The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Thursday, October 13, 2011
Economics/Business ... Science ...

I grew up in the late 60’s, so I remember the hippies. Well, actually I don’t – I mostly saw them on TV. The town I grew up in wasn’t the type of wealthy suburb where parents threw money at their kids and let them do whatever they wished. We were a bit more concerned with basic survival issues. Oh, not that there weren’t some wanna-be hippies, here and there. And in fact, there was one artistic guy who went all the way into his own little counter-cultural world. In fact, he’s still out there, calling himself Francois, surviving as a painter (the artistic type) and a clerk in a costume store. Even in his old age, he’s just as artistic and individualistic as I remember him.

Francois notwithstanding, I never fully understood hippies, nor their close cousins, the campus protesters and building-occupiers (nor the post-college/non-college “radicals” who egged them on). I gather that they all had something to do with individualism, with living life as an experience, with disdain for all the conformity and regulation that the social and economic system demands from most people.

I sympathized with their assumption that life “held something more”, and that we needed to care a lot for our fellow humans. But instead of sex, intoxication, protests and artistic expression, I chose to focus on ways to share at least some of what I was being taught regarding how the world operates at the nuts and bolts level (e.g., engineering, economics and law). I didn’t change the world in any big way, but I did make some social contributions that may have done some collective good.

But back to the hippies – actually, back to a particular hippie, a techno-hippie, a fellow who did change the world in a big way. Yes, I mean the late Steven Jobs. From what I read, Jobs missed the great hippie and campus-radical wave of 1968 and 69, but he still had a very, very liberal-arts experience as a teenager and a young man. But somehow he hooked into the evolving techno-computer culture that started evolving in California in the mid-70s. So Jobs took his hippie / artistic / individualist sensibilities and teamed up with some true geeks, so as to make computer stuff that a former hippie or radical could use and love. Unlike “Francois” from my town, who probably can’t afford an Apple laptop or an iPhone4, most of the true hippies eventually cut their hair, took jobs in banks and government, got married, signed mortgages and raised families. And they bought up the stuff that Jobs and his friends at Apple cranked out, at a premium price (the not-so-affluent, not-so-hip people like me mostly stuck with PC’s and Windows).

This reminds me of an interesting article that appeared recently in the National Review, about technology and economic progress in America, entitled “The End of the Future”. It is by Peter Theil, who helped found PayPal, another player in the high-tech information world that Jobs helped to shape. Jobs is the patron saint for the theory that life is so much better today because of the on-going technology revolution. Theil begs to differ. He strongly hints that if there was / is a technology revolution, it has been slowing down severely over the past few decades.

Thinking about Steve Jobs, you would be surprised by that notion. Apple is the prime example of technology changing the way we live. But Theil makes a good point in asking, just how much better are things today for the general population? Is science and technology still improving the overall standards of living for our society, as it clearly did over the past 200 or 300 years?

Perhaps not. Theil presents a variety of stats showing that after 1970 – just after the ‘hippie days’ – average standards of living in the US pretty much leveled off, and may currently be taking a dip. Admittedly, there are a lot of rich people today, many more than in 1970. They have latched onto the two or three real innovations and the one or two false ones that have caused the economic growth we have experienced since the seventies. Those economic innovations are 1.) computers and technology 2.) commercial globalization, and 3.) the resulting access to cheap labor in places like China and India. The false one is real estate, which along with its cousin, big finance, drove the illusory economic boomlet of the mid-2000’s (which crashed so dramatically in 2007-2008).

Unfortunately, all of these are the kinds of innovations that create rich individuals but don’t create overall gains for the population as a whole (thus making distribution of income worse and worse). Theil makes a really important point, one that is lost on most other analysts – and that is, the kind of innovation that makes things better for everyone is cheaper and more usable energy technology. Over the past 150 or so years, technology made energy cheaper and more readily accessible (albeit, mostly fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas). And that made all the difference between the way people lived before the Civil War, and the living standards that we are used to today.

However, since the 70’s, energy has no longer been getting cheaper and easier to use. In fact, it has been getting more expensive. Nuclear power was a great hope that mostly failed, and the new ‘green energy’ sources (wind, solar, geothermal, advanced biofuels) haven’t made the efficiency break-thrus making them cheaper than fossil fuels, despite rising hydrocarbon prices. So, living standards leveled out once energy started getting more expensive overall.

However, they haven’t gone down too much yet either, probably because of the efficiencies of globalization and computer tech (even though both things have taken a lot of jobs away, pounding down the poor and squeezing the middle class). However, if information and business technology slows down as energy continues to get more expensive, then living standards will trend downward. We can only hope that the current downturns in average income caused by the long recession do not mark the beginning of that trend.

So what does this have to do with hippies? Theil points out the irony of the fact that the Woodstock music festival took place only a few weeks after the first Apollo moon landing in July, 1969. He sees it as a watershed moment, when the milieu of technology, with its dreams of flying cars and trips to the moon or Venus, was eclipsed by hippie culture.

Ironically, it was an honorary hippie, Steve Jobs, who popularized (and thus got rich from) computer technology – by making it more ‘hippie-like’. But it won’t be Steve Jobs or his like who will figure out how to provide our society with newer, cleaner, cheaper and highly accessible forms of energy – and that is what is most needed, if things are to start getting better for the masses once again. It’s going to take a lot of good old fashioned geeks and white-coat scientists working on a lot of boring, un-cool stuff. And right now, that doesn’t seem like what most kids today are headed for.

Well, I don’t want to blame Steve Jobs or my former classmate ‘Francois’ (really Joe K) for the troubled state of our modern society with its sputtering economic engines. But kids can only aspire to ‘hippiedom’ and radical prophecy if their parents can afford to let them goof off for 5 years of their young adult life (as with Jobs). And those 5 years of goofing-off usually prevent a kid from taking up the rigors of scientific and technical study, the kinds of study needed to re-create the wealth that allowed them to goof off. (Most former hippies that I know become psychotherapists or professors or government workers – and they seem anxious to yet realize something of their artistic dreams of youth). By contrast, there aren’t a whole lot of young people in India or China aiming to be hippies right now. They are mostly keeping their noses to the grindstone.

Three years ago, Barack Obama inspired our youth to become politically active. Today, the biggest youth movement appears to be the “Occupy Wall Street” happening, which seems to be morphing to other cities. It reminds me of the campus protests and occupations of 1969. What is their plan to make life better for the masses? Do they want to try socialism and communism again, despite its historical failures? IMHO, the best thing they could do is to pursue degrees in science and engineering as to help figure out how to set up smart power grids that might make wind and solar economically viable, or figure out how to sequester carbon from coal power plants, or come up with ways of making nuclear power and its radioactive waste safe and cheap.

A lot of what Theil says is a bit speculative and overly conservative (what do you expect from National Review), but I agree with his conclusion that our science today is not as good as we think and hope it is. It may not save us from the economic, political and social downturns that appear in the offing. Before we can have green tech and cool tech, we need real tech, along with the basic scientific research that makes it possible. If our nation doesn’t start making sacrifices to get our sci-tech institutions revved up again, the future of America may not be so bright after all. As our politics and economics continue to degenerate, the luxury of being a young radical hippie or protester may no longer be available. The future might be at an end — and not just because of the irony of Steven Jobs’ premature death.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:02 am      

  1. Jim, I’m not sure I can agree with you that the youth of the 1960s did nothing—at least that’s what I THINK you are saying. I’ve been thinking along the same lines you have, to wit: What exactly, if anything, did the “hippies” (or young people of the 1960s) achieve? At first tho’t I’d say nothing, as I think you are saying. On the other hand, I think of the Civil Rights marchers. Now they certainly DID achieve something. I think of all the radical groups in the Chicago area in the 1960s, 70s. Yes, it always amazes me to hear Bobbie Rush is still a Chicago councilman or Abbie Hoffman (I think that’s the guy) is teaching in some university around here. Then there was the woman (forget her name) who turned herself in a few years ago; she turned out to have been living the ordinary life of a wife and mother. (She did end up in jail when she turned herself in.) And thus went most of the others who were radicals back when.

    I tend to think that I myself was in the “radical” group. I know what I did: I did what you say you have done—tried to live your life as well as you could, doing as much for others as one could in your own way. I did the same. Turns out living like that is a “disguise” (as I see it) for the REAL radicals—hidden in plain sight. I think that’s pretty good, frankly. A friend of mine from the early 1960s and I were talking recently. She told me her oldest son (of several children she had) was reading de Chardin. She was taken with the fact that the “radical” ideas she and I both shared in the 1960s were being passed down quietly to her children. Not too long later someone I know very well saw one of my de Chardin books, quietly took it off the shelf to read. I tho’t, ah! Another one. Quietly, the ideas are passed down. Who knows what the next group will make of the same ideas. Certainly not what she and I made of them…. Yet, who knows? Maybe closer than we think.

    As to the “rich” of today: I tend to think they are the CHILDREN of those who lived in the 1960s; they are ones who inherited huge fortunes, who didn’t themselves have to WORK to make the money their parents made. For instance, I read that the woman Paul McCartney just married is an American heiress of hundreds of millions from some trucking business. No info given as to who she inherited from—her father or mother, I would guess. John McCain’s wife is another one—her massive fortune is inherited. I tend to think there’s a difference between those who actually worked to make the original money and those who inherit(ed) it. Some inherited a sense of altruism and doing good for society; others inherited the idea that “it’s mine, mine, mine” and everybody else is a looser.

    As to Steve Jobs, when he died, I tho’t of one thing that has stayed with me since somewhere in the early 1980s. The early 1980s was the time I got my first computer, an Apple—wow! That was new and a rush. I used it mostly for the word processing part of it. I tho’t it was great. (I go as far back as using the old typewriters where one had to raise the carriage with one’s little finger to make a capital letter. So the Apple Computer for word processing was almost miracle like—to a point. Eventually, one gets past the “wow!” stage and gets used to whatever the new thing is. Somewhat like the microwave oven in my life. It’s a wonder at first; then one can’t conceive of living without it. Phones were the same. I remember them when they were party lines….to say nothing of cars and planes…but I digress too far along now.)

    Back to Steve Jobs: Later, Microsoft came out with their Word program. I was amazed at how much of Word seemed to be an outright “steal” from Apple, and I do not mean that in any other way except to say that it seemed to me that Gates had simply taken Jobs’ ideas, changed them a bit here and there for the worse, and passed it off as his new invention. So, it seemed to me that Steve Jobs had really done something original and everything else from there on was a copy of what he had done—literally. So, yes, I tend to think that Steve Jobs was really an innovator.

    And I have heard predictions that the days of the PC are over. Well, maybe they are. But then I read that young people with iPhones and other such computer wizardry suffer from “eye strain.” I wonder why? Might it not be because they are constantly looking at such small screens. Thus, maybe the iPad (I think I have that right) may be a big improvement if for nothing else than that it offers a larger screen and thus there is less eye strain on the part of the user. But again: The original idea came from Steve Jobs and all else is just a tweek here and there on what he originally did. Maybe I’m wrong as I’ve long ago stopped keeping up with what all is going on in the technology world; just don’t care any more. But I tend to think Steve Jobs just may have been the true innovator he is said to have been. MCS P.S. As to Francois (Joe K), I say: Let the man be the way he wants to be. He’s not harming anybody. Why not let him just be himself however “far out” he may seem.

    Comment by Mary S. — October 13, 2011 @ 3:01 pm

  2. Jim, If I didn’t make it clear before, let me do it now: I consider YOU one of those “radicals in disguise”–what I consider the best kind. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — October 13, 2011 @ 3:37 pm

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