Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Computer Technology Will Replace Concrete

Glenn Reynolds, writing at Tech Central Station, observes that
the growth of cheap computing power has...undercut the importance of big organizations in many, many areas. That cheap computing power is now being coupled with cheap manufacturing -- including, increasingly, what Neal Gershenfeld calls "personal fabrication," in his book, Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop - From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication....

For activities that, ultimately, are about processing information, the computer revolution itself has drastically reduced the minimum efficient scale. A laptop, a cheap videocamera, and the free iMovie or Windows Movie Maker software (plus an Internet connection) will let one person do things that the Big Three television networks could only dream of in [John Kenneth] Galbraith's day, at a tiny fraction of the cost. The same laptop with a soundcard, a couple of microphones, and software like Acid, Cubase, or Audition can replace an expensive recording studio. Change the software and it can replace an office full of Galbraith-era accountants with calculators, pencils and paper, or even with access to big 1960s mainframe computers....It's not just that fewer people can do the same work, it's that they don't need a big company to provide the infrastructure to do the work, and, in fact, they may be far more efficient without the big company and all the inefficiencies and stumbling blocks that its bureaucracy and "technostructure" tend to produce.

Those inefficiencies were present in Galbraith's day, too, of course. People have been making jokes about office politics and bureaucratic idiocies since long before Dilbert. But in the old days, you had to put up with those problems because you needed the big organization to do the job. Now, increasingly, you don't. Goliath's clumsiness used to be made up for by the fact that he was strong. But now the Davids are muscling up without bulking up. So why be a Goliath?

That is the question that many people are asking themselves, and as technology moves toward smaller, faster, and cheaper approaches in man, many areas we're likely to see an army of Davids taking the place of those slow, shuffling Goliaths. This won't be the end of big enterprises, or big bureaucracies (especially, alas, the latter) but it will represent a dramatic reversal of recent history, toward more cottage industry, more small enterprises and ventures, and more empowerment for individuals willing to take advantage of the tools that become available. In some ways, the future may look more like the distant past than the recent past. It's not surprising that it may also seem to operate on a more human scale.

The trend toward the decentralization of work will be hastened by traffic congestion. People put up with it only to the extent that the jobs they struggle to arrive at and return home from are worth the time, expense, and aggravation. Those who worry about the seemingly endless spiral of road-building and traffic congestion should worry less and have faith in the power of technology and markets. As I wrote here,
[i]nstead of paving America -- at vast expense -- we should simply let the market solve the problem. When commuters have truly had enough they will turn to alternatives that will arise to meet the demand. Those alternatives -- if government will stay out of the way -- will be offered by private transportation companies, automobile manufacturers, employers (who may finally get serious about telecommuting, for example), and workers (some of whom will opt for simpler lives or forms of employment that don't require commuting).