The next logical step is to see this reality as part of the process leading to the eventual displacement of carbon-based life by machines (Wesley 1974). Evolutionary parallels between the two entities are intriguing.
Machines are thermodynamically alive, and their diffusion conforms to natural selection: failures do not reproduce, new species proliferate, and they tend toward maximum supportable mass; successive generations are also progressively more efficient (recall all those impressively lower mass/ power ratios!), more mobile, and have longer life spans. These parallels can be dismissed as merely intriguing biomorphizations, but the ascendance of machines has been an undeniable fact.
They have already replaced enormous areas of natural ecosystems with the infrastructures needed for their making, motion, and storage (mines, railroads, roads, factories, parking lots); man’s time has been increasingly spent by serving them; their waste products have caused extensive degradation of soils, waters, and the atmosphere; and the global mass of automobiles alone is already much higher than that of all of humanity. The finiteness of fossil fuel resources may do little to stop the ascent of machines. In the near term they can adapt by becoming more efficient; in the long term they can rely on renewable flows.
– Vaclav Smil in Energy and Civilization: A History
What was life like on the ground for the farmers and market vendors who abruptly found themselves moving from wooden huts to modern high-rises in the middle of a rapidly developing city? There was exciting progress, yes, but much of the time it was tragic, hilarious, and absurd.
Lee Kuan Yew highlights some of these moments. Pig farmers, nudging their pigs up staircases to raise them in high-rise apartments. A family, gating off their kitchen for a dozen chickens and ducks. People walking up long flights of stairs because they were afraid of using elevators, using kerosene instead of electric bulbs, selling miscellaneous goods from ground-floor flats. (99) He grows somber as he talks about resettling older farmers, how even generous compensation money didn’t matter next to losing “their pigs, ducks, chickens, fruit trees, and vegetable plots,” and how many of the older farmers never really stopped resenting the change. (180)
In the remote areas of New Guinea where I do fieldwork, and where new communication technologies haven’t yet arrived, all communication is still face-to-face and full-attention—as it used to be in the U.S. Traditional New Guineans spend most of their waking hours talking to one another. In contrast to the distracted and sparse conversations of Americans, traditional New Guinea conversations have no interruptions to look at the cell phone in one’s lap, nor to tap out e-mails or text messages during a conversation with a person physically present but receiving only a fraction of one’s attention.
One American missionary’s son who grew up as a child in a New Guinea village and moved to the U.S. only in his high school years described his shock on discovering the contrast between children’s playing styles in New Guinea and in the U.S. In New Guinea, children in a village wandered in and out of one another’s huts throughout the day. In the U.S., as my friend discovered, “Kids go into their own houses, close the door, and watch TV by themselves.”