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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

What Happened to the Future?

For many people, especially those in United States, the future is decidedly less appealing than it once was.

The idea of the future as more bountiful, more peaceful, and more enjoyable than the past has been fundamental to most people’s outlook and perspective. It drove our careers, it gave us confidence to invest in families, in homes and education; and made many of us less cranky and more enjoyable to be around. We would live better than our parents, who lived better than theirs. Progress was inevitable.

Technology was a big part of this expectation. In the US, the mission to the moon gave birth to an entire generation of engineers and scientists who grew up believing nearly anything was possible. We directly and personally experienced technology’s progress in communications, entertainment and industry. We remember big, clunky black and white TVs and expect louder, larger, flatter, thinner, brighter, 3D TV in the coming years. We remember vinyl records and how impossible it was to create a playlist or carry around a thousand songs. We remember Pong and grew up with computers that got better every year. We even saw them turn into phones. We saw the Internet go high def and wireless, and technology become fashion accessories. Not only would our kids live better, easier lives, they would be smarter and cooler too.

Of course, the economic backdrop to all this progress was not entirely good. Japan lost a decade, middle class incomes in the US would stagnate for nearly a generation, and Western Europe GDPs would slow to a trickle. But the advance of technology would at least make it all more enjoyable: better movies, better cars, more friends in better touch. Economic statistics didn’t seem to correlate with obvious, tangible improvements to our quality of life that was as conspicuous as flat screen TVs, smart phones and 3D movies.

Yet today with an oil spill out of control in the Gulf of Mexico and global warming apparently beyond the scope of civilization’s grasp, the future—and the future of technology-- is not looking especially bright. Progress itself seems threatening. While chips sales are booming, it’s Asia that’s prospering. Silicon Valley’s unemployment rate is among the highest in the nation. A recent Department of Labor report estimates that the semiconductor industry will lose one-third of its jobs in the coming decade, the second worst employment sector in the country. We don’t see a next-big-thing on the horizon and jobs in technology are moving overseas faster than you can say CLEANTECH.

Of course, this isn’t really an accurate description of the state of the future. It’s a US perspective and technology doesn’t really care about borders. Silicon Valley remains the epicenter of venture capital funding and no one seems remotely challenging Intel, Apple and Cisco—not to mention Google, Facebook and Twitter. Chip sales are booming not because of Y2K, or Windows 7, or the adoption of smart phones by US road warriors. The technology world today rides on the rising tide of the global consumer, a consumer that’s increasingly from India, China, Russia and a hundred places in between. It’s not about the US anymore.

And, he future’s not about less electronics, its about more. The coming energy crunch is not going to put us in caves, its going to be solved by PV, solid state lighting, thin film batteries, and high tech energy harvesting and other microelectronic innovations. Chips are going to power smart grids, electric cars and other essential components of a cleaner, safer world.

Now, who going to specifically benefit from these products and innovations is another story. It won’t be a factor of where you live. It’s a small world and a flat world--and if you’re not smart enough or clever enough, or industrious enough--it’s going to be a cruel world.

The ebb and flow of the technology industry today is not being driven by Fortune 500 IT spending or the latest high priced gadget for that tiny group of mobile executives, its about hundreds of millions of people leaving poverty and joining the urban workforce. It’s about the ubiquitous place that technology has in the lives of average people in Cairo, Mumbai, Chengdu and Johannesburg.

There’s plenty of things disfunctional in the US political economy today, but it doesn’t have anything to do with technology. There’s no use blaming other companies or other countries for not playing fair or having low wages. The US chooses not to have a robust pro-technology policy. The federal government chooses not compete for fabs or with other countries in various technology sectors. It could, but does not. And I’m not sure it really matters to the vast majority of the human population whose lives are enhanced by microelectronics, or the infinitesimally small percentage of people whose brains and brilliance enable the industry to grow and prosper.

If you have a global perspective, if you have a human perspective, “the future” may never look as promising as today. And chips, solar, LEDs, and other advanced technologies have played and will play an enormously central role in that human progress. And that’s a good thing, no matter where you live.

1 comment:

Bernie said...

Thanks Tom, for reminding us to check our unbridled negativity and cynicism. We need to place in perspective the macro-electro-economic trends that seem to weigh heavily on the US semiconductor zeitgeist.

You are right; the expanding middle-class in developing countries bodes well for the diversification and growth of the electronics ecosystem.

Yet… to your question of the human perspective: a recent EETimes report,
http://www.eetimes.com/news/semi/showArticle.jhtml;jsessionid=54PBIAZFV1VHCQSNDLSCKHA?articleID=225702026

which suggests something close to mass indentured servitude to fuel Foxcon’s electronics manufacturing capability, challenges the notion of automatic improvements to the human condition (or for a level playing field).

We are happy to impugn (or at least I am) BP’s casual regard for decisions (or lack of them) that pose catastrophic risk to the environment, local livelihood and human life. Might electronic industry labor and environmental in developing countries be our gusher? And is there a place for industry-wide stance on social responsibility?