for capture, concentration and transmission of solar energy. The whole large, elaborate, and costly array was mounted on a computer-controlled precision tracking system so that maximal solar incidence would be constantly achieved. While truly impressive efficiencies of solar energy harnessing were obtained in the lab (a number of patents applications were filed), the Sol-Char toilet will never, ever be deployed anywhere – least of all anywhere in the much-touted “developing communities” that the RTTC program alleged to serve.
Why not? Anyone who has spent even a modest amount of time in the field and working outside of academia realizes that expensive, high-tech and cutting-edge interventions conceived in developed world laboratories don’t stand a good chance of providing lasting solutions to real-world water and sanitation challenges. Low-cost, decentralized, locally conceived and managed, so-called “appropriate” technologies fare much better as sustainable solutions. This is a direct manifestation of the Lindy Effect.
For me, the whole Bill Gates / RTTC thing was a fluke. My efforts in sustainable water and sanitation focus on R&D to adapt, optimize, and extend old technologies that have stood the test of time. For example: simple composting toilets that render human excreta safe for handling and provide soil fertility. The use of composted human waste in agriculture is an ancient practice, as documented in F.H. King’s classic study Farmers of Forty Centuries. Until the advent of industrial processes for converting non-renewable fossil energy (primarily natural gas) to synthetic fertilizers, the use of (organic) human and animal manures was essential for maintaining soil fertility and crop yields. This will inexorably once again be the case as cheap and abundant fossil fuels deplete, ecological limits to technological expansion bite harder, and the sun sets on the industrial era in the decades and generations to come. Therefore we can attach a high degree of probability to the perseverance and proliferation of traditional composting toilets for closing the loop between human and animal waste treatment and food production in the future.
Are composting toilets a singular “silver bullet” for solving the world’s sanitation crisis? No. Do they work in all human settlements, climates, and cultures? No. Do they always function flawlessly and eliminate 100% of pathogens? No. Do they invariably solve more problems than they cause? No, unfortunately. But could they be enhanced and optimized through research and development? Certainly! (And of course, many researchers are currently doing just this – for example, see the excellent work by Toilets for People!)
Another example: at Aqueous Solutions, we’re advancing drinking water treatment technologies using charcoal. Charcoal filtration is a traditional practice dating back at least to ancient societies in Egypt and India. The technique is 4,000-plus years old and so according to the Lindy Effect we can estimate that it will persist for a similarly lengthy timespan. Our goals are to optimize the production of charcoal, making it more energy efficient and more environmentally friendly while producing consistent and enhanced water filter char capable of controlling modern chemical toxicants such as pesticides. In order to achieve widespread and sustainable implementation of our systems over the long term, our innovations must fall within the technological, cultural and economical scope of long-lived traditional means.
So in summary: I am not inveighing against science and innovation per se – just stressing that innovation should be geared toward making refinements in traditional technologies, rather than generating revolutionary, transformative technological configurations that just end up making things more complicated and fragile, and therefore short-lived.
Don’t waste your time on expensive flashy new-fangled gizmos. Here today, gone tomorrow.
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Well, dear reader, I’m nearing the end of my present stint as a Chemiste Sans Frontières. This time next week I’ll be on a plane somewhere over the Pacific, contemplating my reintegration into US culture and the day-to-day rigueur of working on a University campus.
If anything you’ve read here in the past few months has caught your interest, feel free to connect with me through Facebook. (And, please “Like” Aqueous Solutions!)
Links to my other posts

0 thoughts on “Forget the Cutting Edge – Embrace the Old-Tech Future”

  1. Nice post. Two thoughts come to mind- "Why reinvent the wheel?" and "If it's not broke, don't fix it." I like the idea of locally developed solutions- you can't impose a solution on a community if they aren't willing to use it.

    Safe travels, and I hope to meet up with you someday soon. Thanks for your postings!

    Steve Chambreau

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