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The Des Moines Register is shrinking its staff, and that's sad news for those of us who think this community deserves great institutions. We may be media rivals with the Register, in some ways, but every medium has a special niche that the others can't completely fill, and a metropolitan daily newspaper has one of those niches. Unfortunately, the Register is far from being the only big newspaper with these kinds of troubles. One of the biggest problems facing big daily newspapers today is that they don't know how to apply the right technology to the right message.
Just like there are some things that are best said via text, others by phone call, others by e-mail, and still others in a handwritten note, there are some news items that are best packaged in a newspaper, others on the radio, others on the Internet, and others as video. Unfortunately, though, many newspaper companies seem to think of themselves as beholden to the massive printing presses they've purchased, and obligated to view any other medium as "the enemy." In reality, they need to realize that printing presses, or big-city office buildings, or even the way they've always taught print journalism, are nothing but sunk costs. A sunk cost is anything that you've already paid for. And if you're smart (or at least business-savvy), you realize that a sunk cost is something you can't control. What you can control is what you do with what you have to stay (or become) profitable in the future.
Suppose you were living in 1880 and running a business to light the gas lamps along the city streets of Des Moines. Suddenly, electric street lamps appear on the scene, and it becomes obvious that they're going to put gas lamps out of business. You have two choices: You can lament all of the money you've invested in the tools and training you needed to become a street-lamp-lighting company, and decide to fight the technology of electric light until it puts you out of business. Or you can acknowledge that all the equipment and employee training that you've invested in for years is going to become obsolete with or without you, and choose to invest your remaining profits into becoming something different that will suit the new technology. The equipment and the training are sunk costs. But that doesn't mean they have to sink your business. If only today's newspaper companies would realize that...
A lot of buzz was generated by the Obama campaign's promise to alert supporters of the Vice-Presidential pick by text message this past week. It was a skillful marketing move; after all, now the campaign has a huge database of potential voters filled with verified e-mail addresses and phone numbers. But technologically, I'm worried about how our politicians -- including the Presidential candidates -- are going to respond to the technologies that are changing the world with or without us. Meat from bio-reactors, replacement organs, faster computers -- all of these things and many more are going to impose social and legal changes on us, and it's impossible to follow them all even when you're hosting a radio show about technology, much less trying to raise money and get elected. But in general, if you have a good philosophical framework for dealing with change -- for instance, one that remains optimistic about technology, trusting of free markets under the rule of law, and faithful in the ability of people to choose their own destinies -- then you can probably find ways to deal with these changes. But if you think government can legislate resources into existence or should prohibit anything that could be harmful or has the duty to protect everyone from the consequences of their decisions (good or bad), then you're probably going to make change hurt people more than help.
One of the biggest changes that we're probably not talking enough about is the prospect for radical extensions in life expectancy. We may not live forever -- like Jonathan Swift fretted about in "Gulliver's Travels" -- but suppose we start living to 150 or 200...which isn't impossible to conceive if we start to get replacement organs from our own cells and microscopic robots cleaning our arteries. If that becomes our life expectancy, then what happens to institutions like marriage, retirement, and education? What happens when you stop thinking of some mythical "seventh generation" and actually live to meet your great-great-great-great-grandchildren?
Also on the border between technology and politics is the use of cyberwarfare, which China and Russia have both been accused of doing (and it's probably true). And with Russia's government getting beligerent against countries like Georgia and Poland, we ought to be aware of the threat of electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) bombs. There's a single member of Congress who seems to be raising the alarm about it -- but it's not the kind of threat to overlook. We depend in absolutely mission-critical ways upon the function of electronics, and real technology exists today that could disable it for all of us.
Disaster-preparedness tip of the week: Have a decent stockpile of non-perishable food around the house, at least enough to sustain everybody in your house comfortably for at least a week. More would be even better. Winter storms and all other kinds of disasters can interrupt food deliveries, and the question isn't whether that kind of thing is likely to happen, but whether it could happen (it could) and how bad your situation would be if it did. The easiest way to stockpile food for your household is to double-up on the purchase of one non-perishable food item each time you hit the grocery store. After a few trips, you'll have a good start on an adequate stockpile of foods to keep you together.
Britain's government is thinking of imposing a per-mile tax on auto use. That would be a good idea if they were planning to do it right. Unfortunately, they're talking about doing it with privacy-eroding tracking systems. That makes it a really bad idea.
GPS, though, can be used for really great purposes -- like saving gas. Technology crossovers can come from surprising places, but that's what's great about technology and market economics: People have incentives to find ways to come up with good ideas and apply them.
Follow along with Brian Gongol's Twitter channel for bite-sized updates on what's happening throughout the week.
Keywords in this show: Britain • China • cyberwarfare • Des Moines Register • disaster preparedness • education • electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) bombs • food stockpiles • free markets • gas streetlights • gas taxes • Georgia (nation) • GPS • Gulliver's Travels • immortality • life expectancy • marriage • media • newspapers • Obama, Barack • per-mile taxes • Poland • politics • privacy • retirement • rule of law • Russia • seventh generation • social change • sunk costs • Swift, Jonathan • technological change • technology crossovers • technological revolutions • technology • voter databases • voting