The False Hope of Hi-Tech
December 30, 2009 by John Myers
“I don’t know if HAL is homicidal, suicidal, neurotic, psychotic, or just plain broken.”
Arthur C. Clark, 2010: Odyssey Two
Ten years ago today the clock was ticking down on Y2K. Many feared a social and economic meltdown; that a programming glitch would throw us into a new Dark Age.
Fast forward one decade. Washington and Wall Street are now betting the bank that technology is America’s savior. Everything seems within reach—more jobs, clean energy, a budget surplus, even a super-bull market.
Technology was not the Antichrist a decade ago, nor is it our savior now. It will not destroy us. Nor will it revolutionize our world. That was the power of innovation a century ago, not today.
Revolution Comes to the Farm
The kid tightened the reins on the right line and then hollered, “Get-up!”
Eight thousand pounds of horseflesh simultaneously hit their heavy collars and the grain wagon started to amble its 10-mile journey to the tiny town of Lomond in Alberta, Canada.
The year was 1927 and that kid was my dad, Vern Myers.
Fifteen years before he had barely survived his birth. He was the family’s first child. His mother lay in agonizing labor for nearly three days. Aided by a local midwife for the first few hours, it became apparent that this was a crisis and required a skilled doctor. The baby’s father, Amil, saddled the fastest horse and headed to Stavely, 40 miles to the west.
These were not the days when one picked up the phone and called 911. There were no paved roads or autos that sped from place to place. The closest hospital was Lethbridge some 70 miles away where the staff consisted of a couple of doctors and half a dozen nurses.
But this time luck was with him. Amil borrowed a friend’s fresh horse. He and the doctor arrived at the lonely homestead shack.
Fifteen years later Vern was holding the lines of four horses on a wagon loaded with 7,680 pounds of the finest milling wheat in the world. He was just starting the first leg of his destination to the rails at Lomond, Calgary, and on to Ontario. There it would be loaded onto ships for Europe.
The grain tank pulled onto the prairie dirt trail and headed east. The kid restrained the eager horses. He knew that soon they would struggle to climb the 300-foot elevation before the trail leveled out. When they reached the top, the horses, with their heaving lungs, required a five-minute rest.
As the Clydesdales recovered Vern heard the strange sound. It was a motor, but it was not from a car. He looked into the lower valley that was hidden from view by the grade that had just been climbed. A cloud of dust rose in the sky. Now he could hear the straining motor and then the monster broke over the top. It was a truck loaded with golden wheat. The vehicle was gaining speed and Vern could hear the driver shifting gears. The truck pulled alongside. It was the neighbor Freddie Noyes. In a flash he was past.
An hour later and four miles further down the road, he noticed a cloud of dust approaching. It was Freddie on his way back home to load more grain.
Vern was just unloading the wagon box in town when again the noise broke the still air. It was Freddie with another load.
Watering his spent horses back at home Vern was amazed. He and Freddie had both started work at the same time. Vern had delivered 125 bushels of grain to the elevator and returned home in just over five hours. Vern had traveled 20 miles.
Freddie had driven 120 miles and delivered 600 bushels in six hours! And Freddie wasn’t one bit tired. In one day the Industrial Revolution had come to the homestead.
Enter the Microchip
In 1990 the boy that saw the truck come to the West died. He had experienced more change during his 78 years than the world had undergone during the previous millennium.
He was born nine years after the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk. As an old man he would cross the Atlantic in the Concorde at 1.5 times the speed of sound. He had seen the application of indoor plumbing, electricity, the telephone, the television, space flight and even the inception of the Internet.
I took his place as publisher at age 30. I was still in school studying at a university just as computer science was being embraced and I was enthralled by the wonders of the micro chip.
That first year I bought an IBM 386. It was a marvel for the time, with more than twice the memory of its predecessor, the 286. In fact the salesman bragged it could do 11.4 million instructions per second (MIPS)! I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but it sounded impressive.
Today the top-of-the-line computer is a diesel processor Intel Core i7 Extreme. If you ask me it sounds more like a tractor than a computer. I suspected it was a lot faster than my 3-year-old computer and far better than that old 386. But I was shocked at just how much faster it is.
The i7 Extreme lives up to its name; it does 76,000 MIPS which makes it roughly 70,000 times faster than the 386. The Extreme also has 8,000 times more memory! (Author’s note: To you computer aficionados, I did my research and understand that MIPS is a very raw indicator.)
Yet the truth is that all this speed is wasted on me. You see, I use my computer like I once used a typewriter. And unless you are doing something like scientific research or wasting your time playing video games, that computing power is senseless.
This is what MetaFilter (www.metafilter.com) has to say about the revolution of the personal computer when they compared a 1986 Mac Plus to a 2008 AMD Dual Core.
“When we compare strictly common, everyday, basic user tasks between the Mac Plus and the AMD we find remarkable similarities… thus it can be stated that for the majority of simple office uses, the massive advances in technology in the past two decades have brought zero advance in productivity,” said MetaFilter.
Certainly the Net and these super-computers provide a plethora of information. But are we really any better informed? No says Wired Magazine.
According to the June 2007 issue, “More than a decade after the Internet went mainstream, the world’s richest information source hasn’t necessarily made its users any more informed.”
Wired backs up its claim with a 2007 study from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press that showed that Americans, on average, are less able to correctly answer questions about current events than they were in 1989.
That’s right, Americans who call the Internet their primary news source know less than fans of TV and radio news. It seems that people are more interested in Jessica Simpson than in Jim Lehrer.
A Bankrupt Revolution
The advent of the automobile, the assembly line, the airplane and the telephone revolutionized the American way of life. At the beginning of the 20th Century the United States was seen as a renegade colony. In less than 50 years we became the richest most powerful nation in the world.
By the late 1960s the American dream was within almost everyone’s grasp. Little wonder—the U.S. was the world’s largest manufacturer, creditor and exporter.
But by the 1980s the rest of the world was starting to catch up. Most of us, heck all of us, kept wanting to get more “things.” But now we weren’t earning them.
To get them we started doing something America had never done before—we started borrowing hand-over-fist. The result is we have created a debt crisis the likes of which has never been seen. And most importantly, it’s a calamity that won’t be resolved with even faster and smarter machines.
Yours for real wealth and good health in 2010,
Myers’ Energy and Gold Report
P.S. Next week I will look at the debt crisis and what it means for your investments in 2010.