Sunday, March 25, 2012

Waiting for the End of the World

On March 19, 2012, Amazon announced they were purchasing Kiva Systems for $775 million.   By all accounts, they're not planning on selling these robots on their website.  Rather, this is another step forward in the development of the automated warehouse, in which robots will manage inventory and fulfill orders more cheaply than humans could.  Many people have noted that the loss of jobs is one more step in a long cycle of economic decline for the United States.  It's the end of the world.

And yet, as I touched upon in a previous discussion, the end of the world has come and gone many times, and somehow there are still people around to complain about it all.  (OK, technically I talked about how civilization was going to the dogs, but same thing.)  People will probably lose jobs when Amazon automates their warehouses.  On the other hand, we've been losing jobs for centuries, since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.  If something wasn't filling the void, we'd have an unemployment rate in excess of 99%.  Life goes on.  When the citizens of the Roman Empire became more interested in enjoying the luxuries of civilization than in defending it, the Roman Empire fell, and the world came to an end.  Of course, what that really meant was that people were more interested in investing their time and energy building the new kingdoms that became feudal Europe than they were in defending a political structure that had become obsolete centuries ago.  Somehow, life went on.  More recently, when rock & roll swept through the nation, it was a corrupting influence on our youth that would destabilize society.  Today we consider many early rock & roll tunes to be light and easy listening, and play them as background music in elevators.  Life goes on.

Of course, sometimes the world really does come to an end.  Our records are scarce, but I guess that there was probably somebody in the city of Carthage around 250BC saying that everybody should focus a bit less on making money and a bit more on beefing up their own military.  They should have listened.  For the Carthaginians, the world truly came to an end, as the city was burned to the ground, and all the inhabitants were killed or enslaved.

The problem is, it's really hard to tell in advance if the particular end of the world we're talking about is going to be in the "life goes on" category, or the "no, its really the end of the world" category.  So without attempting to forecast exactly what's going to happen, lets look at a number of other ways in which the world is going to end, and think about what this really means.

Talkin' 'Bout My (Facebook) Generation
George Orwell got it all wrong.  Big brother didn't start spying on people in their living rooms.  Instead, people simply started broadcasting every aspect of their lives on tools like Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare.

It's easy to see examples of highly questionable decisions being made about what people post.  Everything from pictures and videos of drunken behavior at parties, to cursing of bosses and co-workers and customers, to defamatory insults of whatever is nearby.

The law hasn't quite settled on how to treat these situations - do they represent free speech to be protected, or does an employer have a right, or even an obligation, to control its image by firing employees who engage in unseemly behavior?

It seems to run against human nature for people to stop acting out and sharing everything.  Which raises an interesting question: if everybody (or at least lots of them) engages in "unseemly" behavior, is it still unseemly?  What happens when the generation that grew up with Facebook is in their fifties and sixties, and run all the corporations (and not just the hot tech startups).  Do we give up and adopt new societal standards for behavior because "everybody does it"?  Or does society bifurcate into a new set of haves and have nots, in which a few people are lucky (or boring) enough never to do anything really stupid in the public eye, and are thus our only candidates to run major corporations and hold public office?

If a Tree Falls Before Wikipedia Covers It, Was It Ever Standing?
Encyclopedia Britannica recently announced that it was finally discontinuing the print version of it's encyclopedia.  On the one hand, this was a momentous event, as Britannica had been in continuous publication since 1768.  On the other hand, its amazing they kept making the print version as long as they did.  The company has been struggling for years, threatened first by CD Rom dictionaries like Encarta, and now by Wikipedia.  While there are a certain number of adherents to Britannica's use of experts rather than Wikipedia's crowd sourced model, it is unclear how long the for-profit company can survive against a free competitor.

This is simply one example of print materials giving way to their electronic counterparts.  The Kindle and the iPad have ushered in a new era of ebooks, with the result that Borders has declared bankruptcy, and Barnes and Noble loses money hand over fist while it struggled to reinvent itself.  Perhaps the independent bookstores will survive indefinitely as a niche market, but paper publishing in general is likely to be a shadow of what it once was.

Which raises the question: when the vast majority of all information is only available in online formats, how will we footnote our references?  If George Lucas decides that Greedo shot first, could we ever lose every reference that the story wasn't always that way?  (Yes, I know that he made the original versions available on DVD, but you'll note he didn't extend that to Blu-Ray.  Wanna bet as to whether they'll migrate onto whatever format comes next?)

Perhaps references will become impossible, and all knowledge will devolve into "truthiness".  On the other hand, challenging data problems have a way of attracting programmers looking the next great start-up idea.  Perhaps this very problem will inspire new types of technology that will lead to unprecedented levels of accuracy and transparency.  Imagine a scientific journal that automatically tracked its footnotes, and warned the reader if key references were out of date and could no longer be trusted.  It would dynamically call the entire premise of the article into question, and you would have real-time feedback as to whether the article you were reading was still relevant.

To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before (Back Home)
Whenever criticisms of Gen Y come up, high among this list is that they are the "Boomerang Generation".  Whether due to an unprecedented combination of school debt and economic malaise, or simply a lack of gumption caused by overindulgent helicopter parents, this generation leaves home, marries, and starts their real careers later than any other generation in recent memory.  Have we lost the critical pioneer spirit that makes up the American psyche?

On the other hand, maybe looking only at generations in recent memory is a short-sighted endeavor.  The whole concept of personal independence is relatively recent.  The standard family unit used to be extended, with three generations living under a roof, not just two.  Kids didn't generally strike out on their own, they joined the family business.  Perhaps the last couple generations have been a deviation from a historical norm, and Gen Y is simply taking us back to our roots.  Only time will tell.

On so many levels, the world is ending.  Sometimes the end of the world really is the end of the world.  But much more often, it just seems that way to the previous generation who doesn't like or understand the new environment, and can't imagine how it will hold together if it's not like it used to be.

So do what you can.  If you see a problem, try and fix it.  But remember to keep an open mind and a sense of wonder, because whether your're going to love it or hate it, you'll hate to miss what's coming next.

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