Slaying Dragons #3 – Where Is It All Going?

Where is it all going?

John Watkinson fails to learn from history.

Nothing is for ever and the upheavals we have seen over the last decade are a taste of what is to come. Those of us who work in audio often do so because it’s a bit different from the rest of the world, more satisfying, perhaps. At one time it was even sheltered from the rest of the world, but not any more.

It amuses me the way the industrial revolution is talked about as if it was a singular event that happened way back, like the eruption of Krakatoa. That’s not how it is. Revolutions are forceful changes of the governing regime. They replace one lot of dogmatic self-serving chisellers with a different lot, who make hay until it becomes clears that they can’t or won’t solve society’s problems either. After the next revolution, the previous one is forgotten.

By that definition, the industrial revolution was not a revolution at all, firstly because it was not particularly forceful and secondly because there was no going back from the changes that were introduced. The machines that were created by the industrial revolution were based not on dogma, but on science, so their principles of operation could not subsequently be denied or overthrown. The only way to overthrow a machine is to make a better one. The improvement of machines, and the development of machines to perform new tasks, continues to this day, as does the total inability of leaders to understand what is going on.

Prior to the industrial revolution, there was little progress thanks to the dead hand of religion, which provided all the answers and forbade questions. In one sense, dealing with a steady state society is easy, because last year’s solutions can be used next year. After the introduction of machines and constant progress, society was no longer in a steady state and last year’s solutions didn’t work any more. As one American motor industry executive put it, after an oil crisis struck;

“The problem with the future is that it’s not what it used to be.”

Like many subjects, audio has been turned on its head by the constant progress. From the earliest times, the business model of audio was to sell pre-recorded media to the consumer. Starting with cylinders, media progressed through shellac and vinyl discs and tape cassettes and culminated in the Compact Disc, which differed in a couple of ways. One of these was the way it worked, using binary numbers, but it was still a dedicated pre-recorded audio medium that the consumer could buy in a shop. The other difference was that prior media were never good enough, whereas the CD was if anything, too good.

What was it that made CD so good? Simply that it replaced the lossy, noisy, distorted media that went before it with a medium that had no sound quality at all because it stored data, with error correction. It used technology that is central to how computers work. From then on, audio would be a subset of what is now called IT. Computing would borrow the technology of CD to make CDROM, but from then it would swallow audio whole. Even IT is not immune. The modern iphone can do everything, and everybody has got one. How do you follow that?

There are some lessons here. One of them is that the relentless progress of the machine age automatically makes things that are better and better, so at some point they become better than anyone needs. Then things degenerate because the only possibility is to make things cheaper or to give an illusion of improvement. Both of those make a technology ripe for disruption. The Super Audio CD was launched with a tsunami of hype about the improved sound quality, and sank when no-one could hear it. MiniDisc sank with all hands. DAB sounds terrible, MP-3 sounds terrible.

No wonder vinyl discs are making a come-back.

Another problem with relentless progress is that it makes nonsense of education systems that instill facts instead of reasons to create a generation of robotic people who deploy knee-jerk reactions instead of analysing the problem. A chilling example was in the First World War, in which the machine gun was deployed to terrible effect on any conventional attackers. But the officers in charge of attacking only knew one way of conducting warfare and so they carried on sending countless thousands to certain death. Military intelligence became an oxymoron.

The First World War didn’t end; it kind of petered out when the graveyards were full. The terms of the armistice caused great resentment and made it easier for an extremist to become popular and then seize power. Information, of course, is power, and the man with the moustache was heavily into information technology. Every homosexual and Jew that was killed by Hitler’s regime died because there was a hole in the appropriate column of the Hollerith punched card that was sorted by automatic machines supplied by IBM.

When the Internet grew and computer ownership exploded, the record companies acted like those officers in the trenches because they were unable to deal with change. Having ripped off customers and artists alike over the years the accrued resentment was such that there was no sympathy expressed when music downloading took them out. Today there are no dedicated audio media, and there aren’t going to be any. Downloading arrived just in time for a generation that couldn’t afford to buy CDs.

One immediate consequence of the industrial revolution was the exploitation of all and sundry by those who owned the means of production. Karl Marx described the situation perfectly, but his prediction of a revolution in England was wide of the mark. What happened instead is that trade unions and socialism came into being, and understandably so, to deal with the exploitation. But once the exploitation and dangerous working conditions were dealt with, what was there left to give the electorate?

On the face of it, a free health service sounds like a good thing

On the face of it, a free health service sounds like a good thing, a way of benefiting the whole of society by taxing the rich. The problem is that is not what happened. A free health service was set up, and made those who did it look good, but understandably the rich resented being taxed and responded by lobbying and cajoling their way out of it. There is no such thing as a free health service, and in the absence of sufficient tax revenue, it had to be funded by borrowing. In short, the health service has always run at a loss. Everyone gets more out of it than they pay in taxes. The system works because the population and the economy grows, so that in the future there will be more tax revenue to service the debt. And governments try to cause inflation as that diminishes the size of the debt.

If an individual set up something like that, it would be called a pyramid scheme and he would end up in jail. But when politicians set up something like that it is seemingly OK. But it was only one pyramid scheme amongst a host of them, world wide. Not so long ago, a lot of it fell down, triggered, but not caused, by Lehman Brothers. That story is a subject in itself, but to stay with the present plot, economic growth ended, over-supply set in and inflation ceased, ably assisted by machines and technologies that make everything cheaper. Factories staffed by robots that don’t take holidays and don’t earn wages.

The model that sustained the health service suddenly broke. Machines and technology led families to be smaller and for people to live longer. The economic and population growth the model depended on has gone, replaced by a society that is ageing and needs more care and to be paid pensions. I just had a hip replacement; thank you, society. The sticking plaster on the economy consists of zero interest rates, so the borrowing is sustainable, but that has resulted in a divided society. Before long there will be one pensioner for everyone with a job. That’s a pretty serious overhead for any society to operate under.

It’s all my fault, apparently. With zero interest rates, the only sensible thing to do is to buy property and that drives prices up. So we are a divided nation of old people living in big expensive houses and young people living with their parents or in boxes. Conventional wisdom says that as people get older they should down-size their property to make room for new families. That model is broken too. Firstly, with property prices and debt levels the way they are, it would be an extraordinary young couple that would buy my house. Secondly, I can’t afford to down size as it would reduce the number of solar panels I could deploy.

John Watkinson