Saturday, February 9, 2008

Do you want your change?

Back to the theme of change. I can't speak for other countries, but it seems to me that the U.S. loves the idea of riskless change. We want things to change, but only if there's no downside.

Actually, what I just wrote isn't true. Each person wants change to be risk-free, but doesn't care too much if the risk moves somewhere else. I've written before about the ways in which corporations shift business risk to others (here), but it's not much different for individuals. If offshoring means that you can save a buck on your sweater at Wal-Mart, that it puts Americans out of work 800 miles away doesn't seem so important.

One of the big changes that's coming is the decline of our automobile-based lifestyle. The oil's running out, there's not too much doubt about that any longer, and what is there will be bid on by China and India as they attempt to build their modern economies. Other than some flirtations with hybrid cars, which aren't the remarkable gas savers we'd like to think they are, we haven't done a whole lot to change the way we live.

What we want, of course, is for the car fairy to sneak into our garages while we are sleeping and magically convert our minivans into nuclear- or solar- or air-powered vehicles overnight, all without the loss of a single cupholder. We'll just climb in the next morning, use our cars precisely as we did before, maybe not even have to stop for refueling.

But what if the transition is not so smooth? There is a belief that change happens almost instantaneously, but it doesn't. Most change follows the logistic curve: slow growth at first as infrastructure and awareness are built, then exponential-appearing growth, finally a tapering off as the change reaches some natural limit.

A lot of things affect the specific shape of the curve in real-life situations. The fax machine, in some form, dates back to 1843 (see here for a history), and there was extensive adoption by 1948. However, usage didn't become mainstream until the 1970s or '80s, so the logistic curve for the fax machine had a very long leading edge before the "exponential" growth was seen.

The automobile was not an overnight success (though we tend to think it was, as we tend to telescope history - do you realize it took 115 years from the first time Columbus landed in the New World until the settlement at Jamestown?). It took a long time to get the technology to the point where it was usable and affordable, to upgrade roads to handle large numbers of heavy motorcars, to create a network of filling stations. Only then could we see our way clear to the near-ubiquity of the car today.

Anything that replaces it, whether based on atoms or the sun or hydrogen, will require lead time as well - it will not happen overnight. And the precise nature of the life changes are, as yet, unknown. If nuclear cars can be built, and gain acceptance as the next big thing, how many of us are going to want to sit at the fuel station every Saturday for four hours while they swap out our used rods in a clean room? What if solar-powered vehicles are the answer, but cannot be made smaller than 20-person buses? Do we move to company towns so we can get enough people together to commute to work?

My point is that any change of a fundamental nature has the power to discomfit us; the question is not how we embrace the change itself, but the subsequent changes that are forced upon us. And the longer we wait, the more likely it is that the concomitant changes will be wrenching and unpleasant.

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