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Short-sightedness and just plain stupidity are common problems in human life, so it's no surprise they've also played a role in technological evolution throughout history.  Sometimes we learn what not do by the dragged-out historical catastrophes of societies that have made the wrong decisions.  These are the biggest blunders in technological history, in increasing order of stupidity, myopia, and/or madness.

5.  The Soviet Union chooses ideology over relevance in biological science.

Proving itself to ultimately be a reactionary movement, Soviet Communism from the 1920s to the 1960s responded to fascist genetic theory by rejecting the entire concept of genetics and instead fabricating a nonsensical pseudo-science called Lysenkoism based on "heritability of acquired traits."  According to Lysenkoism - which was based on a long-discredited evolutionary theory called Lamarckian inheritance - organisms would become magically imbued with the properties of an artificially-manipulated environment and then pass on those characteristics to offspring even after manipulation ceased.  In other words, if you grow high yields of a plant in a carefully-controlled environment and then release the resulting strains into the wild, they will continue to have high yields.  

The fact that this was obviously false and immediately disproven didn't matter: It suited the ideology of totalitarian socialism in the sense that it suggested human nature could be fundamentally and permanently changed through government programs - i.e., everything was "nurture" and nothing "nature."  Also, the man responsible, Trofim Lysenko, was from a peasant background and had little standing in biological circles, so it fit the preferred political narrative of the suppressed truths of a mistreated class finally breaking through the "lies" of the bourgeois / aristocratic elites.  Biologists who argued with Lysenkoism or even appeared remotely skeptical about it were executed under Stalin, and as a result agricultural officials tasked with applying its principles were forced under threat of death to just make up fake crop yields in order to "prove" it while in fact Soviet agriculture was a wreck.

As a result, Soviet crop yields became one of history's metaphors for laughable propaganda in the face of overwhelming fact.  As emaciated, hollow-eyed peasants worked like zombies on their collectivized farms to the point of death, they were treated to joyful announcements by political officers about how crop yields had increased yet again this year through the magic of Socialism - just like the year before, and the year before that.  The damage these idiots did to the credibility of socialism as an idea is just incalculable.  

Over and above Stalin's deliberately genocidal policies and the inherent inefficiencies of the Soviet economy, millions starved to death because the people involved in food production and distribution had to falsify statistics in fear for their lives in order to prop up total nonsense.  Even after Stalin was gone and Lysenkoism was quietly abandoned, the damage was terminal: The Soviet Union never became relevant in biological science or any related field of research while the West pioneered genetics, genomics, advanced evolutionary science, bioinformatics, molecular biology, and a huge pharmaceutical industry based on detailed knowledge of how living organisms work.  Today, all of the successor states of the USSR are nonentities in bioscience and biotech, while they do remain significant in the fields of technology that Soviet politics had pioneered rather than hindering.  Who knows how far along the global field would be today if what had been the world's largest economy had been allowed to contribute to them in the 20th century?

4.  Nuclear fission energy

Suppose that someone offers to pay you $5,000 for every second that you juggle three cyanide-laced chainsaws.  If you could do it at all, it might become a career: Hardly a safe one, but come on - that quickly adds up to a lot of money.  This is basically the story of nuclear fission energy: A "controlled nuclear reaction" takes place that gives tons of cheap energy, but in order to remain controlled there has to be a constantly maintained set of balancing feedbacks and cutouts so that it doesn't just explode or melt through the walls of the reactor.  This isn't juggling three chainsaws: It's juggling thousands of them, at a significant fraction of the speed of light.  So almost all of it is automated, with the foresight of the reactor's designers - and the diligence and competence of its builders and maintainers - determining how safe it is.

As long as the reaction remains controlled, you're rolling in energy riches: The lowest-cost electricity of any source, with zero toxic or greenhouse gas pollution.  But you can't juggle chainsaws forever - you just can't.  Sooner or later you drop one, and maybe you're able to dodge it (Three Mile Island), but eventually you get cut and poisoned (Fukushima Daiichi), and maybe you get shred right in half (Chernobyl).  Once that happens, those richest don't mean much anymore: You're dealing with a big mess, a long and arduous cleanup, and a public panic that goes well beyond even the true extent of the problem.

In order to forestall future accidents, you add yet another layer of control - another echelon of complexity, bureaucracy, and maintenance - that substantially increases the cost of building and operating a nuclear power plant, and lengthens the process of going from initial planning to construction and operations.  So you end up investing more and more of your chainsaw-juggling riches in elaborate protective gear, training, electronics, computer modeling, etc., and pretty soon the riches ain't so rich.  But you're still juggling chainsaws, and you're bound to slip again.  With every other energy generating technology in existence, a loss of power to the generating equipment means that the process stops, but with nuclear fission, loss of power not only means that it continues, but that it spirals out of control.  

It's not possible to overstate just how stupid this is.  Here's another analogy: Imagine a billionaire gives you a limitless credit card that they pay for and lets you buy whatever you want forever, but only if you spend all day, every day balancing on the end of a 50-foot stilt, and the minute you fall the card is cancelled.  Yeah, it's like that.  Oh, and BTW, it's also not renewable - it's based on some of the rarest elements on Earth (and getting rarer), and the waste byproducts of which will be toxic for tens of thousands of years and if released either accidentally or deliberately would create a regional catastrophe.  The short-sightedness of nuclear fission energy is just awesome to behold.

3.  The United States retreats from renewable energy in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s.

Some would say that renewable energy should have been pursued from the beginning of the modern industrial age, but we can admit that this would have been impractical: Although there could have been long-term advantages in theory, economies that deliberately limited their pursuit of fossil fuels in the late 19th and early 20th centuries would have soon been swamped by those that dove right in, and given the politics of the era that could have easily meant literal military conquest.  Even with decades of sustained development, no electric tank or aircraft that could have been possible in the 1940s would have competed with Panzers and Messerschmitt aircraft, let alone what kind of industrial output in bullets and bombs would have occurred in the preceding World War.  

Fossil fuels are a powerful, addictive, energy-dense substance that would have given economies that used them a PCP-like strength advantage over more far-sighted ones.  
But there was no such excuse in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the world experienced the first series of oil shocks and became aware that fossil fuels were a problem - especially on the part of the United States, which was the world's richest, most advanced economy, with vast surplus resources at its disposal to invest in intelligent technological change.  This was also the period when the first glimmerings of climate theory began to raise the possibility that emissions from these fuels were destabilizing the global environment, so it wasn't just a sustainability issue.

In fact, there were no excuses at all: The Soviet Union was already sort of a joke by then, so it wasn't like they were going to overtake us economically if we invested in the future rather than constantly chasing fossil fuel highs.  China and India were nowhere to be seen yet.  Europe hadn't yet formed the EU, and was still divided into East and West anyway.  Central and South America were in the midst of a bunch of petty dictatorships and civil wars.  And Japan didn't become a big player until later in the 1980s.  In other words, the United States had no competitors whatsoever, and could have done any damn thing it pleased.  And though it excelled at computers and information technology, what it pleased in terms of energy was to do absolutely nothing intelligent: No significant investments made in solar energy, wind energy, geothermal, hydroelectric, storage, efficiency, transmission - nothing.  El Zilcho.  

Part of it was of course Ronald Reagan, who had his own sort of Lysenkoist attitude toward energy, actually ordering solar panels that President Carter had installed on the White House roof torn down because he found them ideologically offensive.  You see, clean, renewable energy embodies a holistic, responsible view of economics and nature that rejects the quasi-rapist ideology of the laissez-faire capitalist who just takes whatever they can, as quickly as they can, from whomever they can and gives back as little as possible.  Reagan and his cohorts found the very idea of passively harvesting an abundant resource disgusting: Economic activity was supposed to be destructive, and willful, and imposing - it was supposed to make the public's life miserable through pollution even as it made the few who had the Will to harness it filthy rich and powerful.  

Conservatives saw (and continue to see) this as the Natural Order of things.  Any technology that rejected this zero-sum attitude had to be crushed as a threat to right-wing economic dogma.  About the only "clean" energy source they've ever been amenable toward was nuclear, and that's because the dangers involved in it appeal to their stark, fascistic ideology of energy being something that has to be violently and hazardously ripped from nature rather than something that can be intelligently harvested.

Granted, none of the other technologies were yet good enough to compete unaided in the marketplace, and that gave conservatives all the excuse they needed to dismiss and sabotage them out of hand - though of course, the same reasoning never stopped them from loading up the tax code with subsidies for oil, coal, and things that were already highly advantaged, so we know how sincere their market-based excuses for attacking renewables were.  But even if they were completely sincere, it shouldn't have mattered: Clean, renewable energy made absolute sense as a long-term policy, and continuing with fossil fuels - let alone subsidizing them - made no sense whatsoever.  

Something on the scale of the Apollo program could and should have occurred in the 1980s to lead both America and the world away from fossil fuels, spreading the money around to a vast multitude of ideas and approaches.  Then consumers would have chosen between them, and subsequent rounds of diverse innovation pursued by the same means.  And nothing would have been sacrificed by such a program: All of the fossil fuels we have used since then would still be in the ground in case we needed them in an emergency, and climate disasters that have already occurred and will occur in the future would have been prevented.  Meanwhile, the health effects of fossil fuel pollution would have been increasingly mitigated, and oil-driven geopolitical conflicts would have waned rather than intensifying.  But instead we dove even deeper into the petroleum muck, thanks to Ronald Reagan, the morons who voted for him, and the sociopathic criminals whose values he embodied.

Even now with real investments occurring in EVs and renwable energy, decades late and trillions of dollars short, we are still forced to subsidize the commodities that are destroying our environment, corrupting our politics, and driving conflicts while enriching dictators.  Even now, the minimal level of support the renewable revolution is getting from the public sector is under constant attack from fossil fuel lobbies.  And there has been no benefit from the past few decades of oil addiction: None whatsoever.  It's just been a handful of fat rich people violently defending their privileges, who would rather burn the world and be king of the ashes than remain merely filthy rich in a prosperous, safe, and healthy world.  The Spice must flow.

2.  The Space Shuttle

The United States had spent an entire decade and the equivalent of tens of billions of dollars developing the Saturn rocket family, including the most powerful rocket ever flown then or since (Saturn V), all of which had a perfect operational record in 32 launches over 14 years.  It had a proven spacecraft, the Apollo, that had successfully conducted 11 space missions in six years, 8 to the Moon in just four years, with 6 of them landing in just three years, and also conducted the Apollo-Soyuz joint mission with the Soviet Union in 1975.  

Did the US continue to use this infrastructure for new missions?  Nope.  Did it evolve these systems into more advanced ones?  Nope.  Cheaper ones?  Nope.  More powerful ones?  Nope.  Safer ones?  N-n-n-n-nope.  It just threw them all away and started over, with far less ambitious objectives - and far less impressive results.  So we got the Space Shuttle: A rocket system with only 1/5 the hauling capability as the Saturn V, that could not ever go beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) even with modifications, that cost more than Saturn/Apollo, ultimately proved so unworkable to fly safely that the flight rate became lower than Saturn/Apollo, and killed 14 astronauts in 23 years.  Saturn/Apollo sent 18 human beings to the Moon, twelve of them to its surface, in a period of just three years.  Shuttle's greatest accomplishments over 30 years, however, were to fix an orbiting telescope and help assemble the International Space Station, at a total cost comparable to if not exceeding the Apollo program.

Practically nothing has been learned about rocketry due to the three decades of Shuttle spaceflight other than don't build rockets like that, and the main thing we've learned about space from it is that it's better to have gravity.  But did the US respond to this knowledge by building rotating spacecraft to simulate gravity?  Of course not.  Instead it built a huge, $100 billion orbiting complex in LEO to further study why microgravity sucks for humans - i.e., why it would be so hard to actually go anywhere, and thus why it makes perfect sense that we haven't done so since 1972.  There haven't even been test modules to see how spin gravity might work: Maybe because they would (gasp) work, and even allow testing of variable gravity environments - the Moon, Mars, or any other seen fit to test.  

As usual, politics is the culprit: Ambition draws too much attention, and when it fails brings a lot more political heat than the advantages brought by success.  But when something unambitious fails, there's not nearly as much heat.  For some stupid reason of human psychology, a thousand people dying for no reason on a freeway is considered less worthy of rebuke than a handful dying for the best reasons in the world - to expand the knowledge and survivability of the human species.  So if we went back to the Moon and people died, there would be a chorus of condemnation, but if 600 people die next year because some cheapskate cut the budget for thus-and-such, the same people wouldn't utter a peep.  Naturally space contractors still want to keep making money, so a nice compromise (from their perspective) was found: Do nothing, and do it at enormous expense, but make it look like something is being done.  Ergo, the Space Shuttle.

Perversely, the more ambitious a program is, the more likely people would be to condemn it if it resulted in catastrophe despite sacrifices being more justified - the old "hubris" fallacy.  So if 7 people died on their way to Mars, the program would probably be canceled, but if 7 people died on their way to doing nothing in LEO (e.g., studying how microgravity affects nematodes, or some other trivial shit), it would most likely continue.  This is why the Shuttle went on for 30 years: Not because of what it did, but because of what it didn't - it didn't explore.  It never had the fearful tincture of the unknown about it.  It was supposed to just be a space truck hauling cargo up to Where Many Had Gone Before, and didn't even do that reliably or affordably.

In other words, the last 30 years in US human spaceflight could be almost all erased from technological knowledge and not much would change.  If the money wasted on Shuttle had been spent on exploratory missions using an infrastructure derived from Apollo, or at least using the lessons learned from it to move beyond it, humans would be all over the inner solar system on a routine basis today: In orbit around Venus, bases on the Moon and Mars, Near-Earth asteroid exploration and harvesting, and all with the same level of routine as the International Space Station in LEO.  With one key difference: The activity would be growing, as would the number of people involved in it, and the frequency with which their missions occur.  But instead we got a lipstick-pig of a spaceplane that wasn't really a spaceplane, taking us a few hundred kilometers above the Earth at the cost of precluding any possibility of going farther.

Only now are the first tentative steps being taken to recover from this interregnum, and the cancellation of the Space Shuttle was the beginning of resumption in real US human spaceflight, not the end that people feared.  And, of course, the systems that are being developed for it - Orion on the public side, Dragon in the commercial sector - are both rooted ultimately in Apollo rather than anything to do with Shuttle.

Now you might think, "So what?  Surely this isn't as significant as climate change."  Well, yeah, it kind of is - at least as an equal priority - because human spaceflight isn't about curiosity or enterprise: It's about ecological procreation.  The spread of Earth life beyond Earth is as big an evolutionary step as the first organisms that crawled on to land from the sea.  That's how big this is: The gee-whiz stuff is just a hook for children and libertarians.  The real significance is fundamental to life.  So yes, it is a big deal that at the height of the wealth and ambition of a global superpower, it wasted thirty years on a piece of crap Spruce Goose in Space.

1.  Slave / low-wage labor.

You might be wondering why I include slave labor in a countdown of "technological" blunders, but in fact this is the biggest and most destructive that has ever existed - and one that societies keep making over and over in history.  Far more than oil ever was or could be, slave / low-wage labor is a drug that, once a society becomes addicted to it, is almost impossible to kick without apocalyptic cataclysm.  It totally destroys the innovative potential of civilization: Why create machines to do anything faster, on a large scale, more reliably, and more cheaply when you can just destroy the lives of armies of impoverished captives to accomplish the same things?  The dead cost nothing.

It isn't that slave labor is more profitable than well-paid, well-cared-for labor - quite the opposite.  But it's easier for the owners.  Vastly easier.  Rather than employing a complex bureaucracy of managers to see that things are done well and efficiently, they can just employ a relative few brutal mercenary task-masters who drive production at all costs to the workers.  In today's economy, this is equivalent to outsourced sub-contractor factories like Foxconn: The company that buys their output doesn't have to worry about anything other than what they get at the end of the process, and all costs can be externalized on to society.  But once most people are slaves or subsistence workers, there's nowhere to go from there and no incentive for the owners of the economy to innovate: They focus entirely on their own lifestyles, and actually end up seeing technology as a threat to established order.  

This is how feudalism comes about, and is exactly the process that unfolded in the Roman Empire.  They went from mass-producing roads and aqueducts that unified a civilization into just being a network of military fortifications run by increasingly independent authorities who lived as kings over their territories - and ultimately were just kingdoms, dukedoms, baronies, etc.  And the reason was because the slave-labor economy built on the imperial foundation wasn't capable of innovating.  The innovative people who pioneered the Roman road- and aqueduct-building technology in the Republic were either never cultivated by Imperial society or were employed exclusively building pleasure palaces and vanity architecture for the elite.  Why would creative energies be exercised in such mass-provision systems as roads and aqueducts when the rich can just have their water brought in by slaves, and be carried over the bumps in the road on a litter?

The same stupidity played out in microcosm in the antebellum American South.  Why invest in factories when every need and pleasure of the ownership class is already met by an army of slaves?  Why build railroads when the plantation owners could travel in utter comfort in spring-suspended carriages driven by a slave, and be waited on hand-and-foot every mile of the way by personal slave attendants?  Why do anything other than compete with your peers for social standing?  Which is why Southern culture developed such elaborate systems of etiquette and courtliness, and bespoke luxuries for the aristocratic - because that's all they ever had any motivation to create.  The people who made the decisions had achieved, in their view, paradise, and any who challenged that paradise had to be hated and destroyed.

An analogous situation exists with respect to the global financial elites and the low-wage labor they now employ around the world.  China, for instance, doesn't compete with other manufacturing sectors through superior technology - quite the opposite.  It competes by using armies of barely-paid labor to assemble things through direct human effort that would normally be mass-produced by automated machinery: Everything from clothing to electronics to solar panels.  As a result, the technology to mass-produce things is actually collapsing around the world rather than advancing because of China.  If the labor supply chain in China were to suddenly be interrupted, most countries couldn't take up the slack themselves - the manufacturing capacity is just gone, destroyed by quasi-slave labor.

And the capital elites are happy as pigs in shit with this state of affairs: They are richer than anyone has ever been in human history, more coddled than it was even possible for human beings to be coddled in the past, and like the antebellum plantation owners feel like their no-tax, no-law, no-responsibility lifestyle is paradise achieved.  Things that threaten or even merely irritate their stranglehold - things like distributed solar energy, progressive taxation, public services, mass-transit technology, public education, content piracy, etc. - are hated and targeted for destruction.  The psychotically disproportionate responses of the elite to offenses like copyright infringement, publicizing hacked corporate files, or peddling drugs that compromise worker productivity compared to the crimes of the elite themselves - that are almost never punished at all - really shows this situation for what it is.  

The more extreme the circumstance becomes, the slower technology progresses, because the less motivation that the people with money have to invest in it.  So you get the illusion of technological progress in China built entirely on vast armies of people putting in unbelievable amounts of labor with little compensation, stagnation in the United States as our country turns into a playground for a vanishingly small elite that the rest of us are barely tolerated to exist in as service workers (although California is still leading technology), and most of the sustained global technological progress occurs in Northern Europe (particularly Germany) where there is still a strong economic imperative to serve the needs and desires of a middle-class.  

Radical economic inequality is kryptonite to technology, but an irresistible drug to any society's elite that finds itself in a position to have it.  There would have been no Model T without a worker base paid well enough to afford it - just more and more Baroque gold-trimmed Mercedes and Rolls-Royce automobiles for the tiny minority who could afford them.  No airline mass-transit without the prosperous US middle-class of the 1960s: Just private aircraft owned by millionaires, or used by corporations to transport their own VIP employees.  No miniaturized electronics, personal computers, or cellphones: Just the huge, complicated, Byzantine toys of the elite - mansions with a "computer room" in addition to the billiard room and the gym.  So unless we want the future to look like the feudal society in Dune, we should probably get to work on inequality.  Can't have the Jetsons if George is a subsistence laborer.

Originally posted to Troubadour on Mon Apr 22, 2013 at 03:11 PM PDT.

Also republished by The Royal Manticoran Rangers and ClassWarfare Newsletter: WallStreet VS Working Class Global Occupy movement.

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