Truth or Consequences
Analog Impacts in a Digital Age

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Some people live in a fantasy world, thinking that they can do whatever they please without suffering the consequences. If they steal, nobody will be hurt significantly; they can always make it up by earning replacement money. If they lie, nobody will be harmed long-term, because by the time the truth gets out, it won't matter any more. If they cut corners on product quality, nobody will care, because everybody else is doing it, too. We used to call them sociopaths. Now we call them "leaders."


High-tech philosophers and spinmeisters have fooled most people into thinking that we are in a Golden Age where software can give us anything we want, without a downside, without penalty, without consequences. Software is invisible; it takes up no space; it costs nothing to duplicate; it is infinitely malleable (it can be twisted and bent to do anything). It's PERFECT! Funny, but aren't those same qualities also descriptive of governmental laws and regulations? Except the "perfect" part, of course.

The hard truth is this: software cannot "live" without a physical, real-world "substrate" to exist upon. This is normal and natural; your thoughts cannot exist without your brain, and governmental ideals and regulations are nothing more than hot air without real people to implement them and obey them. The digital world of instructions, designs, and images cannot exist without a real, analog world to embody these ethereal, ephemeral information modules. Software without hardware is like ice cream without a container -- just a gooey mess.

As software grows in size and complexity, it makes bigger and bigger demands on the real-world hardware supporting it -- just like a growing government makes bigger and bigger demands on its people over time. As hardware demands grow, electrical power demands grow. Hardware without electrical power is as useless as a corpse. Since roughly ten to fifteen percent of all U.S. personal computers are located in the state of California, it should not surprise us that bloated software from monopolist Microsoft has led to unreasonable demand for computing power, resulting in absurdly high demand for electrical power -- and the resultant shortages and outages. Similarly, rapidly growing U.S. corporate offices in India led to a power plant failure last week, leaving 225 million people without electricity for hours or even days. As U.S. companies continue to move U.S. high-tech jobs to third-world countries, impoverishing U.S. college-educated workers, there will be more infrastructure failures. Nothing is free!

There are real, physical consequences to the decisions that we make, whether we are writing a specification, designing a bridge, or negotiating a business deal. And there are waterfall consequences to those consequences, ripples in the pond of society, impacts and results upon other people and other objects in the real world around us. We can't avoid them, but self-delusional people among us will try to hide from them. We call these people "leaders."


Just six months ago, media pundits and economic wizards gloated about the seemingly perfect decisionmaking ability of U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. The business cycle had been abolished; poverty was obsolete; permanent prosperity for every American resident was guaranteed. But Mr. Greenspan and the business-school wonks and even the U.S. media operate at a level of thought that is not based on the real world. Their opinions and decisions are based on surveys, on press releases, and on preconceived biases and beliefs. They are like ships on the surface of the ocean, operating without sonar, having no idea what goes on beneath the waters, underneath their line-of-sight, where real people live and work every day in the real world.

When U.S. high-tech leaders visited with President-elect Bush last week, it was yet another case of real-world observations being ignored, and fantasy-world delusions being accepted. The CEOs and representatives from companies like Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and Intel did what comes naturally to them: they lied to Mr. Bush. They lied when they told him they were the key to economic growth. The truth is, unpaid overtime has been the key to U.S. economic growth and the illusion of productivity for the past decade. They lied to him when they claimed there is a "shortage" of high-tech workers in the U.S. The truth is, there is a huge surplus of millions of geniuses working as janitors, security guards, and burger flippers -- and those are the lucky ones. Thousands of homeless people in soup kitchens and unemployment lines are briliant technical wizards who are rejected by these high-tech nimrods, who begged and pleaded with Mr. Bush to let millions more foreign replacement workers in the front door. Meanwhile, millions of U.S. high-tech workers are being laid off through the back door. One in ten unemployed Californians has an MS or PhD degree, according to a Field Institute poll.

This is why Mr. Greenspan screwed up the economy: he also believed the high-tech spin doctors who insisted the labor market was tight. While over one million U.S. high-tech workers were laid off since 1998, Mr. Greenspan raised interest rates six times during this period. He thought wage inflation was certain to lead to inflation in the economy, because he thought there was a shortage of qualified high-tech workers. But common sense indicates that companies who need workers don't lay them off. In the real world, companies who need workers don't cut pension plans, reduce medical insurance, or mandate smaller cubicle sizes. Apparently, these companies are getting their pick of the cheapest, least-experienced, and most mediocre workers they prefer, while firing their best people.

Are you happy with the resulting product recalls and cheap, poor-quality products? Do you like software that crashes constantly, and that continues showing Y2K bugs long after the bug was supposedly excised? That's what happened to several major retailers last week, including Seven-Eleven stores, who hired a company that employs thousands of foreign temps as programmers for the Y2K "fix." See! Consequences, consequences.

Mr. Greenspan believed the lies. Mr. Bush believed the lies. (As for Mr. Clinton, who knows what he believes??) What do we call people who make decisions based on spinmeisters and media hypesters? "Leaders," of course.


The decisions you and I make each day will have consequences. When we choose to use a piece of software, there will be consequences in how that software affects PC reliability, PC power demand, and most importantly, how much time and effort will be required for maintenance. When we choose a particular job or career, there will be consequences in how much money we make, how long we may remain employed, and how much unpaid overtime we will have to provide. These decisions have small ripples affecting small numbers of people in very personal ways.

But leaders who make big decisions cause big ripples that affect millions of people in very large ways. Whether they know it or not, companies that lie, cheat, and deceive are making decisions that will affect far more than the next quarterly report or even their own stock value. Politicians who give special treatment to wheeler-dealers on the promise of a better economy also make decisions that affect millions of people, usually in unexpected and unforeseen ways. The fact that software forms a major part of the decisionmaking process does not give humanity an exemption from the laws of nature. It merely obscures and obfuscates the impacts of those laws, and makes decisions more complex and far-reaching.

There may be free software, but there is still no such thing as a free lunch.


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