Sunday, August 7, 2016

Sparkly Shoes

Recently in our condominium garage we came across our neighbors from down the hall, who have a little girl about three years old. She was stomping across the pavement, and with every step her tennis shoes gave off red, blue, and green sparkles. Clearly, she was delighted with the effect, and so were her parents. And that made me think …

When I was growing up, batteries were bulky things—mostly C and D cells—that tended toward fragility and leaked various corrosive liquids. Tiny, powerful, long-lived batteries based on rare minerals like lithium were decades away from commercial use. Back then, too, strain gauges were exotic devices in the hands of NASA and possibly the military. And light-emitting diodes (LEDs) were either unknown or still in deep development in the laboratory. If someone told me that in my lifetime an entrepreneur would put them all together to make sparkly shoes for toddlers … No, that someone would think of putting these exotic and expensive devices into shoes for which there is no naturally perceived need, and that parents would buy them just to get a smile from a child’s face—well, I would have marveled at the thought.1

In another amazingly silly use of high technology, we now have millions of people all over this country using their smartphones—which have embedded applications such as timekeeping, photo imaging, global satellite positioning, and software programming—to track down and “capture” mythical Japanese pocket monsters, or “pokémons,” so they could win non-monetary credits or kudos or some kind of recognition, even if it’s only their own self-satisfaction.

Please understand that I’m not against sparkly shoes and pokémons. In fact, as a convinced free-market capitalist, I find this frivolous use of advanced technology absolutely wonderful. We live in a world where whimsy and fun still matter. And smart entrepreneurs can still make a buck inventing clever ways to amuse other people. You might call that buck-making a cynical manipulation of people’s emotions. I call it, in the words of Henry J. Kaiser, “finding an [as yet unspoken] need and filling it.”

A socialist or communist society would never come up with these things. In such societies, the Ministry of Shoes would be dedicated to making sober, sensible, box-toed Oxfords for all the serious, pre-grownup children. And when every last child had at least one pair of regulation shoes—as if the children of America are not actually swimming in shoes—the ministry would turn its attention to other worthy causes, like preserving cattle hides, preventing deforestation, or engaging in Muslim outreach. The Ministry of Shoes would never think to develop, manufacture, and offer sparkly shoes as a secondary and delightful addition to a toddler’s wardrobe. And the Ministry of Communications would never think to put a camera, programming, or GPS function into a telephone in the first place. After all, the sober, sensible bureaucrats in charge of new product development would never let frivolity and fun enter the fixed-market equation while there were still hunger, want, and homelessness somewhere in the world.2

The amazing thing about this rise in the marketplace of sparkly shoes is that the national supply of batteries, strain gauges, and LEDs has not been in any way depleted. Neither has the playing of Pokémon Go cut into the availability of telecommunication or satellite positioning services for the rest of the country. Sure, there are children in Ethiopia and South Sudan who are deprived of their fair share of sparkly shoes—as I am sure the military establishments in those places are also suffering a dearth of batteries, strain gauges, and LEDs. But their lack was not caused by putting sparkly shoes on the feet of American toddlers. And stripping the sparkles from American sneakers would do nothing to put more shoes on the feet or food in the mouths of African children, nor would it improve their local economy or raise their educational prospects.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, the economy is not a pie. Slicing economic rewards thinner for me does not create more wealth for you, or vice versa. Rather, the economy is like a rain forest ecology: the more life there exists under its canopy—capturing the energy of sunlight and preserving it as fruits, seeds, sap, edible leaves, insects, birds, beasts, and compostable mulch3—the more niches for life there can be. The more people who are out there in the economy creating sparkly shoes and pokémon games, the more incentive there will be to demand, and more wealth to fund, the next wave of miniaturization in batteries, strain gauges, LEDs, megapixel cameras, computer controls, GPS satellites, and a host of related technologies.

This has been the story of our amazing escalation in technology since the invention of the steam engine as a coal-mine dewatering machine in the late 1700s. Someone thinks of a new application—put the engine in a boat with a paddle wheel, put it in a cart on steel rails—and soon the technology is growing and changing, becoming more ubiquitous. And, with the human capacity for learning, retaining, and sharing experiences and discoveries, the technologies usually become smaller, better, more efficient, and less expensive. If you doubt this, think back to the first cell phones in the 1970s and ’80s: usually mounted in cars, because of their bulk and power requirements, then more portable but still the size of a brick, with a Western Electric–style handset on a cord. A rich man’s toy. Now you can buy a mobile phone for the cost of a good lunch, and in some countries it’s easier to get cellular service than a landline.

Wars have sometimes helped with the development of some of this technology. Certainly, World War I saw an improvement in the mechanization and automation of the battlefield, with benefits drifting over to civilian technology in the form of more robust automobiles and airplanes. World War II saw vast improvements in radio technology, radar, codes and code breaking, the first computing technology—generally associated with code breaking, artillery firing solutions, and development of the atom bomb—and large-scale production and use of aluminum in aircraft manufacturing. These advances then provided a boost to everyday civilian life in the decades that followed.

But television also came along between the wars, served no real military purpose, and advanced just as rapidly in purely civilian usage. And the discovery and manipulation of the silicon transistor—progressing from individual devices that emulated old-style vacuum tubes to integrated circuits that put a huge number of gated operations onto something the size of a postage stamp—were first a civilian invention. Sure, military technology benefited from using integrated circuits, but so did whole civilian industries of electronics applications for entertainment, automotive controls, and mobile computing. Now we are entering the biotech age, and that owes most of its advances to the sequencing of the human genome—a purely civilian project—and almost nothing to work on bioweapons.

Barring the civilizational devastation of a global economic crash, nuclear war, or asteroid strike, this advancement in technology will continue for as far as the eye can see. Some advances are predictable, and as a science fiction writer I try mightily to get ahead of them: like more convenient and personalized communications, new clothing options, transportation modes, and medical procedures, all based on computerized automation, artificial intelligence, and the linkage of systems and technologies that once operated in isolation. Some advances I defy anyone to predict or even imagine: like sparkly shoes and Pokémon Go.

The world of the next twenty years, hundred years … thousand years is going to be unrecognizable to our most modern eyes. I can hardly wait!

1. And then I would have asked, when do I get my Jetsons-style jetpack? Oh, yes, that’s almost here—and here, too.

2. Of course, in a socialist or communist society, where ever-declining government tax revenues must chase ever-increasing economic and social problems—“eventually running out of other people’s money,” in the words of Margaret Thatcher—there would never be any money to spare for frivolity and fun.

3. In this view of economics, the energy from sunlight captured with hydrocarbon compounds in the rain forest is analogous to the energy of human work and imagination captured in goods, services, and the money to pay for them in the marketplace.

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