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Can We Survive Technology? — John von Neumann (1955)
"Literary and figuratively, we are running out of room"
“The great globe itself is in a rapidly maturing crisis—a crisis attributable to the fact that the environment in which technological progress must occur has become both undersized and underorganized.”
By 1955 mathematician John von Neumann (1903-57) had been diagnosed with what was likely either bone, pancreatic or prostate cancer. Accounts differ on which diagnosis was made first. He was 51 years old. Following two years of illness which towards the end confined him to a wheelchair, he eventually died on the 8th of February 1957.
The same year he was diagnosed, an essay von Neumann had authored was published in the June issue of Fortune Magazine. Entitled ‘Can We Survive Technology?”, the essay discusses the threats that may result from ever-expanding technological progress in a finite world.
von Neumann’s Argument
Summarized, von Neumann’s claim is that there is an inherent limitation in "technology’s relation to geography”. Setting up this argument, he argued that the industrial revolution consisted of three main improvements:
More and cheaper energy;
More and easier controls of human actions and reactions;
More and faster communications;
and that “each of these three developments increased the effectiveness of the other two”. The result, according to von Neumann, was not improvements in efficiency but rather, the enabling of geographical expansion:
“Increased speed did not so much shorten time requirements of processes as extend the areas of the earth affected by them”
The reason for this, von Neumann argued, is that improvements in terms of the ‘time to do something’ are inherently limited by human reaction times, habits and other physiological and psychological factors. Given this (assumed) limitation, accelerating technological progress instead enabled expansion in the “size of units—political, organizational, economic, and cultural— affected by technological operations.” That is, instead of performing the same operations as before in less time, following the industrial revolution larger-scale operations were performed in the same amount of time. Herein lies the core of von Neumann’s claim:
Technological progress leads to expansion rather than increases in efficiency.
von Neumann had by the 1950s been involved in military and naval research for more than fifteen years. Following his work on the Manhattan project in the early 1940s came consultancies for the National Defense Research Council (NDRC), the Weapons Systems Evaluation Group (WSEG), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) and the RAND Corporation. In addition came an advisorship to the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project and memberships at the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, the Scientific Advisory Group of the United States Air Force and in 1955 a commissionership the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).
Read more about von Neumann’s various roles in the May 19th 2021 newsletter 'The Unparalleled Genius of John von Neumann’:
In his essay von Neumann presented various examples for his claim that technological progress leads to expansion rather than increases in efficiency. Given his interests, many of these were related to military matters.
The Limitations of Geographical Units
“By 1940, even the larger countries of continental Western Europe were inadequate as military units.”
von Neumann first argued that improvements in military technologies had rendered many conventional powers, ‘geographical units’ such as Germany, France, Great Britain and others, insufficient:
“Since 1945, improved aeronautics and communications alone might have sufficed to make any geographical unit, including Russia, inadequate in a future war.”
Arguing that aggressive weapons such as atom bombs are sufficiently powerful “such as to stultify all plausible defensive time scales” he writes that “soon existing nations will be as unstable in war as a nation the size of Manhattan Island would have been in a contest fought with the weapons of 1900”. The result, from von Neumann’s perspective, is a nuclear arms race—as no defensive force and few geographical units will ever be sufficiently strong/resilient as to repel nuclear weapons. Consequently,
“The concert of powers rests on a basis much more fragile than ever before.”
“It is true that nuclear energy appears to be the primary source of practically all energy now visible in nature. […] In the long run, systematic industrial exploitation of nuclear energy may shift reliance onto other and still more abundant modes.”
As nuclear energy was still in its infancy in the 1950s, von Neumann outlined a vision for a future with abundant energy, where “energy may be free—just like the unmetered air”. He based his argument on the fact that “it is not a law of nature that all controlled release of nuclear energy should be tied to fission reactions as it has been thus far”. That is, von Neumann argued that just like “automobiles were at first constructed to look like buggies”, it is likely that reactor technology will be improved and that “we shall gradually develop procedures more naturally and effectively adjusted to the new source of energy, abandoning the conventional kinks and detours inherited from chemical-fuel processes.” von Neumann ensures to simultaneously point out that future improvements in nuclear energy are however not without their own inherent limitations. “Nature has, of course, been operating nuclear processes all along, well and massively, but her natural sites for this industry are entire stars”. As he notes, “There is reason to believe that the minimum space requirements for [nature’s] way of operating are the minimum sizes of stars. Forced by the limitations of our real estate, we must in this respect do much better than nature”.
The addendum to von Neumann’s ‘abundant-energy argument’ is that in such a future, coal and oil could instead be used “mainly as raw materials for organic chemical synthesis, to which, as experience have shown, their properties are best suited”.
Computers and Climate Control
Although von Neumann did not mention computers by name in his essay he did devote space to the rapidly progressing technologies of automation, writing:
“In our century, small electric amplifying and switching devices put automation on an entirely new footing. […] The last decade or two has also witnessed an increasing ability to control and “discipline” large numbers of such devices within one machine”.
The consequence of these improvements, in von Neumann’s view would be “explosive”. One potential future industry he predicted might emerge as a consequence, is climate control or weather modification.
“One phase of this activity is ‘rain making’ […] While it is not easy to evaluate the significance of the efforts made thus far, the evidence seems to indicate that the aim is an attainable one”.
“The carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by industry's burning of coal and oil-—more than half of it during the last generation—may have changed the atmosphere's composition sufficiently to account for a general warming of the world by about one degree Fahrenheit.”
For a large part of the remainder of his essay, von Neumann discusses the impacts of technological improvements on global temperature and climate. Writing about the effects of the eruptions of the volcano Krakatao in 1883, he makes the point that “Had the dust of the eruption stayed in the stratosphere for fifteen years, reflecting sunlight away from the earth, it might have sufficed to lower the world’s temperature by six degrees […] This would have been a substantial cooling, the last Ice Age […] was only fifteen degrees colder than the present age.” He also argues the opposite case, that a “world-wide tropical to semi-tropical climate” could in the future be created e.g. by spreading “microscopic layers of colored matter on an icy surface, or in the atmosphere above one”, inhibiting the reflection-radiation process, melting the ice and changing the local climate.
“Such actions would be more directly and truly world-wide than recent or, presumably, future wars, or than the economy at any time […] All this will merge each nation’s affairs with those of every of every other, more thoroughly than the threat of a nuclear or any other war may already have done”
The Technological Paradox
von Neumann’s conclusion is perhaps not the most optimistic one might hope from one of the world’s smartest men on their deathbed in the midst of a nuclear arms race. However, von Neumann leads his conclusion off on a rather somber note, writing “Free energy, greater automation, improved communications, […] climate control […] though all are intrinsically useful, can lead themselves to destruction”. His point is that the capabilities enabled by each of the technological advances he discusses are all suitable for both construction and destruction: “The most constructive schemes for climate control would have to be based on insights and techniques that would also lend themselves to forms of climatic warfare as yet unimagined“. Indeed, as he points out, such technologies themselves are orthogonal to moral issues:
“Technology—like science—is neutral all through, providing only means of control applicable to any purpose, indifferent to all. […] The very techniques that create the dangers and the instabilities are in themselves useful, or closely related to useful”
In fact, von Neumann adds, “the more useful they could be, the more unstabilizing their effects can also be […] Technological power, technological efficiency as such, is an ambivalent achievement. Its danger is intrinsic”
Under the headline “Awful and more awful”, von Neumann concludes his essay more or less as follows:
“Present awful possibilities of nuclear warfare may give way to others even more awful. After global climate control becomes possible, perhaps all our present involvements will seem simple. We should not deceive ourselves: once such possibilities become actual, they will be exploited.”
“Experience also shows that these transformations are not a priori predictable and that most contemporary ‘first guesses’ concerning them are wrong. For all these reasons, one should take neither present difficulties nor presently proposed reforms too seriously”
“The one solid fact is that the difficulties are due to an evolution that, while useful and constructive, is also dangerous.”
von Neumann’s essay was later republished in his collected works:
von Neumann, J. 1963. Collected Works Vol. VI*. Pergamon Press.
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The Unparalleled Genius of John von Neumann, May 19th 2021
The Duties of John von Neumann’s Assistant in the 1930s, July 11th 2021
The Eccentricities of J. Robert Oppenheimer, July 23rd 2021
John von Neumann’s Minimax Theorem, March 26th 2021
The Martians of Budapest, October 2nd 2021