Tuesday, November 28, 2017

"Disruptive technology" means "I will impress dimwits among you by hype"

John Archer is rather conservative, isn't he? He normally doesn't drink kool-aid. But he surprised us by his love for a one-hour-long lecture by Mr Toby Seba about the disruptive technologies that will eradicate cars within a decade – because we will have solar panels and electric cars everywhere. And that's because those things are improving exponentially, just like Moore's law improves circuits with transistors.

I haven't watched the whole talk so there may be something amazing over there which I have missed. But I've listened to first 3 minutes plus 10 times random 10-second-long excerpts throughout the talk and I think that the dumb summary in the previous paragraph captures the content of the talk. So my impressions are the same as those of Fer137. The analogy between Moore's law and the progress in lithium batteries or electric cars is bogus because the latter has seen and will see a much slower progress than the transistor circuits in recent 50 years.

There will be a greater number of electric cars in the world in 2027 but I have serious doubts about the forecasts that they will dominate. And even the increased production of electric cars may be just a matter of evolution which mostly takes place in the good old rich car companies such as BMW which has introduced its "Tesla killer". At any rate, I don't see anything staggering that is going to happen. After all, electric cars aren't new – they're about as old as the combustion engines. And photovoltaic energy isn't new, either. I – a kid constrained by communism – had my first photovoltaic Casio calculator in 1980. What's the big deal?

And why would one talk about the cars' being clean? Electric cars may look clean but they still run on electricity – with extra losses – and that one is most reasonably produced by coal power plants. On top of that, much more toxic materials are needed for batteries and their production or the assembly of solar panels.

Clearly, the progress in the power and memory of computers has been spectacular – although it's arguably slowing down in recent years. You know, I got my first Commodore 64 in 1984 – my dad smuggled it in a very secret part of his car's engine ;-) while visiting his brother who emigrated with his family to Nuremberg a few years earlier. I am bragging about it because those were times when communist secret police agents could have been pissed upon.

These days, the most aggressive one, Andrej Babiš, plans to become the prime minister if not the Führer of Czechia while we're learning about his new big crimes every day. Last night, we learned that his Agrofert Holding is using 1700 hectars that they don't own for agricultural purposes. They not only behave as squatters: they are collecting subsidies for their business on this stolen land. And this guy is going to become our prime minister because he has convinced 1.5 million voters that he's the best guy to fight against the economic crime. Can you imagine how staggeringly stupid or hypocritical these 1.5 million people have to be?

But back to the progress. Commodore's CPU, MOS 6510, had the frequency 0.985320 MHz. I had memorize the frequency accurately because I used to write some very accurate programs in the machine code that depended on the precision etc. OK, we have much more complex microprocessors now and on top of that, each core has the frequency several GHz – several thousand times higher than Commodore 64. Also, C64 had 64 kB of RAM, only some 40 kB of which was normally available for the programs in BASIC (that BASIC was written down by Bill Gates personally). These days, new PCs typically have 4-8 GB which is some 100,000 times higher than C64.

Bitrates – remember you needed to wait for 2 minutes to load 40 kB games from the tape (even with Turbo) while you may download 40 GB in two minutes using a good Internet connection linking you to any server in the world (a factor of one million improvement) – and hard disks and many other things have been improved by many orders of magnitude, too. The batteries and solar panels just haven't been improved this much. The range of electric cars could have improved at most by one order of magnitude in 100 years, and so on. It's just pure demagogy to say that the situations and different industries are completely analogous because they're clearly not. The improvement by a factor of 100,000 isn't the same as an improvement by a factor of 5-10 in a century.

I want to say something more general, however.

John Archer's beloved talk has used one popular word which self-appointed technological visionaries love: "disruption" or "disruptive" (it's used both in the form of a noun and an adjective). I am sure that lots of you must have encountered this word about as many times as I have. Nevertheless, we clearly react very differently – we must generalize our experience with the providers of these buzzwords very differently. I am sure that I won't be the only one but the words "disruption" and "disruptive" generally turn me off.
When my ears hear "disruption" or "disruptive", my brain interprets it as "it's probably another pathetic guy with some idiotic hype".
My brain interprets it in this way because this description seems accurate to describe all the previous instances when this word was used. For all practical purposes, the term disruptive innovation – coined by an American man in 1995 – doesn't differ from the "scientific and technological revolution" that the commies loved to use in the 1980s. Disruptive innovation is usually used in the form of some game-changing revolution placing the mankind at a new level. But indeed, if you study Wikipedia's definition, you will see something much more modest. Disruption only creates a new market, replaces the leading firms in an industry, and creates new alliances.

Great. But this definition of "disruptive technology" isn't what people are implicitly led to imagine when they hear the term. And this "disruption" may be an important consideration for stockholders but it isn't a big deal for the consumers. OK, some industry will see a new leading company – a new predator that destroys or devours the smaller or older companies of similar kinds. What's the big deal? Indeed, Andrej Babiš's Agrofert company may be said to be "disruptive" because he has destroyed or devoured lots and lots of competitors (especially competitors that he pretended to be his partners, before he devoured them and destroyed their owners), after he fraudulently made them piss into their pants. Did Babiš bring something good and comparable to the size of the company to the world? I don't think so. It's just a company trading chickens, excrements, and some stinky toxic chemicals. Why should one get carried away?

Needless to say, in the technological world, the evolution is somewhat more impressive. But none of the changes considered "disruptive" were really revolutionary. New market leaders were often created but the progress they represented was as modest and evolutionary as you can get – and the financial success often depended on P.R. and manipulation of easy-to-be-manipulated consumers much more than on the beef.

OK, so Facebook got big as a chatting company. We were connecting to Liane BBS – a Bulletin Board Service accessed through Telnet, and I guess that most readers still know what Telnet meant – in 1993 or so. Applications were running in the text mode. There were analogous limitations. But the basic functionality was basically indistinguishable from Facebook in 2017. The progress in these 25 years was extremely modest. OK, some company has persuaded billions of people in the world that it should be a de facto global monopoly so it did become a de facto global monopoly. I think it's OK but I see absolutely nothing for a rational person not financially connected to Mark Zuckerberg to celebrate here. Liane BBS was just fine! By the late 1990s, we had lots of pictures at similar websites that were running in graphical windows (and/or Windows).

Take iPhone 1 in 2007. It was surely quoted as another disruption. I completely missed it and I think that I didn't really miss anything by having missed iPhone 1. ;-) Years earlier, I bought some pocket communicator that was also a cell phone – but I didn't have any plan for it – well, an HTC Pocket PC with Windows Mobile of a kind that was relevant 10-15 years ago. You may actually read this 2007 iDNES.cz article that has mocked the 2002 HTC Pocket PCs as heavy and obsolete gadgets. But the functionality was fully comparable to iPhone 1. I needed a special pencil to touch the display but it was a touchable display, basically with no extra buttons, and I could run lots of Windows-like apps including an emulator of Commodore 64.

So of course I haven't overlooked that iPhones have accumulated lots of followers, like my half-sister who just came to her homeland and who lives in Nice (and loves her outdated iPhone, among other things). Apple is producing close to 50% of smartphones and getting over 90% of the global profits from smartphones. Great. I can see it and it's been good for those who held the stocks in that decade but what is the amazing gift that this has brought to me or the mankind? I see nothing substantial. iPhones have always been and remained heavily overrated phones.

Now, Google. Google has surely brought some great mathematics to the search engines. The links pointing from one web page to another are remembered as a matrix and this matrix is manipulated by clever linear algebra to figure out the "true" relevance of each web page. It works extremely well and the first pages you got from Google were "obviously" better than what most of the older competitors were producing. I appreciate this application of linear algebra but there were surely lots of people who knew it and who could have applied it. Someone did it and earned billions. And even if that hadn't taken place, I would be happy to use some "slightly improved" Lycos or Altavista or other search engines I was using before Google.

Blockchain is surely considered disruptive as well but it's surely not a replacement for the banking sector or any real economy. All these statements are absolute rubbish. Virtually no one uses the Bitcoin or altcoins in any real economy – it's not really possible due to the volatility etc., that's the reason. It's just an extreme virtual gambling game. The blockchain is clearly totally irrelevant for the character of this game. The validation of the ledger could proceed in many different, more ordinary, less electricity-wasting ways. But the blockchain technology (which is overhyped by itself) is being demagogically used by inviting new people to the pyramid game. But it's the pyramid game and not the blockchain that really matters.

There have been numerous "disruptions" that weren't hyped this much – perhaps because the "disruptors" were much more modest and relied on the merit of their products. Microsoft actually caused a greater disruption than any of the companies mentioned above. IBM could have been considered the leader in the "computer" industry. Suddenly, software became "almost more relevant" than hardware. And the detailed hardware of the PCs became almost irrelevant when they were unified – by the requirement that they were IBM PC compatible. And this paradigm was created by the software maker, Microsoft. PCs still remained more important than e.g. Apple Macintosh – partly because they opened the market to IBM's competitors. Google basically did the same as Microsoft some decades later when it invited hardware makes to produce devices with Android.

Tim Berners-Lee's invention of the HTML pages and protocol, HTTP protocol to transfer pages, and the first graphical web browsers were arguably bigger revolutions than almost all the disruptions above, too. He just didn't become a billionaire. His net worth may be some $50 million. As a machine to produce money, he's been much less successful than e.g. Steve Jobs. Was he hundreds times less important for the mankind? I don't think so.

Lots of people are just far too impressed by other people's wealth. I think that a somewhat agnostic attitude of mine is vastly better. You should okay the people's wealth if they earned it legally. You should notice that there's some positive correlation between people's wealth and their contributions. But these two characteristics – net worth and the importance of contributions – are still substantially different things. It's natural to care about the money but you should care about your money. If a multibillionaire A isn't paying to you more than billionaire B is paying to you, then you shouldn't automatically place A above B just because he is wealthier. Well, you shouldn't really excessively praise A relatively to B even if A pays you – because you would be corrupt. But I wanted to say that it's natural for you to happily smile if billionaire A is paying money to you. ;-)

This part of the discussion was about the "interpretation of the past" – e.g. the technological developments in the past. But the demagogy hiding behind the phrase "disruptive innovation" is even more deceitful when we talk about the future and hypothetical events that can but don't have to take place in the future. Lots of people, including the electric car salesman above, are promising others to see some disruption soon. If you can become a market leader in an industry, just do it. Most new ambitious companies have some potential or probability to become "disruptive". But they won't become disruptive just by talking about it.

Well, there's a problem with the previous sentence – it may actually be false. And if it's false, and it may be, I think that it's terrible. I think that some people or companies become "disruptive" just because they're talking about it and persuade other people. They become disruptive because of a self-fulfilling prophesy and manipulated people's tendency to support loud and arrogant people and apparent predators. Well, just to be sure, I think that hating or attacking people just because they are loud or they talk ambitiously is also wrong – these are two biases opposite to each other. I just think that honest rational people should be in between – they should pay zero attention to the self-glorifying talk of entrepreneurs, they should ignore the repeated clichés about their being "disruptors". Fans of companies such as Apple and Tesla do care – they are extremely impressed by narcissistic talk – and that explains a significant part of the capitalization of these two companies. I find the situation of such companies rather painful.

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