* researcher in infrastructure futures and theory (University of Sheffield, UK)
* science fiction author and literary critic
* writer, theorist, critical futurist
* dishevelled mountebank




The Fortune at the Edge of the Network [Venkatesh Rao, annotated]

Fresh Venkatesh Rao newsletter instalment that does a pretty good job of teasing out the implications of taking a tektological look at infrastructure through the lens of network theory... so good a job, in fact, that I'm going to grab and notate the whole thing, because he's managed to capsule a bunch of points I've been struggling to phrase clearly.


1/ “The last mile” is a phrase used by engineers to talk about the last (“leaf”) like segments of large networks with approximate center-to-edge topologies.

2/ In all sorts of network logistics (transport, telegraph, telephone etc), historically the "last mile" has been the bane of infrastructure. It’s where the messiest practical issues live.

3/  Right-of-way/eminent domain issues are politically/legally more complex (10 miles of cable laying in the countryside is easier than 1 block in a major city)

4/ Physical issues are more complex as well (water pipes, package deliveries, and fiber optics have different needs but often share pathways for geometry reasons).

[The above covers the basics, though it's far from basic -- see Keller Easterling's Organisation Space.]

5/ Last-mile regimes need not look like “paths” at all: waterways, spectrum rights, line-of-sight (view obstruction in real estate, glide paths for airplane landing approaches, building shadows) 

6/ In the future, drone landing/takeoff logistics, Pokemon Go type AR-conflict rights, bikes vs self-driving cars, will present novel, subtle last-mile issues.

7/ Generally though, the bottleneck is increasingly moving from literal last mile to literal last inch. Phone-to-ear, UPS-truck parking spot to porch, NFC/bluetooth, cafe power outlets.

[In my own taxonomy, this means the bottleneck has moved to the interface layer.]

8/ In raw flow volume terms, the last mile probably accounts for the bulk of actual miles traveled by anything on a network due to sheer number of endpoints.

[Note this is the exact opposite of the way in which money tends to be allocated to network development and maintenance.]

9/ The last mile is the typically the last to go hi-tech. Containerization still stops and turns into break-bulk at city limits. Fiber optics still turns into local-loop copper (DSL) in many places.

10/ As the red !!! show in the cartoon, issues get more tricky in last-block to last-inch land. It's still physically and legally complex, but that isn't the hardest part anymore.

11/ Two forces make the last block especially hard: increased demand and inequality. The case of physical packages illustrates this well.

12/ Increased demand is obvious: postal systems/FedEx etc weren't built with this much small-package flow in mind. Neither were front porches or mailboxes.

13/ Inequality is less obvious: in an unequal society there is more incentive for low-level theft and pilfering, easiest at the last block.

[Less obvious to those of us used to taking a systems perspective, perhaps; the incentive factor demonstrates just how obvious it is to those who live at the ragged edges of networks.]

14/ Anecdotally, theft from porches etc. has risen: more temptation, more people in an economic condition where they can be tempted. But careful how you interpret this. 

15/ As Anatole France sardonically observed, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

16/ Concierge services for accepting packages are now increasingly a necessity in bigger cities in middle class apartment buildings. More people are getting personal packages delivered at workplaces.

[Note that this may be a convenience issue as much as a security issue, at least in the UK context... I'd happily take the risk on the occasional pilfered package if it meant I never had to arrange another red-card redelivery, but YMMV, obvs.]

17/ You also increasingly have both large, low-value packages (e.g. cat litter) that are awkward for small locker-based systems or stairwells, and small jewelry-level value packages (iPhones)

18/ Buildings change slowly, especially in old cities with civic gridlock. It will take a decades for new buildings to reflect last-block needs. Follow the writing of Kim-Mai Cutler for this action in San Francisco.

[So now we shift from (relatively) simple material logistics and on to service and data logistics...]

19/ Similar issues occur in other networks. Consider net metering models for solar power, charging needs of electric vehicles, shopping cart services, 1-hour delivery, meal-kit businesses, etc.

20/ There are now fights over charging in charging stations, homeowners are setting up informal charging services on lawns. Blue Apron customers pile up ice packs.

21/ Even more subtleties at the informational level: Airbnb etc. require more sophisticated security for the last block: key transfers, digital locks etc. Your wallet needs RFID scanner protection.

22/ And as more and more value in flow (VIF) is in the last block at any given time, incentives for conflict and crime increase.

23/ "Stealing" cable or electricity required some sophistication, "stealing" wifi was much easier…for a while. The opportunity space will increase at all levels of difficulty.

[Ubiquity of infrastructures plus proliferation of multi-system interfaces divided by privatisation/unbundling/splintering of 'utilities'... when markets encounter habituation, ugliness happens.]

24/ The Dyn DDoS attack relied heavily on IoT devices, particularly insecure surveillance cameras. The “attack surface” as security people call it, will only increase.

[Every new interface device is potentially an interface to any other networked interface. Chips with everything, as the headlines used to go.]

25/ ATM card fraud now uses very sophisticated last-inch tech: molded plastic fake keypads, fake stripe readers on top of real ones, tiny cameras. I recently had an ATM card compromised that way.

26/ The last block/inch is also has a non-criminal economy developing: from unlocking smart-contract rental cars to power outlets in cafes that charge for a charge.

[Criminal economies are a signal of opportunity; this is just as true at the edge of the network as it is at the centre.]

27/ A lot is low-value/high volume so online micropayments arguments ("just make it free"/"not worth financializing") apply. But not all.

[Note that in this case it can be obfuscatory to focus overmuch on the material technology involved; what's interesting about these cases is how the technology gets folded into a service offer. Ownership and control over the interface layer is the opportunity recognised by criminal an non-criminal economic actors alike.]

28/ Frederik Pohl once said “the job of the sci-fi writer is to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam." Traffic jams are usually at the leaves of infrastructure trees.

[Smart guy, Pohl. Good writer, too.]

29/ Literal traffic jams happen most near/in city downtowns.  As s/w eats any network-provisioned service, traffic jams moves further down into capillaries.

[s/w = software, I think?]

30/ I like the holographic principle as a metaphor for for thinking about the effects of s/w-eats-a-network: more of the valuable information within a  volume of space can live on its surface. 

[OK, so this is where Rao's metaphor and one of my own come so close together that they almost bump noses: the infrastructural metasystem is also the metamedium, the medium of all media; hence all media is infrastructurally mediated; hence the metasystem is the veil upon which the Spectacle is projected. Logic of the Spectacle, cf. Debord: "that which is good appears, and that which appears is good"; extended by McKenzie Wark via William Gibson, "that which is secret is better [...] the secret is to the spectacle as art once was to culture. The secret is not the truth of the spectacle, it is the aesthetic form of the spectacle." So when "s/w-eats-a-network", what's really happening is that software is wrapping the deep function of the network up in a glossy package which takes Clarke's Third Law as its primary design principle.]

31/ For a network, the “volume” is the part behind the endpoints, which usually converges on one or more back-end centers. The “surface” is the set of all endpoints.

[This metaphor is really, really useful to me.]

32/ As a result, there is a LOT of economic value in the last block to last inch zone. C. K. Prahlad’s famous fortune at the bottom of the pyramid idea generalizes to “edge of any network.”

33/ In future, if current progress in brain implants continues, there may be an even bigger fortune in the “negative 1 inch” that goes into your head (disclosure: company mentioned in that article, Kernel, is a client).

[That's a pretty big 'if', IMO. But Rao knows his wider audience well, I suspect.]

34/ A general topological theory why this happens is that a more informationally powerful technology induces a higher-resolution network structure.

35/ World-eating new technologies extend the resolution of basic infrastructure networks: tens of miles for trains/planes, miles for cars, blocks for electricity, inches for wireless


36/ A network core can be defined as the low-resolution backbone where economics allows aggregation leverage, and low transaction costs for huge financial flows.

37/ This is anything you can call a “cloud” in some sense: a datacenter, a large dam, a power plant, a major interstate highway, a rail depot. I wrote about this idea in my Aeon essay American Cloud

[Personal aside: Rao's American Cloud essay was part of the inspiration for m'colleague Adam Rakunas's second novel, Like A Boss.]

38/ At the edge otoh technology stops being organized by economics, and starts being organized by social norms at its resolution limit set by transaction costs: the price of an in-app purchase for example.

39/ So sociologically, the last mile/block/inch is where the market stops and what I call an economics of pricelessness, based on values and norms, starts to kick in.


40/ When large-scale disruption happens due to a major technology like s/w, social-norms space gets systematically pushed back by market space.

[Cf. Uber, Airbnb etc etc.]

41/ The ultimate reason is physics: this is tendency towards "plenty of room at the bottom" (Feynman). As the market occupies that room, sociology (and in the future, psychology) yields to economics

42/ The transient is ugly because while you're shifting regimes, you’re converting social capital into financial capital, hurting social-capital-rich types (think priests) and enriching platform builders (think unicorn CEOs).

43/ The urban manifestation of these dynamics is gentrification: technology extending the power of markets into our community lives at increasing resolution.

44/ But if you think this process is almost over, think again. It's just beginning. You could say iOS and Android represent gentrified and slum-like digital neighborhoods in the last inch.

[There's a side-spur argument to be made about FOSS and open systems in general, here; as Rao is suggesting, FOSS can't remove these tendencies from networks, but can make it easier for people to have some control over their interfaces.]

45/ You know the old saying, "your freedom of action ends where my nose begins”? This is about to get pretty literal. There is a power struggle right by your nose/ear.

46/ But it isn’t between free individuals and an enslaving techno-capitalist cloud. You never were that free an inch from your face. You were merely the captive of non-economic forces.

47/ At worst the struggle is between the tyranny of markets and the tyranny of unchosen neighbors. The tyranny of money and the tyranny of taboos.

[Scylla and Charybdis, eat your heart out.]

48/ At best though, what we have here is technology liberating you from the tyranny of neighbors. And which view is true for you is more within your control than you think.

49/ If you see technology as potential for increased agency, you can learn to rule the last mile like a gritty cyberpunk novel protagonist, even if you don’t own a billionaire platform.

50/ If you see technology as increasing agency only for privileged others, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy and you will end up on the losing side of this process.

51/ You will also be on the losing side if you don’t recognize that tyranny of neighbors (“hell is other people”) is a factor, a dynamic the dystopian show Black Mirror explores well.

52/ In the Black Mirror future, technology does not contend with the power of communities. It becomes allied with it to suppress individual freedom even more.

[As the title of the series makes clear: it is merely reflecting society back at itself. Brooker repeatedly makes the point that he's not writing about technology, but that technology has become a handy way to enable plot points that would have been impossible just a decade ago (though the same phenomenon has killed off older plots, e.g. the missed phonecall). The (largely good-natured) joshing that BM has become "what if phones, but too much?" misses the point; BM's not about the phones, it's about the too much, and that's not a function of the phones.]

53/ If you think this is unlikely in the real world, think again, entire countries like France seem to be exploring that direction of evolution.  

[UK, also.]

54/ This is not to absolve infrastructure titans and CEOs of big platform companies from all responsibility, or to abandon everybody to their own devices (heh!)

[No, but their position effectively denies us the possibility of taking that responsibility for ourselves; networks perform optimally as organisational monopolies, and as such are fundamentally incompatible with private ownership.]

55/ My buddy Tristan Harris has good thoughts on ethics in design for technology builders. I don’t always agree with the details of his thinking, but he’s right that with last-inch power comes great responsibility.

56/ If you’ve already decided “infrastructure creep” is bad, you’ll use dystopian metaphors like “tentacles of capitalism” or “eye of Sauron” or “the participatory panopticon” (for Black Mirror version).

57/ I personally tend to think of technology as ideology agnostic: this would happen even if we had a different ideology than neoliberal clickbaitism driving it. 

[We part ways a bit here: I'm with Kranzberg regarding the agnosticism or neutrality of technology, not least because technology is people and practices as well as material things, and people and practices are never ideologically neutral. However, I agree that a lot of the functions Rao is talking about here are endemic characteristics of networks in general, and would as such tend to occur even under different regulatory or socioeconomic regimes... but would they occur to the same extent, or at the same rate? I'm not sure, but I think it's a good question.]

58/ My preferred metaphor is the fingers/eyes of technology itself, considered as a whole (what Kevin Kelly calls the ‘technium’). 

[Ugh, Kevin Kelly. Swap all of this guff out for Haraway's cyborg metaphor, which does all the same work without trying to pretend that people and the technologies they use in their daily lives are analytically separable in any useful or believable way.]

59/ The “eyes” (or senses more generally) are getting incredibly precision in what they can see. I think of last-inch/click-tracking level “seeing” as “retina logistics” by analogy with Mac displays.

60/ The “fingers” of technology are getting increasingly delicate and precise as well. If the last-mile actuation capacity of the cloud was a sledgehammer, we’re at needlepoint now. Did your phone ding when this email arrived?

61/ This is scary to a majority, exhilarating to a minority, and as is the case for all big technology shifts, an existential crisis to those who don’t break smart.

62/ And consistent with the general political/ideological position I generally adopt in breaking smart writings, overall, increasing sensing/actuation resolution of infrastructure is a good thing.

63/ The more fine-grained the presence of technology in our lives, the more generative potential there is for humans to level-up to new, more powerful modes of being.

[Generative potential is a double-edged sword.]

64/ Whether powerful technology existing an inch from your face is good or bad depends on how good you are at using it from that locus.

[True enough. Cropping off the last few points, which are mostly marketing, but the last one's worth saving for the first sentance in particualr:]

70/ There is a nonzero-sum fortune to be created at the edge of the network...

[Yes... yes, there is. But it's slipping away, moment by moment.]


Freeman, 2016 -- Why Narrative Matters: Philosophy, Method, Theory

The necessity of narrative (and narrative hermeneutics) in 'understanding the human realm' is threefold:

1) Philosophical

Relates to alterity, 'the Otherness within'; cf Freud, we are mysteries to ourselves; viz Ricouer, 'the hermeneutic dimension of the human situation is insurpassable'.

We cannot know with any certainty how an event or constellation of events works itself out in a life; all we can do is interpret. [...] as we engage in the arduous process of self-understanding, our only recourse is to turn to "signs scattered in the world" -- our hope being that, somehow, they might find a suitable home in story.

2) Methodological

Relates to fidelity; there is 'no more fitting and appropriate vehicle for exploring the otherness of both others and oneself'

Example: why did author become a scholar of narrative, rather than some other sort of scholar, or indeed something other than a scholar?

--> Deep question: 'How do we become who we are? [...] How deep do the reasons go?'

The narrative unconscious: '... those aspects of our lives bound up with history and culture, the tradition into which we are thrust and which, in its own obscure ways, infiltrates and constitutes being.'

So, personal factors and life-events, certainly, but also 'supra-personal' factors (e.g. 'intellectual climate', traditions).

Point being: there are many reasons why we become what we are, and those reasons, proximal and distal, and extended in time 'can only come together in and through the process of interpretation'.

However, hermeneutic circle -- with its 'mutually constructive relationship' between episode and plot -- means that it's very problematic to talk about objectivity. Hence fidelity:

The "faithfulness" it connotes is not just a matter of interpretive adequacy, but also one of interpretive _care_, of a sort that preserves the otherness of the past as well as the Otherness of those -- including oneself -- whose past it is.

Hermeneutics [...] is a form of constructionism that maintains an effort to speak the _truth_ -- one, indeed, that insists that truth can only emerge in and through the interpretive constructions one fashions.

So, finitude and certainty are not possible... but interpretation and hindsight might combine to produce insight, which is neither a finding or a making, but a 'finding-through-making'.

Therefore fidelity is 'tied to that kind of respectful beholding that lets the text of the past appear as other -- even if this "other" is none other than oneself.'

3) Theoretical

Relates to 'ex-centricity' -- 'locating those sources of "inspiration" outside the self that condition the stories we tell about ourselves.

Three dimensions of narrative hermeneutics:

a) Relational dimension: 'our stories are intimately bound up with those of others'.

b) Existential dimension: 'others -- especially, but not exclusively, human others -- provide the "motive fuel" [...] for the stories we tell about ourselves.'

c) Ethical dimension: 'stories we tell [...] are always, to a greater or lesser extent, fuelled by the people and "projects" to whom and which we are most responsible'.

Therefore the combination of narrative hermenetics with the project of self-understanding 'serves to show that there is _no_ self, no story of the self, apart from the myriad relationships within which they take form'.

'Thinking Otherwise' (--> reframing narrative hermeneutics)

The standard riff is that narrative hermeneutics is a process of meaning-making; meaning-making is clearly necessary, but perhaps not sufficient.

... suggesting that the subject is not only a meaning-maker [...] but is also him- or her-self "made" -- _given_, as Marion (2002) puts it -- constituted by the myriad phenomena, both human and nonhuman, encountered in experience.

If the proximal source of one's narrative is the self, therefore the distal source is the Other.

... narrative hermeneutics might itself become more Other-directed and "ex-centric", more attuned to the ways in which meanings [...] become inscribed in the movement of subjectivity. [In doing so, the subject] remains the site within which the world is refigured and reimagined. And narrative remains its primary language.


Lots of interesting ideas in here. Most pertinent to current interests: a more 'ex-centric' hermeneutics of narrative offers opportunities to look at the role played by non-human others (e.g. institutions, organisations, systems?) in the construction of the self; can such a role in narrative self-construction be identified for new technologies and infrastructures? Where would one look for such material? How would that influence manifest?

Innovation is overvalued. Maintenance often matters more | Aeon Essays

Interesting piece, arguing for more attention being paid to the maintainance of existing systems than the production of new ones. Particularly liked this bit:

... focusing on infrastructure or on old, existing things rather than novel ones reminds us of the absolute centrality of the work that goes into keeping the entire world going. Despite recurring fantasies about the end of work or the automation of everything, the central fact of our industrial civilisation is labour, and most of this work falls far outside the realm of innovation. Inventors and innovators are a small slice – perhaps somewhere around one per cent – of this workforce.

A thousand times, yes! Though I'd be remiss in not mentioning having been annoyed by this bit:

... especially in some corners of the academic world, a focus on the material structures of everyday life can take a bizarre turn, as exemplified in work that grants ‘agency’ to material things or wraps commodity fetishism in the language of high cultural theory, slick marketing, and design. For example, Bloomsbury’s ‘Object Lessons’ series features biographies of and philosophical reflections on human-built things, like the golf ball. What a shame it would be if American society matured to the point where the shallowness of the innovation concept became clear, but the most prominent response was an equally superficial fascination with golf balls, refrigerators, and remote controls.

What a shame it would be if scholarship matured to the point where an entire series of books might be trashed by someone who likely hasn't read any of them.

Dymaxion: Infrastructural Games and Societal Play

The larp toolkit for building power relationships is well-tuned, as are the sensibilities of both players and game designers for reading the power balance of a situation.  Introducing structural changes in a system during play allows us to see how power structures shift.  This experiential and immersive reading yields a higher resolution understanding than an a priori analysis.  When sociotechnical systems cause unpredicted shifts in social power relationships, it often indicates unseen dependencies between different social scripts, or stratifications in society that give different social groups different abilities to interact or adapt to change.  For example, one of the goals of Uber was to change the power relationship between passengers and taxi drivers.  They were successful at this, but differentially; in many countries, minorities who had a hard time flagging down taxis at all got to be first-class users of the system.  Of course, a number of other power shifts were also designed into this system, putting Uber itself at a significant advantage over both passengers and drivers, but in different (and in both cases intentionally opaque) ways.  Diegetic prototyping in play could have exposed many of these effects.  Critical use of narratives extracted from that play could have informed the debate around regulation and licensing for Uber and similar services.

Behind the scenes in the "Northern Powerhouse"

The North rejects the Oyster card model... but what does that actually mean?

“It’s not an Oyster card … We are putting something in for a next generation,” said Brown, adding the thinking behind smart ticketing was all about how to persuade drivers stuck in jams to take the train instead: “It’s about people sitting getting frustrated on the M62. What do they need that would persuade them to use a northern powerhouse rail system? None of them say: ‘I want a blue card in my wallet.’ They want affordable travel that they know how much they are going to pay to use, with a system that is easy to use and that they can use on every train.”

He added: “What people want is certainty about what you are going to pay in a day. You’d want some sort of account which said ‘thanks for travelling across the north, you’re going to get a discount’, and not worrying if you have got on the right train or bus, or wondering ‘have I bought the right ticket?’”

It's pretty apparent that they're talking about some sort of flexible contactless/near-field ticketing set-up, whether through cards or mobile devices; one suspects that the only difference from the Oyster system will be the opportunity to have a non-registered card which you top up as and when you need it; while that's a useful system for us as end-users, it doesn't capture enough valuable data exhaust and personal travel profile data, the reselling of which can be assumed to be a revenue stream already baked in to any plans. And of course we can't have anonymous travel because [terrorism].

Also, people are talking about a new cross-Pennine tunnel crossing:

Building a new road and rail tunnel under the Pennines was a “bold” idea, said TfN’s chair, John Cridland, former director general of the CBI, who insisted that as a very new organisation having been founded in November, TfN was in the early days of creating a pan-northern transport system.

“We have economic assets, Manchester and Sheffield, that are completely disconnected at the moment,” he said, revealing that a feasibility study had shown digging a trans-Pennine tunnel with road and rail side by side was possible. “If you are building a single economic entity while respecting the fact there are still the Pennines in the way you need to run up the flag post some bold thinking,” he said.

It's not bold at all -- it was bold in the 1800s, perhaps, when the original transPennine tunnels and canals were built, but now the only boldness lies in imagining that Gideon will actually put his hand into his pocket and give the grubby proles the toffee he's promised them.

Cynicism aside, what's often overlooked is that the idea of connecting up the Liverpool-Manchester-Sheffield-Leeds corridor isn't a new idea so much as an attempt to revert to the original and long-established economic orientation of the north, which was always dominated by an east-west flow with export connectionss to Europe, the Americas and beyond, and it has been argued that the dismantling of that east-west network, particularly the railways during the regrouping exercise of the interwar years, effectively removed the possibility of economic independence for the region.

However, over the last century we've moved from a situation where almost all long-distance freight went by rail to where it almost all goes by road, so improved transPennine rail links are only going to improve passenger travel times; the secondary infrastructure for rail freight that still exists is slowly rotting away since its abandonment during privatisation; hence the suggested need for a road link, which has the added bonus of being easier to sell to parliament (which has always loved roads, particularly when Tory) and car users (whose sense of entitlement to new infrastructure has been very carefully manufactured and sustained by parliament).

And who knows -- perhaps they'll pull it off:

Cridland urged northerners to take the powerhouse concept seriously, saying he would not have taken the 30-day-a-year chairmanship if he thought it was an empty gimmick.

(What a hero! Though I expect the compensation package may have been something of an inducement, too.)

The devolution deals signed with Greater Manchester and other city regions showed Osborne was serious, he insisted: “I just see an opportunity, of London prepared to let go. You have to almost pinch yourself a bit. [Osborne] has not just made a speech about it, he’s signing these deals, he’s signing off on things flowing in our direction."

Oh, yes: responsibility is definitely flowing in their direction, if not the ability to raise and spend funds, and I'm sure there'll be bountiful opportunities for the usual suspects in the consultancy industry before it gets kicked off into the long grass. 

If the north wants its destiny back, it'll have to do more than tug its collective forelock to London.

Silicon Valley tech firms exacerbating income inequality, World Bank warns | Technology | The Guardian

The economics of the internet favor natural monopolies, the absence of a competitive business environment can result in more concentrated markets, benefiting incumbent firms. Not surprisingly, the better educated, well connected, and more capable have received most of the benefits – circumscribing the gains from the digital revolution.”

“Regulatory puzzles are posed by firms such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google ... These firms confound conventional competition law because they do not act as traditional monopolies. The risk is that states and corporations could use digital technologies to control citizens, not to empower them,” it continued.

It's not just the economics of the internet, but the economics of networks in general which favour natural monopolies; indeed, a network without an organisational monopoly is a broken network (cf. privatised UK railway system). All infrastructures are networks, and infrastructure considered collectively is a network of networks, a metasystem. The only way to harness the full utility of any network is to allow it an organisational monopoly. The only way to constrain an organisational monopoly is collective ownership. Farcebork et al are monopoly interface protocols, not themselves networks; they merely organise and instrumentalise the physical connectivity of the infrastructures upon which they depend. Protocols are best regulated by the careful maintenance of system standards in the infrastructural layer-- another process which requires an effective organisational monopoly.

Renationalise. Now.

constraint no. 2: legacies of the past | crap futures

There is a problematic time-slip between the existence of laws and insurance and the real-life behaviour of humans. Laws and insurance are for the most part reactive: insurance policies, for example, are based on amassed data that informs the broker of risk levels, and this system therefore needs history to work. So when you try to insert a new product or concept - a self-driving car or delivery drone - into everyday life, the insurance system pushes back. Insurance companies don’t want to gamble on an unknown future; they want to look at the future through historical data, which is by nature a conservative lens.

Laws, insurance, and historical infrastructure often work together to curb radical change. This partly explains why many of the now technologically realisable dreams of the past, from jetpacks to flying cars, are unlikely to become an everyday reality in that imagined form - more likely they will adapt and conform to existing systems and rules.

Path-dependency; obduracy; infrastructural inertia. This is precisely what my PhD is all about.

What The History of Fossil Fuels Teaches Us About Renewable Energy - The Atlantic

Those transitions have also been heavily dependent on the energy infrastructure that came before. The age of steam was not possible without human and animal work to mine the coal and build the machines. Even now, the wind turbines we look to to help us escape fossil fuels are steel towers (you make steel in coal-fired blast furnaces) topped by plastic blades (which comes from petroleum), installed by (gasoline-powered) construction equipment. A wind turbine is a “pure expression of fossil fuels,” said Smil during a 2013 lecture at the Perimeter Institute.

So, while Smil agrees with pretty much everyone else that the next big energy transition is from nonrenewable to renewable resources, he is cautious about the timing. At one level, the change is plainly inevitable. There will come a time when non-renewable resources run out, and Smil says it will be advantageous to transition off of fossil fuels long before then, to avoid climate change.

In this, Smil is no different from countless energy advocates from Greenpeace to Al Gore to T. Boone Pickens. Where he does differ is in his opinion about how quickly it can happen. Where Gore calls for a complete conversion to renewables in 10 years, Smil thinks the transition will take generations.