December 28, 2012

Everything is Connected (Radiation Obesity Edition)

The 2008 animated feature WALL-E portrayed a world so polluted that humans were exiled to space, where lack of physical activity produced a population that was morbidly obese.

News from Japan this morning suggests that may be exactly where we're heading.

According to a report in the Guardian, the highest rates of childhood obesity in Japan are to be found in the Fukushima prefecture, where parents and schools are keeping kids indoors due to lingering fears of radiation contamination.

After triple meltdowns at the Fukshima Daiichi nuclear complex, more than 400 of the district's schools imposed new limits on the amount of time pupils were permitted to play outside, the Guardian said. As of last September restrictions remained in place at 71 primary and junior high schools. The meltdowns forced the evacuation of more than 150,000 residents who lived with 12 miles of the damaged reactors.

A study released this week by the nation's education ministry found that Fukushima children between the ages of five and nine and between 14 and 17 topped Japan's national obesity rankings. In the two years since the meltdowns rates of obesity among six-year-old boys and eight-year-old girls in Fukushima nearly doubled.

The Fukushima board of education blamed the increase on "stress caused by restrictions imposed on outdoor activities last fiscal year and changes in living environments in the process of evacuation."

"Everything is Connected" is a recurring feature named in honor of the late Barry Commoner's four laws of ecology: Everything is connected to everything else, everything must go somewhere, nature knows best, and there is no such thing as a free lunch.  

December 15, 2012


Even as I was writing the post below, on the technologies that saved the life of Emma Whitehead, twenty children were being shot to death in Newtown, Connecticut.

December 14, 2012

Emma W.

Emma Whitehead

In case anyone was wondering, the argument here is not that ALL technologies are bad. 

Earlier this week the New York Times reported an amazing medical achievement. 

Emma Whitehead, a seven-year-old girl from Philipsburg, Pennsylvania, was dying from acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Two rounds of chemotherapy had failed. Time was running out. 

In desperation her parents approved a radical new therapy. Doctors at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia "reprogrammed" Emma's immune system by genetically altering some of her blood cells with a disabled form of the virus that causes AIDs. The reprogrammed cells, injected back into Emma's body, had been turned into super cancer fighters. They attacked and killed the cells that were causing her leukemia. 

Emma almost didn't survive the process, which takes a terrible toll on the body. Now, however, she's thriving.

This treatment is about as high tech as you can get (read the article for details on how complicated it is) – there's nothing natural about it. Nor is it going to become widely available without someone finding a way to make a profit on it, meaning some patients will get the treatment and others won't. And yes, the health-care system in general is desperately in need of reform, and yes, there are big-picture questions about our obsessive use of technologies to prolong life at any cost. 

But forget all that for now. Emma Whitehead, second grader, is alive and well, reading voraciously and loving recess.

Who can argue with that? 

Photo credit:Jeff Swensen, The New York Times 

©Doug Hill, 2012

December 13, 2012

Everything is Connected (Wet Blanket Edition)


Living with the effects of global warming isn't only going to be harder. It's going to be less fun.

A couple of recent dispatches make the point:

1) Lots of people who love to ski will have to find another hobby. According to a report yesterday in the New York Times, as global warming continues, scores of the nation’s winter resorts, especially those at lower elevations and latitudes, won't have any snow to offer their customers.

The Times quotes one study's prediction that no ski area in Connecticut or Massachusetts is likely to be economically viable by 2039, while more than half of those in Maine and New York will go under. Another report said that the industry has already lost more than a billion dollars in revenue due to warming. 

Some in the industry are confident that snow-making technology will make up for any short-falls caused by climate change. There's a problem with that scenario, though. Snow-making requires water, and warming not only reduces snow, it reduces rainfall. After a year of record drought, the Times says, "reservoirs are depleted, streams are low, and snowpack levels stand at 41 percent of their historical average." 

2) The second report, in The Daily Beast, describes an impending gastronomic disaster of epic proportions: "The End of Pasta."

Wheat is a cool weather crop, which makes it the most vulnerable of our basic grains (rice and corn are the others) to global warming. According to reporter Mark Hertsgaard, predictions are that if current trends continue, global wheat production could decline by as much as 27 percent by 2050.

Bakeries will obviously suffer under such conditions, but pasta production will suffer more because the variety of wheat used to make pasta – durum wheat – is especially sensitive to climate change. Already shifts in rainfall patterns are forcing farmers in North Dakota, where some of the world's finest durum wheat is grown, to move their operations west. If warming continues, they may have to stop raising durum wheat altogether.

An ironic twist puts the durum wheat crop in North Dakota at even greater risk. Fracking has turned the state into an epicenter of one of the biggest oil booms in American history. As a result, land once used to grow durum wheat is now being paved over for oil pumps and gas pipelines, all busily producing fuels that are pushing the planet's temperature higher, faster. According to Hertsgaard, the flaring of natural gas that occurs during fracking is itself a major contributor to global warming. 

North Dakota isn't the world's only source of durum wheat, or even its most important one. That honor, Hertsgaard says, goes to the Mediterranean basin. Unfortunately, predictions are that climate change will hit that region even harder than it's hitting North Dakota.

Goodbye spaghetti, farewell, macaroni and cheese!

"Everything is Connected" is a recurring feature named in honor of the late Barry Commoner's four laws of ecology: Everything is connected to everything else, everything must go somewhere, nature knows best, and there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Photos: Skier: Tech4Globe; Pasta: Jacksonville Organic Produce Delivery Service

December 11, 2012

11 Good Reasons Why Google Owes Nothing in Taxes

Bloomberg News reported yesterday that Google used creative accounting to avoid paying something like $2 billion in corporate income taxes this year.

Much of that savings was realized by funneling nearly $10 billion in profits to shell companies in Bermuda, which has no corporate income tax. Like other multinationals, Google uses maneuvers such as the "Double Irish" and the "Dutch Sandwich" to get its revenues safely out of the countries in which they're made, relatively untouched. By doing so, Bloomberg says, the company was able to cut its overall tax rate nearly in half.

Bloomberg is correct when it says that reports such as these fuel anger at multinational corporations for not paying their fair share for the general support of the commonweal, but I think that outrage is shortsighted.

Who says Google owes anything to the nations of the world? Is it right to have to pay for benefits you don't get or need? Isn't it Google's duty to maximize its profits to the greatest extent possible, and aren't governments and the taxes that support those governments only obstacles in pursuit of that goal?     

In support of these arguments, here are 11 good reasons why Google should not be forced to pay any taxes whatsoever, if it can legally avoid doing so:

1. Google built the Internet without any help from any government, domestic or foreign. 

2. Google constructed and maintains the roads, buses, bridges, tunnels, trains and air traffic control systems that make it possible for its employees around the world to get to work. 

3. Google provides its own police forces and criminal justice systems so that its employees and their families around the world are reasonably secure from robbery, assault and other crimes. It also provides its own national defense and homeland security departments.

4. In order to ensure an ongoing supply of customers, Google educates all of the children in all of the countries in which it operates, from kindergarten on.

5. Google picks up the garbage, cleans the streets and provides sewer systems in all the communities in which it does business.

6. Google inspects and regulates the foods and beverages its employees and their families consume to make sure they're reasonably safe from harmful ingredients and contamination. The company also approves, inspects and regulates any medications its employees and family members may need to take in order to maintain their health.

7. Google invented, built and regulates the satellite systems that make many of its businesses possible.

8. Google established and maintains its vast network of international operations without ever asking for help from the trade and diplomatic services of any government, American or otherwise.

9. Google established the democracies that have allowed free enterprise in general and technological capitalism in particular to flourish.

10. Google's executives don't have enough money. 

11. Google doesn't do evil. 

©Doug Hill, 2012

November 29, 2012

Protest Dreams

[Note: This is an updated version of an essay I posted last May, when "Killing Me Softly" premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.]

Brad Pitt's latest movie, which opens tomorrow, is being described as an attack on capitalism, at least as it's currently practiced in America.

When "Killing Them Softly" premiered at Cannes last spring, an article in the Los Angeles Times called it a "post-Occupy" film and "what the documentary 'Inside Job' might look like if it was a fictional feature."

"Inside Job," you may recall, is director Charles Ferguson's Oscar-winning examination of how Wall Street speculation and duplicity led to our current economic crisis. The action in "Killing Them Softly" takes place during the stock and housing market crashes that got the current crisis rolling; visible in the background are clips of presidential candidates Obama and McCain making promises (still unfulfilled) of economic reform. Director Andrew Dominik's underlying theme, according to the Times, "is that U.S. capitalism is deeply flawed, and that government, whether Democrat or Republican, has let down its people."

I mention this here because "Killing Them Softly" demonstrates a theme I've written about in this space: the symbiotic relationship between capitalism and technology. It also demonstrates the contradictions inherent in trying to use the tools of that symbiotic relationship to attack it.  

"Killing Them Softly" was financed by Megan Ellison, the daughter of Larry Ellison, the co-founder and chief executive officer of the software company, Oracle. The third richest man in America, Ellison is reportedly worth more than $35 billion, a fortune produced by that magically powerful combination of – you guessed it – technology and capitalism. Brad Pitt, of course, is one of the biggest movie stars in the world, an icon whose stature is a product of that same magical combination (in addition to good looks and acting talent).

As I noted in my earlier commentary, you can argue that capitalism is the driving force behind technology or you can argue that technology is the driving force behind capitalism. That's what I mean when I say the relationship between the two is symbiotic. Sometimes technology stimulates capitalism, other times capitalism stimulates technology. At their present state of development in advanced technological/capitalist societies, neither could exist without the other.

I'm an admirer of Brad Pitt, who, like George Clooney, has gone out of his way to use his Hollywood clout to make meaningful movies, both as works of cinematic art and as commentaries on important issues of the day. Not every film Pitt and Clooney make fits that category, but they're obviously trying. The problem, as I'm sure they know, is that those films owe their existence to a system that's responsible, in many ways, for the injustices they're trying to address. If the films are successful they also feed that system.

There's also a contradiction implicit in addressing real-life issues through a technological medium that sells dreams. "Killing Them Softly," says the Times, "is a hit-man movie, albeit an arthouse one, and contains many of the schemes and stylized violence you might expect from a film with that label." This is reminiscent of "The Godfather," surely one of the most profitable anti-capitalist films in Hollywood history. I'm not saying that art can't have an impact. I am saying that we don't strike a meaningful blow against the empire by spending ten dollars or more to watch a make-believe assassin pretend to kill people. 

My favorite example of this contradiction is the DreamWorks logo, a silhouette of a boy with a fishing pole, sitting, one imagines, by a peaceful lake on a summer's afternoon, lost in a reverie. This, of course, is exactly the sort of old-fashioned pastime that DreamWorks, with all the technological and marketing power at its disposal, is doing its best to make obsolete. Boys won't be spending their summer afternoons lolling peacefully by lakes if DreamWorks has anything to say about it. Rather, they'll be sitting inside multiplexes in shopping malls, hypnotized by reveries conjured for them by the latest extravaganzas of computer animation. 

©Doug Hill, 2012

November 15, 2012

Everything is Connected (Petraeus Scandal Edition)

As many have noted, technology – specifically, email accounts – played a central role in the ongoing scandal involving the resignation of CIA Director David Petraeus. "Harassing" emails sent to socialite Jill Kelley led to the FBI's discovery of emails that revealed Petraeus' affair with Paula Broadwell; other emails led to the discovery of questionable exchanges between Kelly and another top-ranking official, General John R. Allen; subsequent searches found classified documents on the hard drives of individuals who weren't authorized to have them.

With the indispensible assistance of the media, reverberations have been ricocheting furiously up and down the corridors of power and gossip from Washington and Langley to Florida, Afghanistan, and Libya since the scandal broke last Friday. It's not the first time these elements have combined to produce a sensation, but it’s the messiest we've seen lately. 

The Petraeus scandal demonstrates the dynamics of a phenomenon known in organization theory as the "tightly coupled system." The concept was introduced by Charles Perrow in his 1999 book, Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies. Computer programmers use the term to describe systems in which central processing units share some or all of the system’s memory and input/output resources.

The elements at play in the Petraeus scandal are more heavily weighted toward the human than the examples Perrow deals with in his book, which include nuclear and petrochemical plants, airplanes, mines, and weapons systems. Nonetheless, because his emphasis is so strongly systemic, and because the systems in question always rely on some combination of technology and human beings, his ideas can be fairly applied.

Interconnections too complicated to imagine

As the name implies, tight coupling describes a system in which an intimate connection exists, intentionally or not, between its component parts. This connection creates a potentially volatile interdependence as changes in one element of the system quickly reverberate throughout, setting off a chain reaction of associated effects. A simple example is a freeway at rush hour, when a stalled car in one lane causes a backup that stretches for miles.

The stalled car example demonstrates, as does the Petraeus scandal, that in tightly coupled systems small events can quickly mushroom into crises on a different order of magnitude. After-the-fact accident analyses, Perrow says, consistently reveal "the banality and triviality behind most catastrophes."

Perrow writes somewhat ruefully that all too often it's the human factor that introduces the fatal flaw into technological systems that are, because of their complexity, already primed for error. "Time and again warnings are ignored, unnecessary risks taken, sloppy work done, deception and downright lying practiced," he says. "Routine sins" plus technology equal "very nonroutine" consequences.

Perrow also stresses that, as careful as we think we are, it's impossible to anticipate every consequence of any action taken within a tightly coupled system – the potential reverberations are beyond our comprehension. What we see isn't only unexpected, he adds, it's often, at least for awhile, "incomprehensible." This can be true either because we're not aware of the consequences as they gather momentum, or because we're aware of them but can't bring ourselves to believe they're really happening. One assumes the principles in the Petraeus scandal have experienced both conditions.


Note: An earlier essay in this space discussed the part that the dynamics of tightly coupled systems played in the Challenger space shuttle disaster.

"Everything is Connected" is a recurring feature named in honor of the late Barry Commoner's four laws of ecology: Everything is connected to everything else, everything must go somewhere, nature knows best, and there is no such thing as a free lunch.  

Photo Credit: Washington Post/ISAF via Reuters; Image,

©Doug Hill, 2012

November 11, 2012

Everything is Connected (Global Chaos Edition)

Queens, New York, after Hurricane Sandy
So much for denial. A report commissioned by the CIA and other security agencies confronts head on what our political leaders are afraid to mention: The various forms of chaos that will be unleashed by global warming. 

Among developments the report says that the nation's defense and intelligence establishments need to prepare for, according to the New York Times:

  • large populations displaced by flood and famine,
  • rampant spread of disease,
  • increasing conflict over decreasing resources,
  • relief agencies overwhelmed by the scope and scale of need, and
  • the necessity of military action to curb violence or protect vital interests.

The report predicts that global warming will impose what the Times describes as "unparalleled strains" on government resources in the coming years. These strains will be the result of "more frequent but unpredictable crises in water supplies, food markets, energy supply chains and public health systems."

The National Research Council, which the Times calls "the nation’s top scientific research group," produced the report. It was originally to be presented to intelligence officials on the day Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, but had to be delayed because the federal government was shut down. Lead author John D. Steinbruner told the Times that Sandy provided a preview of the sorts of disruptions we can expect to see more of in the future. 

"You can debate the specific contribution of global warming to that storm," he said. "But we’re saying climate extremes are going to be more frequent, and this was an example of what they could mean. We’re also saying it could get a whole lot worse than that.” 

Post-Sandy repairs, Bronx, New York
The report says the U.S. military is not taking adequate steps to prepare for the disruptions that are expected to occur. It specifically warns of the collapse of "globally integrated systems that provide for human well-being." That's a reference to a condition I've written about frequently in this space, "technological autonomy," a shorthand way of describing the fact that nations around the world are now utterly dependent on massively complex, tightly coupled technological systems that are highly vulnerable to chain-reaction breakdowns.

The Times article ends by noting that even as the urgency of preparing for global warming has grown, the willingness of politicians to provide the funding necessary to do so has declined. 

"Everything is Connected" is a recurring feature named in honor of the late Barry Commoner's four laws of ecology: Everything is connected to everything else, everything must go somewhere, nature knows best, and there is no such thing as a free lunch. 

Photo Credits: Queens destruction: Spencer Platt - AFP/Getty Images; Bronx power lines: Don Emmert - AFP/Getty Images.

November 4, 2012

On Mitt (Romney) and Martin (Heidegger)

I avoid political commentary in this space because that's not what it's here for, and there are plenty of places to go for that. I try to keep my focus on technology and its effects, which as focuses go is plenty expansive enough. 

My comments here are not as much a departure from that policy as they might seem. The intention isn't to denounce Mitt Romney, but rather to note how clearly some of his campaign statements echo the ideas contained in Martin Heidegger's seminal essay, "The Question Concerning Technology." (Yes, I borrowed his title for my blog.) 

When Romney was interviewed in January by members of the editorial board of the Reno Gazette-Journal, he was asked about the federal government's massive landholdings in Nevada. If elected President, would he be willing to turn over some portion of those holdings to the state? Here's his response:
I don’t know the reason that the federal government owns such a large share of Nevada.  And when I was in Utah at the Olympics there I heard a similar refrain there.  What they were concerned about was that the government would step in and say, “We’re taking this” — which by the way has extraordinary coal reserves — “and we’re not going to let you develop these coal reserves.”  I mean, it drove the people nuts. 
Unless there’s a valid, and legitimate, and compelling governmental purpose, I don’t know why the government owns so much of this land. So I haven’t studied it, what the purpose is of the land, so I don’t want to say, "Oh, I’m about to hand it over." But where government ownership of land is designed to satisfy, let’s say, the most extreme environmentalists, from keeping a population from developing their coal, their gold, their other resources for the benefit of the state, I would find that to be unacceptable.
Again, the point here isn't to paint Romney as some sort of right-wing fanatic. To the contrary, he's far from the only politician, Republican or Democrat, to see economic growth as the cure for all that ails us. It was specifically his inability to comprehend the "purpose" of undeveloped public lands that made me think of Heidegger. 

Nuclear power on the Rhine, one of Heidegger's examples
of nature transformed into "standing reserve"
Heidegger was among those who defined technology as a way of thinking as well as a collection of machines. From a technological perspective, he said, nature has no value simply for what it is. Rather its worth is contained entirely in its usefulness as a means to produce something else. A river, a mountain, a forest – all are merely repositories of potential power, or what Heidegger called "standing reserve." This standing reserve must be extracted aggressively, by "setting upon" the natural world in "a revealing that challenges." Technology's aggression is narrow as well as relentless: It "blocks the shining forth and holding sway of truth.”

It would be easy for any politician to dismiss Heidegger as an ivory tower academic hopelessly removed from real-world concerns. And of course Heidegger's own political affiliations hardly inspire confidence in his epistemology. That's unfortunate, because his insights into the nature of technology are profound and important.

To argue today that a form of truth "shines forth" in nature, and that such a truth has value that can't be measured in dollars, seems hopelessly na├»ve. Even environmentalists felt compelled to respond to Romney's comments by pointing out that Nevada's national parks attract tourists who contribute millions to the state's economy. For conservatives in particular, conservation seems to have become a dirty word. The tragedy is that all too often in our history, "natural resources" development leaves precious little that is "natural" behind.  

©Doug Hill, 2012

November 1, 2012

Everything is Connected

Gridlock, NYC

According to the New York Times, it's too early for climate scientists to say with assurance that Hurricane Sandy was a manifestation of global warming. Whatever their ultimate verdict, the storm provided some alluring previews of what we can look forward to as climate change takes hold. 

Case in point: massive gridlock in New York City as a result of Sandy's impact on subways and trains.

The New York Post headlined its story on the situation "Now Sandy is Driving Us Mad." Here's an excerpt: 
An unprecedented crush of cars, trucks and pedestrians clogged the streets of Manhattan from river to river yesterday, bringing the city to a virtual halt — leading Mayor Bloomberg to impose emergency High Occupancy Vehicle restrictions to avoid similar chaos today.

An endless line of cars poured into the city throughout the day — but many drivers ditched their vehicles when they landed in a gridlock nightmare, and concluded their commutes on foot.

Bloomberg responded to the traffic hell by ordering carpooling on all major crossings except the George Washington Bridge.


"Everything is Connected" is a recurring feature named in honor of the late Barry Commoner's four laws of ecology: Everything is connected to everything else, everything must go somewhere, nature knows best, and there is no such thing as a free lunch.  

Photo credit:: Andrew Gombert/European Pressphoto Agency via New York Times

October 30, 2012

Talking Technology! (On Technological Entanglement)

I've confessed before to an annoying fondness for saying "I told you so." Still, I can't help but note that an article in the New York Times this morning affirms arguments that are regular themes here.

The article is a profile of computer scientist Peter G. Neumann, who has warned for decades that the complexity of the computer systems we rely on makes it "virtually impossible" (as the Times put it) to assure that they'll run reliably and safely. 

Neumann is recognized as one of the nation's leading experts on computer security. Nonetheless the hardware and software industries have consistently ignored his predictions that the products they sell, as they proliferate, will become increasingly vulnerable to breakdown and attack. His mantra is that complex systems break in complex ways, a principle that's been vindicated by legions of computer bugs and viruses, regular reports of massive data breaches and thefts, and growing fears of cyber warfare.

“His biggest contribution is to stress the ‘systems’ nature of the security and reliability problems,” said Steven M. Bellovin, chief technology officer of the Federal Trade Commission. “That is, trouble occurs not because of one failure, but because of the way many different pieces interact.”

Neumann's current project, Clean Slate, has been funded by the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It's an effort to rethink computer design from the ground up. The goal: an entirely new race of machines that's simpler, more stable, and less easily violated. 

If that sounds idealistic, it is, and Neumann knows better than to expect eager assent from the digital establishment.

“I’ve been tilting at the same windmills for basically 40 years,” he tells the Times' John Markoff. “And I get the impression that most of the folks who are responsible don’t want to hear about complexity. They are interested in quick and dirty solutions.”

Again, forgive me for pointing out how clearly this echoes themes I harp on regularly in this space (though certainly not original to me). Recent examples include "On immovable technologies," "Recycling Ellen Ullman," and "Technological Autonomy: Greasing the rails to Armageddon."

The broader point to be emphasized is that the systemic nature of technology – and the fallibility that's an inevitable consequence of that systemic nature – is not only an issue in the world of computers. It applies to the  technological society as a whole. Peter Neumann's argument that the complexity of digital systems makes them unstable and insecure can be extended to the inconceivably complex web of technological systems that now dominate the ecosystem we inhabit.

If it's difficult to imagine starting over with a "clean slate" in the world of computers, how much more difficult is it to imagine rethinking and rebuilding the entire technological edifice on which we depend, regardless of how unstable that edifice might be? As I've said before, it's not a problem we seem prepared to contemplate.

©Doug Hill, 2012

October 21, 2012

And speaking of Moby Dick...

I came across this quote from the novel today, from Chapter 58, "Brit": 

"….though but a moment's consideration will teach, however baby man may brag of his science and skill, and however much, in a flattering future, that science and skill may augment; yet for ever and for ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest, stiffest frigate he can make."


Illustration: Tony Millionaire

October 18, 2012

On Google and Moby Dick

Gregory Peck as Ahab
Google's home page today pays tribute to the 161st anniversary of the publication of Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Whether this tribute reflects any particular affection for the novel on the part of Google's leadership, I don't know. In any event there's considerable irony in the choice, given that Google's quests for expansion and control can be seen as contemporary manifestations of the technocratic mania that drove Captain Ahab's quest to find and kill the white whale.

Moby Dick is too expansive to pin "the meaning of Ahab" down to a single theme, but it's clear that Ahab's use of the technologies of whaling combined with his relentless nature serve in many passages as symbols of the Industrial Revolution, which was transforming Melville's times as decisively as the computer revolution is transforming our own. It's also clear that Melville saw technology as a force that tended to promote power, ego, and domination at the expense of mystery, humility, and reverence.

Ahab is described as a man who is made not of flesh and blood but of "solid bronze." At one point he compares the forward motion of his will to that of a locomotive. "The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails," he says, "whereon my soul is grooved to run." At another point, in a rare moment of reflection, he acknowledges that he is turning a commercial whaling expedition into a voyage over the edge of the abyss. "[A]ll my means are sane," he says, "my motive and my object mad."

Ahab also notes, with a mixture of triumph and surprise, that all the crew members of the Pequod (all the world, that is) have acquiesced to his methods and his goals. "I thought to find one stubborn, at the least," he says, "but my one cogged circle fits into all their various wheels, and they revolve." 

Herman Melville
One sailor on the Pequod successfully resists Ahab's mission, albeit passively, and that's Ishmael. Melville portrays Ishmael as the quintessential dreamer, and thus the antithesis of technocratic efficiency. When on duty in the crow's nest, he confesses that he's more apt to contemplate the wonders of the cosmos than to keep an eye out for whales. Ship owners risk their profit, he warns, by hiring men like him. "[Y]our whales must be seen before they can be killed," he says; "and this sunken-eyed young Platonist will tow you ten wakes round the world, and never make you one pint of [whale oil] the richer."

In the end, of course, it is Ishmael alone who survives, which may or may not be Melville's version of a happy ending. What ending is in store for all of us who have enlisted on the good ship Google remains to be seen. 

©Doug Hill, 2012

October 14, 2012

Everything is Connected

I'm inaugurating a new regular feature today, Everything is Connected, named in honor of the late Barry Commoner's four laws of ecology.
  1. Everything is connected to everything else. 
  2. Everything must go somewhere. 
  3. Nature knows best. 
  4. There is no such thing as a free lunch.  

The Los Angeles Times reports today that the effects of severe drought in the Midwest this summer are causing restaurants to cut back on the size of their servings, increase prices, and reduce staff. Customers are complaining about smaller portions, lower quality cuts of meat, and fewer specials.

Smokin' Jonny's BBQ in Gardena, California, raised the price of corn on the cob from $1.50 to $3.00 and then dropped it from the menu entirely because the quality of the corn wasn't good enough. Ribs are only on the menu on weekends because that's when people are willing to splurge for what's become a luxury meal.

"Economists say even bigger hikes are ahead as the poor U.S. harvest ripples through the food chain," the Times reports.

Chase Edmondson, an actor interviewed by the Times, said he sometimes orders kids' meals to combat menu shock. "It's kind of ridiculous when you're getting a hamburger for $12," he said.

October 12, 2012

On Immovable Technologies

There are some Big Ideas in the philosophy of technology that I find very helpful in understanding what's going on in the world of machines today. One of those ideas is a concept known as "technological momentum."

Technological momentum is a phrase coined by the historian Thomas Parke Hughes to describe the tendency of successful technological systems to become entrenched over time, growing increasingly resistant to change. This resistance is a product of both physical and psychological commitments. We invest materially in factories and emotionally in careers. Equipment and infrastructure accumulate and intertwine; dependence and force of habit build.

Professor Hughes' label has its problems, for reasons I'll explain, but before I do let me note two recent examples of technological momentum in action. Both, as they say, are ripped from the headlines.

Carol Bartz
The first example involves comments made earlier this month at a Fortune magazine forum by Carol Bartz, fired last year as president and chief executive officer of Yahoo. According to the NewYork Times, at one point Bartz was asked if she had any advice for her successor in those roles, Marissa Mayer. Bartz replied that Mayer shouldn't kid herself about quick turnarounds at a company as large as Yahoo. When informed of proposed changes in policy, she recalled, staff members there typically responded with agreement to her face and defiance in private. Bartz came away from the experience amazed by "how stuck individuals can be, much less 14,000 people." 

“It’s very, very hard to affect culture," she said. "And you can get surprised thinking you’re farther down the path of change than you really are because, frankly, most of us like the way things are.”

The second example involves an even bigger tech brand, Microsoft. In August Vanity Fair magazine ran a lengthy dissection of the company’s creative decline under the stewardship of its Chief Executive Officer, Steven Ballmer. 

Steven Ballmer
The article portrays Ballmer presiding over a “lumbering” behemoth, "pumping out" tried and true products (Windows and Office) while failing to exploit opportunities (search, music, mobile) that have turned other companies (Google, Apple) into global icons. “Every little thing you want to write has to build off of Windows or other existing products,” a software engineer told reporter Kurt Eichenwald. “It can be very confusing, because a lot of the time the problems you’re trying to solve aren’t the ones that you have with your product, but because you have to go through the mental exercise of how this framework works. It just slows you down.”

That comment suggests why Professor Hughes’ "technological momentum" label isn't ideal. Momentum implies movement, but often as not the dynamics he’s describing lead to paralysis. Computer programmers refer to the acquired intractability of older software systems as problems of "legacy" or "lock-in," terms that may more accurately convey the obstinacy involved.

The fact that a software program can be an obstacle to change underscores a point touched on earlier: technological momentum is about more than stubborn geezers stuck in their ways. Technological systems become entrenched because they’re made out of real-world stuff. Companies can replace operating systems and assembly lines, but not without a lot of energy and expense, and inevitably the replacements have to incorporate some of what came before. An entire society’s commitment to a technology becomes almost impossible to reverse. America’s highway systems won’t be dismantled any time soon; the problem is keeping them repaired. 

Technological momentum tells us that technological systems tend to be self-perpetuating. There’s irony in that because the quality we typically associate with technology is progress, not stagnation. In fact both things are true: technological systems can be both disruptive and obstructionist, sometimes both at the same time. It’s also true, as any football fan knows, that momentum – forward momentum, that is – can be lost or regained. Steve Jobs did both at Apple, and Steve Ballmer is in the process, with the introduction of a new operating system, a new music service, a new phone system, and a new tablet computer, of trying to pull off the same trick at Microsoft. 

The greatest example of technological momentum is technology itself. Technology is astonishingly creative within its own realm, but it's incapable of recognizing any realm outside itself. To the degree that we fail to recognize that fact – which these days is almost completely – we surrender ourselves to the technological paradigm. Even sane people are beginning to think that the only way we'll be able to save the planet from environmental catastrophe is by the invention of some ingenious technique. Individual ambitions aim in the same direction; everyone’s out to make a dent in the universe on the scale of Gates or Zuckerberg or Jobs. These dreamers may consider themselves consummate innovators, but their thinking is still trapped in a box labeled “Technology.”

Image credits: Bartz, Tony Avelar/Bloomberg via Getty Images; Closed Mind illustration: Harry Campbell

©Doug Hill, 2012