Technological shift of the 21st century
Written by: Rick Mortynsen, tech-historian 2121 AD
This study is aimed at explaining the reasons behind, and the mechanism of the technological shift occurred in the 21st century.
Note: most of the data presented here are from anecdotal sources and from memoirs as the original sources were lost or became technically or otherwise unreadable. Exact years of events were thus not possible to be identified for certain, only decades could be given as reference.
Last decades of abundance
People in the Developed World (as nations called themselves in the then existing United States, Canada, European Union, Japan and Australia) took technologies making their lives unimaginably easy by today’s standards for granted. Running water from indoor plumbing, stable electricity supply from wall sockets in every room and automatically regulated central heating/cooling together with a broadband access to the internet (a world wide network of computers with wast amount of data) were standard living requirements in the early 21st century. There were two underlying technological suites making this possible: the electric grid and the flow of petroleum products. The availability and usability of many other technologies were highly dependent on these two sources of energy being available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
There was a brief period in history (around the 2020's) when it was widely believed that electricity produced from renewable sources (i.e.: turning sunlight and wind into electricity using technologies built on non-renewable minerals requiring high energy inputs from fossil fuels) can fully replace oil and other carbon based sources of energy. It was not recognized by political leaders at that time however, that a nationwide stable electric grid can only be maintained by the use of fossil fuels flowing uninterrupted from Earth’s crust to power plants (huge steam engines turning heat from various fuels into electricity day in day out).
On the other hand there were minority groups — with immense wealth from fossil fuels — recognizing that renewables are not up to the task due to their intermittent nature, but at the same time publicly denying both the limited availability and the negative impacts (on climate and the biosphere) of their products.
One memorable event turned this controversial debate on energy into a hands-on experience for the general public. It happened around the year 2020 when a then unusual cold spell broke into the now uninhabited parts of North America, called Texas. Back then electricity was provided there mainly by burning natural gas in power plants and by wind turning huge turbines. Due to the unexpected low temperatures freezing equipment fossil fuel sources of electricity went down simultaneously causing a statewide electric grid failure. Wind based electricity production was also decreased, although not nearly as much as natural gas based power generation. Many residents were left without electricity back in a time when most had no backup power supply or alternative sources of heating.
Proponents on both sides blamed each other’s technology for the failure, not recognizing that both of these electricity sources were required to maintain their way of life. As fossil fuels became more expensive due to increasing scarcity of easy to extract sources in the early 21st century, other technologies (the so called renewables) had to be deployed to cope with the ever expanding demand for electricity.
As the overall “production” of carbon based energy started to dwindle in the 2020's partially due to the first corona virus pandemic, but mainly due to the economic inviability of further expanding fossil fuel production and thus due to their inevitable decline. Alternative energy sources failed to make up to the missing electricity production, because of the then unrecognized fact, that energy provided by fossil fuels were an inescapable part of their manufacturing process, making these technologies just as unsustainable as the fossil fuels they aimed to replace.
During the first years of this overall energy decline it was enough to shut down major consumers of energy (e.g. aluminum manufacturing) during high seasons (like heatwaves and cold spells). The general public – together with economic pundits – had no idea what is really going on and thought that this is just a short anomaly due to geo-political factors and temporary shortages – all of which can be overcome in a matter of months or years.
Throughout the 2020's it was even possible to tell the public that these shortages were necessary steps towards a „low-carbon” economy and „net zero” in order to „avoid” climate breakdown. Initially the general public were cooperative and accepted these measures. In turn people were compensated by „stimulus checks” and „universal basic income”. These financial measures enabled a semblance of decent living for the majority and together with increasing surveillance helped to uphold social stability.
Financial measures were of course unable to stop humanity’s technological and ecological predicament from unfolding. Around 2030 when Russia and the former Saudi Arabia announced that it will sell its remaining oil under its own respective currency, circumventing the global oil market, the US Dollar has suddenly lost its position as the „world’s reserve currency” (one no longer had to buy USD first to buy oil). This has finally put an end to the ever increasing debt bubble and trillions of dollars were lost in a single day. Governments around the world had to announce a debt jubilee for all citizens to avoid chaos. China and Russia on the other hand were preparing for this scenario for over a decade by then and separated their financial network from the worldwide collapse in a matter of seconds — avoiding the crash altogether. The resulting economic meltdown gave a further push down the slope to the already declining fossil fuel production and forced global trade to a sudden halt. As it was the case after prior economic crises, this event has freed up a lot of capital and resources which could be used to stimulate growth again.
Unfortunately, but quite obviously in hindsight, governments around the world have doubled down on a centralized push for renewables, insisting that a coordinated effort will succeed this time – no matter how uneconomic these sources of power were, or how much damage they did to the environment (from mining resources, to the pollution released during manufacturing and habitats destroyed throughout their deployment). Nevertheless, this approach was a good fit for the political structures of the day: centralized infrastructure projects were always a good way to reinforce hierarchies (by paying loyal supporters well) and showing the power and capabilities of elites to the masses.
There were individuals and small communities however who have recognized early on that the true potential of renewables lay not in building centralized power grids — an infrastructure made necessary by the deployment of huge fossil and nuclear power plants. (Nuclear was a another source of heat for steam engines, capturing the intense warmth of decaying uranium isotopes concentrated into fuel rods). Instead they have started to build out town and community owned local power generation and sharing economies utilizing rooftop solar and small scale — sometimes homemade — wind turbines and water heaters. This was the start of the “de-industrial revolution” — but more on that later. These initiatives remained low scale and for the time being “under the radar” (an old and abandoned technology invented to detect flying objects).
During the recovery from the financial and the resulting economic crash pundits and governments around the world did not stop pretending that there is a chance for full recovery and a return to unending growth (the annual increase in economic output). Growth did return for a couple of years thanks to the re-allocation of resources, but due to the fact that energy was still primarily derived from the already dwindling fossil fuels — despite the efforts to build more renewables — industrial output never reached pre-crash levels and started to turn into a slow economic contraction again as fuel supplies continued to diminish further down the road.
Slowly but steadily more and more people realized that the good old days of the late 20th and early 21st century have now gone for the foreseeable future (in fact they never returned ever since). Food and goods production per capita have started to decrease steadily while population growth was grinding to a halt. More and more have found themselves unemployed for years, while realizing that all of their wealth has lost its value due to the lack of potential buyers (back then there was a so called market for real estates, bonds and stocks where prices were bid up to unrealistic levels). In the meantime the price of real goods and services (including food) increased steadily.
This was a paradoxical event to many economists of the time, who still believed that economic growth was purely a matter of “human ingenuity” and had nothing to do with finite resources. (According to their belief system everything was substitutable.) As the availability of energy, food and mineral resources started to decrease though, with no real replacement in sight, prices rose and stimulus from the government just made the situation worse. When central banks around the world have started to increase rates to halt the resulting inflation they made an already bad situation bleak. Investments dried up while people had basically nothing left to spend above the bare necessities: all of their hard earned money was spent on food and housing. As a result most of the manufacturing companies (making commercial goods like household appliances, cars, electronic gadgets etc.) went bankrupt one after another leaving only a handful of giant corporations alive by the 2040's.
The de-industrial revolution
Against the backdrop of relentless economic contraction a spontaneous movement away from high-tech solutions started to form. As it was the case with many former “revolutions” like the agricultural, or later the industrial, it was lead by no one and it appeared in many places around the world simultaneously. It was a summary outcome of millions of people trying make ends meet at the end of the month: tinkerers and thinkers figuring out ways around the relentless energy and food scarcities, ever more frequent blackouts and temporary water shortages.
It was a true selection process in evolutionary terms: diverse solutions were generated, some were selected based on their fitness to solve the problem at hand, then were multiplied around a region. When an area finally got uninhabitable either due to raising temperatures, frequent inundation, drought, loss of arable land etc. people moved on to other parts of the world bringing the technological innovations with them.
These technologies (called appropriate or low tech at their time) have started out as salvaging projects: abandoned manufacturing equipment, cars, derelict buildings etc. served as a source for parts to irrigation equipment and makeshift power generators to run a fridge in a community kitchen. As working parts from the industrial age started to run short, more and more of the old (and by then long dead) high tech equipment were salvaged for raw materials. All of the metals in use today have started out as complex machines only to be torn down and forged into a scythe or an axe during the de-industrial revolution.
The wast majority of parts and building materials were lost to the elements though. Due to depopulation (of ageing societies and due to hunger in less fortunate parts of the world), coastal inundation, hurricanes, torrential rains, loss of water supply, heat stress etc. many cities once home to millions of people became ghost towns. Iron structures began to decay, concrete buildings collapsed, asphalt roads deteriorated and became graveyards for millions of cars left there to rust. Nature quickly took over and forests have grown where thousands of people used to meet and live their lives. Other cities have been buried under the sands or became salt marshes on the seaside... Many million metric tons of iron, copper, aluminum and other metals became oxides — diluted beyond any hope of recovery (similar to many abandoned mines containing only few percents of metal in their ores).
Suites of technologies
One of the many problems with industrialization was that it not only required a constant and stable power input from fossil fuels or from its derivatives (first nuclear then renewables), but it required a certain set of technologies all working in concert to keep it functioning.
The automobile or car was a prime example of this. It required a steel industry to provide it with sheet metals for the chassis, an electronics industry to make microchips for its engine control units, and of course the petroleum industry: not only for fuels, but for its many plastic parts and tires (rubber wheels), as well as for the smooth pavement made from the residue of oil refinement called asphalt, stretching millions of miles in length. One can’t help but wonder how many cars were running on these roads in their heyday — all of which is now degraded into cracked and patchy pavement. In many respects the car was the ultimate pinnacle of the fossil fuel based industrial revolution.
Each of the supplying industries required their own set of supporting technologies: the steel industry required a stable flow of iron ore and coke to make iron, as well as a stable flow of high voltage electricity to run its open hearth furnaces and sheet rolling machinery. In many cases these technologies were highly interdependent: like mining requiring fossil fuel driven machinery to mine ores which were then smelted and turned into new mining machinery. One weak link in these complex web of technologies was enough to bring entire industrial sectors to their knees.
Another example was the above mentioned renewables vs fossil fuel debate. It was not only renewables that needed fossil fuels for their production and for load balancing, but oil drilling and pumping equipment equally needed electricity (produced by government subsidized renewables to some extent) to operate. Simply put, they could not exist without each other. Once the complex technology of the early 21st century started to break down, seemingly unrelated items became first unavailable then unrepairable because of the missing parts. The de-industrial revolution didn’t happen overnight though: it took multiple decades to loose all manufactured equipment and to return to the simple electrical and mechanical devices we have today.
People of the early 21st century relied increasingly on the Internet for recording and sharing information. Despite the wast amount of data generated and stored on this immense network of computers, there was very little information available on the energy dilemma. The mainstream media and science were preoccupied with technological progress and “stopping” climate change. All of this somewhat relevant information was floating in an endless ocean of stories about who made sex with whom spotted with never-ending debates on just about anything. Most of the information — relevant and irrelevant alike — was lost altogether with the internet, when electric grids became too unstable to make the operation of servers, switches and the rest of the equipment needed to run a network of computers possible.
The permanent loss of stable electric power supply in the 2040's also made the manufacturing of microchips impossible (an essential component to every computer). This technology required stable temperatures, ultra clean environments and a lot of purified water among other things — none of which was in ample supply in an energy deprived world. The remaining computer parts (processors, HDD-s, memory modules etc) worked for another decade or two, but slowly all of them have gone out of order. The last known working computer was in use in a Stockholm human knowledge center (once called library) till the mid 2060's when the video card stopped functioning and a working replacement could not be obtained. Today it is preserved in a museum of old technologies together with many other electronic devices.
Needless to say, tremendous amounts of valuable information were lost with the death of the last working computer and the Internet. Many books and scientific publications were stored in an online format only, and without a working computer to read them they became lost forever. The few which had a print version was printed on cheap paper too. Climate change has brought humid and warm weather even to northern latitudes and with air pollution still present these factors lead to the rapid disintegration of many books within decades of their printing. Proper storage and conservation techniques soon became impossible without air conditioning and filtering — and when electricity could not be provided 24/7 even the best libraries have lost their edge in book preservation. By the end of the 21st century most of the knowledge gathered in the past 250 years were lost.
Scientists of that age were of course aware of this problem, and some tried to preserve knowledge by laser etching text to thin films of stainless steel — but this project was quickly given up as a result of lost power supplies. What little information we have from this age comes from hand written memoirs and book printing “amateurs” who took the painstaking task to make archival quality cotton rags paper and restored old printing machinery to their working condition. Many books printed with this technique in the 19th century are still readable today — some three hundred years later— so we can reasonable assert that our books will survive another two or three centuries more.
Our basic knowledge in math, chemistry, medicine, mechanics etc. have all roots in ancient knowledge and were refined during the industrial age — but we neither have the means nor the understanding to reproduce the level of knowledge in the 21st century. Our book printing and human knowledge centers thus work on preserving the technological information needed to operate successfully in today’s simplified de-industrialized world. We no longer have a practical use for quantum-mechanics (which was once a science, now a branch of philosophy) nor hydrogen fusion (replicating the process what gives Sun its source of energy). With that said, we still have a lot to thank to the age of science: germ-theory and medical knowledge still continues to save lives, electricity still has a wide area of applications and permaculture still plays an important role in healthy food production (albeit for a much smaller population).
Published with the prior consent of the author — who hasn’t born yet (any resemblance to actual or fictional persons living or dead, is a result of chance).
Until the next time,