Sunday, May 8, 2011

Clarke was wrong

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. -- Arthur C. Clarke, 1961

Clarke was wrong, at least in part. If you've never seen a technology before, maybe it's magic. If you've lived with it your entire life, it's invisible. It's become as natural and immutable as the air you breathe or the ground you walk on. It's been black boxed and is ubiquitous to the point where you can't imagine living without it. You don't think at all about what's involved in making a device or what it takes to keep it running -- it's just there, always has been, always will be. You also become incapable of imagining alternatives.

I've been thinking about technology more than usual this weekend. I just finished reading a post-apocalyptic novel in which the author failed to escape the device paradigm, and a fair number of the talking heads on television kept falling back on that same paradigm coupled with technological optimism -- the idea that if we've got a problem, we can always solve it with technological innovations. Can't win the war in Afghanistan? Build more drones. Gas prices too high? We'll just start sucking oil out of shale. What we have is what we have to have, and there's no sense trying to escape that paradigm . . . or so the mindset seems to be.

It's not just novelists and pundits that are so thoroughly embedded in 21st century technology they can't see it anymore. So are survivalists and various back to the land types. I read various survivalist blogs for the fun of it -- some of them can provide a lot of laughs. It's amazing how many people are out there who fear a coming apocalypse, life in a Mad Max- or The Postman-type world, but seem to think "living off the grid" consists of buying a generator, as if there's always going to be a service station where they can go to refill the gas cans.  If they do think about building up their own private stash, I always wonder just how many realize just how quickly petroleum products, particularly gasoline, go bad?

I'm thinking about gasoline in particular this morning thanks in part to The Passage. One of its real howlers, a classic must suspend all disbelief moment, came when the protagonists were salvaging a Humvee from the base at Twenty Nine Palms to use to get to Telluride. Keep in mind those Humvees, their assorted parts, and their fuel have been sitting in a desert for almost 100 years. You know what you call 100-year-old gasoline? Varnish.

Gasoline consists of a mixture of complex hydrocarbons, some of which are highly volatile (which is why gasoline is a fuel, those vaporizing volatiles combust easily). Highly volatile means they evaporate quickly. If the unused gas in your lawn mower goes bad in a few months, what are the odds that the gas in a fuel tank anywhere is still going to be good a century from now? (There is a reason the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is a stash of crude oil; as soon as you start refining petroleum, the various products, like gasoline, start breaking down.) One of my favorite laughable moments in post-apocalyptic fiction, both written and on the screen, occurs when Our Hero/Heroine leaps into a derelict car or truck, a vehicle that's been sitting abandoned on a street or in a garage for multiple years, and fires it right up. The scene they never show occurs a few seconds later when the engine seizes from the bad gas and our Hero/Heroine gets eaten by zombies.

With a few rare exceptions, none of these fictionalized futures ever include nonmotorized transportation, e.g., bicycles. (The more serious, reality-based survivalists do think about bikes; there's been a fair amount of discussion on some blogs about the best choices for a bug-out bicycle.) If novelists and script writers do eliminate the cars, they seem to assume the alternative has hooves and eats oats.

Personally, if I were paranoid enough to think like a survivalist, I'd make sure I had a really good bicycle and the gear that went with it (panniers, for example) to use in a bug out situation. It's a lot harder to get trapped in a traffic jam if you're on two wheels weaving between the cars (or, even better, have escaped the jam by doing back roads and side streets on those two wheels). I'd also be learning to work with tools that were low-tech and had as few hard to replace parts as possible. I'd be memorizing episodes of the Woodwright's Workshop and buying all of Roy Underhill's books while practicing food preservation methods popular before canning was invented, e.g., salting, smoking, and drying meats. Instead of worrying about where to stash my hoard of ammo, I'd focus on mastering an atl atl or using a bolo because sooner or later the bullets are going to run out, and, while reloading is theoretically possible, making your own gunpowder isn't as easy as MacGyver made it look.

I'm not sure just what all I'd hoard. I know what I'd pack to survive for a month or two, but forever? Spare ax handles for sure, because they'd be a pain to have to carve;  a lot of kosher salt (good both for preserving food and slaying zombies); zillions of canning jar lids because they're something where once they're gone, they're gone; and a stash of books I always meant to read but just haven't gotten around to yet -- although I'm not sure even an apocalypse would help me read Ulysses.


  1. I think you failed to mention another factor associated with paranoid survivalists ...

    It's not enough to survive you also need a stout defensive system because, sure as shootin', those neighbors and guys in the black helicopters are going to attempt stealing you guns and beans.

    So, there's a need for Claymore mines, Stinger missiles, crazy-nuts dogs, barbwire and maybe a few bear traps.

  2. Bill, the crazy-ass man traps and defensive perimeters discussed on the survivalist blogs are another source of endless amusement. I have visions of some of the "survivalists" managing to blow themselves up in short order when they manage to forget just where they strung the tripwires.

  3. See, I live in a community full of Mormons, and they all hoard food against stuff like this. I figure I just let the zombies pick off the Mormons, then I come in and eat their food.

    But seriously, how do you kill zombies with salt? I need to know this. And I don't think there's a lot of point in hoarding for more than a month or two. I have to assume I'd be stir-crazy by the end of two months and would have to start going out scavenging or looking for a new place.

  4. I have a love/hate affair with technology.

    I have visions of some of the "survivalists" managing to blow themselves up in short order when they manage to forget just where they strung the tripwires.

    I wouldn't discount simple shit if I was you, it pretty much works every time you need to depend on it, no (dead) batteries required.

    If you forget your own trip wire, tough shit. On the other hand, things will be peaceful where you are going. :-)

  5. BBC, the ones who trip over their own wires are going to be the ones who have forgotten the KISS principle.

  6. Funny to think that the macho author blows it so badly on the Hummer resurrection question when that quintessential effete urbanite, Woody Allen, played the very same scenario for laughs 30 years ago in "Sleeper." At one point, the catapulted-into-the-future hero finds an ancient Volkswagen in a cave, turns the key, and drives right off. The audience howled at the absurdity of it all... as they were meant to do.


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