Thursday, September 29, 2011

Technologies R'Us

The Conservation of Energy is one of the fundamental laws of our physical universe. Energy can be neither created nor destroyed. It can - and is - transformed continuously from one form to another.  Potential energy to kinetic energy. Heat to work. Work to motion. Energy moves constantly through our universe making the universe as we know it possible.

I sometimes think of technology in its broadest sense as a form of energy. While it gives the illusion of having been created through countless inventions, new technology always comes from a convergence of older technologies which make the new technology possible.  It is a flow, not an aggregation of static ideas. In the 18th Century, a new understanding of steam and other gases opened the door for the first steam engines to pump water from mine pits.  Coal powered not only the first steam engines but it also made possible the scientific fabrication of steel. Steel and the steam engine opened the door to manufacturing on an industrial scale.

In the 19th Century, iron and steel and the steam engine morphed into a revolutionary form of transportation - the railroad.  With the easy movement of goods and people, more trade evolved. The movement of goods and people became faster and cheaper. Costs dropped dramatically as manufacturing increased in scale. For the first time, almost everyone in the 19th Century owned at least something that was factory made.

Paralleling the advances in manufacturing and transportation came equal advances in communications, illumination, and motors - all based on a growing knowledge of electricity. The telegraph made communications across long distances virtually instantaneous. Eventually, transoceanic cables made the world a much smaller place.  As the century progressed, people wanted the electric lights, telephones, and electric street cars made possible through new technology. By 1900, the world was poised to explode on a wave of mass production facilitated by transportation, communication, and distribution networks.

The early parts of the the 20th Century were dominated by the emergence of the automobile.  The lure of being able to travel where you wanted when you wanted, free of the train and trolley schedules, was irresistible to anyone who could afford a car. New and better roads led to everything from suburban living to extended vacation travel across the country.  Mass consumption demanded a ready-made mass market which was created by raising consumer advertising to a virtual science.  Now, people commonly owned the products of technology - radios, refrigerators, washing machines, irons, and telephones. Not only did people buy these products but an ever-wider array of choices became available. There were products for people to buy not just for their function but as symbols of a rising status in the world.

The 20th Century unleashed people's feelings of autonomy. They could travel when they wanted, where they wanted. They could listen to any number of radio programs, choose the style of clothing that suited them best, and furnish their homes with a seemingly-endless array of consumer goods.  After World War II, new technologies and mass consumption kicked into yet a higher gear. Radio gave way to television. Live broadcasting was supplemented with video tapes and DVDs. A panoply of cable channels supplemented the major television networks. Music was unfettered from the home and car radio and became a more personal and portable form of entertainment through the Walkman and later the iPod. Electronics opened the floodgates to affordable information technologies starting with the personal computer which morphed into the internet and then to the wireless world of smart phones in an endless variety of models and capabilities.

We stand at the doorway of the 21st Century which will surely be the age of ubiquitous and constant information. Everything will communicate in some way with everything else. Information will wrap the planet in a garment of bits so thick that we will no longer remember what it was like to have to write a physical letter, or find a pay-phone, or do our taxes by hand and mail them at the post office (which may also disappear).

The advances of the last three centuries have been mind-boggling.  We have gone from a mostly agrarian world to a predominantly urban and connected culture.  But each advance has carried its own costs - its own Conservation of Good and Bad.  As people moved to the mill towns of the 18th century, they lost their independence and became dependent on the mill owners for a (usually poor) wage. The air became fouled with smoke and pollution. The density of housing with poor sanitation brought epidemics of disease. Eventually, of course, the worst of these ills of the mill towns started to be addressed - by new and better technology. Technologies moved on but so did the side effects.

In the 19th Century, more and more people gave up the farm for the factory, for what clearly seemed to be a better way of life. The route to prosperity was through the middle class with its better wages and better education for the children. More people worked for larger companies which, with the advent of the railroads, gave rise to the modern corporation. People were no longer just owners or laborers but occupied intermediate rungs on the corporate ladder.  Time became regulated by the clock to dictate everything from the hours of work to the schedules of the trains. The world became more networked with the sharing of stock prices by ticker tape and the creation of world time zones to unify travel and communication. Cities grew ever larger and more congested.

The 20th Century gave people a sense of autonomy while at the same time making them evermore interconnected and interdependent.  There were more choices of products but fewer choices on how to earn a living without being part of the interconnected web of commerce.  The population continued to grow and with it came more cars and traffic jams, more need for electricity and more air pollution. The world was both much richer and much more complex than ever before.

Now we face the Knowledge Age with only the slightest grasp of how pervasive and powerful it will become in our lives. We gain a sense of exponential connectivity while at the same time we face the specter of losing our privacy almost completely.  We will live in a world where our actions and intentions become the stuff of marketing research and directed advertising. Our children will never know what it was like to live in the Prewired World - and likely they would not choose to live there if they could.

We live in a world where we are becoming increasingly inseparable from the technology that we create and that surrounds us. This is not necessarily a bad thing but it should give us at least some pause for thought.  Can we control our technology or has it moved beyond our control into a stage of evolution that is almost biological in form?  Technologies now define us, define how we work and how we play.  We use communications technology ubiquitously. We social networker on Facebook, Google, and Twitter.  We are hooked to our iPhone even while we watch a movie in a theater. We drive and talk on our cell phones and think nothing of it.  Technologies make our everyday life possible. Do we know how many functions in our automobiles are now controlled by computers?  Digital electronics run our refrigerators and even our furnaces.  We have crossed the threshold and there is no going back.  But this is not a new phenomenon. The same was true a century ago - just to a lesser degree. We live in a world that is evermore shaped by our own hands and minds but that same technology is now shaping us.  We may no longer be masters of our own destiny.  Ready or not, Technologies R'Us.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

That Should Still Be Us

I saw an article in our local paper, the Raleigh News and Observer, entitled, Industries Fear New Wage Rules. The article was exploring the new wage rules that are being imposed by the Department of Labor on industries that hire immigrant workers on H2-B, temporary work visas.  Wages are projected to increase, on average, almost 50 percent - from $7.43 an hour to $11.18 an hour under the new rules. The higher wage is in line with the minimum wage paid in most regions. The reporter interviewed a number of small industry owners such as oyster processors, reforestation services, and even hotel owners for the impact of the upcoming change in the law. Not surprisingly, the owners are not happy, feeling that the increase in the wages they will have to pay will drive many of them out of business. Not a good deal.

But what struck me in the story was a couple of paragraphs in the article:

Employers say that they rely on foreign workers for the dirty, back-breaking tasks that Americans aren't willing to do - even with the current high unemployment rate.  And, they stress, they're required to document their efforts to hire Americans before the government permits them to hire foreign workers.

Further on, the article states:

Susan Pentz, 60, who along with her husband owns the 18-room Harborside Motel on Ocracoke Island, has been bringing in two housekeepers each tourist season for the past decade. She turned to foreign workers, she said, after struggling to hire locals and discovering that those she was able to hire soon quit or showed up only when they felt like it. "The bottom line is, I ended up cleaning the rooms because... no wanted to do that kind of manual labor," Perez said.

I read this article just after I finished reading Tom Friedman's and Michael Mandelbaum's new book, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. The authors of the book are trying to get us to focus on the multiple forces are in play that are causing us to slide from the leadership position we have enjoyed since at least the end of World War II.

The Big Challenges in their minds are:

  1. Globalization and  the Information Technology Revolution
  2. The Return of Strong Middle Class Jobs
  3. Rising National Debt and the Deficit
  4. The Need for Green and Clean Energy
They spend quite a bit of time documenting each of these areas in what amounts to a rehash of other news articles and their own past opinion pieces. Still, the case is compelling that these are. indeed, major issues that need to be addressed.

To address these issues, they outline what they call the Five Pillars of Prosperity:

  1. Providing much better public education for more and more Americans
  2. Continuing to build and modernize our infrastructure
  3. Keeping America's doors open to immigration
  4. Government support for basic R&D
  5. Implementing limited but necessary regulation on private economic activity
The authors make the case that we basically got fat and happy when we won the Cold War.  At just that moment, we should have been redoubling our efforts to compete in a global economy. Instead, we borrowed our way to an unsustainable way of life.  But the bills have now come due on both a personal and national level. Worse, the current political system is so broken as to prevent any meaningful action to address the Big Challenges. 

Their solution? They think we need a strong, centrist, third-party Presidential candidate. They acknowledge from the outset that the candidate most likely won't win. But the candidate could force whoever does win to take note of their more centrist platforms. They even suggest three past third-party candidates who did just that - Theodore Roosevelt and his Bull Moose candidacy to continue to build Progressive reforms in 1912, George Wallace in 1968 who forced Washington to pay attention to the South, and Ross Perot in his 1992 bid to address national budget deficits (they didn't mention Ralph Nader).  Each of these candidates caused the incoming President to enact reforms that the Third-Party candidate strongly campaigned to bring to the nation's attention. The authors call this strategy political Shock Therapy. 

And what does all this have to do with the history of technology? Everything. This country was built on the backs of immigrant labor manning the steel mills and garment sweatshops. The entrepreneurs who built American business developed countless new technologies that changed our way of life. Think telephones, automobiles, televisions, personal computers, and cell phones. To make all of these objects that we now take for granted required more and more skilled labor in the factories. A Middle Class with rising expectations that their lives would be better, and their children's lives better yet, was born, at least in part from a strong public education system. By comparison, for the last decade, data indicates that the Middle Class has not advanced economically one dime. In fact, they may be worse off than they were ten years ago.

Technology and democracy have always played key roles in making the United States a place where people wanted to live. For many in the Third World, it still holds that attraction. But I agree with Friedman and Mandelbaum - something needs to change and change fast. We are well past the dithering stage. 

The immigrant workers who come to North Carolina to take temporary jobs are looking for a better life, just as millions of immigrants did before them. They are willing to do what Americans are not, and I'm not just talking about the menial jobs they do. They are willing to leave their home country and families to try to make a little better living than they can at home. How many of our own, even highly-educated people, are willing to leave their country for better opportunities in China or India?  Not as many as those who come the other way for poor wages and lousy living conditions. 

Let's try to get technology back to producing the jobs we need to help all of us be in the position where we can look forward to a better future.  We are still the best hope for a brighter world. 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Technology and the City: For Better and For Worse

Roosevelt Center
Greenbelt, MD
The city was created by technology. Technology has also made the city a poorer place to live. This cycle of creation and degradation has gone on since people started building their mud and straw huts close together. The by-products of cohabitation, whether sewage or air pollution or even epidemic diseases, has been the price one paid for living close to markets or places of work.

This pattern was reinforced for me by a film I happened upon entitled simply The City. The  film is a documentary created for the 1939 New York World's Fair City of Tomorrow which was part of the Futurama exhibit.  The film was the brainchild of Catherine Bauer Wurster who was the leading member of a small group of idealists known as "The Housers" who were committed to improving housing for low-income families. The New York architect, Robert D. Kohn, shared her interest in low-income housing and commissioned the documentary.

The film focused much of its attention on the planned community of Greenbelt, Maryland which was constructed under Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal as a model community. The idea was to build an ideal community near Washington, D.C. to relieve a severe housing shortage in the area of the Capital which existed at that time.  Two other cities were also planned and built - Greendale, Wisconsin (near Milwaukee) and Greenhills, Ohio (near Cincinnati).

The film was originally written by FDR's filmmaker, Pare Lorentz, but was re-scripted by the noted architectural critic and advocate of planned suburban communities, Lewis Mumford. Interestingly, the documentary's music was the first commissioned film score for composer Aaron Copeland and had largely been forgotten until this film was rediscovered in the archives a few years ago.

When I watched the film (which is available on YouTube in four parts), I was struck by how many of the problems we face today were already there in 1938: traffic congestion, over-crowding, air pollution, and terrible housing for low-income people. The model city of Greenbelt, MD looks like a little utopia compared to the squalor of the mill towns and the congestion of New York City. In many ways, however, the future longed for in the film has come to pass. Many of us live in nicely laid out suburban communities with good roads, schools, housing, and shopping. Yet many of the problems are still with us or have even grown worse over time. Despite our advancing technology, the city remains challenged to perpetually come up with new - mostly technical - solutions.

Quite coincidentally, the latest special issue of Scientific American is about the future of cities.  Must be something in the air about cities lately. I keep coming across all these connections. In any event, the 1939 documentary is linked below. If you want a better view, click through to the YouTube site and watch it as a 480p video.

Parts 1 to 4: