Buckminster Fuller’s coined the term “Ephemeralization” to describe a trend in technology whereby more can be achieved with proportionally less expenditure of matter and energy, “until eventually you can do everything with nothing.”” His classic example is of the technological progress of distance measurement.
As this process has we have gone from measuring the fish we catch, to the length of a coast, and now the distance between galaxies. Similar examples can be found in other disciplines: in architecture there were columns, then arches and domes, then the move to stronger materials used in skyscrapers. The realisation of ephemeralization in Architecture led Buckminster to develop low material structures e.g. his famous geodesic dome.
In an environment of comprehensive mass production, the cost of manufacturing a good approaches the cost of its component atoms. I.e. the cost of finding the correct arrangement of those atoms becomes negligible due to the scale of the manufacturing process. In this situation, ephemeralization is a profoundly optimistic theory; when we can do everything with nothing, there will be profound wealth and quality of life for all.
Ephemeralization applies across the technological spectrum, but its consequences are not always so rosy as in the context of mass-manufacturing. Consider broadcast technologies:
At each stage we do more with less, but at each stage too, the system has become more centralized as pragmatic concerns limit the ability of an individual to operate the medium of publication. In each of our homes we have an abundance of methods whereby we can measure distance. On the communication front, home printer ownership in the industrialized world only became common in the 1990s.
For hundreds of years, access to printing methods were strictly controlled. Even with a relaxation of social attitudes, individual printing remained a pragmatic impossibility until computers became a commodity. Ironically, a situation which has made much print media obsolete.
Shortwave radio is one exception to this trend. Using only a low power radio broadcast set, one can send a message to another continent without the permission of governments and large corporations. It concerns me that in 2016, amateur radio is seen as an anorakish pursuit, rather than as a radical exercise in individual liberty.
A question remains: does this high-constant factor in ephemeralization in communication technologies have a conventional explanation such as economic pressure and the deliberate policy of power brokers, or are we forced to reached for alternative explanations. Can information complexity explain why the ephemeralization of communication is fat and that of measurement is thin? If this essay were taken as a distance measurement, it would be a very long number indeed.
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