Sunday, January 7, 2007

They do the St. Paul Boogie, when the sun goes down

Several months ago I was listening to A Prairie Home Companion and heard the song The St. Paul Boogie, whose lyrics occasionally make fun of St. Paul residents for their early bed-times. I just realized that a lot of those lines could be interpreted as innuendo. As in, “The St. Paul Boogie is such a hot dance move that the people in the clubs can't help themselves. They're ‘in bed by eight’, if you know what I mean, 'eh, 'eh? ‘In St. Paul you can always find a place to park your car’, catch my drift, saynomore, saynomore?”

And now, for something completely different.

When I was in Illinois recently, specifically, in Paxton on the afternoon of Friday, December 29, 2006, my brother Lyndon commented that he tried to rely on technology as little as possible. My brother Lyndon has two computers (a laptop and a desktop box), a portable music player, and a cell phone. I told him this. He persisted, trying to explain that he didn't really rely on these things, just used them for convenience, and he didn't care about having all the latest features, and avoided using gadgets when possible, etc. I saw that a rather silly discussion was about to occur, similar to when computer experts brag about how they “rough it” using older idioms, such as the command line instead of GUIs, as if the BASH shell (I know, “ATM Machine”, whatever) was once hanging from a tree branch in Eden, and Adam and Eve fell to temptation and typed, “ls /”, and got the directory listing of the Universe (then they went on Usenet and looked up some ASCII porn, just like the 1337 haxXx0rz of today... brand loyalty dies hard, especially when it comes to sex). So I told him, basically, “You came here to Paxton in a car. On roads. Listening to recorded music. You're about to eat food grown in fields, a product of agriculture. Technology, technology, technology, technology.” We argued a bit about whether agriculture was technology, and I won (it wasn't a fair argument... it's never a fair argument when one side is right and the other is wrong).

So why, if practically everything we interact with today is technology, from the clothes we wear and the food we eat to the cities we live in, do we specifically call the computing industry the “technology industry”? I think this name has something to it. When people in general think about technology they don't think about it in the broad sense that I do, about all the work of Man. They think about novel things. In every industry the selling price of products is related to their worth to people and the costs of production. And when an industry is mature products don't change much, the differentiating features that could bump up price are things like expected durability; prices are driven down by competition, volumes are high and profit margins are low. The products aren't novel anymore.

The tech industry is like the fashion industry. Designers come up with new ideas, guard their secrets, try to hold monopolies on their ideas as long as they can, sell with huge profit margins as long as they can. And then once the secret is out, once anyone can produce the same dress for a fraction of the price it's no longer fashion, it's just clothing. So the designers work feverishly to stay ahead of the curve, to always be novel, to never mature. For a tech company to mature, to settle into a comfortable niche, is its death. Then all it can do is drive down costs and wait for its niche to vanish.

I don't know if this attitude extends into the established corporations as business operations outside of their real markets. At one time I thought that San José could become a great city once the tech companies matured and built offices downtown. There are a number of reasons this is silly. First, if the companies, like their products, never really mature, this won't happen. Second, it takes more than tall buildings and a train system to make a great city: it takes people that care about making the city, the local community, great (which are hard to come by in an industry whose players largely act in the wider world of global commerce and the imaginary world of the Internet), it takes visionary leadership at City Hall (and San José's government seems to struggle enough with day-to-day problems). Third, Silicon Valley may become the next Flint, MI before it ever has a chance to mature into the next Chicago. There's not much diversity in its businesses: all the heavy-hitters are tech companies (the Business section of the Mercury News on Mondays is called “Tech Monday”, but it talks primarily about the same companies every other day of the week as well). If India and China (cliché, I know, but cliché for a reason) take over chip design, or if a the declining Dollar leaves less real money in American pockets for the novelties of the tech industry, Silicon Valley could crash hard. As inefficient and as expensive as the valley is, that would be ugly.

Also, Here's a link to that Prairie Home Companion episode.


jl said...

why you teh brilliant? is awesome. *basks in your glow*

jl said...

also i miss you.


heatrose said...

i didnt read beyond "ascii porn" yet, but it made me want to have an ascii porn party. or decorate a wall with it at least.


jl said...

what's this about an apple phone? also you write beautifully all the time, whether you mean to or not. you're surrounded by beauty, mssr le al. **bearhugs back**