Monday, June 24, 2013

Like Sugar, Cotton and Oil, Software Solves Everything

In 1965, the world’s best-selling science fiction novel, Dune, introduced us to a future interstellar world at war over a “spice” called melange.  Found only on the desert planet of Arrakis, melange was the most sought-after substance in the universe, capable of providing human beings a better and longer life, and unlocking “prescience,” which made interstellar travel possible.

Melange, you might say, was a product advantaged beyond all others for its time and place.

Occasionally, there are commodities here on earth that have more than a passing similarity to Frank Herbert’s melange.

In 1660, sugar was a coveted luxury in Europe, especially among the English.  When it was discovered that “white gold” could be successfully grown in the British West Indies, “melange” became available to the masses.  In the next 70 years British consumption grew 100-fold as sugar emerged as the single most valuable article of that nation's overseas trade.  By 1730, “a cup of heavily sweetened chocolate or coffee—accompanied by candies, cakes, or bread slathered with molasses—was integral to the daily rituals of middle-class life. . . .”  Some of the extravagant estates that tourists visit today in England are the result of the wealth amassed in the sugar trade.

18th-century Caribbean sugar, like mélange, was a product advantaged beyond all others for its time and place.

By the American Revolution, the Southern Atlantic states had exhausted their soil for tobacco and found little profit in rice or indigo.  Cotton could be grown but not easily processed; in 1791, the entire cotton crop of the United States was just two million pounds.  When Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793, however, short staple cotton became the melange of its time:  By 1845, Americans produced one billion pounds, a 500-fold increase in 54 years.  

Between 1821 and 1850, the American South supplied over 75% of Britain’s raw cotton and supported the North’s booming textile trade.  By the eve of the Civil War, when 60% of American export was cotton, South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond proclaimed that if the South stopped growing cotton, "England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her," adding, "No power on earth dares to make war upon it.  Cotton is King.”

Like melange and sugar, 19th-century American cotton was clearly a product advantaged beyond all others for its time and place.

In May of 1908, oil was found in southwestern Iran.  In 1927 an enormous oil field was discovered in Iraq, and four years later an important strike made in Bahrain.  By 1960 the smaller Gulf states were producing 15 percent of the world’s oil, with Iraq and Iran adding another 10 percent.  In 1971 oil supplied 41 percent of the world's energy.

Those of us who lived in the petroleum culture of the 20th-century (and continue on in that culture now) will find it hard to disagree that 20th-century Mideast oil was a product advantaged beyond all others for its time and place.

Today, I would submit, in a world that is driven by a knowledge economy, there is a new commodity advantaged beyond all others for its time and place: American software.  Plant a young entrepreneur almost anywhere in the country today and he will sprout roots and create—or at least try to create—a small, software-intensive company intent on changing some slice of the known world.  Evgeny Morozov’s latest book, To Save Everything, Click Here, makes the point that American technologists have developed a terrible case of “solutionism,” defining all problems—from finding a taxi in New York City to solving global warming and curing cancer—as ones that can be solved with enough software, enough data and enough Internet.

The risk in all four of these "advantaged commodity" scenarios, of course, is that any product so easily produced, so coveted, and so valuable may also carry an enormous and heartbreaking downside.

18th-century Caribbean sugar was harvested on the backs of some 1.2 million African slaves absorbed by the West Indies from 1700 to 1775.  19th-century American cotton increased the slave population almost six times to 4 million, led to a devastating war, and allowed 75 years of the Industrial Revolution to bypass the American South.  And, we are now living through the downside of a favored commodity like oil, seen by some as a “resource curse” which distorts the lives of citizens in the countries that produce it, bolsters authoritarian governments, creates unseemly demand, and is well on its way to destroying the world.  As one Saudi official said, “All in all I wish we had discovered water.”

Dune fans might also recall that melange, the spice-cum-drug, had two nagging features: it was highly addictive, and always fatal on withdrawal.

So, what could be wrong with a modern economy powered by such a uniquely advantaged commodity as American software?  One entrepreneur happily proclaimed in 2011 that software is, in fact, "eating the world," not so different from Senator Hammond's impassioned peddling of the wonders of cotton in 1858.  Forget the inconveniences we already recognize, like manufacturing fleeing the country, those without access to technology becoming marginalized, diminishing personal relationships, or the incredible waste of youthful talent intent on solving problems that don’t require solutions (like the 150 new competitors to Instagram).  When the get-rich commodity of the century is afoot then everyone should learn to code, our technology elders tell us.

Sugar or freedom?  Cotton or the Industrial Revolution?  Oil or ice caps?  Software or ?

If there’s nothing else three centuries of sugar, cotton and oil have taught, it’s that first we own the advantaged commodity, and then it owns us.