My friend John Bredehoft provides a different perspective on technology change. On 1/22 at his blog tymshft, he asked Do the essentials change?
He discusses a podcast comparing life today to about 35 years ago. For perspective, that puts us in 1981, or the range of the first year of the Reagan administration.
One of many points I draw from the discussion is related to Jon’s last comment:
But the speed of the processing chip in my smartphone is relatively meaningless.
Phrased differently, the smart phone in your hand may have an operating speed that is thousands or millions of times faster than 30 years ago but that increase doesn’t have an impact on your life in proportion to the increase in speed. Increased operating speed in the last decade probably hasn’t affected your life much at all.
Look at it from another direction. Consider my desktop computer has 1 terabyte of hard drive storage capacity compared to 20 megabytes on a brand-new laptop I was issued in about 1990. That gives me 1,000,000MB storage today instead of 20MB back then. I can do a lot more things more amazingly and far faster now, but even if I really was as good as I sometimes think I am, there is no way I am 500,000 times more capable than 25 years ago. (For perspective, the software loaded on my desktop takes up 9,840MB of space. I would take 490 of those 1990 laptops just to store the programs I have today.)
What the technology change in the last 35 years has done can be seen in my business as a CPA and in my hobby of writing.
Back then there was no way a CPA could run an audit practice with zero audit staff, zero support staff, no office, and only four major pieces of equipment (laptop computer, desktop computer, two printers). Fourteen years ago when I started my firm that was completely feasible.
Today I can publish blogs that can be accessed from around the world. In the last year, 25% of the page views on this blog came from outside the U.S.
I can publish digital and print books from my computer screen. In point of fact I have published three books in digital and print-on-demand format. I can sell print books in England (actually got a royalty for one such sale!). Cost to publish a book today, other than your time, can be measured by comparing the total cost of getting in print to a night or two staying at a hotel. Even 10 years ago it cost thousands of dollars for a decent size production run of books. Thirty-five years ago it would have been inconceivable for me to go into print.
On the other hand, the core of what I’m doing, both in writing and running a CPA firm, is the same.
What is possible to do and the efficiency of what can be done has improved dramatically, but in some respects it is still the same.
Hmm, need to think about that some more.
John’s article draws a longer-term perspective:
Compare the lives of a soldier under Obama, a soldier under Reagan, and a soldier under Julius Caesar. They all had to wake up in the morning. They all had to put clothes on. They all had to eat something. And they all had to face situations in which they might die. Death by a stealth bomber or a spear? As a former Secretary of State once said, it doesn’t matter.
Compare a successful siege by the Roman Empire to a nuclear war
I have discussed little in public of my experiences while on active duty ages ago. I will go into a bit more detail in order to extend John’s point. I was one of those guys who had custody of keys which were never used to launch nuclear tipped ICBMs.
That also means I faced the possibility of a Soviet SS-9 landing on my head and instantaneously turning me into radioactive dust. In terms of outcome how is that different from being on the receiving end of a Legionnaire’s short sword or a Viking’s battle ax?
Now consider for a moment jumping back in time, not exactly to Julius Caesar, but a bit later in the Roman Empire.
Consider the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The Romans finally got fed up with those pesky Jews in the backwaters of Israel. The Romans launched, at really slow speed, several legions of soldiers at Jerusalem (they sent six legions if I recall correctly but won’t take time to verify). Those soldiers, roughly 36,000 in total, started in northern Israel and slowly rolled south. They laid siege to Jerusalem after a few years of driving lots of people ahead of them, intentionally herding people into Jerusalem. Josephus tells us when the Romans finally broke into the town they killed essentially everyone. Somewhere in the range of 1 million people died in the slaughter.
Here’s the similarity. The Romans annihilated Jerusalem, leaving no building with one brick on top of another and leaving over 1 million dead. Had they applied a few tons of salt to the area, the region would have been uninhabitable for years. That sounds like it good way to describe the horror that can be done with one nuclear weapon on top of an ICBM.
A few differences:
- time necessary for annihilation (a few years versus under an hour),
- number of troops involved in the direct, immediate effort (36,000 plus sustained logistical support versus a few dozen), and
- amount of technological preparation (merely forge 36K swords, shields, breastplates, and helmets versus spending many billions of dollars over decades to build nuclear weapons and the missiles that can travel halfway around the world).
Another difference is the horrible magnitude. When I was on active duty, there were around 1,000 ICBMs, which excludes the bombers and subs. Some ICBMs had 1 warhead and some had 3. Let’s call that 2,000 warheads. Let’s make up a number out of thin air of another 2,000 warheads on boomers and bombers. That would be something somewhere vaguely in the range of 4,000 forces as large as the Roman attack on ancient Israel.
Using the destruction of Jerusalem and one nuke as roughly comparable, having an equivalent power would have required the Romans to equip 24,000 legions at 6,000 soldiers each. A vaguely comparable destructive power would have required the Romans to have a standing army with something in the range 144,000,000 Legionaries. Keep in mind my far-overstretched analogy would suggest the Germanic Barbarians have a counterforce of a 144M man army.
The technology, efficiency, speed, destructiveness, and power of warfare has changed radically since the Romans fielded the most powerful military in the world. But as John wonders, have the essentials remained the same?