Gongol.com Archives: January 2024

Brian Gongol

January 5, 2024

Science and Technology A mechanical dependency

Straight-line projections from the past into the future are nearly always imprudent. Things change course, and even when they continue to move in the same direction, they often change speeds. But one projection can be made with almost iron-clad confidence: More people (both in raw numbers and as a proportion of the total population) will live in urban areas in the future than live there today. ■ This direction of change isn't a trend; it's a self-reinforcing cycle. Fundamentally, cities (large and small) offer closer matching of wants with access than other forms of living. People may ebb and flow out of individual cities, but both in the United States and in the world overall, the direction of change is clear. And if the dramatic shock to urban living caused by the Covid-19 pandemic hasn't proven permanent, it's basically impossible to imagine any cause big enough to force a reversal. ■ In a time when public attention is so heavily oriented towards issues that are either esoteric (like culture wars) or literally de-materialized (like artificial intelligence), it would serve us well to realize that the inexorable drift towards urbanization means that the future will be more mechanized than the past. ■ It's easy to think that moving parts and heat and raw materials and grease are all things of the past. But the absolute certainty of urban living is that when lots of people are clustered in a small geographic space, they are fundamentally more dependent upon things like motors, engines, pumps, boilers, fans, and axles than their counterparts elsewhere. ■ Machines power elevators, commuter trains, refrigerated trucks, sewage collection systems, garage doors, operating rooms, and flood gates, as well as countless other things that are needed with greater frequency among the "city mice" than among the "country mice". And while it's possible to automate a lot of the work that is done today by hand, larger populations who depend on smaller cohorts of skilled technical workers are proportionally more vulnerable to the consequences of failure -- whether it's catastrophic breakdown, the unpredictable revenge of deferred maintenance, or the slow and steady decay of institutional knowledge and expertise. ■ It's easy to misjudge trends and think that we have freed ourselves from the bonds of the physical world. We have not. And the sooner we come to appreciate just how much we depend upon the (literal) moving parts of the world and the people who keep them working, not just for how we live now but for how we will certainly live in the future, the better off we will be.