The real revolution, it turns out, was in 1774. According to Simon Winchester’s absolutely outstanding book The Perfectionists, that’s when John Wilkinson (briefly) patented a method for boring holes in iron cannon. This, in turn, led to the accurate boring of cylinders for steam engines. In the two hundred years to follow, we became ever more precise as a civilization; Winchester’s book uses LIGO, the facility built to detect gravitational waves, as the apex example. Wikipedia says it can “These can detect a change in the 4 km mirror spacing of less than a ten-thousandth the charge diameter of a proton.” Which is quite precise indeed.
This week, inspired by a section of Winchester’s book, I bought my son an old set of Japanese calibration blocks as a gift for my son. (With one American block in there to make up the set, it turns out; buying cheap on eBay always leads to adventure of one sort or another. In this case, it means having seven Mitsuyos and one Starrett). Think of them as “go/no-go” gauges for measuring devices; if you want to know if your caliper is really reading precisely one inch, you’d have it measure the one-inch block and see what you get. When they were new, the blocks were calibrated to .15 micrometers. That is 1/100th the width of a human hair. I am hoping that these blocks remind my son that precision is a true and valuable thing. Without precision, bridges collapse and airplanes fall out of the sky.
Voluntary, habitual, culture-scale precision is the signature achievement of the Western world, although the Japanese also took to it with extraordinary fervor once they realized its benefits. It is an achievement of engineering rather than of science; that’s hard for many people to understand. And it’s going away, sooner rather than later. What will replace it? You don’t wanna know.
This week, a reader recommended that I peruse and share this essay by scientist and technologist Scott Locklin regarding America’s likely future in a post-precision world. Mr. Locklin is obviously of prodigious intelligence; I say that, naturally, because we are in near-total agreement regarding many aspect of “computer science” and other tech subjects. When it comes to culture, he and I see many of the same things but he has gone full, ah, “black pill” about it:
I would say that the chances of the US becoming “a culture that builds” is about the same as the present day municipality of Venice becoming a powerful trade and naval empire in the Adriatic and Bosphorus. The knowledge is gone. The cultural capital is gone; the society that produced those kinds of productive people hasn’t existed in decades. The physical ability to do this is gone; thanks to the globalization our genius economists told us was inevitable, the US lacks the factories, mines and shipyards required to build things. The human material who would actually do the building is gone: dimwit MBAs destroyed the skilled working classes, atomized their communities, continue to demonize and demoralize them and utterly destroyed the kind of basic low level education and social cohesion required to have a productive workforce….
Every historical example of a society turning to a productive direction (I dunno, post Revolution France, or Deng era China) involved defanging tin pot Robespierres before anything good happened. Removing statue toppling city burners and their encouragers and enablers as active dangers to the rest of society is table stakes for making a society of builders. The more serious issue is the MBA types who think it’s just fine to ship middle class jobs to the third world, or import new helot worker classes to destroy the bargaining power of local labor because “muh free markets.” These people are sharks, they’re wreckers, and it is they who have weaponized the “woke culture” of the left to prevent the actual left (as opposed to numskulls who think overturning a statue helps anything) from raising their taxes…
We’ve built our cages out of iphones, twitter, prozac and people obsessed with their feels and the doings of their crotches. You won’t get any more Edisons or Wozzes or Bardeens in America as long as hysterical imbeciles and demonic looters are preeminent and people who actually lower the entropy of the universe, past, present and future, are demonized.
It’s over; the US has has a remarkable run as a place where regular people could have a nice life, and exceptional people could make exceptional contributions… If you’re still in the US, you live in an evil empire of chaos and destruction, and the best of you are probably serving the worst ends of it. You can cower under your desks with home-made diapers on your faces hoping some member of a productive society invents a vaccine for the Chinese Lung Butter or whatever phantom (and entirely inflicted by our kakistocrat mandarins) terror of the moment afflicts you.
Alright, so where is he wrong? Can you even imagine what would it would be like to start a small or mid-sized business that actually makes things in 2020 America? You’d be the sole lion on a veldt stacked end to end with hyenas, all of them drooling with eagerness to get a few teeth into your flesh. Assuming you could perform the modern-day miracle of creating an environmentally neutral facility, staffed in a way to satisfy every governmental and media mandarin of quotas and ratios — well, at that point you’ve just managed to create a massive target for lawsuits. If you manage to stay in business for more than a year, you’ll be assaulted by a predatory venture capital firm which will strip your company, sell the assets, and put your name on products built in Chabuduo Country.
In short, we’ve managed to unironically duplicate the world described in the pages of Atlas Shrugged, only with the addition of a media which appears to earnestly desire nothing more than the destruction of every city in the United States.
I’d like to disagree with Locklin, but that’s not easy to do. A quick perusal of his site shows that he is a past master at Living In Reality, which of course is my constant and consistent personal goal. He doesn’t work from conjecture or emotion; instead, he tirelessly constructs arguments from the general to the specific, or vice versa, in classical fashion. (His discussion of the difficulties involved in building a functional quantum computer should be read aloud at NASDAQ before the trading day starts, every single day.) There’s no magical statistic or factoid that could derail his arguments about the decline of America, arguments which apply nearly as well to the rest of Western Civ as a whole.
The difficulty here is that nearly any refutation I could make of Lockin’s arguments winds up resolving to Winston Smith’s shriveled belief that “the spirit of Man” will defeat the Party, and that’s not a particularly effective case to make, either in the book or in real life. All I can suggest is that it’s not a permanent state of affairs — which, to be fair, is not part of Locklin’s assertions. Here’s the best I can do, as a set of bullet points:
* Human history is demonstrably cyclical.
* At some point, there will be nothing left of post-WWII American culture upon which to trample.
* This would be the point at which the new culture is triumphant, except the new culture being created today is nothing but Crowley’s “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” combined with enough ethnic nationalism to make a Serb shudder. It’s not a self-sustaining culture. It’s a parasite on a productive culture. So when the host dies, the parasites will also die.
* Which requires the creation of a new culture.
* That culture will be created by people who will view “wrecker” culture with disdain, in much the same way that many Russians of my age and older are suspicious of communism.
* As a natural reaction to the emotional and logic-averse nature of our post-1969 culture, the new culture will likely value things like precision and logic.
* As the Age Of Reason leaned heavily on the lessons of antiquity, the next Age Of Reason will lean heavily on whatever vestiges of traditional Western culture remain available.
* Much of the old knowledge will still be there, in books and tools and other non-perishable materials.
* If people take that knowledge seriously, the culture which results will once again be capable of making airplanes and tall buildings and whatnot.
What worries me about this potential timeline is that there is nothing inevitable about precision. The vast majority of human history happens in entirely precision-free societies. Every once in a while someone would build some really sharp pyramids then we’d all go back to living in mud huts or caves. Many of the goals for humanity openly espoused by today’s thought leaders — unconstrained sexuality, mandatory atheism, a focus on short-term pleasures, a Harrison-Bergeronian approach to total equality of outcome for everyone outside a chosen class of Eloi — do not require precision. In fact, they are somewhat stymied by its existence.
Sometimes I think that the guidebook preferred by our leaders is not 1984 or Brave New World, but rather God Emperor Of Dune. In that book, technological progress has been set back and frozen by murderous decree. The population generally walks everywhere and lives in approximate Bronze Age conditions, aided occasionally by inscrutable technology manufactured under strictly controlled conditions by an entirely separate race of humans. People focus on small moments of present enjoyment. As those of you who have read the book will remember, it was all done for a very specific (and prescient) purpose — and yes, there is a group of rebels who plan on taking the whole system apart.
Will there be a rebellion against the dictatorship of the proletariat fifty or a hundred years from now? Will that rebellion value certainty, exactitude, precision above all else? I don’t know and I won’t live to see it. If, however, those rebels need to do some error-free measuring along the way, I know a guy who has just the tool for the job. Maybe that’s how the real revolution will start once again.
I’m going to try native WP embedding for Hagerty articles now that the site uses WordPress. If you see two links below, it’s working. If not, let me know.