Thursday, December 29, 2011

Small Can Be Beautiful

I realize that the title of this post is something of a rip on E.F. Schumacher's book, Small is Beautiful, but small is not always beautiful. Sometimes small just leads to being crushed.  I started thinking about this when I was listening to an interview on the Diane Rehm Show on NPR. She was talking to  Stanford historian, Richard White, about his book, Railroaded: The Transcontinental and the Making of Modern America.

In his book, White lays out the mostly-sordid business history of the building of both the Transcontinental Railroad and other major expansions of the railroads in the late 19th Century. Railroads were the first large corporations in America. It was not possible to build something as capital intensive as a railroad without major investment. It was also not possible to operate such a large enterprise without layers of management. The Transcontinental Railroad was built mostly through political favors, bribes, and kickbacks. There was no business reason at the time of the Civil War that could justify building a rail line through mostly unpopulated areas. But the railroad got built because there was money to be made in railroad construction costs, land grants, and subsidies.

My purpose here is not to revisit the seamy sides of the railroad business. What got me thinking was how the railroads were once the dominant transportation system in the United States - at least for passenger travel. The over-used term of the time was how railroads "collapsed time and space", and it was true. Travelers depended on the railroads to get where they wanted to go. And in the late 19th Century, you could get almost everywhere on a railroad. Of course, you had to travel on the railroad's timetable and if the town you wanted to get to wasn't on a rail line, you were on your own.

Model-T Assembly Line
At the end of the 19th Century, a laughably obscure technology began its unstoppable derailment of railroad passenger travel.  I refer, of course, to the automobile. From the very beginning, people loved the idea of being able to decide where and when to travel. Roads of the day weren't great, but people started to lobby for better roads. When Henry Ford's assembly line made the Model T affordable to almost every middle-class family, the automobile exploded onto the roadways.  For trips under a hundred miles, people would drive rather than take the train. They could leave on their own schedule and get to any town served by a road - even a bad road.  The family didn't have to have invest in a massive corporation to be able to drive. The large corporations like Ford Motor Company put the individual in charge of their own transportation.  It took decades, but gradually the railroads stopped running passenger trains and the country is now laced with interstate highways that carry the bulk of ground travel.  In the end, the individual would rather have control than give it to a large corporation. Small can be beautiful,

A second example is the main frame computer. When computing  came of age after World War II, it was the large companies like IBM that controlled the industry.  Once again, development was helped by government support - mostly from the Defense Department. Users were allowed limited access to these huge computing machines, mostly through leases to other corporations and universities.  The large capital required to build and operate these machines called for huge corporate investments and specialized technical people to operate the machines.

Then in the early 1980s, the personal computer became available from both Apple and IBM (and a host of smaller players). Computing was now available directly to the individual without an intermediary. People loved it. PCs were found in more and more homes and businesses. The individual became empowered and took control of computing virtually overnight. It didn't take the decades it took to move from the railroads to the automobile. Within a decade, PCs were ubiquitous. And those PCs when hooked to the emerging network called the internet gave people even more individual freedom to communicate and create thousands of new uses for the personal computer. Today, personal computers are in your pocket, in your smart phones, and tablets are becoming the new laptops. Given a choice, people will always opt for more control of their technology.

With these examples in mind, I started to muse about what the next big waves of personal control might be?  The starting point is to look for high capital intensity today. What demands a large corporation to provide the capital to make the technology possible?  I think it would be fair to eliminate those corporations that supply network services like power and oil companies. But even as I write this I think of Skype which has done a lot to eat into the phone companies' business. Maybe the two areas that might come to pass next are manufacturing and health care.

Right now, if you want a new widget, you have to look for someone who makes it and offers it for sale. But 3-D printing is changing the paradigm. Now, you can design or scan an object and send it directly to a 3-D printer that can pop a widget out in nothing flat. The technology is still early and you won't find a 3-D printer in your neighbor's house but give it a decade or two and see where we are. I predict that  manufacturing is going to undergo a sea change - and that sea change which will put more power into the hands of the individual.

The second area that comes to mind is health care. Right now, hospitals and clinics are capital intensive. Most people have to go to a physical facility to talk to a nurse or doctor. Medical records are closed for both privacy and competitive reasons. I think the forces of personal computing and the internet are going to change the way a lot of health care is practiced.  Small sensors built into your smart phone or tablet will measure your physical status and convey it to a doctor who will make electronic "house calls" to you via video links. For most minor situations, you will no longer have to go to the clinic or hospital to be seen.  Even for major procedures like surgery, you will be able to choose an expert who might live half-way around the world to do your procedure via robotic surgery.  Health care is ripe for change due to its taxing infrastructure and exploding costs.

People want control of their lives and technologies. New technologies that give them the sense of control at affordable costs will be rapidly embraced.  The world awaits the next waves of change. Small can be beautiful.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Have you seen the new Martin Scorsese movie, Hugo? I highly recommend it for multiple reasons - a great story, a love of silent films, wonderful cinematography (in 3D, no less), and the recreation of an automaton. The film is based loosely in real people and events. Georges Melies. the first creator of silent fictional films, is one of the central characters of the film - wonderfully portrayed by Ben Kingsley. The film is set in Paris's Montparnasse train station some time after the end of World War I. Melies is selling toys in a tiny stall in the train station where he meets the film's protagonist, Hugo.

Jacques de Vaucanson
Automata are what today we would call robots. They were an attempt by their builders to render a life-like creature from machine parts. The history of automata goes back millenia. Even Leonardo da Vinci drew designs for automata and built at least one in the shape of a lion. Various builders followed with increasingly sophisticated automata. One of the earliest masters was Jacques de Vaucanson who exhibited in 1738 the mechanical figure of a flute player which could actually play this difficult instrument through subtle recreations of the lips, palate, and facial muscles (not to mention the fingering of the keys). This automaton was a smash hit and other builders followed with their own mechanical recreations of life.  Much later, as we shall see, Georges Melies became fascinated with automata.

Georges Melies
Georges Melies was born in France in 1884 and trained to become a shoe maker, like his father. But while training in London, he became enthralled by the magic he saw performed in the Egyptian Hall.  When he returned to France he worked in his father's business until his father died. At that point, he sold his share of the business to his two brothers and used the money to buy the dilapidated Parisian theater of magician, Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin (from whom Houdini took his stage name).

Robert-Houdin started life apprenticing as a watchmaker but was always fascinated by magic. While working in the Loire valley, he became seriously ill and was nursed back to life by a magician named Torrini. Torrini, it turns out, had several automata that he used in his magic shows. The automata were badly in need of repairs and Robert-Houdin used his mechanical skills to bring them back to working condition. He also immediately saw the link between magic and the seemingly life-like power of these mechanical androids.

Robert-Houdin went back to Paris and began his work building clocks, astronomical instruments, and automata.  In 1844, he won a medal at the Paris Exposition for his writing automaton.  Robert-Houdin now started to devote all his energy to automata. His 1844 model was enhanced to where it could perfectly recreate Robert-Houdin's signature. Ironically, P.T. Barnum bought the automaton while on a tour of Europe with Tom Thumb. The automaton was exhibited in England and then sent back to America where it was displayed in Barnum's museum of oddities. It was eventually destroyed in a museum fire.

Robert-Houdin had opened a magic theater in Paris during this time period. He died in 1871 and his sons managed his theater for 17 years until one of the son's widows sold it to George Melies.  The theater came with all of the props including Robert-Houdin's remaining automata.  Melies immediately repaired the theater and the automata.  The movie would have us think that the writing automaton was still in Paris but this was not the case as mentioned before.

Soon after, Melies became fascinated with photography and moving pictures when he saw the early work of the Lumieres brothers.  He tried to buy one of their cameras and when they turned him down, he went on to build his own. Melies started making his own films and by 1897, the magic theater was mostly a movie theater. Below is his 1902 classic, A Trip to the Moon.

In the film, Hugo, the boy, must repair the writing automaton to try to retrieve a message he felt that his dead father had left encrypted in the automaton. When he finally did get the machine repaired, it drew pictures which lead Hugo to the secret past of Georges Melies, who had long ago  fallen out of favor as a film maker and was now a toy seller in the train station (Melies did, indeed, fall out of favor as a film maker and ended his working years selling toys from a tiny stall in Montparnasse Station).

In the film, the automaton is meant to cast a mysterious grip on us. But that's nothing new. Automata have always delighted and confounded people with a mechanical imitation of life.  We still find robots fascinating. The word "robot", by the way, comes from a 1921 play by Karel Capek entitled, Rossum's Universal Robots.  Today, robots are literally part of our everyday life - whether it is the GPS navigation system in our car or the Scooba that scrubs our floors. But we still want to instill life and personality into these machines (Disclosure: we have named our GPS systems in our cars Jeeves and Prudence and talk to them regularly).  Robots populate our films and stories (who can forget HAL in 2001?). Robots might seem like our future.

Maybe someday these machines will become so sophisticated we might not be able to tell them apart from human beings. Personally, I doubt that it will happen. Even if we could create such creatures, our sensibilities would demand some form of visual recognition that tells us that this creature is not human. We are fascinated by machine life but we are very wary of losing the boundaries of our own humanity.  Robots will become ubiquitous but not invisible.  The line between man and machine is not easily transgressed.

[For a much more in depth treatment of automata, mechanical life, and Georges Melies,  I would recommend Gaby Woods 2002 book entitled (in the U.S.), Edison's Eve, and in Britain, Living Dolls.}