Dematerializing Things Instead of Life
The universe is finite but knowledge is infinite
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A special thank you to and Marian Tupy for inspiring this essay.
Among comic book villains, Thanos is unique. He isn’t evil for the sake of being so. He does not superficially crave power or have shallow visions of grandeur. Instead, he is the hero of his own story, on a mission to save the universe from the scourge of overpopulation. Thanos believed that life, if left unchecked, would eventually consume all available resources, leaving those who remain starving and suffering. To “mercifully” kill half of all life in the universe, he thought, would enable the other half to thrive. The error that Thanos makes is a common one. While the total sum of atoms (resources) is certainly finite in number, knowledge is not.
To be fair, Thanos’ reasoning appears sound on the surface. Indeed, there is a long history of well-educated thinkers prophesying resource depletion, claiming that we will imminently run out of food, oil, helium, water…you name it. These experts are so common, in fact, that we have a term for them: Malthusians. The term comes from the name of Thomas Malthus, who famously forecast mass famines in the early 19th Century because, by his calculations, while the population grows at a geometric rate, agricultural output is constrained to grow at a linear rate.
Malthusians always arrive at the same conclusion; the only way to save ourselves is to reduce our numbers or “degrow.'“ But as I discussed in detail here, Malthusians have long based their theories on incorrect assumptions. In Malthus’ case, the mistaken belief that technology would not improve agricultural output for a given area of land. I will not rehash the full explanation here, but will only say that Malthusians fail to appreciate the power of knowledge and technology.
Everything we are and everything that we do as a species is shaped by the Second Law of Thermodynamics or entropy. Left to its own devices, the universe naturally “decays” from order to disorder (more precisely, heat energy dissipates.) Metals rust and crumble away, sand castles erode, buildings fall down…etc. Life, on the other hand, is counter-entropic. Life can resist the inevitable march of entropy, at least for a time. But human knowledge and technology enable us to go much further; to carve a small slice of order from the chaos.
The very same electrons in a bolt of lightning that randomly strikes a tree, can be used to process information when carefully shuttled about on an intricately etched chip of silicon. Useless iron ore, the waste products of long-deceased stars, can be mined, melted, purified, and combined with carbon to make steel for ships, cars, and skyscrapers. With knowledge, the result is greater than the sum of the parts.
Adding a bit of chromium and nickel to that steel, in just the proper amounts, we make stainless steel, an alloy that resists oxidation. Thin sheets of stainless steel, carefully fashioned into tubes and domes, are used to build rockets that can reach space, perhaps ironically returning iron atoms to the heavens from where they came. We can do this because of knowledge. Knowledge is what makes atoms useful.
Knowledge enables us to do more with less. Even something as seemingly simple as a soda can has been dramatically improved with innovation. When aluminum soda cans were introduced in the late 1950s they required about 85 grams of metal a piece. But 50 years later, the same size requires just 13 grams of aluminum metal.
Between 1980 and 2020, the relative abundance of some 50 commodities that we depend on, from food, energy, metals, and minerals actually grew. This is because of, not despite, the incredible population growth that also occurred during that time. More people can generate more knowledge, new ideas, new innovations, and better economies of scale that enable us to use the atoms we have more efficiently. In fact, during this period, every one percent growth in the human population saw a four percent increase in personal resource abundance of key commodities.
It seems paradoxical, almost nonsensical, but the nature of progress is often highly counterintuitive. Knowledge and ideas are non-rival; one’s use of an idea does not deprive another of using that same idea. And knowledge, unlike matter, has no limits. Even the very books that store and transmit this knowledge are not immune from this magical power.
As I discussed here, books were once reserved for the elite few who could afford them. But new technology, like the movable type printing press, gradually made print media cheaper. Knowledge, in essence, made knowledge more abundant, in a feedback loop of unlimited potential. Today, books can be digitally “printed” in virtually unlimited quantities and transmitted anywhere in the world to just about anyone, at essentially no cost. In a sense, progress has “dematerialized” books over time; books are just the beginning.
Knowledge and Dematerialization
Knowledge and progress certainly reduce resource usage for a given output, but there is growing evidence that progress also can reduce total resource usage as well. For example, even as the population and economy have grown in the United States, Americans are using less gold, copper, steel, aluminum, fertilizer, and paper than they did 20 years ago.
Knowledge, again, is what makes this possible. A single lightweight fiber optic cable can carry many times more information than a heavier copper cable. The smartphone in your pocket has “dematerialized” the alarm clock, calculator, pager, record player, phone, camera, video recorder, calendar, books, radio, flashlight, sticky notes, and many other physical items that you otherwise might have lying around. New innovations, like Apple’s Vision and other wearable VR and AR devices, threaten to dematerialize televisions, desktops/laptops, gaming systems, and possibly even physical locations like schools. One day, they may even swallow the smartphone itself.
So long as we are pushing out the envelope of knowledge, so long as we continue to make progress in technology, we are not in danger of long-term resource depletion. Our population will not likely outgrow our ability to feed it, house it, or provide key resources. But should we turn our backs on progress or begin to undermine the foundations that support it, a future of famine and resource scarcity could become very real indeed.
Crucial, therefore, is our understanding of and respect for the power of knowledge, ideas, and the foundations of all human progress. While Thanos felt obligated to snap his fingers and “mercifully” dematerialize life to save things, our technology allows us to dematerialize things to save life. I think most would agree that the latter is a better path forward.
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