Capability is better than Capacity

Capacity is bound by a finite environment;
Capability is unbounded.

- Nick Porcino

We're transitioning into a world of ever more constrained resources; and still-increasing demand. Continued growth as a prime societal motivator has created a world of incredible potential, variety, and opportunity. Unfortunately, the model doesn't scale. The capacity of society to churn through things and resources is finite; there's only so much capacity for the system to absorb the junk we churn in our wake.

Our ability to maximize production and capacity has created prosperity; with the natural limits to growth becoming all to obvious, we need to find new models for society where prosperity and well-being are not founded on the engine of material and energetic consumption and churn. I argue that although our present capabilities were advanced by prosperity through growth, we are at a tipping point where we can drive our prosperity not through growth, but through increasing capabilities. Our ability to understand the world and shape it can enable us to do it in more and more effective ways; we can develop capabilities where a little can accomplish a lot. Prosperity can be defined in terms of our ability to keep advancing our systems and simultaneously reduce material and energetic consumption and churn.

All graphs of technological progress start low with small change several hundred years ago, and then begin to bend upwards in the last hundred, and then bolt upright to the sky in the last 50.

Progress as a notion did not arrive until the 17th century or so, when it appeared in the West during the Enlightenment. Progress is a child of science and technology. It was born out of the observation that our inventions make life better... Science is sort of like the third wish for the magic lantern. It is the tool that invents new tools... [Upon the invention of science] there is an exponential explosion of both people and progress. But this curious pairing of population and progress has not been examined very much. If we return to the charts of progress we find they fit almost exactly the curves of population. As population rises so does progress and vice versa. The two growths are heavily correlated, but correlated without causation.

From Kevin Kelly's Techium, The Origins of Progess

Kelly then notes that population is unlikely to continue to expand, and wonders if that presages the end of progress and the prosperity that enabled the population and progress explosion.

Here are my comments on the argument, and my conclusion.

  • First, the explosion of population was a necessary precondition for the explosion of knowledge, for all the reasons Kelly elegantly factors (such as the cost/benefit of sharing, and considerations of immediate need).
  • Second, we can posit that prosperity is a function of knowledge, supporting the first argument, since prosperity is necessary precondition for the explosion of population, as he argues.

Although total population is countered by death, total knowledge is not dependent on the size of the population. Presuming that we continue to improve storage, search, and analysis methods (rather than burning books and turning computers off), a meta system is being put in place by all of us collectively where knowledge can continue to expand independent of the expansion or absolute size of the population.

I suppose this is a Singularity-like phenomenon. At this point, prosperity needs to be recast in terms of increasing capability instead of increasing capacity.

Capacity is bound by a finite environment; capability is unbounded.

I say that this is the Singularity, and we're staring it right down the barrel.


Content by Nick Porcino (c) 1990-2011