Monday, July 14, 2014

Review of Smaller, Faster, Lighter, Denser, Cheaper by Robert Bryce

I grabbed a copy of Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong on the way out of a bookstore as a few interesting factoids caught my eye, but it turned out to be a disappointment. This book is Diet Vaclav Smil: full of factoids, but trying too hard to push a cornucopian, techno-eutopian theory of progress.

His thesis is that technology has progressed a lot, and therefore (?) it will continue to progress indefinitely into the future. That thesis rests on linear extrapolation of past accomplishments:

"[O]ver a period of four decades, Americans nearly tripled the number of miles they drive, and domestic airlines nearly tripled the number of miles flown; yet domestic oil consumption increased by just 30 percent over that time period.

How do we explain what happened? The companies that build airplanes and cars made operating their machines Cheaper by cutting their fuel use. In 1970, it took 10,185 BTU to move a single passenger one mile on an airliner. By 2008, that number had fallen to 2,931 BTU, a 71 percent reduction. A similar trend can be seen in passenger cars. In 1970, it took 4,842 BTU to move a single passenger one mile in a passenger car. By 2008, that figure had declined to 3,501 BTU, a reduction of about 28 percent."
Those are fascinating factoids. I'd love to revive James Watt and give him a copy of this to read. But factoids (and linear extrapolation) don't prove the thesis.

This book does not even really engage with the cautiously-pessimistic view of Tom Murphy. It figures that Bryce is a Bachelor of Fine Arts and Murphy is a physicist.



Taylor Conant said...

You clearly have yet to meet a Singularitarian in person yet. I have now met one who is also a Buddhist and, of course, completely economically illiterate (all economic discussions revolve around the inherent flaws of capitalism, the evil of competition and yet, the necessity of capitalism's efficiency pushing the "marginal cost" of everything to zero... read Jeremy Rifkin's NYT op-ed for a brief summary of this ignorant viewpoint).

That's what this book sounds like, though, and you sound surprised by its gleeful faith in post hoc ergo propter hoc, which is why I say what I said above.

Can't wait until you meet one!

CP said...

Tom Murphy's "Do The Math" blog is fantastic, btw. It's 100% cautious and quantitative. Worth reading the entire thing. He should turn it into a book.