Sunday, July 27, 2008

Genealogy, the Idaho Russet and Innovation

In April I was elected Chairman of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, one of my favorite organizations on earth. Not only does the Society have a world class staff, but its Trustees and Councilors are a group of extraordinarily talented individuals who dedicate their time, talent and treasure to collecting, preserving and interpreting--so our mission goes--the stories of families in America.

Founded in 1845, the locus of the Society has moved rapidly in the last decade from its beautiful library on Newbury Street in Boston (still active and vibrant) to a global on-line presence.

With that in mind, these are remarks I made shortly after becoming Chairman. The subject appears to be about the Idaho Russet potato, one of which I pulled from my pocket during the speech. I suggest, for full effect, that you find one in your kitchen and place it on your monitor now.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A Plague of Dead Squirrels

Yeah you got yer dead cat and you got yer dead dog
On a moonlight night you got yer dead toad frog
Got yer dead rabbit and yer dead raccoon
The blood and the guts they're gonna make you swoon

--Loudon Wainwright III, Dead Skunk

[NB: No animals were injured in the writing of this article.]

I am sad to report that I am predicting a plague of dead squirrels on the roads of my suburban New England neighborhood. Not tomorrow, but--guessing now--beginning in about 2010 or 2011, and easily stretching for a decade.

I’m predicting the same for your neighborhood as well.

And it won’t just be squirrels—it’ll be chipmunks and skunks, rabbits and raccoons, and a few mystified deer. I’m afraid, even in urban areas, there will be a few more bicyclists thrown from the carbon frames of their Kona King Zings. All beginning about 2010.

It will be, for better or worse, another in a long, unbroken line of unintended consequences surrounding otherwise staggeringly beneficial innovation.

Let me explain.

I just reviewed a book written by Clay McShane and Joel Tarr called The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century. It’s a fascinating look at the horse as a “living technology”--and a very persistent living technology--whose numbers continued to grow rapidly despite the steam and mechanization of the Industrial Revolution.

The horse of the 19th century is apt to call up a tableau from some bucolic farm, or perhaps of cowboys out on the open range. While these scenes certainly existed--powered by our allegiance to the American frontier myth--the explosion in the use of the horse in nineteenth-century America occurred primarily in urban areas.

By 1900, a city like New York contained an average of one horse for every 26 people, with 130,000 horses in Manhattan alone pulling street cars and food wagons, carrying firefighters and their equipment, removing snow, carting off the dead, and even providing sources of stationary power.

One of the most interesting features of an innovation is what happens (all around it) during rapid adoption. In the case of horses, we know the obvious: more people and goods got around the city faster and with less human energy. But what about the other consequences, the unintended consequences of such rapid adoption?

In the case of the nineteenth-century horse, the authors point to the following items:
Waste. It’s fair to say that Brooklyn agriculture was built on Manhattan manure. (Farmers termed Manhattan a “manure factory.”) It was only when imported guano became a cheaper commodity that this inter-borough trade slowed.

(Those of you interested in learning how bird poop is harvested, or indeed, how it achieved a sustainable competitive advantage over horse poop will, I’m afraid, have to seek sources outside this blog.)

Abuse. Urban reform groups like the ASPCA took up the welfare of the horse, policing against abuse while actively euthanizing old or lame horses, worth more to the rendering plant than alive. It became clear that the horse was viewed by most city-dwellers in utilitarian terms—-a unit of production-—subject to replacement when the creature became less productive.

Infrastructure. Cities had to create extensive plant to support the horse, including municipal stables and carcass-removal programs. Parkways were created, in part, as venues for afternoon promenades. Meanwhile, the numbers of teamsters, hostlers and stable-keepers tripled from 1870 to 1890—a strange phenomenon in the face the Industrial Revolution.

Medicine. The burgeoning urban horse population led to the rise of a skilled class of urban veterinarians.

Breeding. The horse became subject to breeding programs designed to increase its size and endurance.

Sprawl and suburbs. Street railroads pulled by horses not only encouraged the sprawl of residential neighborhoods but also enabled an expansion of amusement parks and resort destinations for the working class. Indeed, the size and stench of the attendant infrastructure virtually ensured that well-heeled urbanites would eventually find their way to suburbia, even if they had to create it in the process.

Farming. Hay production soared in the farmlands because of the growth of the urban horse. By 1909, more than half of New England’s farmland was involved in hay production. This led to improvements in hay-pressing technology and the ability to ship hay great distances.

Trade. A vast national and international trade in horses developed.
What McShane and Tarr make clear is that, while a horse is a horse (of course, of course), the unintended consequences inherent in their innovative urban use led to a set of vast, largely unforeseen, and completely unintended consequences.

All of which got me thinking about some of the unintended consequences of more modern innovations.

Take the iPod, for example, one of the great entertainment gadgets of our times. Doesn’t it seem likely that one of the unintended consequences of the iPod will be a generation of Americans who begin to experience serious hearing loss in their 40s? Will the iPod one day double, with the flip of a switch, as a hearing aid?

Of course, its predecessor, the television, helped to create the couch potato, the TV dinner, and a habitually sleep-deprived society. (And we still adore it, so I suspect the iPod will still be treasured, even as our national hearing deteriorates.)

Some of the great unintended consequences of our time come from our medical innovations. The wonder drug of the twentieth century, penicillin, has led to the evolution of the superbug. Even Viagra (what could be wrong with Viagra?), a sensation with older men since its launch ten years ago, has the dubious distinction in a recent poll (of women—they finally polled women!) of causing one-third of females to be just plain annoyed at having to have sex at the drop of a pill, and one-out-of-ten who now believe that Viagra led to their husband’s infidelity.

Of course, if you need ill-effects from innovation, look no further than the Web, which robs us of our time and concentration, and truly appears to be making us all stoopid.

The TV, the iPod and the Web; the Tinker to Evers to Chance of unintended consequences: Of the great inventions of the last century, one makes us fat, lazy and tired, one destroys our hearing, and one lowers our IQ and our ability to concentrate.

And we’d love to take an aspirin to make it all better, but that has unintended consequences as well. I just can’t remember what they are.

As for social innovation, a stunning article in the July/August Atlantic by Hanna Rosin suggests that one of the great social programs of our generation--demolishing public-housing projects in large cities to free the poor from the destructive effects of concentrated poverty--has led to steadily falling crime rates in large cities for the last 15 years. That’s the great news. The unintended consequence? Almost like a successful franchising scheme, violent crime didn’t disappear; it just relocated to the mid-sized cities. FBI data now pegs the most dangerous spots in America as Florence, South Carolina; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina; Kansas City, Missouri; Reading, Pennsylvania; Orlando, Florida; and Memphis, Tennessee.

Which, speaking of the spread of violence, brings me back to my original prediction of lots and lots of dead squirrels.

In the same Atlantic issue, Jonathan Rauch masterfully profiles General Motor’s attempts to build a true electric hybrid by 2010 in his article, “Electro-Shock Therapy.” This is not your neighbor’s Prius, which is a gasoline-powered car with an electrical assist. GM’s “Chevy Volt” will draw its power from any standard electrical socket and go 40 miles on a single charge. After 40 miles a small gasoline engine will ignite, driving a generator that will maintain the battery.

That means the wheels are always driven by the battery. That means the car will drive hundreds of miles on a tank of gas. That means the 75% of Americans who drive less than 40 miles a day will never buy any gas.

There are lots and lots of technology hurdles to meet, mostly around the battery, if GM is going to make its 2010 date. (You could have the car today if you didn’t mind pulling the battery around in an air-conditioned UHaul, for example.) But fear not; even if the date slips a bit, there will be electric cars on the road in the not-too-distant future. Like 2011.

Very eco-friendly. Very cool. Very innovative. Pretty darn fast. Awfully darn heavy. And very, very quiet.

And that is terribly bad news for squirrels. Because one of the unintended consequences of this breakthrough innovation will be, I’m afraid, a national sneak-attack on creatures of every sort caught, however momentarily, dallying in the road.

I sure hope someone is thinking about his. Maybe Michelin is inventing tires that whistle at some special squirrel frequency. Maybe the next generation of road asphalt comes with sensors. Because, in my town alone I can think of any number of blind corners that are made safe only by the rumble of an internal combustion engine.

When I lived in New York City I used to worry about the squirrels of Central Park, confined to a little island and genetically severed from their brethren. I worried that they would become a race of beer-swilling, sausage-scarfing, spandex-wearing rodents who would one day strap on rollerblades.

Now, I am more inclined to worry about squirrels everywhere. And deer. And you and me, out jogging or riding our bikes.

Q: Why did the squirrel cross the road?

A: Because it couldn’t hear the one-ton, battery-powered rolling mass of silent steel bearing down on it at 50 MPH from around a blind corner.