Monday, November 28, 2011

Does size matter?

There is a story about Steve Jobs, the late cofounder of Apple, and it goes something likes this: When the first prototype of the iPod was produced, it was shown to Jobs by one of his engineers. The initial reaction from Jobs was to ask why it was so big. The engineer protested, saying that, for its size, it was incredible and it could hold a 1 000 songs.

At this point, Jobs took the iPod, or so the story goes, walked over to a fish tank in his office and dropped the iPod into it. He then pointed to the bubbles that came out of the submerged device, noting that they were proof that there was still space inside and the iPod could be made smaller.

This story, whether true or not, highlights the link between technology and size, and the general trend towards increasingly smaller gadgets.

The first computer I used in the 1980s had a 10 Mb hard drive and was a giant hunk of metal. The hard drive alone weighed as much as a brick and was close to the size of a brick. At the time, 10 Mb was con- sidered to be an enormous amount of storage space; today, the average app is bigger than 10 Mb and a flash drive 1 000 times the size would be no bigger than your thumb nail.

The rapid shrinking of devices has prompted some technology analysts to note that we are no longer in the midst of a computer revolution but rather in a time of evolution.

Evolution implies a gradual practical adaptation to the environment. This is largely true when it comes to computers. For example, the more people travel, the more likely they would want a lightweight and small laptop, and manufacturers respond accordingly. However, modern society creates aberrations in a logical technological advance towards the minuscule.

In the 1980s, it was the size of your ghetto blaster that was critical to your street credi- bility. Destroying your spine by dragging around a 4 ft radio on your shoulder with speakers large enough to blow your head off was the epitome of cool. This was replaced by the tiny iPod with mini earbuds.

But, recently, I noticed that the use of discrete earbuds has been replaced by oversized headphones. Sound quality aside, one reason for this is that, as iPods have become smaller, it is harder to show off your shiny new gadget. So highly visible headphones, with the designer labels showing, have become the new fashion accessory.

The use of 4 × 4 vehicles in cities is a further example that bucks the trend toward miniaturisation. No one really needs a car the size of a tank to drive around a city, and a small micro car would make more sense. But that does not stop from us buying large vehicles completely unsuited to the urban environment. Some argue this is about comfort and safety, but we all know a 4 × 4 is also a status symbol.

So size is not only dependent on functionality but is deeply linked to social standing. The question, therefore, is whether we are, in fact, evolving or not? One thesis is that modern life is causing a slowdown in evolution, but other scientists argue we are adapting even more rapidly to different environments, foods and lifestyles.

But I simply do not trust humans to do what is in the best interests of the species. Driving environment-destroying cars is a case in point.

You would think we would have evolved to have a ‘sensible gene’. Such a gene would prevent us from using things that destroy the planet or eating food that slowly kills us, not to mention wearing overpriced impractical sound cups on our ears in busy public spaces. We would do well to remember the words of Wendelin Wiedeking, former CEO of Porsche: “If size did matter, the dinosaurs would still be alive.”

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 28 October 2011 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Who is fit to lead the moral regeneration of a broken society?

If you are anywhere in the British Isles, it is difficult to think about anything else this week than the riots that flared up across England. The wanton looting and extensive property damage were not only ferocious, but pervasive, stretching across a range of cities, suggesting a deep-seated problem.

Explanations for the riots have varied. During the riots, Conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron claimed the riots were pure and simply criminality. However, in a speech after the riots, he backtracked slightly. Although he felt the behaviour of the protestors and the influence of gangs, particularly, were still the main problem, he acknowledged a plethora of other causes for a broken society.

These included problems in the education system and family breakdown, and, as a result, he promised to transform the lives of around 120 000 families and parents. He talked of a “slow-motion moral collapse”. He acknowledged the need to show higher moral standards across society, noting the banking crisis, the abuse of expenses by UK Members of Parliament (MPs) and the phone hacking carried out by journalists as examples of “greed, irresponsibility and entitlement”. In essence, he called for tougher security measures and a social fightback.

That said, he did not feel that race, government cuts or poverty were the main causal factors. In contrast, Labour leader Ed Miliband said inequality was a factor, and he, too, noted that rioters were greedy, immoral and selfish, much like some bankers, MPs and journalists. He felt a commission of inquiry and national conversation were necessary to address the issue.

Despite the eloquent words of both politicians, however, as I read through the speeches, I found myself feeling somewhat queasy. The reason for this was that I struggled to believe the promises implicit in either analysis.

Will the lives of thousands be turned around? Will the gap between the rich and poor narrow? Will bankers, who were bailed out, ever pay taxpayers back or have their bonuses curtailed? Would another commission uncover the truth? I doubt it.

Maybe I am cynical and my jaded view of the world is not fair on politicians who, in many cases, are doing their best. But if I feel like this as I read the speeches on my shiny Macbook, in my middle-class suburban home, how estranged must people without my level of social security feel?

I am not sure if politicians in the UK, and South Africa for that matter, realise how little faith the vast majority of the public have in them. Everyday, it seems to me, ordinary folk feel they have less and less chance of influencing the direction of the State.

In Britain, when a million people marched against the Iraq War, they were ignored. When the public were morally outraged at MPs fiddling their expense claims, a few MPs were prosecuted, but most were given the chance to pay the money back (maybe the looters could also get off if they returned their goods?).

In South Africa, when people voice their opinion about government corruption, they are deemed racists or sell-outs. Or, when black South Africans point to the excesses of white businesses living large on apartheid gains, they are dismissed as misguided insurrectionists.

Feeling estranged from the State, especially a democratic State, does not fully explain or justify violent riots and unrest, but my point is that I fear that those in power have not grasped the disconnect between themselves and the populace. This makes any talk of political leaders leading the charge in repairing the social and moral fabric of society sound farcical.

Moral and community reconstruction is not something you can do to others. Fixing a moral collapse starts, in the throwaway words of popstar Michael Jackson, with the man in the mirror. This means questioning your own moral compass, acting against injustice, toning down the rhetoric and throwaway solutions, and taking more time to listen to others respectfully.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 25 August 2011 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.