Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A TechnoFantasy Day Made of Glass... Delusions Made possible by Corning

What's our future? Predicting the future is tough, eh? Where's the flying cars we were promised? We now have something akin to a video phone, though it's not a phone but Skype. Technology companies have a marketing need to be seen as visionary, and to keep us all thinking the future will be this techno-fantasy wonderland of fabulous gizmos and we'll all live comfortable suburban wonderland fantasy lives and it'll all be singing roses and harp music playing out of every fountain and the world will be our oyster. At least that's what I get out of the following video.

The video is from Corning and portrays some wonderful things that will supposedly be done with various sorts of "Glass". Though, the video starts by showing a couple in bed and I'm wondering, the bed covers are made of glas? What? But, no, they didn't imply the bed covers were made of glass, but instead that the windows were made of photochromic glass. That is, glass that does the cool effect seen in Blade Runner where the window glass changes tinting to increase/decrease light in the room. Rather than have window shades (as we do now) your photochromic glass would instead darken or lighten.

The rest of the video showed a variety of situations where touch sensitive computer displays were built into walls, desktops, refrigerator doors, counter-tops, bus stops, and more. That your "cell phone" would be a block of glass, for example. And, for example, you could touch the "phone" to another display to grab information or to redirect what you're looking at on the phone onto another surface. For example, if you're holding a phone call on the phone, you could make it a group phone call by putting the phone down on a surface, and the surface would then become the phone's display.

Really cool, actually. But...

Consider the energy expenditure to run this fantasy land. What kind of special materials are required? What is the supply picture for the energy or the special materials?

The technofantasy land we live in is driven by energy and raw materials supply that are destined to reach a "production peak" problem and enter into a production decline. For the most part we have not reached the production peaks but the scientific model behind it is sound and very well understood. Further we appear to have reached the production peak for fossil oil. (see Peak Oil and Patterns of Unsustainable Growth)

I'm using the word "fantasy" because so many things we're doing - especially what's shown in this video - are disconnected from the effects of the action. This video shows wonderous (and plausible) scenes of interactive computer imagery and computing power embedded in every surface around us. Way cool, I've had fantasy dreams about such a thing myself and I agree it would be fantastic. However ask yourself ... how much electricity is required to run all those computer displays? What's the Energy Star rating on a wall sized computer display? Electricity is largely coal fired, so what's the carbon footprint of those wall panels?

And carbon footprint is only the beginning because coal is such an egregiously poisonous icky way to make electricity. There are a zillion toxic things which come from mining and burning coal.

And, what about the various specialized materials that are no doubt used in constructing this fantasy land? Will those specialized materials also have a limited supply peak of production problem that we're facing with fossil oil right now? What are the negative side effects of mining whatever raw materials being used? What about the production process? What society is going to be effectively enslaved in mines producing the materials used in those displays?