Emerging Technologies in a Post Post-Modern World

I’m not about to challenge our fabulous Byron King for it, but I figure he won’t begrudge me the title of Go-To Gal On Emerging Technologies of the XIV Dynasty through the Late XVIII Century; call me Low-Tech Linda for short…and note that the first premise is to stake out as much territory as you can get away with when you dream up such a power-play, uh, endeavor.

First, my thanks to James Wesley, (sic) Rawles–and will someone please tell me why the comma is there? That is what appears on the front and back covers and title page of his monumental work on preparedness for a world gone mad through the collapse of commerce, transportation, food distribution networks, society, law enforcement, the government, and virtually everything else that requires a working part more complicated than a ball-bearing. (Expand my territory to 1865 since a significant factor in the South’s loss was inadequate amounts of shiny little BBs that still go in skateboard wheels. Another was the inability to protect railroad tracks and rolling stock.)

The fun started when I leapt far out on a branch here at W&G with JWR’s PATRIOT in my slavering jaws and dropped it into the trading pit where money is made. It was very brave of me, not because I doubt regulars at the Bar, you delightful folk always looking for ways to increase our assets, but because I sometimes suspect my two brilliant, delightful, achieving progeny refer to my fascination as “Mummy’s Secret Shame That Scares Us Senseless and Will Cause Us to be Eyed Askance By Corporate Management at the Highest Levels.” They only said “scares,” bless them.

I am now liberated! Considering TEOT-WAWKI is no longer completely whacko, kooky, deviationistic, or a symptom of early dementia, we’re pioneering point men on the track of super-colossal profits! Me? A nutball domestic dissidentt? Nah, I’m a future Johanna Jacob Astor. I am not alone!!!  SurvivalBlog reports an average of 165,000 “hits” a week, so many it is hard even to keep tatters of our treasured Contrarianism around us. Even if a lot of those are daily readers, let’s out-think the competition by starting now.

The real question is, “In a USA/world bereft of reliable transportation, fossil fuels, electricity, working factories, and even ordinary food, what products and services will there be wide-spread, localized markets for?” (And you were starting to doubt that I can still frame a coherent, intelligent question.) A secondary question to ponder afterwards is, “If you cannot position yourself to control farm and ranch land, running water, and ammo dumps, what could you do to ensure that you have a skill that will be in great demand, thus keeping you from cleaning out pigpens, wielding the earliest idiot stick (a shovel, not a slide rule), or serving as some warlord’s court jester?”

Let us start with…the Scythians. They are of interest because they made the (groan) cutting edge agricultural implement of their time, still known as a “scythe,” which some insist upon pronouncing as “sigh,” contributing to the downfall of humanity as we know it. Scythes are still available at modest cost, and it is trickier to learn to use one correctly than one might suppose of a pole with a sickle on one end. I believe the art involves a smooth, easy, rhythmic stroke, sparing your back, and keeping a sharp edge on the blade, but suggest that those with Amish or living relatives of Old World descent consult your families’ oldest members. This is a splendid project!  Even before the last McCormick Reaper has worn out or refuses to run on biodiesel, you could A. capture a good market share of scythes for at least your state or county, B. open a school to teach scything, or C. rent out gangs of scythers you trained; or D. merely become proficient in the use of the scythe and support yourself harvesting grain.

Sugars, I am NOT joking. YES there will be a need for those who are able to harvest grain! And hay. Scythe lawns. You could even storm Bastilles with them, if we had one.

Buy modern sharpening machines, complete with guides, and work out how to power them in alternate ways,* and a good supply of stones and files. Somebody may have to sharpen those scythes, as well as machetes, (gorgeously lo tech, sturdy, and good for innumerable tasks), kitchen knives, and scissors. In the olden days “tinkers” wandered around sharpening swords, knives, precious scissors, farm implements, mowers blades, and so forth. While you are at it, pick up some old push lawn mowers. Again…if an “it” happens, few will be able to sharpen their own utensils and the time you will save them will be worth big rutabagas or whatever any given farm or hamlet had to barter. Tinkers repaired pots, but our modern ones will probably last well. Still…brazing, soldering, even welding? You could branch out into inexpensive new knives for inventory you trade for better but dull knives, and even franchise, teaching your skills and making stunning profits on your inventory some years later. Yes, your stock piles will be irreplaceable, so plan what you will move into with the excessive proceeds. Marry foreseen needs to old solutions. (* Alternate methods include the obvious–treadles, tread mills, steam, pig-power, the external-combustion engine, wind, solar, and alternate fuels for a generator–and many, many more, such as a kick sharpening stone or potter’s kick wheel.)

Obvious trades which are disappearing or whose current practitioners are insufficient to service a local area of perhaps a hundred square miles eventually…sadleries, farriers, bee-keepers, dowsers, wolf-hunters, butchers (mechanical deboning machine operators do not count), jewelers, gunsmiths, and cobblers.

Whoo-boy, “and cobblers.” Throughout much of history those lucky enough to have shoes (a very few worked out how to make moccasins, basically) a pair of shoes cost a minimum of a month’s wages. A full coat or cloak ran half a year’s salary–the reason for which becomes obvious when we’re dealing with just hand-carding, hand-spinning, hand-looming, and sewing by hand. Shoes don’t grow on trees. Mostly they come from China, Italy, Brazil, and other far-away places.

Affluence was long more clothing than a set to wash, a set to wear, and a set for Sunday. Clothing washed by hand on rocks or rub-boards with harsh home-made soap wears out extremely quickly. You don’t wash clothes after one wearing in such societies. (Buy at least a gross of socks while that still means 144, okay?) Here’s a really good idea: find an old-fashioned treadle sewing-machine. This is harder because most of them had their guts ripped out about 1950 and ladies planted ivy in the stand. Mine still works; I’ve had it since ’69 because it is beautiful and classic fine technology. I will be amazed if some far-sighted entrepreneur doesn’t sell new ones as I speak. Anyone with a treadle Singer (treadles can power any number of things via pulleys; so can bicycles, such as a small generator that ran the modern machine you have.) could set up as the “mending” person and dress-maker an entire village used. Every time you find thread on sale buy it by the box full, because if anything is “high tech” in this field it is modern thread. Purchase pounds of pins and needles when you see a local fabric store go out of business. For many, many a century a needle was a prized possession and pins were all but priceless. Stock silk thread (embroidery thread, too) because it is far stronger than cotton or polyester.

Become adept at making soap, and I don’t mean from expensive materials from Hobby Lobby. The process isn’t hard, and if you can turn out a relatively non-abrasive product from lye (leached from ashes), a sensible source of animal fat (no, not palm oil unless you live in the tropics), and so forth, in WW II there was very little hausfraus wouldn’t do for a cake of soap. Master making candles and small oil lamps; again don’t use costly commercial supplies. No one will care about colors, fancy shapes or scents; you want the cheapest wax and wicking you can find and to learn several basic techniques, all easy. This time of year through after Christmas you will probably find traditional tapers for a quarter each. Buy a bunch–ALL of you. I count myself extremely fortunate that I have always enjoyed arts and crafts, and what I can’t make out of cloth, yarn, glue, and assorted lightweight objects Charles can make out of metal, lumber, wire, and PVC pipe. A big factor in survival and success will be how broad your knowledge and skills are. Plain old paint will be quite valuable; buy the odd lots at hardware stores if you have a place to store them–perhaps between boards to make shelving.

Most of us kept our beloved slipsticks (in their leather cases, of course) out of sentiment, and they went from being an intellectual status symbol about 1960 to a quaint anachronism. When power is precarious the abacus and the slide rule will return to state of the art. If you just want a personal backup, get a solar- or motion-powered watch with a calculator. Don’t try to run the first bank you open with it, though. Bank examiners? There won’t be any. That bank will be based on your full faith, credit, and deposits of silver, gold, copper, ammunition, and possibly bushels of wheat.

That list should keep those who fear they cannot prepare to become Cattle Kings, Soybean Sultans, or Mackeral Magnates busy thinking of similar tasks they have mastered or are interested in–such as keeping bees or learning to make cheese of all sorts from both cows’ and goats’ milk and putting a hunk into the enzymines and cultures which produce distinctive types of cheese. Learn to grind lenses by hand, if only for reading glasses. (Stock several first class non-prescription pairs for your use.)

NOW let’s nibble on where the big hard money will be found. There won’t be any fiat money (other than small, local currency for ease in the community), but there will be universally-desired trade goods as well as classic hard money.

The kids in Patriot missed what we call a real “sitter” while at the Barter Faire. They walked away from a man who TOLD them he willing to pay a fortune in things they wanted for a simple fabrication task beyond him or anyone he knew, when they knew what the man wanted, and he had the item he needed duplicated for a pattern with him. A Group member had already churned out copies of a similar item they wanted in large quantities quickly! IN the process he had trained several other Group members to assist him in assembly-lining. Piece of cake, guys. Smile vulpinely, and suggest he name a price on delivery. Hold him up for more. How many would he like, will Sunday do, HMOD? Product guaranteed; if it does not function perfectly, no charge. Several talked to him and all knew they had the capability and the materials. Nope, dumb and happy, they wander away to gawk at the other offerings instead of acting like incipient Titans of Industry. They didn’t even mention it to those who were home on guard duty and were planning on return for both the final two Faire days. You must learn to at least SEE needs you can fill even if you do not anticipate all of them.

No matter what you make, grow, do, raise or just happen to have lots of, chances are good that at least one of them will become a money-maker. In Agrarian and low-tech societies little actual “cash money” changes hand. This is fine; you don’t care if you get cash, kind, or kine, so long as you make a good profit on something it cost you sensible amounts of time and priceless supplies to make.  Still…people can be so odd! An Episcopalian friend was killed at the time I designed and fabricated custom ecclesiastical regalia; my work hung in seven states and I was on hugging terms with three Bishops, including the one for her Diocese. I offered the church an altar cloth or a frontal in Elizabeth’s memory. The Altar Guild declined frostily, but invited me to donate the price of a commercial work! They rejected a gift of something beautiful their church needed. You don’t want to know what even an altar cloth costs, or how much work goes into one made entirely by hand instead of a factory in Rye, New York. The cost of a Frontal and even a matching Chasuble is staggering.

The important part of that odd story is that we run across those who would rather do without than change their ways. Ignore them. Your world will expand as time recedes, so make hay while the sun shines and prepare stock of unique items for when transportation becomes available for even distances we now travel in two hours. Keep your eyes and ears open for changing conditions, opportunities to be a supplier, or a better methods of dealing problems.

I dote on Engineers, as you know. Such fascinating minds! MDC and Pita are both engineers–Pita being the wag who watched me work out how to stock a Conestoga wagon destined for a stark new pioneering colony with no stores at all from scratch for three solid years without telling me gently to go to SurvivalBlog because he was enjoying watching me do it! S’okay; it was enormous fun and good mental exercise. WE like to play with combining old ideas in new ways and, “How could we ____ if we had ____ to work with?”

Tonight MDC and I discussed what may be a future empire in power machinery in about three exchanges: “As soon as time permits let’s design an external-combustion steam compressor so that we can power things that go roundy-round, back and forth, up and down, and side to side or push.” (Darling Charles smiles fondly when I explain with mock grandeur, “That’s the technical description; I don’t know how you laymen put that!”) Charles twinkled, “That will be fun, and we can see how to modify existing designs.” I concluded with, “Now that I grasp that the Internet sells things we odd few would want, I’ll find out if my idea already exists! Then we can decide whether to buy one or just take off across country.”

That was the sum total of a complete, comprehensible, sensible plan of action: I described the problem, as he jokes frequently–sometimes at very odd times, such as when grilling hamburgers!–“We have the technology!” and we had laid out a brief plan to check designs, availability of working models to modify, and see what sort of extra supplies we might need. So we went back to reading our Sci Fi books.

Will we ever build one? Yeah, sure, if we don’t end up somebody’s lunch meat for the week and need it. That sort of thing is Pita’s idea of glorious amusement, too, and he has a great talent for intriguing designs. He and I planned an irrigation system based on an ancient Egyptian bucket irrigation system that will lift water fifteen feet or so and it works. If what you can build is a wheel and all you have to carry water in is gourds you have grown, of can it could be done. It was done for thousands of years and exists today in slightly more permanent form.

The three of us think the world is a gigantic Erecktor set just for us to play with, and we collect all sorts of things to cannibalize from.

Soft smile…yes, we’re colorful, eccentric, joyous, and very little of the world around us has been interested in our passion, not counting those who televised “Junk Yard Wars.” I covered the last two points hoping to kickstart the minds of those who have never played “Fifty Ways to Use a Brick.” Or a thimble, a rake, or old Venetian blinds. You might give alternative thinking a gentle try.

You may be moved to recount one of my weird tales to friends over dinner…and it just could be that one of you will say, “I’ve always wondered if it were possible to make a bligcup, but I couldn’t work out how to smicicate the ninplinks.”

Another might chip in, “I don’t even know what your widget is, but I sure know how to smicicate waldrups.” And a third, “I’ve got a basement full of ninplinks!”

If it turns out that ninplinks are similar enough to waldrups so the technology transfers you’ll be on your ways to fortune in the Old World order.

Or perhaps your wife will say patiently, “You’re talking about an egg separator. I never use ours because it is so easy to do by hand.”

Most of America has eschewed–or been denied!–training in the scientific method, knowledge of the laws of cause and effect, exposure to logic, and the utter joy of solving problems–even very minor, silly ones–because they are there. Forget Sir Edmund Hillary and the mountain because there are a lot of entertaining mole hills out there that may become far more important in the future. There aren’t a lot of MacGyvers around. If you find one, try to make at least a pet out of him. If you’re a big enough packrat he’ll love it. If you can, cultivate a good, old-fashioned efficiency expert–a genuine time-and-motion one, not the sort that come up with “just in time inventory.”

My inventive hero is Thomas Alva Edison. (Not John Galt.) Edison said, “There is a better way. Find it.” In the world that may come into being, what will be the better ways were discarded long ago. Survival and wealth both start in the mind and involve what is and what was long before, not what you have lost or cannot get.

Regards and Merry Christmas,

Linda Brady Traynham

December 16, 2009