Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Fast Forward >>> Well, Maybe

Remember the 100 MPG Carburetor?

The other day I was talking to a friend about the current events surrounding the "energy price crisis". I was trying to convince him that it was impossible for any industry to hold back innovation that would propel us forward into new paradigms and new markets - particularly if there was money to be made. I cited, for instance, the island nation of Japan. Japan imports nearly every drop of oil it consumes and despite its mass transit systems and excellent overall efficiency I would ask; is there any compelling reason why they would not bring to market new and fantastic technologies that might bring an end to the oil age? They are, after all, pioneering hybrid vehicles as we speak because, well, there is money to be made.

So, was I right?

In a recent issue of Discover magazine David Bodanis author of E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation made me question my own presumptions. Perhaps, Bodanis postulates, the economy so successful now that rocking the boat with ground breaking innovation is just too dangerous?

Bodanis ran through a litany of so-called innovations that we would tout as evidence of an unstoppable technological freight train. Upon close examination what begins to appear is that what we are actually seeing is extreme refinements of older innovations. Excluding medical and health-related technologies the pace of spectacular innovation has slowed. In fact most of us live our lives on a day by day basis much like our parents did.

A Day In The Life

Let's see, we get up in the morning to an alarm clock, hop in the shower, eat a piece of toast and get behind the wheel of a car for the comute into the office. So, far this could be any typical morning since the 40's. Now, the car itself may be more reliable and more fuel efficient (then again maybe not) but it is essentially four wheels made of rubber rolling down the pavement. It probably has an automatic transmission - so now we are up to the late 1950's. We turn on the radio and quickly tire of news, sports and weather and flip over to FM to listen to stereo music - this brings us to the late 60's. We can't find anything we like so we slip in a CD and catapult into the 90's... Well you get the picture. Getting up and getting to work for the vast majority of us is really no different than it has been for the last 50 years.

Once at work instead sidling up to a the assembly line we slink into our cubicles and turn on our computers to read our e-mails. Many of those who work in the trades and in manufacturing check in with the computer to get their workorders or production run schedules. In the old days this stuff was distributed on paper - it's just a little more efficient now.

The computer has been around for decades and the PC has been with us for over 20 years now. Sure they're faster than ever but the basic innovation behind them is the same - silicon IC chips connected by copper pressed into circuit boards. Even the user interface we call Windows or MAC was developed in the 70's by Xerox as a novelty experiment.

When we get home we have a genetically modified (which is a fancy way of creating hybridized plants and animals) dinner prepared in a microwave oven (which has been around since the 60's) and retire to the family room to watch 2-dimensional movies and game shows - or something called reality TV. Our TV's are bigger and the surround sound is really cool but it's hardly revolutionary. Now, you could point to cable and/or satellite TV and say - aha - now that's modern innovation. Well, no. Cable has been around since the 70's and satellite communications has been around for more than 40 years now. Like I said we are experiencing extreme refinements in miraculous innovations of a generation ago. Yes, even the cell phone is a refined product of basic radio-like telecommunications.

What Is Going on Then?

David Bodanis wonders if we are just in a lull before another rapid fire period in which technology makes another quantum leap. Or is the hundred MPG carburetor being locked away from us because the need for profit stability is the paramount feature in the world economy now? I hope and pray it's former...

In the nineteenth century the steam engine revolutionized society in every fashion. At the dawn of the twentith century electricity changed everything. In the 40's the war sparked countless innovations. In the 60's electronics and the physics of manufacturing materials propelled us to where we are today.

As I graduated from high school in 1980 I remember predicting that based on the massive technical leaps that had been made in my (short) lifetime that something would be invented/discovered in the 80's that would change the world. The 80's came and went and I thought I had been wrong. I wasn't wrong I just didn't recognize it for quite sometime. The PC and the birth of the Internet happened in the 80's! It could well be the most significant "innovation" since the transistor of a generation before. The PC and the Internet did not rely on something wholly new, but the coalescence of the two was pure dynamite. The Internet, of course, hasn't played itself out yet and it could, if it is not protected from special interests, be burned into irrevelancy.

If we think about the last few periods in which quantum leaps in technology occured we were living through very turbulent times. Clearly WWII was a period of turmoil. The need to manufacture massive quantities of weapons spurred process innovations. And we can't forget about the "bomb"... In the 60's and 70's, again, more turmoil - the West was forced to keep ahead of the Soviet Joneses. Today the mayhem caused by Islamic terrorism is not one that some high tech gizmo is going to resolve. In fact the preservation of the status quo and economic stability is the current mantra. In order to succeed against the medival dreams of the Islamisits we need to promote liberty and democracy - hardly the stuff of fantastic new technology.

Sunshine Ahead

Being an optimist I am betting that the next 10 years will see a paradigm shift in technology that will allow us to use more energy not less. In the end it all comes down to energy - for tens of thousands of years mankind relied on human energy to perform back breaking labor. The modern age has seen us utilize the vast resources of the Earth to power our modern lives. Soon, I can only hope, we will learn to actually harness the power of the cosmos that sheds more energy on us in a single afternoon than mankind has used in a thousand years.

I just can't believe that some insidious group of men is holding back fresh new ideas and remarkable innovations that would make this world a better place and in turn would make this same group of men lots and lots of money - and therein lies the key - money, money, money makes the world go 'round.



Brandon_T_Stanley said...

We have energy of the cosmos........

nuclear power!

If France can get 60 % of their power from them we can too.

Waste? Shoot it skyward. Doesn't NASA need something practical to do?
It must be protected from the politicians somehow, lest they be more concerned about the bums in the public library than mans journey to the stars.

Nuke power works. There has been only a handful of accidents. But in France and Japan, there Nuke-power is most common, there has been none. If we let the environmentalists control what we do then we will have no economy left.

StaticNoise said...

I can't disagree about nuclear power - but I was being a bit of a dreamer and imagining a power source out of the control of "the man". Face it, even nuclear power is expensive (I know it doesn't have to be, but it is). My hope is that we can develop some new technology that can remove the middle man. Look at it this way, if the farmer had to pay for the "free" sunshine and rain how much would our food cost? Thank God he doesn't!

Timothy Birdnow said...

I remember the ``cold fusion`` business back in the `80`s; if it had been true, we would have had unlimited energy which wouldn`t require centralization. It really is too bad.

Technological impact comes in a bell curve, and we`re at the bottom of the last curve. I wonder where the next wave will take us...

TJ Willms said...

I do remember a 100 mpg carburetor, I think it was installed on a 1978 Ford Granada ESS with a 302 cubic inch V-8. The carburetor like the Granada disappeared before the 1980's.