Experimenting with new structures

My editorial

I return to doing my review of literature in order to find accurate distinctions as for historical changes. Besides those articles on the history of technology as such, I found an interesting paper by Bert J.M. de Vries, , Detlef P. van Vuuren, and Monique M. Hoogwijk (de Vries et al. 2007[1]). It is interesting because the authors attempted to assess the potential for producing renewable energies for the first half of the 21st century, and they did it in 2007, so exactly at the moment when, according to my calculations, something really changed in the sector of renewable energies and it started developing significantly faster than before. It is interesting to see how did other researchers see the future at a moment, which is already the past, and quite a significant bit of past. As usually, I start from the end. The kitchen door I can poke my head through, regarding this paper, is Appendix B, presenting in a concise, tabular form, the so-called four scenarios developed by the authors. So I rummage through those scenarios, and one thing instantaneously jumps to my eye: the absence of the solar-thermal technology. Today, the solar-thermal is probably the most powerful technology for producing renewable energy, yet, when this paper was being written, so not later than in 2007, the solar-thermal technology was still in its infancy. It was precisely in 2007 that the World Bank declassified and published first reports about the big Ouarzazate project in Morocco, and only in 2011 it became more or less clear how to finance those projects. As I am engaged in research on renewable energies, I will probably mention that solar-thermal technology more than once, and for now I am content with noticing that solar-thermal changed a lot in the way we perceive the future of renewable energies.

Returning to this paper by Bert J.M. de Vries, , Detlef P. van Vuuren, and Monique M. Hoogwijk, and to their scenarios, I see four basic technologies being taken into account: wind, solar photovoltaic, biomass electric, and liquid biomass. As a matter of fact, we have another technology, besides the solar-thermal, which strikes by its absence at this precise party: the hydro, in its many shades. Right, probably the authors did not have access to the relevant data. I continue studying this table in appendix B, and what strikes me as odd is that each technology is described with a different set of quantitative variables. It is easy to see that the authors had hard times to drive different technologies to common denominators. As I stop clinging to that Appendix B and browse through the whole paper, I can see a lot of maths but very few numbers. It is hard to say, what was exactly the empirical basis for the scenarios presented. On the whole, this paper by de Vries et al. is interesting as for some methodological insights, but a little disappointing on the whole. I can see nothing that looks like real discovery.

And so I am drifting towards other sources, and I come by an interesting author, David Edgerton and his book ‘Shock of the old: Technology and global history since 1900’ (Edgerton 2011[2]). I am fishing the most interesting bits out of this study, and I find some insights worth stopping by and think. First of all, David Edgerton points out that we commonly live in an illusion of constant technological progress, i.e. of a process, which consistently brings improvement in the conditions of living, as technology changes. Edgerton shows, quite convincingly, that technological change is not necessarily to put at equality with technological progress. According to his findings, there were just a few periods of real technological progress since 1900: between 1900 and 1913, followed by another between 1950 and 1973. Save for those short windows in time, the link between technological change and the conditions of living is really ambiguous.

In Section 4 of his book, entitled ‘Maintenance’, David Edgerton brings forth that intuition that I very much share: that the way we deal with both the physical wear and tear of our technology, and with its moral obsolescence, is deeply significant to our overall well-being due to technology. There is that interesting thing I noticed in Chinese cities, this summer: Chinese people do hardly any renovation in buildings. Save for those occasions when a store is being replaced by another and the facade needs some obvious patching, buildings in China seem to live a life similar to that of clothes: when they are used up, they are being demolished and something new is being built in the same location (they do put a lot of effort into maintaining infrastructure, mind you). In Europe, we are almost obsessively attached to maintaining our buildings in good condition, and we spend a lot on renovation. Two cultures, two completely different roles of maintenance in the construction business. At this point, the research presented by David Edgerton gets strong support in earlier work, by the eminent French historian Fernand Braudel (Braudel 1981[3], 1983[4]) : real technological revolutions happened, in many fields of human ingenuity, when the technology in place allowed providing for more than simple maintenance. Both authors (Edgerton and Braudel) point on a turning point in the history of agriculture, probably by the end of the 19th century, when the technology of farming allowed to spend relatively less effort on rebuilding the fertile power of the soil.

Another great insight to find with David Edgerton is the importance of killing in technological change. Warfare, hunting, whaling, combatting pathogens, eradicating parasitic species from our agricultural structures – it all means killing, and it apparently has had a tremendous impact on technological change in the 20th century. This dramatic and deep reference to one of our fundamental functions as organisms (yes, my dear vegans, we all kill someone or something, even without knowing we do) makes me think about this elaborate metaphor of struggling civilisations, to find in Arnold Toynbee’s ‘Study of History’[5]. Development of societies is not an easy game: it is struggle, risk, sometimes stagnation. We, in our civilisation, as it is now, at the beginning of the 21st century, have no grounds to assume we are different than those who struggled before us. Arnold Toynbee coined this metaphor of struggle in an even broader context: how can we distinguish between civilisations? His point was that criteria like race, skin colour or even religious beliefs are misleading in classifying cultures and societies. To him, the real distinction pertained to the state of the struggle, so to say: is there a visible breakthrough in the past of the given social group, a kind of dramatic threshold which made those people take a completely different turn? If the answer is ‘yes’, then we could very well have two different civilisations, before and after that pivotal point in time. If no, we have, in fact, the same cultural paradigm, just dressed differently according to the current fashion.

All the review of literature about the history of technology, and about renewable energies, makes me ask once more that fundamental question: what exactly happened in 2007 – 2008, when the market of renewable energies suddenly moved its lazy ass and started growing much faster than before? Hypothesis #1: it was mostly technological a change, possibly connected to the banalisation of photovoltaic modules, or to the concurrent emergence of the solar-thermal technology. Hypothesis #2, just a shade away from #1 is that we are talking about technological change in the immediate vicinity of renewable sources of energy. Maybe something about electronics, nanotechnology, transport? Here, although the hypothesis is really interesting, I am very much at a loss. I will have to do some book-worming about it. Hypothesis #3: what happened in 2007 – 2008 was mostly social a change. Something shifted in our patterns of being together in society, which made people turn towards renewable energies more than before. That something could pertain to urbanisation, density of population, food deficit, velocity of money and whatnot. I have already done a lot of empirical testing in this respect.

Now, I am shifting my focus slightly, onto my personal experience in innovating, namely in learning the Python. As I have been wrestling with the Python, those last four days, I became aware of a pattern in my behaviour: I start with trying to make the new technology do exactly the same things that the old technology used to do for me, then I progressively become aware that I need to learn new skills in order to get those results (so I have that strange connection: new technology, old expectations regarding the outcomes, new skills to learn), and I also become aware that I need to reshuffle my resources, namely information, so as to squeeze it into new structures. Now, I am advancing one step further and I try to go the other way round: I had a look at what the logical structures of the Python look like and what I am trying to do now is to discover what can possibly the Python do for me. In other words, I am progressively passing from using Python as just a harder-to-tame version of the Excel towards discovering what it can do for me.

I am playing with one of the first things I found in the ‘Tutorial’ textbook, available at docs.python.org, namely with the structure ‘for n in range(x, y):’ and then you specify what do you want the Python to do while n stays in a given range. Here below is a simple try from my part:

>>> for x in range(1, 10):

            structure={‘x’:(x**2, x**0,5)}











# Honestly, I don’t even know why I formed this precise function. It just came like that. I imagined a structure when a cardinal order is established, from 1 to 10, and each point in the order has two coordinates derived from its position: square power and square root. It is nice and it didn’t exactly work as I planned. I got a ten-time repeated [‘x’]. As I put that ‘x’ in single quotes, it has been considered as a word, or a piece of content. Now, I modify slightly my structure: I took off those single quotes. Here is the result: 

>>> for x in range(1, 10):

            structure={x:{x**2, x**0,5}}











#Better a small step forward than no steps at all, as they say. After having removed those single quotes from around the x, I got a cardinal order in response. Still, the function did not yield the coordinates I expected to have out of it. Now, I replace the command ‘list()’ by the command ‘print()’. So far, I did not quite grasp the distinction between those two. I decided to experiment in order to acquire some knowledge, and here comes what I got:

>>> for x in range(1, 10):

            structure={x:{x**2, x**0,5}}


{1: {1, 5}}

{2: {1, 4, 5}}

{3: {9, 5, 1}}

{4: {16, 1, 5}}

{5: {25, 5, 1}}

{6: {1, 36, 5}}

{7: {49, 5, 1}}

{8: {64, 1, 5}}

{9: {81, 5, 1}}

#Now, this is most interesting. As I replaced ‘list()’ with ‘print()’, the function finally yielded the coordinates. There is just one tiny little problem: instead of having just two coordinates, in 8 cases on 9, starting from the cardinal 1, I have three coordinates instead of two. Why? Oh, I see. I put ‘0,5’ instead of ‘0.5’. For the Python, decimal values are accepted as such if the decimal point is literally the point, not the coma.  The expression ‘x**0,5’, which I meant to be x power 0,5, has been read by the Python as x power 0, followed by a 5. OK, I understand. My mistake. I replace the ‘0,5’ by ‘0.5’, by the book, and I launch it again. 

>>> for x in range(1, 10):

            structure={x:{x**2, x**0.5}}


{1: {1}}

{2: {1.4142135623730951, 4}}

{3: {9, 1.7320508075688772}}

{4: {16, 2.0}}

{5: {25, 2.23606797749979}}

{6: {2.449489742783178, 36}}

{7: {49, 2.6457513110645907}}

{8: {64, 2.8284271247461903}}

{9: {81, 3.0}}

#Finally, it worked. Now, I push my experiment further and I introduce a third coordinate, the natural logarithm of the cardinal position.  

>>> import math   #I turn on the module with mathematical functions

>>> for x in range(1, 10):

            structure={x:{x**2, x**0.5, math.log(x)}}


{1: {0.0, 1}}

{2: {0.6931471805599453, 1.4142135623730951, 4}}

{3: {9, 1.0986122886681098, 1.7320508075688772}}

{4: {16, 1.3862943611198906, 2.0}}

{5: {25, 2.23606797749979, 1.6094379124341003}}

{6: {1.791759469228055, 2.449489742783178, 36}}

{7: {49, 2.6457513110645907, 1.9459101490553132}}

{8: {64, 2.8284271247461903, 2.0794415416798357}}

{9: {81, 2.1972245773362196, 3.0}}

Good. It seems to work. What I have just succeeded to do is to learn a typical, very simple structure in Python and this structure does something slightly different than the Excel: it generates a sequence of specific structures out of a general, logical structure I specified. I am wrapping up my learning from my learning: it took me four days to start looking actively for new possibilities offered by the Python. If I extrapolate to the scale of collective behaviour, we have those four patterns of innovating: a) trying to obtain old outcomes with the new technology b) making mistakes, seeing my efficiency plummeting, and learning new skills c) rearranging my resources for the new technology d) experimenting and exploring the new possibilities, which come with the new technology. As I refer this generalized account of my individual experience to the literature I quoted a few paragraphs earlier. How does a breakthrough occur in these specific patterns of behaviour? I can assume there is a critical amount of learning and adaptation, required in the presence of a new technology, which can possibly, referring once more to Arnold Toynbee’s metaphor of struggling civilisations, make a technological transition risky, impossible or null in its balanced outcomes.

[1] de Vries, Bert J.M., van Vuuren, Detlef P., Hoogwijk Monique M., 2007, Renewable energy sources: Their global potential for the first-half of the 21st century at a global level: An integrated approach, Energy Policy, vol. 35 (2007), pp. 2590–2610

[2] Edgerton, D. (2011). Shock of the old: Technology and global history since 1900. Profile books

[3] Braudel, F., 1981, Civilization and Capitalism, Vol. I: The Structures of Everyday Life, rev.ed., English Translation, William Collins Sons & Co London and Harper & Row New York, ISBN 00216303 9

[4] Braudel, F., 1983, Civilisation and Capitalism. Part II: The Wheels of Commerce, trans. Sian Reynolds, Book Club Associates, William Collins Sons & Co,

[5] Toynbee, J. Arnold. Study of history. University press, 1946, pp. 69

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