Back in the late seventies I read E F Schumacher’s book, Small Is Beautiful. The author is an economist, a journalist, and progressive entrepreneur, although I’m not exactly sure of the exact nature of the latter. There is a newer version published in 2010 although i have not read it. The thesis is a sort of back to the basics in economic activity and avoiding the siren song of technology. There is some wisdom in that assertion since technology will not save us from anything and tends to make the world a less than better place. I used to subscribe to a good many cutting edge magazines that discussed all the new and emerging technologies, must have been thirty years worth piled up in boxes in my garage. In a way, the constant following of emerging technologies tends to be addictive after a while. I mean, you become so involved with the latest and greatest that you tend to lose sight of the promises the older technologies made and never really kept. Of course one of the reasons why I kept up that reading was for investment purposes. But even that is a crap shoot. The medical technology of MRI was suppose to lead to great profits for those companies that could get the product out and into hospitals quickly. The stock I bought showed me the reality of depending on technology for the big profits, I made my twenty percent over two years but that was all. The problem was that one could never count on the market to behave in the way that one could become rick. My best stock risk was the IPO of Eagle Computers, doubled in price in two weeks and I sold. Unfortunately I only had an allocation for 100 shares, not exactly the big gold nugget. Other investments actually lost a few dollars.
But all that wonderful technology is suppose to change the world for the better. Reverse osmosis membranes would take sea water and allow the water molecules through while keeping the salt prom passing (salt is actually held in solution). sounds like we could make the Sahara green again. Well, not quite. There are a couple of plants on the California coast but they provide only a drop in the bucket as far as fresh water supply goes. These plants can only supply drinking water for a few thousand, not millions. And the cost of such plants tends to be prohibitive. I’ve watched the development of solar energy and wind power, both of which have not been as productive as promised in the early days of their development. the efficiency of solar power has been incrementally improved but the major problem is that on clear days its efficiency comes into its peak about 10 am and declines after 2 pm. Its useful operating range is between 9 am and 3 or 4 pm, depending. Heavy cloud cover makes it almost useless. And as the night approaches, the power vanishes. Well, it can lower your power bill now, but in the future that cost relationship will change. The power infrastructure is owned and maintained by the utility company who sells the electric power at your doorstep. Yes, I know, you buy your “green” power from some one else but how do you think it gets into your house? The power company must buy back any power your supply at less than wholesale rates in order to stay in business and keep your power flowing at night. And unlike the gasoline in your vehicle which is only used when you start your engine, that electric power is always being generated, standing at your meter waiting to be used. So all this green energy bullshit is just that. Solar does little to save the planet. Wind is another alternative but it too suffers from problems. It the wind is too light or too strong the windmills are shut down, producing no energy. these are very expensive power units and the only way most of the got built were through government subsidies, meaning that part of the cost of building and operating them comes out of your pocket by way of taxes. Back in the eighties you could have bought shares in the stock trusts that built these windmills and operated them, selling the power generated to the public utilities. State and federal regulations and laws forced the public power utilities to by that power and the federal subsidies made these trusts profitable. When the subsidies ran out the trusts weren’t profitable any more.
Technology has limitations. Take a heart valve as an example. One can use tissue from a pig to replace that human valve and it works fairly well for ten, maybe fifteen years, before it needs to be replaced. If one is in their seventies, the pig valve is cheaper and requires fewer drugs over the years. What is the likelihood that some one of the age of seventy two will live beyond the age of eighty seven? On the other hand I was fifty three when I had my heart valve operation and had a metal valve put in to replace the one that failed. There is no real guarantee or warranty, but the metal valve should be good for twenty years, maybe another ten after that. The technology of a metal heart valve is all in the “bungee cords” that attach to the hearts muscles. The steel valves are very simply, nothing high tech. In the case of the heart valve it is really the matter of having those cords, which have a slight bit of elasticity to them and the skill of the surgeon. For the most part, technology is the original invention plus the improvements and refinements that enable it to work better. An assembly line is an example of invention. The old bucket brigade style of fighting fires is an example. People form a line between the source of water and the fire so that buckets filled with water can be passed from water source to fire source and then returned. On the return side, since buckets empty of water are very light, one does not need another line so much as individuals to gather up four to six buckets and run them back to the water source. But an assembly line has limits in size, in scale of operations. One cannot use the assembly line process making super oil tankers, each must be made individually. The steel plates used to make the hull and super structure of that ship can be made in an almost continuous production line. The making of the steel is usually not a continuous process, but there are a few small mills that can actually do that.
Sometimes invention works backwards. The first computer type programming was invented by Ada Lovelace in the nineteenth century for Charles Babbage’s differential calculating machine. Roughly a century later several tons of discrete electronic and electrical parts would fill a large room as the first electronic computer. The transistor had been invented but it was a vacuum tube affair. the solid state transistor would have to wait for Bell Labs and Shockley. After that, discrete became multiple transistors on a chip. These chips would replace the slide rule or Napier’s Bones, as they were sometimes called. But the micro processor or computer chip did not completely reduce the error in human computing. Computer architecture advanced as did programming, but every advancement led to new errors being discovered. Technology is never perfect, not even it Huxley’s novel, Brave New World. Technology has made possible larger factories, new processes, great output schedules, and fewer jobs. It has even made the ultimate replacement for mankind, the robot or cyborg. Technology has enabled corporations to engage in an ever increasing concentration of production of goods and services to the point that the need for human work has been reduced dramatically. Yet the irony of such concentrations is that the fewer people employed the fewer people to earn the means of consumption. Schumacher may not have foreseen all this back in 1975 but there were hints of this outcome. But the back to the Garden of Eden approach wasn’t going to work, either. what he forgot is that technology has that one mortal weakness, the human element. We have become so enamored of growth that we have forgotten its limits. This is what you can see in China today. It’s not that they have become so dependent on technology as they have expected technology to save them from themselves. They assumed that in trying to channel Singapore as their economic engine of growth, that they were using a new technology to provide unlimited wealth and national growth. As long as the people could make money and lots of it, they would forget that the dictatorship actually ran the country. But the “technology” of the Singapore government was based on only a handful of men, not a council of thousands. The gravest mistake is that the party thought economics is a technology when it is really observations of human behavior. Now the giant nation of China has turned very ugly by virtue of its size and its mistakes. China is about to fall apart and take a large section of the world with it.