Digital Buggy Whips

18 Aug

By Brian M. Howle

What was cutting edge yesterday is usually destined to be obsolete tomorrow.

Although you’dnever know it by watching our good ol’ U.S. economy just chug right along, continually putting up numbers showing growth and robust pulse, the world at large is in a mess. Asian markets have tumbled, Europe is struggling with a PR. campaign designed to bolster faith and acceptance of the multi-national Euro currency on top of their own share of market and investment woes, and South America’s economic problems are literally driving some Folks bananas (or at least the banana wars are).

“So?”, you may ask yourself, “What’s it to me? We’re doing alright – in fact, we’re doing great!”

The painful truth of the matter is we are all in deep denial. The current stock market surge is founded primarily on high tech stocks that are artificially inflated on good old American greed, fueled by massive investments in the infant computer and Internet speculative stocks. Companies have put billions into ventures whose worth are yet to be established, with everyone rolling the dice for an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the greatest money-maker since prostitution. There’s just one small problem with getting swept up in technology’s intoxicating allure:


When faced with these newfangled innovations and their unproven performance, it would behoove most of us to remember the classic “Aesop’s Fable” about the lesson of greed: The dog who had the good fortune to acquire a large piece of meat, and while on his way home to savor his find, comes across a small footbridge. Noticing what he doesn’t realize is his own reflection in the water, he thinks to himself, “Hey, that dog has a piece of meat, too. If I can scare him into dropping it, I call have twice its much to eat.” As he begins to growl and snap at the other dog, he lets go of his bounty, only to helplessly watch it plunge into the water below, sinking forever from his tearing eyes.

Let’s take a look at one example of recent technological breakthroughs initially heralded as the greatest thing since sliced bread. Remember the advent of the Video Cassette Recorder (VCR)? Just imagine – a means of allowing anyone with normal amounts of “disposable income” to have a device which would record and playback whatever your fancy dictates from the ever growing number of television offerings (brought about by the introduction of coaxial cable, satellite feeds and Ted Turner), all in the comfort and privacy of your own sweet home. So off you went, drunk with anticipation like a kid on Christmas morning, disposable income in hand, ready to make that big purchase which would immediately increase your stature within your most intimate social circles. You entered the store, sought out the electronics department and came face-to-face with an unexpected dilemma: Beta or VHS?

Now, most of you well-heeled folks listening to the barracuda with passionate enthusiasm and self-avowed expertise in this unknown stratosphere of state-of-the-art electronics went with the more expensive – but clearly superior – Beta format, swayed more by the salesman’s serious inference of quality when he said, “Well, it’s what Sony decided to go with, and you know those guys know what is best.” As for the rest of us, we lowered our heads and pointed out the less glamorous VHS unit as our choice for purchase. The infant video industry hastily produced movies for the public’s consumption in both formats, hedging their bets in prudent and insightful vision.

As we all know, the Beta boys won the battle for quality befitting industry standards (as most television stations and production facilitics have chosen Beta for their purposes), but they ultimately lost the war. The more affordable VHS took off like a scalded banshee, the video industry shifted priority, and every Asian electronics manufacturer with an abundance of 6¢ an hour workers began pumping out VHS players and recorders. A champion had emerged from the haze, and millions of people reveled in their newest toy, although most had their glee tempered by the constantly flashing “12:00” on the unit’s clock, which apparently was backward-engineered from the most complex stolen U.S. military secrets.

The new reality of the rules of the game – when it comes to predicting economic and employment futures – is that there are no rules. Front the beginning of time (or more appropriately, time clocks), the unforeseen evolution of social economics has been as unsettled and unrelenting as the occans. The changing demands of societies’ food chains have deposited and eroded riches constantly throughout our recorded history. And now the “experts” are telling us that the concept of lifetime employment an assumcd precept held automatic by most Americans, and handed down to our capitalistic clones in Japan – is it vanishing realization. Workers can now expect multiple careers in their lifetime, and the need for education has become paramount in that challenge.

When the writing is on the wall, even the most brilliant advertising campaign can’t change the inevitable; business must adapt, or it will fail and disappear.

One of my favorite lines of dialogue comes from the movie, “Other People’s Money”, starring Danny DeVito as a coporate raider who lives only for the art of the dal, buyin out and taking over dying or seriously floundering companies, cutting jobs and liquidating assets for quick and sizeable profits. Addressing the stockholders of his latest target as they prepare to vote on his stock offer, he tells a tale of impassioned sincerity concerning buggy whips. “A hundred years ago, there were over 200 companies making buggy whips,” he says, “And hundreds of people were steadily employed, providing for hundreds more in their families. The country was growing, towns were springing up on a westward wave of prosperity and confidence, and anyone on the move had to have a buggy whip. But then technology came along and gave us the steam engine and railroads, then the internal combustion engine gave us automobiles and airplanes. Travel became motorized and travel time was reduced by astronomical percentages. The need for horses and buggies rapidly declined, and the number of companies making buggy whips fell accordingly.

Finally, only one company remained, the strongest and best managed of all the companies stood alone in the face of the inevitable end. “And you can believe, that company made the best damn buggy whip the world had ever seen,” he concludes, “But in the reality of the business world, that didn’t mean a thing.” Ultimately, the stockholders vote to sell their outdated cable and wire company. The family-owned business dies a quiet, sad death. But, being a movie, DeVilo falls in love with the company lawyer/daughter with whom he battled throughout the takeover, and subsequently devises a plan to use the company’s production facilities to upgrade and divesify to successfully manufacture wire for use in the burgeoning telecommunication industry, saving everyone’s job and the future of the community. That’s the way it goes in the movies.

The field ofgraphics and prepress production is my arena, and in 25 years I have witnessed the passing of the hot type Linotype typesetting machines (and the skilled artisans who operated them; thinking, reasoning and planning in reverse with backwards letters and numbers, all the while enduring painful burns and toxic fumes from bubbling, molten lead); its successor, the photomechanical typesetting machine, which read ticker-tape rolls of paper produced by legions of frenzied typists, tranferring the encoded tapes into flashes of light within the machine onto light-sensitive photographic typesetting film. The film was then processed through another device which was essentially a mini-darkroom, and ultimately going on to a layout artist who deftly ran the copy through a waxing machine, cutting and trimming and adjusting every galley of type onto full page layout sheets, leaving holes for photos by affixing “knockout boxes” of amber acetate film so that the person in the camera/platemaking room could attach negatives to the finished flat. These flats were then used to burn metal plates for transferring the image of the page onto rubber rollers, which offset the image onto the paper, producing the final product.

Whether it’s old shit or new shit, you have to stay up on the latest shit … or you’ll be in the shit.

Today, all of those functions can be produced at a desktop Macintosh computer – with a scanner and a printer – by one person. In the future, voice-activated computers and as yet uninvented download devices will eventually replace the need for that one person. And the lesson to be learned from this little story?

Well, when I was a child, my mother would always impart on me – in those moments when all parents question their child’s ability to use their noggins – this interrogative, rhetorical plea: “Do you want to be a ditch digger for the rest of your life? Then you better straighten up and do your homework and learn something that will do you some good in life”.

Which was prophetically good advice, considering the invention of the Ditch Witch, a motorized, self-propelled trenching machine. So what analogy can be used for today’s children and their future?

Pray to your God in heaven that at the Microsoft headquarters, a still-frugal Bill Gates doesn’t ever decide to eat his bag lunch while sitting on the edge of the footbridge spanning the fountain pool that sits out front. And pray even harder he doesn’t look down when he bites into that sandwich.
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, March 11, 1999.

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Posted by on August 18, 2009 in Along The Watchtower


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