Sunday, August 7, 2011

On Rising Curves

An early lesson I learned in my pursuit of practical economics—indeed I turned it into a personal slogan—is that no curve ever rises forever. It came in handy in the 1960s. Virtually every industrial curve was visibly rising, irresistibly, it seemed. Those of us hired to advise industry on the future were tempted to point at all those uptrending lines as the easy way out. Our clients were already on board with that. But one can’t take the low road, not responsibly. So I had my dispiriting slogan. Industry journals didn’t help. They made the most of those trends; boundless optimism was not only normal, it was politically correct. Just recalling the atmosphere then now reminds me how everything looked in those innocent days.

It was a period of continuous and rapid…Integration. The Industrial Age had, as it were, come of age. All that remained was to put all of the many pieces together. Technology, in those days, did not mean what it means today—the spread of cybernetics into ever smaller devices of communication. The word then meant the application of new materials across the vast universe of all kinds of products—industrial machinery as well as consumer goods. This included, at the industrial level, changes to machinery to process materials better and faster. One of the hottest trade magazines, those days, believe it or not, was Steel, and almost monthly innovations in forming, shaping, cutting, or preserving steel filled the magazine’s breathless pages. That too came to pass. Steel tried to keep itself alive by opening its pages more widely to technology (in the old sense of the word) but couldn’t quite manage the job. The atmosphere had changed. No sooner had the economy integrated all of these arts, mechanics, and materials than industry (old meaning) lost the public eye; its struts, wires, tendons, and muscles disappeared (as they do in organic bodies) under skin—and in their case beneath shiny outer bodies, the fuselage, and the reflecting surface of new architecture.

The next big visible issue turned out to be the very negatives of the now submerged Age of the Machine. Once it vanished, its wastes became visible. For some decades, beginning in the 1970s, Environment became the issue and eventually turned all of us into either would-be-green recyclers or dug-in clear-cutters and adamant regulation-haters. And then dawned the Age of the Computer with the Apple. The child of cybernetics—am I surprised that my spark plug fires at the wink of a built-in chip? not in the least; I’m inclined to yawn—the child of the chip is the Social Network, perhaps the last and final stage of…Integration. It’s still rising. Oh the excitement, the new Political Correctness (“Follow us on Facebook, Twitter”). Rising. Going public. Making the billions mushroom from nothing. But no curve rises for ever.

Is the next big age the Age of Disintegration? Have we just seen the birth of it in that almost-successful attempt to set a limit—somewhat lower than the sky—to debt? To be followed more effectively by new innovations coming tomorrow. Is this age beginning at the top but promising to come down all the way to us, bringing its desirable products and services to our own humble little homes in a decade or two? We shall see. But if it comes, the dis, we must remember that all rising curves eventually dip—and then in turn produce yet other new exciting things to write home about—if the Post Office is still up and running.

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