Throughout the internet, in business columns in scads of newspapers and often leading television news are stories of wondrous inventions by the brilliant young men and women of Silicon Valley and similar places around the country. Smart-phone applications that facilitate such things as dating, securing transportation, a wrist watch that is capable of anything a laptop computer could do, self-driving cars, flying drones, robotic household help and other amazing new things.
However impressive this array of technical developments is, how much of it is truly responding to the needs of the Country? There are needs that are not addressed and it is questionable whether another dating site is one of them. Certainly, a significant portion of citizenry is interested in these technological gizmos whether they need them or not. What, as an example, is the need for an iPhone6 when the iPhone5 was delivered to the “market” within a year before?
Much of the technological genius in the Country seems taken up with securing the systems we have created from being hacked, or devising means to hack the system of someone else or some other country. Excitement abounds over the development of a driverless car and the drum roll to a market appearance can be heard, loudly and clearly. But there is widespread hesitation about going forward – not because of a question of social need or even marketability – because such systems might be subject to being hijacked by some villain with an evil purpose.
For all of its vaunted vitality, the technology industry is largely, if not wholly, populated by spectators given to picking low hanging fruit. Frenzied energies can be generated by the promise of instant gazillions that can be made with the obvious and the easy. Why deal with the possibilities of applying silicon variations to such problems as drought in California and flooding in the Midwest, or, perhaps safer and more reliable train travel, or American urban commuter traffic nightmares?? There really is a long list of human needs that should be given priority over household robots on a technological agenda. At earlier times in our history, big needs of our citizenry that were difficult and expensive to fulfill were initiated (gasp!) by the Government. Satellites to facilitate communication (e.g. the internet), vaccines to end polio and measles, rail transport from coast-to-coast, cultivating previously un-cultivatable fields – all efforts by our democratic government to do what had to be done and the “market” wouldn’t. But, of course, these days the Republicans regard that as apostasy.
Something like 50% of this country’s fruits and vegetables are raised in California. That number is decreasing in recent years and headed toward zero because the state is experiencing the worst drought in recorded history. At the same time, eastern and southern states are getting more snow and rain than ever before. The resulting snow-melt and river risings have led to flooding, destroying homes, farms, highways and widespread death and injury. So, can’t we distribute that excess water to California and the West rather than let it drain in the sea that is already rising because of glacial melt?
Since the most primitive gathering of our species, we have moved water from where it was to where it was needed. That has involved elaborate canals and aqueducts over mountains, across canyons and for miles of parched land. The builders of the United States started diverting water from the first colonials through the early days of Hollywood. We can do this. Wouldn’t it make sense to get this water diversion going so that some of the ill-effects of climate change can be ameliorated? Or, we can continue to devise ever more sophisticated means of electronically telling someone out there that we’d love to have a pear, a peach, an artichoke, an avocado or a really good wine.
Most people understand that driving a vehicle propelled by an internal combustion engine pollutes the air, crowds the roads and is prohibitively expensive for a lot of people. Trains have long been thought to provide an alternative to cars and, for that matter, trucks. For reasons that would take another blog, the rail industry has not been receptive of innovation. Nonetheless, trains that work can relieve many of the miseries suffered in modern America. Trains, however, don’t work because they are poorly administered and they are definitely not safe.
This last May, an AMTRAK commuter from North Carolina to New York derailed outside Philadelphia causing eight deaths and three-hundred injuries. Upon investigation the National Transportation Board concluded that the accident would have been avoided if the train had been equipped with a computer program that would have controlled the train speed through the curve where it left the tracks. The program is well known to the railroads, the NTSB and to Congress. It is called, not surprisingly, “positive train control”.
Turns out that this system has been known for many years because Congress told the industry to install it after hearings in 2008 and gave it a deadline of December 31 of this year. The industry has crabbed and kicked rocks backwards to explain that deadline will not be met.
In a story in the New York Times on August 8, Ed Greenberg of the Association of American Railroads is quoted as follows:
“Positive train control has been an unprecedented technological challenge; it is not off-the-shelf technology…the complexities involved with the development, installation and testing of P.T.C. before it can become fully operational across the U.S.”
So, we await technology for making trains better and instead develop the robotic car that can drive itself, but whose systems maybe hacked by some evil technoid. By the way, does it make any sense for a car company to be the only one with a robotically controlled car? There are a lot of cars out there made by a variety of manufacturers who may or may not sign on to an electronically operated vehicle. It seems to me that unless every car is on that system absolutely nothing is accomplished by a robotically operated one by a single manufacturer.
There are a variety of maladies to which the species is vulnerable. Once contracted many are fatal and there are two I can think of that cause the equivalent of death: Alzheimer’s and ALS ( Lou Gehrig’s Disease ) While we await a medical breakthrough on these thus far uncured afflictions, according to today’s headlines and lead stories, the FDA is about to approve a “little pink pill” to improve libido in women. So, while all these poor bastards are looking for their Viagra or Cialis to deal with their aroused mate, they are also dehydrated from no water, drowning in a flood, ducking a tornado or finding a place to live a long way from a railroad track.
The important stuff is not being served by the purveyors of silicon-based products. Genius is clearly at play, but who really needs what it has produced thus far? I don’t think we have time to await the coming of a “market” that will make gazillionaires out of the now children who will figure out how to deal with climate change. What I think will inevitably happen, if we don’t solve it, is that the coming generation will do it and look upon this one as those who were greedy, selfish and not real bright.
Contemporary faith in the “free market” will ultimately wipe out the species if religious differences don’t get us first.