Tuesday, 28 September 2010

The Kindle and the electronic age

The new version of Amazon's Kindle, electronic book reader, has been released and we were debating its virtues and demerits around the dinner table at a friend's house. Well, I can't help it, I am probably a member of the chattering classes.

One of us argued that electronic book readers lead to the death of libraries that, in turn, provide social spaces as well as books, expert advice and inspiration. She further argued that such devices kill imagination and creativity. Finally she argued that they exclude the poor from the information age. Others countered that libraries are already glorified computer centres and that ebooks lead to different types of creativity but creativity nonetheless. I said that we should consider paper books for what they deliver, which is information, entertainment etcetera and that electronic books simply provide the same benefits in a different way, as well as being more compact, cheaper in the long-run and offering extra benefits such as instant gratification via immediate downloads.

But I did not express a niggling reservation. What happens if the electricity is turned off? Now, I know that if that happens we are all stuffed because, just 62 years after the transistor was developed, we depend utterly on computers. I mean utterly. Our food supply chain, our payment systems, our public services (think water, sewage, heat, light, hospitals, transport, fuel etc) would all just stop if all our computers turned off. We would, literally, starve and freeze even before the world economy collapsed if they did not come back on pretty damn quick. So, in those circumstances, it would scarcely matter if the learning of our entire civilization was lost.

Of course none of this will happen. Cyberwarfare by enemy states or terrorists will be kept at bay. But what about a Carrington event? In 1859, Carrington, a British astronomer recorded a solar flare that, if repeated today, would cause at least $2 trillion of damage in the USA alone and leave 130m people without electricity. A 2009 report by the US National Academy of Sciences (which has been taken down from their website since I read it) explains how the extreme electrical activivty would be captured by our electrical grids as if by a huge antenna. The damage could take ten years to repair. The frequency of these events is unknown, possibly only once in a thousand years, possibly less; who knows?

What Price Crime Prevention

The London Borough of Harrow claims, on its website, that street lights are inspected every two weeks in winter and every four weeks in summer. So a friend of mine who lives in the borough was surprised that one such street light in particular was out for 18 months. This means it was, apparently, inspected at least 30 times with absolutely no effect whatever. The failure of the particular light, at the end of an alleyway used by many pedestrians, was reported to the borough on many occasions because it was perceived as a threat to personal security. Still nothing. It was reported to councillors. Still nothing. It was reported to the councillor who takes responsibility for street lighting, who was told by council officials that it had been fixed. No it hadn't. It was reported to the police as a crime threat. Apparently that particular policeman has better things to do than deal with street lighting. Well, now that someone has been stabbed at the end of that particular alleyway and beneath that non-functioning streetlight I wonder if the police or the council see street lighting as part of their remit?

Monday, 6 September 2010

Sustainable Business

I am writing a book on corporate governance, due for publication in spring 2011 (thanks for asking), and my research is bringing me across references to 'sustainability' everywhere.... and it drives me up the wall. I have no idea what the term means; which is mostly because the people who write it have no idea what they mean. Whilst it is fun to look up on the internet the handful of businesses that have been around for a thousand years or more, few businesses last more than a few decades, even the most successful. That is inherent in the whole capitalist model of the corporation. They merge, change their activities, change their names, change their ownership, go bust. Businesses themselves are not sustainable.

Of course most of these references mean conducting business in a manner that is more environmentally friendly. This is a relative idea - not environmentally friendly just more so than the alternatives. And, because that is a bit of a mouthful, the phrase is shortened to 'sustainable business'; which is ok. I recycle at home. I put food waste and cardboard on the compost heap; cans and bottles in the blue bin for the council to collect: I suspect they just put these in landfill but I still go to the trouble of separating out those bottles and cans.

And let us be clear, the second law of thermodynamics tells us that the universe is not sustainable. It is gradually winding down. But ok, I accept that is happening over billions of years and life is short. But oil and mining companies are fundamentally in businesses that are not sustainable, whatever it may say in their annual reports about sustainability. They are using up scarce resources that cannot be replaced and will eventually run out. When they are gone we will have to think of a plan B. And it is not obvious or simple to decide whether this is wrong. Many rare earth metals, for example, are used in high tech products today but are running out too. There is no certainty that new deposits will be found. It is not just a matter of digging deeper into the planet: they only exist near the surface. Should we conserve them for future generations or should we use them now and leave it to our descendents to invent new technologies that make use of materials that are available then? Why not just have as much fun as we can now? If a benefit can be had now or in two hundred years it is not obvious that we should leave it for that future generation. With the spread of nuclear weapons, those future generations may not even exist. Bear in mind that few species have lasted on this planet for more than a couple of million years - that seems about par for the course - so we are unlikely to be here forever. Also bear in mind that the extraordinary technological advances of the nineteenth and  twentieth centuries have been powered, literally, by the completely unsustainable use of fossil fuels. Without using these up at a prodigious rate, our standard of living and quality of living would be very different, we would still live in a limited and largely agrarian society. It would still take months to cross continents and few people would do it; the electronic revolution would probably not have happened.

What about other businesses, perhaps ones that claim to be carbon neutral because they plant trees. Well, it is all just so much nonsense. It is whistling in the wind. If the UK saved carbon dioxide, for example, by stopping all motor transport then the benefit to the world would be less than the offsetting detriment of a single year's growth in China. So a sense of perspective is good. None of which argues against sensible conservation policies, energy efficiency, reductions in pollution but, however good these things are they also have a price - a world that is 'sustainable' for a bit longer is a trade-off with more poverty, ignorance and disease.