Column: Watching the global supply-tech mega-system swarm a problem is a beautiful sight
April 1, 20207:21 AM
In the official 1840 US government census, a soul-searching question was posed to the familial point of contact: How many idiots are there in your household? . People didn’t have time to mince words back then. Pity the poor father of twelve, looking down the dining table…not that one, not that one, yes for sure, that one’s a maybe, hmm good with a pitchfork but just look at that skull, etc. You may have different yardsticks for charting how far humanity has progressed in the past 180 years: I will concede there are others, but I rather like the one above. Possibly, once out the throes of coronavirus cabin fever and apocalypse pondering, I’ll see that things like technology, health care, travel, and pretty much everything else are better yardsticks. But in times like these, starved for anything to laugh about, the stark lunatic simplicity of such a government-sanctioned question compared to the nebulous jabber we hear today seems quite satisfying. But fine, let’s talk about other significant improvements. And since we’re in this horrible situation, let’s look at something remarkable that flows out of the web of technological and supply chain achievements we’ve put together over the past decades. Out of the swirling mess that is the global economy can be seen signs of the power of human ingenuity, turbocharged by the latest technology, rising to a challenge in a remarkably short time. A great example, admittedly even better than the distance we’ve come from formal idiot-counting, is to see the speed with which our human/industrial machine can swarm a problem and find solutions. I can say with a fair degree of certainty that the coronavirus is the biggest and most dangerous pain in the ass that any of us have seen in a very long time, and it has developed in the blink of an eye. At the end of 2019 it was a faint story in a distant land, but with ominous rumblings. Today, it dominates every single thing we do and has made the once-mundane task of toilet paper shopping the modern equivalent of the search for the holy grail. All within the span of three months. But with the staggering knowledge base and technological prowess of modern economies, supported by incredibly reliable and resilient supply chains, we can witness the fruits of all that sometimes-imperfect or environmentally-taxing machinery. A perfect example is Abbott, a US medical equipment company that has just introduced a toaster-sized device that will revolutionize coronavirus testing. The process is remarkably simple, according to a , though in the same way that “standing on the shoulders of giants” is simple, or in the same way that a plane flying on autopilot is simple. A sample of human whatever is chemically treated to break open the virus and release its genetic material. Then, the new device “uses a special “isothermal technology” to replicate and amplify, if present in the sample, the small section of the virus’ genetic sequences to quickly detect whether a person is positive or negative for COVID-19.” What’s amazing about this new tech is that it can provide test results in 5 minutes if positive, and 13 minutes if negative (the article doesn’t explain the consequences for those who flee in happiness after waiting 6 minutes). This, if it works as reliably as initial results indicate, is a remarkable game-changer. If it becomes widely available, we might be able to get back to normal life relatively quickly, without having to wait for sheer isolation to win the day. Something this simple could mean the difference between a moderately damaged global economy and a crippling depression, never mind the sheer number of lives it might save. Beyond all the gloom then as we watch the world grind to a near halt, be sure to pay attention to the remarkable resilience and self-healing capability that our modern society provides. It is easy to take it all for granted, or look at the great big mega-system in disgust because it is imperfect or needs improvement. It always will need improvement. But it also can swarm problems like a human immune system attacking an intruder. Beyond advances in testing like Abbott’s, look at how our other industrial manufacturers can shift gears from producing cars or other industrial doo-dads to ventilators and masks and critical medical supplies. Breweries have been turning out hand sanitizer for crying out loud, how cool is that? And not only does our mega-system provide a petri dish for these sorts of developments, but it also holds enough wealth and capacity to stretch in times of need to help a whole lot of people. Governments are throwing trillions to individuals to keep their little worlds running, borrowing from the future because our big machine can be counted on to provide the activity to pay those bills down the road. Our human machine similarly rises to the occasion and swarm’s different problems. People everywhere are providing and benefitting from genuine acts of human kindness and spirit, which we can afford to do because of accumulated wealth/savings and leisure time, and because we are no longer hunters or gatherers or idiot-counters. When the smoke clears on this madness, let’s remember to not take it all for granted. We can always work to make the big machine better, more efficient, and cleaner, but this experience should show us all how lucky we are to live in this era. For a gleeful celebration and explanation of life as we know it, pick up “The End of Fossil Fuel Insanity” at , , or . The time will fly by, you’ll learn about energy challenges, and get more than a few laughs. And I know you need them.Read more insightful analysis from Terry Etam or email Terry .