Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Perfect Information

Those of my generation will probably have read Alvin Toffler's 'Future Shock' some time back in the '70s. This was a time when there was a three-month wait to have a telephone installed by a government department, the GPO, under the control of a cabinet minister. A manager at British Leyland, the national car producer, would allocate new cars to dealers on a pot-luck basis; Didsbury might get half a dozen new Austin Maxis with mustard bodies and red upholstery, whilst Halesworth was sent six with green bodies and blue upholstery. Steel was made in areas that no longer had access to cheap labour, coal, iron ore, limestone or electricity and each nation in Europe had its own national washing-machine manufacturer. As Toffler's unlikely predictions played out in the decades that followed, steel production moved to places with cheap factor costs, car buyers could customise their new purchases on the production line, half of Europe's washing machine makers closed to achieve an optimal economic scale and the GPO stopped prosecuting people for fitting their own extensions. 

Then came the shift from mainframe to desktop, from IBM to Microsoft. Then the internet. Then freedom from the copper network prison. All the time economic efficiency has increased and we're moving closer and closer towards markets endowed with that caveat of economic theory 101, 'perfect information'. Consumer markets on an individual basis are now growing globally; in the past year I have ordered online from China, the US and New Zealand, in addition to more frequent online purchases from mainland Europe, to my own economic advantage. Courier and delivery systems are maturing as shops in my London village have become parcel drop-off and pick-up points, making waiting-in for a parcel as much a thing of the past as waiting three months for a telephone. 

All this has been achieved without government direction, irrespective of the EU, in the face of import tariffs and quotas (the sheer volume of international parcel traffic overwhelming the system; it's easy to monitor the import of 10,000 shirts from the US, almost impossible to police parcels containing two or three shirts each).

I'm not yet sure why all of this is important, but it is. We're living through a period of massive change in the way the world works - a change that has huge implications for the way in which we choose to be governed, in the way we protect ourselves and our economic interests, in the balance between individual and collective. All this is seen through a glass, darkly; I have no Alvin Toffler at my elbow to predict the direction things will take. It's exciting, though.   


Nick Drew said...

I broadly agree with you on the significance of this, and of course the fact that, like so many really good things, it happened spontaneously without government say-so

and that it is potentially very subversive of central control

all I would add, though, is - don't underestimate their desire to exert central control over it!

just because it is difficult, that doesn't put them off - quite the reverse, they are implacable: and the info-revolution makes it easier for them, too (see Snowden's revelations passim)

look what the Chinese have managed vis-a-vis the internet, often with the assistance of the large firms whose concern for $$$ exceeds their interest in freedom of expression

and Monsanto's schemes for mandatory world seed domination are only ever on temporary hold: and look how the music industry has re-asserted itself

we all hope that the legion of micro-genies are out of the bottle: but someone may be planning a very painstaking programme of putting them all back in again

balance of power ebbs and flows

visc said...

Towards the holy grail of perfect information? No. More information yes, including lots of white noise.

Still the assumptions about rational agents are complete bollocks, rational within the each person's constructed world view, correct but not in the way assumed way of homo economicus. The world is a mad a construct as ever, and despite the items pointed at the power of the individual is as littyel as ever.

Anonymous said...

The GPO ceased to exist in 1969. There is nothing wrong with 'copper', it is and has been for decades used to deliver more 'bandwidth' than the home user is ever likely to get.
The GPO design for satellite terminals proved to be the one adopted by everyone else and their and successor research laboratories were lead developers of fibre optics.
A world of 'perfect information' sounds ideal for a one-world government with a 'perfect plan'. Personally I think it is remarkable well we do without a plan. This 'system' is organic, if something doesn't work it dies, if it works it grows.

Anonymous said...

3 months? More like 6. And what about those shared lines?

Didn't BL sack many small dealerships, giving ready-made opportunities for foreign importers to set up at minimal cost?

Demetrius said...

Yup. And a lot more besides. But I do wish those delivery drivers would get off my back bumper.

James Higham said...

we choose to be governed

We have a choice?

Anonymous said...

Yeah I read it (Future Shock). I was laid-up with a broken leg - tried to break 60mph on my Yamaha FS1E ('fizzy') down North Road in Parkstone and the back wheel seized - and my sister bought it for me to while away the time. Funny, she was the brains in our family; red-brick university, scientist, and I left school at 15 to do metal bashing. My usual reads were a little less cerebral: Motor Cycle News, New Musical Express, etc.

I still have it so it must have made an impression. There's a quote on the back from C P Snow:

'If this book is neglected we shall all be very foolish'

Snow wrote The Two Cultures, which was a collection of essays which may, or may not have a bearing on Raedwald's post:

'A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?

I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.'

What I think we're witnessing in the 21st century, is mass alienation - folk don't know how the modern world works.


Anonymous said...

'Twas ever thus. Evolution comes without governments. Rocks and rivers. People always find ways around problems whether they be government interference or technological. It was too expensive to rip out all the UK copper plant, so along came ADSL then ADSL2 and followed quickly by noise cancelling G. Vector, which makes effective use (very effective!) of existing copper plant by cancelling out NEXT and FEXT (Near End Cross Talk and Far End Cross Talk). The BBC. Ha-de-bloody-ha; they soon won't be able to criminalise people for non-payment of the TV tax. Why? Because so many people have found ways around this, that the powers that be are confounded by it all and have simply given up trying.

Rocks and rivers. Throw a rock into a river; does the river come to a stop? No, of course not, it simply flows round it in no time at all.

Coney Island