Monday, July 18, 2011

The Challenge of Permanence

Our culture would completely change if we were to view literally nothing as permanent. 

Buildings, rooms, furniture, clothes will all be temporary and disposable.  Each would exist for its own time span - buildings might change seasonally, rooms weekly, furniture daily and clothes hourly.  The amount of space allocated to each individual would shrink as that space performed multiple functions, but the amount of space available to each person would increase as the world became less crowded with unused objects. 

Roads and Bridges.  Dynamic redesign, construction and maintenance on a continuous basis.  Maintenance lanes as a design feature.  Continuously adding and removing capacity as demand changes.  Budget for continuous smaller projects instead of enormous, long-duration construction / disruption followed by half-hearted maintenance.  How would this affect ancillary requirements such as drainage? 

Buried and Forgotten Infrastructure.  How should items such as water mains, aqueducts, sewers, oil and gas pipelines, power and telecommunications cables, steam pipes, etc. be handled?  Everything should be installed with an eye toward the ability to continuously inspect, maintain, remove and replace. 

Property insurance is based on the assumption that things are more-or-less permanent and that there is a significant cost associated with replacing them.  In a Replicator future the concept of property insurance would probably not exist.

Carried to the extreme, Replicator technology would make the ultimate disposable culture.  The design of everyday objects would change since they would need to be created rapidly, used once, then immediately recycled.  The containers that products arrive in would also be radically revised. 

Much of the trash discarded by modern society consists of containers and packing materials designed to protect a product from the time it is manufactured until it reaches the consumer.  This storage interval has led to a tendency to use more and more indestructible materials, even for products with a limited shelf life.  Shipping milk with a shelf life of two weeks in a container that will not degrade in ten years is somewhat incongruous.

The (perhaps apocryphal) story of Henry Ford in the days of the Model T springs to mind.  It is said that he sent accountants to inventory junkyards containing Model T’s and measure the condition of each part.  When the statistics were compiled, he ordered parts that were never found to be worn-out to be built to a lower standard. 

If the car was discarded before the part wore out, you paid too much for the part.

I contend that no deregulated wireless telephone company has ever been profitable.  The technology and infrastructure is changing too fast for it to be both installed and paid off before it has to be replaced.  Thus, the current revenue of the phone companies is going to pay off debt and write-downs incurred for previous generations of hardware, even while they are borrowing for the future. 

I am in favor of dynamic replacement of infrastructure and recognize that the more advanced we get the more maintenance is required to keep the systems functioning. 

These costs should be accepted on an ongoing basis, not as part of a wave of speculation based on projections of revenue from future generations.  The companies would be making wiser investments if they chose technologies that could actually be profitable within an established area and time-frame, instead of playing a shell game with different technologies while misleading both their investors and their customers. 

Doing costly roll-outs of stop-gap incremental technologies just to achieve a small incremental increase in subscriber revenue is such an example.  An industry that touts their numbers of new subscribers while obscuring the actual nature or costs of the service they are providing and doing nothing to satisfy or retain their current customers gives the appearance of a pyramid scheme.  The real danger is that if the demand falters even for a moment the shift in cash flow in a single large company could cause the collapse of portions of critical infrastructure across the entire country. 

Replicator concepts inherently allow for multiple, incompatible technologies.  Overlapping functionality can be provided in many different ways.  Making these options available to the consumer is important for meeting their differing needs and requirements.  But these choices should be made on an informed basis, not with misleading descriptions and inaccurate costs.

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