Friday, October 12, 2012

Tools vs. Machines

I'd like to expand one idea I alluded to in the Death of Tyranny, that the Industrial Age was brought about by making mechanical slaves.  In my language of patterns, the difference between a tool and a machine is that a tool helps you do something while a machine does it for you.  The distinction isn't always clear cut; in between scythes and lawn-mowing robots, you have the options of reel mowers, push mowers, self-propelled mowers, riding lawn mowers, and lawn tractors (not to mention cows, sheep, rabbits, ducks, etc.) for getting your grass trimmed.  While there are important philosophical reasons not to even have machines as slaves (especially Cylons), today I am more concerned with the practical side.

One rumor I have heard from the very early days of industrial automation (circa the 1950s), they had to make a choice between analog and digital robots.  Analog robots were cheaper to produce, easier to maintain, worked faster, required less power, were far easier to modify, and did much more precise work.  Digital robots only had a single advantage: they didn't require an full-time operator.  In other words, analog robots were tools, digital robots were machines.  I think we all know which choice they made.

Nor is this question just a matter of history.  I love what Marcin Jakubowski is trying to do over at Factor-E Farm.  I truly wish him the best of luck in completing his Global Village Construction Set.  Honestly I think what he is doing there is the best chance of maintaining a high level of technology as we move off Hubbert's Mesa.  I just hope he has the time to complete it.  If you look at his Compressed Earth Block Press, you will clearly see it is a machine.  Just give it power and dirt and it will spit out blocks for you.  Contrast that with the Auram CSEB Press.  It is completely human powered.  There are no fancy hydraulics or gears or belts to break down.  It is basically just a box with a giant lever.  The GVCS Press will clearly win on a per person or per machine basis over the Auram one.  But there is much less that can go wrong with the Auram.

On the Long Ascent, machines can be useful, but good tools are essential.

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