Two Queries

Do you tbink it is ever possible to go back to what works?
This is a two-part question:
… and even if it is mechanically possible, has it ever been done?

We CAN, that is, we know how to and we did for a long time, make cars and trucks without microchips. And if ypu have evwr visited Central and South Amwrica, ypu k ow how long cars of the pre-chip vintage can be keot running. In Guatemala (i gueas maybe thats still technically North America) one of the main modes of transport are the “chicken bussea”. Those are our old school busses, still chugging along, jammed with people and the eponymous fowl.
My idée fixe at the moment is that rural America does not need the urban areas, to put it charitably. We don5 have anytbing in common with city dwellers: increasingly, not even language.
If weve got our land and our tractors ‘n’ trucks, we’ve got it all, out here in the countryside.
But someone commented that we country folk need the cities to manufacture our machines. To which i say: if it werent for the now omnipresent “chips”, we could run for decades on the ones we already have.
Of course wed also have to resume our heretofore prodigious gas and oil production. But hey, it was only two( looooong) years ago that we used ro do that, rememeber?
And we’d need to make sure somebidy was manufacturing parts; we dont want a situation like they had in Poland, where the collective farmers couldnt repair the machines they had, so…no harvest.

COULD we go back to manufacturing old-fqshioned vehicles, and parts, that dont depend on computers and their expensive finicky rare-earth materials?

WOULD we ever do that?


It is a good question about going back to a previous generation of manufacturing. Superficially, it seems that the answer is – Of Course! But there are problems.

One is that the US has a lot more mouths to feed now than (say) pre-WWII. Another is that prolific American coal mines, oil fields, copper mines, iron ore deposits from a century ago are now exhausted; it will need much more effort & expense to source those minerals domestically than before. A third issue is that we would have to sacrifice much of what we like today and retreat to an early 20th Century standard of living – no more advanced medical treatments, no more arugula! But it could be done, given the will.

The more likely solution is that the US farmer will continue to have high-tech tractors, imported from China and used to grow food which is exported to China to pay for the machinery – a sort of de-industrialized Fourth World future for the US as a provider of raw materials to the Winners of the World. A high-tech rural America may sound quite attractive to many of us; but sadly, in that bucolic America, there would be little need for today’s army of bureaucrats, lawyers, and politicians. And no need for a military at all – China will take care of any security needs.

Full disclosure – I wish there were alternatives to that more likely solution, but this is the corner into which we have allowed the DC Swamp Creatures to paint us.


There is a whole, and large subculture of “makers” who build traditional technologies using artisanal tools. In fact, somebody who wants to put together a machine shop using only non-computerised tools, which is able to reproduce itself, may find that costs less as a fraction of an hour’s work than at any time in the past, in large part because so many fully-manual machine tools have been dumped on the market as they were replaced by computer numerically controlled “improvements” which go obsolete every ten years.

My brother makes Damascus steel forged knives using technology which would be immediately recognisable to a craftsman in 1850. He does use an electrically powered hammer forge, but converting it to steam or water wheel drive would be straightforward. There is a sufficient market for such products to support those making them.

Unless they are abandoned and consumed by rust, manual machine tools last essentially forever. A 70 year old lathe, milling machine, drill press, or other tool is just as good (or probably better) than one made last week as long as you’re willing to acquire the skills to use it instead of programming it with a computer.

With a machine shop that fits in a medium to large garage, you can make just about anything as long as the individual pieces aren’t too large. For example, the Wright Brothers built the first heavier than air flying machine, including the engine, in a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, which was about as big as my two car garage.

Yes. we have exhausted much of the low-hanging fruit when it comes to raw materials and resources, but consider the vast waste middens discarded during the parabolic rise and fall of the Profligate Years. After the Discontinuity, the population will be much smaller, and they’ll be able to live off that for millennia.


Doc Lor often said that the knowledge of the old ways is long gone and that if our modern sensors and computer programmed assembly plants break down then we won’t have the knowledge to do it the old way. I find myself going back and forth as to whether Doc is correct.


A case can be made that this applies to many electronic products. Pretty much everything is made on a chip even if it could be made discrete, because the chips are so much cheaper.

But the knowledge is there, and while the discrete techniques may be difficult, they are simple. So I think the rebuild would be decades-long, but would definitely happen.


A third way is small biz semiconductors.

Local supply chain similar to colonial era America – think local blacksmith but electronics instead. (Or think machinist job shop for semiconductors instead of small mech components.)

Would not compete w/ cutting edge – but would be cheap, practical, and readily available like fasteners or light bulbs. Linux hardware.


Cutting edge should not be concern now a days. OUr tech is such that in five minutes it will be obsolete, so what exactly does cutting edge even mean? I understand things get quicker and more storage space and such, but considering where we are with tech right now, would it really hurt all that much to just slow down and maybe forego that new “innovation” for a few years? In the tiniest of slivers of our economy that really needs such turnover of tech, getting the next best thing is understandable. But seriously, do we need a freaking computer in a car that could also work the weapons systems of a ballistic nuclear submarine? Sometimes the tech guys can be just pure wasteful.


It would be easier to imagine small biz individual transistors (Quick! Get me some Gallium!), rather than cottage industry microchip fabrication. That would imply a substantial reduction in the sophistication of (for example) automatic controls – more along the lines of what we could do half a century ago with vacuum tubes.

Since Hypatia started this discussion with agriculture, let’s look at something much simpler than a tractor or a microchip – chicken wire. Fighting off the rabbits happens to be a concern of mine, and chicken wire is the answer. Want to guess where chicken wire comes from these days? Imported from China!

So let’s imagine setting out to make the necessary domestic chicken wire after the Discontinuity. We would need to mine iron ore and some other minerals; turn that into steel, and draw it out into a fine wire – miles and miles of wire; coat the wire with something to delay corrosion; weave it into chicken wire. That does not sound like the product of a small-scale cottage industry. The probability is that after the Discontinuity we will be engaged in rather a lot of “doing without”.


What is this capitalized “Discontinuity” you all are referring to? I tried to search for this term on Scanalyst and didn’t see anything like it.


If Charles Barnard could invent chicken wire and make the first wire netting machine in 1844, we oughta be able to recreate that 180 years later. I mean I reckon we still know what that machine was and how he did it, otherwise I wouldnta been able to find out about the wire and its progenitor in, like 60 seconds.

I don’t see what more Americans has to do with it. We grow so much wheat, don’t we, that we have to dump it on world markets and STILLpay farmers not to grow it.

As for cars, I researched that, to the extent of my ability, read an amusing article that said Germany had ‘em in VWs in like 1968 but only for fuel injection. That they didn’t really become used for pretty much everything in cars till 1986. That feels totally right
To me: having lived these decades, it seemed like nothing had really changed much during the 60s and 70s, nor the early 80s—then, All at once, we get faxes, we get home computers, we get car phones quickly followed by tiny portable-on-the-person cellphones. We get email. It ain’t that long ago, the mid 80s—at least, it’s within plenty of people’s living memory. So I don’t think we have to gal back “a century or more” to get cars that run for 40 years or more, like you can see in use in South and Central America.
I think we’ve established that we COULD go back, but you seem to be answering my second query in the negative.
And gents: what is “The Discontinuity”? Looking it up I find a mathematical term (even less within my ability) but is it a Thing, like “The Singularity”?
(Here, without giving away any more about it, I wanna ask you all to read Robert Harris’ “The Second Sleep”. )
I think you mean there’ll be a break with present reality or with present reality-denial, and like after Ragnarok, some of us will crawl out from under the rubble and rebuild a simpler, more human-oriented world.
But doncha see what I was asking is kinda the opposite of that? Can’t we do it, START doing it anyway, in an attempt to FORESTALL the rubble?


Just what I was wondering, see mine.

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I believe I am the one who started it. I was referring to a term I began to use in my memo on 1988-07-30 to the Autodesk board of directors titled “Riding out the Discontinuity” [PDF]. There had been much talk at that time about the Singularity, with nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and global open hypertext remaking the world and the economy, so I applied “Discontinuity” to describe a cataclysmic debt liquidation collapse that might happen before that happy day and discuss what a technology company that hoped to see the advent of the Singularity and perhaps do a bit to bring it about, might to in order to ride it out.

When I wrote that 34 years ago, I never imagined we’d make it so long without the whole fairy castle collapsing, nor did I conceive of how high and fragile it could be built. I still fear a Discontinuity is in our future.


You can get U.S.A. raw material from NUCOR Nucor Raw Materials (a company I own shares in) and a future small business can draw the wire and fabricate the chicken wire ! Profit margin for grocery stores used to be approximately 1%. For this business may be be better ? (I hear the investors running for the door as I type — until they project out the cost of energy in 5 years with current trends)!

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Of course we could! The first few steps are obvious.

We vote out the entire DC Swamp Creatures Political Class, and put in place provisions to prevent anyone ever again spending a long highly remunerative life as a “public servant”.
We cut government spending drastically, so that our Representatives do not spend any more money than they raise in taxes.
We close down many government departments and fire massive numbers of government employees.
We roll back much of the regulation that has been imposed in the last 50 years, and prohibit any future regulation-issuing by bureaucrats. Only democratically-passed laws in the future, no regulations with the force of law imposed by anonymous functionaries.
We break the legal profession’s stranglehold on the economy.
We exit NATO and cut back the US military to a homeland defense organization only. The rest of the world will have to get along without us.
We take whatever steps are necessary to reshore manufacturing, including tariffs where required. The policies should encourage foreign manufacturers to build factories in the US.
We destroy the foundations of Big Education – encouraging a range of competing educational pathways.
And we impose and enforce rational immigration laws – including building a wall if need be.

All of that would certainly constitute a Discontinuity!

Step back and ask yourself – Is any of that going to happen before the current unsustainable trends drive us into a different kind of Discontinuity?


That certainly could be done – but it is not being done today. As far as I can tell, most of the companies in the US which used to make chicken wire offshored production years ago. Presumably that was driven by the financialization of the US economy and our toleration of excessive regulations on domestic production.

Lots of things could be done, but in the here & now we are precariously dependent on imports from countries that our Betters treat as enemies. Not sustainable!


Some might say it’s happened the way you described things as compared to last two years.