28 October 2012

Back to the Future (Halloween and Wings edition)

Ah, the October Bank Holiday weekend, one of our biannual trips in the national DeLorean, collectively cranking it up to 88 Miles Per Hour (or 141.622km/h in new money) to blast through the fourth dimension and end up an hour elsewhen, our great leap backwards last night fuelled not by plutonium or lightning but by 1.21 gigawatts of alcohol and half-arsed costumes, if the denizens of Dublin are anything to go by.

For ladies, as always, the costume of choice seems to be prefixed by the word "Sexy-", as in "sexy nurse", "sexy witch", or "sexy IMF overseer and representative of the international Troika", though I may be making one of those up. For the gentlemen the costumes of choice seemed once again to have been a random selection of a) poorly fitting dresses, b) poorly fitting nuns' habits, or c) poorly fitting onesies that may once have been symbolic of an animal of sorts but now are the sad remains of a picnic blanket a hippo has vomited upon, repeatedly. As a gender we Irishmen are typically potato-shaped, the word "sexy-" could never be applied as a prefix to anything we attempt to do.

Still, it was nice of everyone to make such an effort to send us back in time through their combined bacchanalia, but the thought occurred to me that they didn't really need to go to such an effort, for the massed forces of global Capitalism are already doing such a sterling job of it. Before you tut-tut and click away to check your Facebooks or your Beibers, let me explain by way of a perfectly croumlent anecdote.

This day two weeks ago I, along with over eight million other people, watched live online as a man took a step from the edge of space and plummeted down over thirty-nine kilometres to the ground, breaking the sound barrier along the way. With the video player running in the background of my desktop, for two-and-a-half hours I watched Felix Baumgartner capsule ascend, and for eleven minutes I watch his descent, and was amazed by the wonder of it all. Just like I was the first time I saw the grainy footage of Joe Kittinger do the same thing fifty-two years ago in 1960.

Four days before Baumgartner's jump, I marvelled as Elon Musk's SpaceX Dragon capsule successfully docked with the International Space Station on its first commercial flight, repeating its historic May test flight that opened the door to a new wave of commercial space exploration. Two years previously the capsule completed its first successful launch and recovery from orbit, becoming the first private enterprise to successfully replicate what the Soviet Union had first accomplished fifty years previously, in 1960.

In March of this year I followed another explorer pushing the limits of human achievement. Film Director James Cameron took the Deep Sea Vehicle Deepsea Challenger almost eleven kilometers in the opposite direction to Kittinger and Baumgartner, to the deepest point in the ocean, the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench. For two-and-a-half hours Cameron explored the floor of the world, a feat done only once before by Jaques Piccard and Don Walsh who descended together in the same craft, fifty-two years ago in 1960.

So it has taken over fifty years for the private sector to accomplish what the public sector managed to do less than twelve years after the most devastating conflict the world had ever seen. However what depresses me most about this year's accomplishments is not that they took so long to happen, but why they happened Baumgartner's skydive was a marketing gimmick for an energy drink. Cameron's descent was the whimsical act of a bored millionaire, and although Musk will now be able to turn SpaceX in to a viable commercial business, he only started it all because he was a billionaire geek who thought spaceships were cool, essentially another act of whimsy.

The private sector has had the technology and the money necessary to replicate any of these feats for many years now, but hasn't, not because there weren't any immediate commercial opportunities but because the private sector has no interest in great leaps forward or major scientific breakthroughs. The success of the private sector, and of Capitalism in general, is predicated on the careful control of incremental change.

Last week's Apple circus is a perfect example of this. Since the launch of the original iPod, iPhone or the iPad, every few months we are treated to a media explosion around the latest new version of the product, and the spectacle of thousands of eager consumers whipped up into a frenzy and trampling over each other to be the first in line to increase their credit card debt as their annual tithe to the Cult of Jobs. It has become quite clear, however, that each new iteration is not the best product that Apple could manufacture, as the phased introduction of certain features across the line attest (the camera introduced to the iPhone today makes its way to the iPad tomorrow and the iPod after that). Each product is crafted to contain the most limited change in technology to justify its replacement of the older version, without cannibalising sales of other products in the family. Apple has the technology to introduce a phone with a 10 megapixel camera, or a 12 or a 16, but why bother when by introducing incremental step changes it can increase profit by getting customers to buy something new every year.

This is what Capitalism does, it is never concerned with producing the best, only the minimum necessary for the public to buy at the maximum profit. Building something durable destroys future sales. Building something innovative destroys sales of older products. The greatest technological innovations we have seen in the last twenty years have all been geared around improvements in our ability to consume.

The Internet may have been conceived as a tool of learning but its primary function now is to rapidly speed up consumption, our instant-on society demands immediate facts, but cares nothing for learning, demands immediate news, but cares nothing for history, demands immediate purchasing and next-day delivery, but cares nothing for the long-term environmental costs of just-in-time delivery and the lives of those enslaved to produce the products we so desperately need, until twelve months later we are told that we need something newer and better (well, slightly better), and last year's must-have ends up in the landfill to be picked apart by starving children in a process laughingly referred to as "recycling". That I watched a man leap from space live on my computer was a by-product of his sponsor's desire to have eight million people watch an ad for three hours. What we view as technological progress that improves our lives is in reality nothing more than progress in our ability to buy, or to be sold to.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the pharmaceutical industry, which focuses not on prevention or cure but on the ongoing treatment of illness. A cured customer is a lost customer, so the best drug in the world is one that offers marginal improvement to a condition no-one even knew existed, yet once taken produces disastrous effects if ever halted. From over-stimulated children to poor diet, the industry has no intrest in changing behaviour, only in pushing pills. We have a treatment for male impotence, but no cure for cancer. Nothing they produce will ever cure you, only let you live a long and productive life, consuming, consuming, always consuming.

This is what saddened me as I watched Baumgartner jump, that we as a race have the ability to better ourselves exponentially, but we choose not to because there is more profit in incremental change. The irony of the Slow Movement, those who seek to turn away from rabid consumerism and return to a more human-scale approach to food, to living, to relationships, is that paradoxically Capitalism is often the slowest thing out there.

We deserve better than this. We deserve the future our grandparents imagined for us, and we deserve it to be delivered not as a by-product of the whims of a bored plutocratic playboy, but as the concerted effort of a society that has collectively decided to work towards the betterment of humanity.

Nobody is going to give us this future, it is simply one that we must make for ourselves.

Update
As if by magic just a few hours after I posted this, The Guardian's online edition ran with a story highlighting the profit-vs-progress mentality of Big Pharma, and the catastrophic effect this was having on the global campaign against cancer.

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