I Can’t Eat an iPad!

It was Dudley, trying to do right.

It didn’t work.

A few years ago, William Dudley, the president of the New York Fed, attempted to give a street corner education to a crowd in Queens, New York on the cost of living. As the Wall Street Journal reported, ‘The crowd wanted to know why they were paying so much for food and gas. Keep in mind the Fed doesn’t think food and gas prices matter to its policy calculations because they aren’t part of ‘core’ inflation. So, Dudley tried to explain that other prices are falling. “Today you can buy an i-Pad 2 that costs the same as an i-pad 1 that is twice as powerful. You have to look at the prices of all things.” This prompted guffaws and widespread murmuring in the audience, with someone quipping, “I can’t eat an i-Pad!”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. After all, the growth of technology promised the exponential increase in the ability to make things, know things, and it follows, consume things. It boils down to an extension of Moore’s Law, that maxim, now a truism, which states that computing power doubles every two years. For technological goods, this has proven to be more or less true. Witness of course the more powerful i-Pads. However, for non-technological goods, productivity growth has been incremental, not exponential, and in many cases has even been reversed due unfortunately to computing itself. The problem is, if our technological robots actually served robots, things should be moving along swimmingly. The earth would be moving to a singular transcendence with eight billion purring i-brains splendidly served.

Unfortunately, technology serves people, and this has served up some very unintended consequences. To which I offer up this corollary to Moore’s law, which I will call with fitting immodesty: Marr’s law. It goes something like this: as computing power doubles, the amount of time you can waste doing computing doubles as well. Consider this fact as ‘proof’. In 1960, our information systems, namely radio and TV, could only serve up facts that mattered. Now, with ubiquitous computing, it’s serving up mainly facts that don’t matter, and it’s getting better and better at serving up just the facts that you want but don’t need, and soon it will be doing it 24/7 from the i-whatever appliances tethered and perhaps in the future implanted in your brain. Soon, we will all have the wits of floor lamps, and our floor lamps will have all the wit. And what will our smart appliances eat? Why, i-pad sandwiches of course!