Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Insights from Vaclav Smil

From an interview with Wired Magazine (see especially the last two paragraphs):
What draws you to such big, all-encompassing subjects?

I saw how the university life goes, both in Europe and then in the US. I was at Penn State, and I was just aghast, because everyone was what I call drillers of deeper wells. These academics sit at the bottom of a deep well and they look up and see a sliver of the sky. They know everything about that little sliver of sky and nothing else. I scan all my horizons.

On Manufacturing:

In every society, manufacturing builds the lower middle class. If you give up manufacturing, you end up with haves and have-nots and you get social polarization. The whole lower middle class sinks.

Most innovation is not done by research institutes and national laboratories. It comes from manufacturing—from companies that want to extend their product reach, improve their costs, increase their returns. What’s very important is in-house research. Innovation usually arises from somebody taking a product already in production and making it better: better glass, better aluminum, a better chip. Innovation always starts with a product.

Look at LCD screens. Most of the advances are coming from big industrial conglomerates in Korea like Samsung or LG. The only good thing in the US is Gorilla Glass, because it’s Corning, and Corning spends $700 million a year on research.

Look at the crown jewel of Boeing now, the 787 Dreamliner. The plane had so many problems—it was like three years late. And why? Because large parts of it were subcontracted around the world. The 787 is not a plane made in the USA; it’s a plane assembled in the USA. They subcontracted composite materials to Italians and batteries to the Japanese, and the batteries started to burn in-flight. The quality control is not there.

Can IT jobs replace the lost manufacturing jobs? No, of course not. These are totally fungible jobs. You could hire people in Russia or Malaysia—and that’s what companies are doing.

On Apple:

Apple! Boy, what a story. No taxes paid, everything made abroad—yet everyone worships them. This new iPhone, there’s nothing new in it. Just a golden color. What the hell, right? When people start playing with color, you know they’re played out.

Apple has tremendous profit margins. They could easily do everything at home. The iPhone isn’t manufactured in China—it’s assembled in China from parts made in the US, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, and so on. The cost there isn’t labor. But laborers must be sufficiently dedicated and skilled to sit on their ass for eight hours and solder little pieces together so they fit perfectly.

On Innovation and Efficiency:

It’s a categorical mistake. You just cannot increase the efficiency of power plants like that. You have your combustion machines—the best one in the lab now is about 40 percent efficient. In the field they’re about 15 or 20 percent efficient. Well, you can’t quintuple it, because that would be 100 percent efficient. Impossible, right? There are limits. It’s not a microchip.

The same thing is true in agriculture. You cannot increase the efficiency of photosynthesis. We improve the performance of farms by irrigating them and fertilizing them to provide all these nutrients. But we cannot keep on doubling the yield every two years. Moore’s law doesn’t apply to plants.

Innovation is making products more energy-efficient — but then we consume so many more products that there’s been no absolute dematerialization of anything. We still consume more steel, more aluminum, more glass, and so on. As long as we’re on this endless material cycle, this merry-go-round, well, technical innovation cannot keep pace.

So the answers are not technological but political: better economic policies, better education, better trade policies.

Today, as you know, everything is “innovation.” We have problems, and people are looking for fairy-tale solutions—innovation like manna from heaven falling on the Israelites and saving them from the desert. It’s like, “Let’s not reform the education system, the tax system. Let’s not improve our dysfunctional government. Just wait for this innovation manna from a little group of people in Silicon Valley, preferably of Indian origin.”

You people at WIRED—you’re the guilty ones! You support these people, you write about them, you elevate them onto the cover! You really messed it up. I tell you, you pushed this on the American public, right? And people believe it now.
And speaking of Apple: Of course Apple is engaging in planned obsolescence (Quartz)

1 comment:

  1. "So the answers are not technological but political: better economic policies, better education, better trade policies."

    Techonology, politics, economics. IMO, Smil's thinking comes from the same mindset that has gotten us into this mess. Invoke the mantra of progress: more, better, newer, faster.

    For a very different perspective, I highly recommend Charles Eisenstein's latest book, "The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible" (and his other two for that matter).


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