A holiday card to the industry, 2012
Have a Merry Sir Isaac Newton’s Birthday and enjoy the perihelion. If you’re more traditional and less nerdy, have a Happy Chanukwansamas instead. No matter what you celebrate, enjoy the holidays. I’m taking a week off — see you in 2013!
Twitter, the curmudgeons complain, is worthless, because how can you write anything worth reading in just 140 characters?
Samuel F. B. Morse could have answered. He sent the first telegram in the United States in 1838.
A century and a half ago, sending a tweet-length telegram would have cost about $150 in inflation-adjusted dollars. Senders and receivers considered messages that length valuable enough to warrant the price.
The problem with Twitter isn’t the technology. It’s plenitude. This, not the medium itself, is what encourages so much uninteresting chaff that finding the few tweets worth reading is so difficult.
My unpublished opus, Lewis’ Laws, contained an entry about plenitude. It said, “The ability of software to be slow will always outstrip the ability of hardware to be fast.”
Have too much of anything and we waste it. It’s why, for example, we have spam. With direct mail, the cost of each additional recipient is high enough to matter, so senders carefully prune their lists to reach only those with encouraging characteristics. Spammers have no reason to care.
Faced with abundance, there’s little incentive to be frugal, whether the abundance comes in the form of memory, computing cycles, or toothpaste.
Yes, toothpaste. Don’t try to fool anyone. When you open a new tube, you squirt more toothpaste onto your brush than you do when the tube is nearly empty. What’s true of toothpaste is true of everything else, too.
It’s in the nature of long division that when we have something in abundance, the value of each bit of it is, to us, tiny.
So if Larry Ellison, or Bill Gates, or Warren Buffet were to accidentally drop a dollar bill when a stiff breeze was blowing, none of them would expend the time and energy necessary to chase it down.
But were a homeless man to accidentally drop the exact same thing, he’d run after it as if his life depended on it.
Plenitude is, I think, half the reason so many Americans are so angry so often. The other half is plenitude’s flip side — that luxury isn’t absolute, it’s comparative. Luxury, that is, is something I have that you don’t have. If we both have it, it isn’t a luxury any more, whether it’s a Lexus, a Rolex, or beef Wellington.
Why are we angry? We all have so much that we devalue it, and because someone else (the detestable “they”) has it too, it’s worth even less.
Encouraged by the shouting heads on the various cable news outlets (most long-ago stopped being talking heads), we ignore what we have, which is everything we need, most of what we want, and a lot of what we desire besides. Instead, we pay attention to what they have that they don’t deserve.
If we’re poor (which in America means being far better off than people in much of the rest of the world), what we have doesn’t matter because everyone else is living in what is, by our standards, luxury.
If we’re wealthy, which in America means a lifestyle that’s literally unimaginable to much of the rest of the world, we resent poor Americans, who receive goods and services they don’t have to pay for because we foot the bill instead, though all the taxes collected from us.
In my first “Holiday Card to the Industry” back in 1996 I imagined King Arthur traveling in time to visit us. He discovered that, compared to how he lived in Camelot, the average IT professional is much, much better off. We are, it concluded, wealthier than ancient kings.
In spite of the various economic bumps and bruises we’ve experienced on the road that’s taken us from 1996 to the present, this hasn’t changed. Everyone reading these words lives a more luxurious life, in nearly every respect, than any medieval monarch ever did.
And on average, most of us in most of the world have more power than the average person did who lived anywhere on earth since history started. We each have one vote to cast, which is one more vote than most of our historical predecessors.
So here’s a happy thought for what’s supposed to be a happy season: To be less angry … to enjoy our lot in life more than we do right now … all we have to do is remember that luxury isn’t absolute, it’s comparative.
Then we just have to choose who to compare ourselves to.
You can choose Bill Gates, if you like. Me? I’m choosing Philip II, King of Spain when Columbus sailed. Compared to him I’m living in luxury’s lap.
And a comfortable lap it is.