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Technocracy and the Sea

On January 1, 2016, the Southern Fried Science central server began uploading blog posts apparently circa 2041. Due to a related corruption of the contemporary database, we are, at this time, unable to remove these Field Notes from the Future or prevent the uploading of additional posts. Please enjoy this glimpse into the ocean future while we attempt to rectify the situation.


“The sea is big. The sea is cruel. She takes more than she gives. That’s how it’s always been.”

This line from my long forgotten first science fiction novel still resonates with me. The ocean is a tough place. No matter how good we get at working at sea, the sea always finds new and creative ways to totally undermine our endeavors.

The last quarter century has seen a tremendous rise in our collective faith in technology’s power to save us. When hundreds of thousands were dying on the roads, we made car that drove themselves, reducing traffic fatalities by several orders of magnitude. After the last great recession, we created new digital currencies to protect our savings from market forces. When we could no longer afford to burn coal and oil, we finally built an alternative energy infrastructure.

When firearm deaths and mass shootings were out of control, we built “safe” guns with sophisticated biometric locks, and developed clothing and shields to reduce fatalities. These measures had almost no effect, but we continue to throw technology at the problem.

That is the problem with technocracy. 

Technocracy dominates the solution-space for global and local problems not because it is the best available approach, but because it is the most convenient. A technocratic solution requires nothing on the part of stakeholders. No sacrifice. No behavioral change. Just investment in a new piece of tech that will magically solve all our problems.

Sometimes it works, and we tout those victories as if they were a triumph for the entire technocratic philosophy. More often, they fail, or only vaguely work, and we move on to the next thing. Within the movement, we tacitly acknowledge that technological solutions are often only employees because there are no other options. We can convince the world to slow down its plastic addiction, so we stretch massive booms across the high seas, disrupting migration patterns and destroying plankton. Sure, we collect some plastic, and everyone feels like we’ve solved the problem. But all we’ve done is created yet another, new and different ecologic disaster.

There’s a story I like to tell about the horses of New York. Almost two centuries ago, New York City was in crisis. They needed so many horses to handle the daily commerce of a city that the streets were literally drowning in horse droppings. The more bombastic papers of the time were predicting that by 1930, the entire city would be buried up to the first floor in horse manure. That never happened because, in the early 1900’s, we invented the automobile, and seemingly overnight the horse population of New York City vanished, along with its detritus. A strawman technocrat would look at that story and say “look, technocracy works!”

But of course, that’s not where the story ends, because the invention of the automobile led to massive global changes, the spread of tetraethyl lead, and a host on major environmental catastrophes. Far more, some might say, than a single city buried in feces.

But we’re not New York, and even though some problems have been mitigated, no major global environment crisis has been solved in the last hundred years, with a single exception. We have one truly stellar example of a global challenge that was, to the satisfaction of all stakeholders, solved.

The Ozone Hole. 

When I was growing up in Baltimore, before global warming reared its world-changing head, the crisis of our time was the hole in the Ozone layer. Younger readers probably don’t even remember this, and for good reason. Recognizing the crisis, world leaders came together a put a plan in place to phase our the nasty aerosols that were eroding the ozone layer. It would take time to get everything of the market, and it would take even longer to let the ozone layer heal, but we, as a global collective, more-or-less committed to it. Today the ozone layer has almost returned to it’s pre-CFC density. The crisis, forgotten.

There was not technology involved, just community and political will, and the realization that a little sacrifice could go a very long way.

And that brings us to the cruelty of the sea.

We can throw as much tech at the crises facing our ocean as we want, and it will chew them up and spit them out without pause. In the last 25 years, we’ve seen numerous attempts at massive ocean engineering projects–gigantic plastic-grabbing booms, carbon sequestration engines, acid leaching reactors–and in all cases, they have failed, none lasting more than five years, some literally dashed against the rocks. In all cases, technology was built not to supplement, but to replace changes in human behavior. The mess never goes away, we just keep running more and more sophisticated vacuum cleaners across the surface.

The ocean, even more so than land, air, and space, has no patience for the technocrat. When change comes, it comes through community action, behavioral change, and yes, sacrifice. Making more tech doesn’t solve the problems created by tech. Replacing horses with cars simply traded one problem for another. We have spent nearly 200 years bending the planet to our lifestyle, perhaps it’s time to bend our lifestyle to suit the needs of the planet.

In order to build a resilient world, we have to sacrifice some of those things which make it a convenient world.


On January 1, 2016, the Southern Fried Science central server began uploading blog posts apparently circa 2041. Due to a related corruption of the contemporary database, we are, at this time, unable to remove these Field Notes from the Future or prevent the uploading of additional posts. Please enjoy this glimpse into the ocean future while we attempt to rectify the situation.


Deep-sea biologist, population/conservation geneticist, backyard farm advocate. The deep sea is Earth's last great wilderness.


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