Some elements of industrial literacy

by jasoncrawford1 min read8th Oct 20203 comments


Progress StudiesWorld Modeling

Part of industrial literacy might be termed “industrial appreciation”. That is, part of it is learning to appreciate or value certain things that may otherwise be dry, abstract concepts (or even distasteful, to the romantic, anti-industrial mindset). For instance:

  • Speed and cost. Faster and cheaper is always better. These things aren’t luxuries or “nice to have”; they are essential to life.
  • As a corollary, other economic and engineering metrics such as productivity (of labor, land, and capital), power, density, etc. These metrics are ultimately tied to human life, health and happiness.
  • Reliability. Nature is chaotic. Disaster strikes without warning. Even when our needs are met, they aren’t met consistently. A “five 9s” solution is far superior to one that only offers three or four.
  • Scalability. An option that can’t be scaled up to the whole population is at best a partial solution; it is not a whole solution. Industry must eventually meet the needs of everyone.
  • Incremental change. A 1% improvement seems small, but these improvements compound. The cumulative difference between a growth rate of 1% and 2% is 3x in a little over a century.

Without industrial literacy, hearing about “a 6% increase in battery energy density” sounds boring and technical. With it, you know that a dozen such improvements mean a doubling; that a doubling in energy density means that our machines and devices can be lighter and cheaper, or that their charge can last longer, or both; that this translates to cost, convenience, and reliability; that those things make a difference in the capabilities and freedoms we enjoy. When you make all those connections, a 6% improvement in energy density can be downright exciting.

What would you add to the above list?

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I wonder if “industrial literacy” might turn out to be a misleading frame, or even kind of dark artsy.

We can have a disagreement over empirical facts about the state of industry. Or about how to model the economy. Or about how we value aspects of the economy. Or about how to express all of this.

If I disagree that a 6% improvement in battery capacity is “downright exciting,” am I industrially illiterate? Or just not responding to your particular industrial aesthetic?

To me, “literacy” has to mean understanding foundational truths. To accept that current agricultural output levels depend on industrial farming practices is a matter of literacy.

But to accept that it must always be so, or that current approaches are “sustainable,” or that the trade offs with biodiversity and animal suffering are acceptable, is not a sign of “illiteracy.” It’s a legitimate disagreement over facts and values. Both sides in such a dispute should not use normative language to shame their opponents, as in the “illiteracy” flip side of the concept handle.

I think what you’re going for here is more like “industry positivity,” akin to “body positivity” or “sex positivity.” Being able to openly embrace what’s good about these important parts of life.

Good points. I sympathize with the concern. A term like this could turn into an insult to shut down conversation, like “denier” is sometimes. I don't want that.

Also, you don't have to be exited about battery density. That's a personal choice. I made a point of saying “can be” exciting, not “must be”. The point was not to degrade people who don't get excited about a specific thing but to show how a seemingly technical thing can be exciting when you make the right conceptual connections.

I agree that “literacy” should mean a sort of basic education, and that is what I intended here.

I agree that there are related concepts—you suggested “industry positivity”, we could also think of “industrial appreciation” or “industrial pride”—that go beyond literacy.

And so, yes, I think a person can be industrially literate without being industry-positive. I would argue that they are wrong, but if they knew the facts and just interpreted them differently than I do, I wouldn't accuse them of industrial illiteracy.

Remember the original post about epistemic learned helplessness: making people literate in some things may be bad, because the fact that they don't understand things prevents them from doing good in those areas, but it also prevents them from falling prey to scams and fallacies in the same areas.

You might want the average person to fail to get excited about a 6% increase in battery energy density, because if too many people get excited about such things, the politicians, media machines, and advertisers will do their best to exploit this little bit of knowledge to extract momey from the general public while producing as few actual improvements to energy density as possible. I'm sure you could name plenty of issues where the public understands that they are important without having the breadth of knowledge to not fall for "we have to do omething, it's important!"