Friday, February 8, 2013

The World’s Complexity

We think that the visible universe is complex: big bang, black holes, dark matter, great walls, the great attractor (link). But the same appears when we look anywhere. A recent acquaintance and I were having a conversation a few days ago; I’ll call him DF. We were both waiting for our wives to emerge from swimnastics exercise. I asked him what he’d been doing before retirement. Printing, he said. Ah yes. A link. Printing had been part of my early life as well, including part-ownership for a while of a tiny printing enterprise. We got to talking. DF sighed at one point. He recalled the greatest investment he’d ever made in his life—in a $5 million printing press, the sort of thing you use for printing magazines. He explained the sigh as well. What with such investments requiring recovery—and the vast rolls of paper one had to buy for every job—so little tricked out between these two massive pressures that one lived, always, on the edge. Ours was the briefest of exchanges, but later I looked into this.

The press DF had talked about turned out to be a Hantscho Mark 16—the kind of machine that’s half of a football field long, prints 32-page sheets in eight colors at the rate of about 11 impressions per second, with dedicated computers monitoring each color in real time and adjusting them by automatic tweets. The Hantscho was present in my early days already—but the big name then was the Heidelberg. The ant-sized press we used was a Multilith—monitored by a single human brain and adjusted using hands. But I remembered visiting the big presses and being in proper awe.

I got to wondering if the Hantscho still existed. In a way yes, in a way no. Back in the days when DF bought the Mark 16, it had already lost its independence to a giant called Rockwell International, a company remembered, if at all, as an aerospace giant. It had acquired, along the way, a major printing giant called Miehle-Goss-Dexter. Hantscho was either part of that combination already, the Goss part, or was acquired at around the same time. Eventually—in what seems to have been the “reorganization” caused by the end of the Cold War, Rockwell fell apart into pieces. One of the spun-off parts was Goss Graphic Systems Inc., in which Hantscho once more surfaces as a product. But Goss, having spruced up its name to Goss International, was eventually (in 2010) acquired by a Chinese Giant, Shanghai Electric. That company was then, and probably still is, assembling an overwhelming presence in mass printing machinery—in answer to a vast expansion of newspaper and magazine printing that marks China’s rise to a global capitalist power.

Little did I imagine that DF’s supplier—whose press left such a deep impression—would eventually lead me all the way to China, to Shanghai, the worlds largest city proper (for an explanation go here). But it shouldn’t have surprised me. My second corporate employer, J.F. Pritchard, an engineering company, followed a similar track and has long since been absorbed by a giant engineering corporation in South Korea.

Those invisible lines of ownership. Network upon network upon network—all marked by ownership. The close-to-the-highest layers above us is mostly empty airspace. But recently a Russian airplane violated “ownership” of Japan’s airspace, thus embroiling Japan not just with China to the west and south but with Russia to the north. Somewhere within Shanghai Electric is a person, no doubt male, who owns more of that company than any other person and therefore has the greatest claim to “owning” what had once been Hantscho. As a single person, what power does that gentleman have to enforce his rights of ownership in far away America?—a land ever more covered by clouds of irrelevance to the dawning future.

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