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Batteries not included

Recently I’ve been using a very simple analytical technique to look at a variety of systems. I’d describe it as a blunt rather than a fine edged tool. The metaphor breaks down around the edges, but the yield is still quite good.

Systems require energy to remain organized, otherwise they fall prey to entropy—they start coming apart. The system must at least match the power of entropy to maintain the status quo. That level must be exceeded to refine the granularity of its organization. For the purposes of the analysis, I’m using electricity as a metaphor for power. The tool is employed like this:

- Does it runs on battery power?
- Must it be plugged into an outlet?

Let’s start with the characteristics of the plugged-in. For these systems, electricity is a utility, an assumption, a constant. Power is commoditized and on tap in the environment. Whatever the system requires is available through the outlet on the wall. Power is unlimited, steady and metered—but in order for the system to be operational, a power cord must be connected to the grid. Another way to think about this is through the economics of abundance.

A system that runs on batteries has a limited store of power. Concepts like standby power, active power use and sharing a limited resource start to come in to play. Batteries need to be recharged and eventually replaced. Active battery life must line up with human cycles of sleeping and waking; working and living; active and passive use. Tilt the battery to a slightly different angle and you can see the economics of scarcity.

The desktop computer was made to be plugged in. Not much has changed there. The hardware and the software assumes unlimited commodity electricity from the environment The first laptops were built for portability, they were easy to move from one outlet to another. The battery’s low capacity resulted in limited usefulness as a un-tethered device. Over time the hardware of the laptop began to change to accommodate the limitations of the battery, but the software was unchanged. It was crucial that the laptop run desktop software without any alterations.

Adobe’s Flash makes an interesting case study for this analytic technique. Flash was built to operate within the plugged-in system of the desktop computer. As such, it moved easily and naturally to the world of laptops and netbooks. In the world of battery-powered devices it shows its roots. It begs the question of whether something built to use power as an infinite commodity can be altered to operate in an environment of finite power. Faith in a Moore’s law-like increase in capacity holds out hope that these kinds of applications can be merely altered. As long as they can conserve just enough power, they should be able to operate successfully in a large finite energy environment. Another way to ask this question might be: is reform sufficient, or is revolution necessary?

It’s with mobile computing devices built from the the ground up like the iPhone and iPad that battery life has been extended to up to 10 hours. That’s a span of time that begins to be available for complex relationships with the rhythms of life. Software for these devices is also built from the ground up to operate within a restricted power environment. Among other things, mobile computing means a device unrestricted by a power cord.

The battery introduces an era of limits against the infinite constant of the electrical outlet. It’s worth taking a moment to consider how something like electricity, water or natural gas could be converted into an assumed resource of the environment. Imagine if any of the plugged-in appliances in your home had to be re-engineered to work on batteries. Would they need to change incrementally or radically?

In 1978, James Burke debuted a television program called ‘Connections.’ It was billed as an ‘alternate view of change.’ The first episode looked at how a vast technical network had become deeply entangled with every aspect of our lives. Burke thought one way to put that entanglement into relief would be to turn the network off, and then review the effects. To accomplish this Burke created a re-enactment of the 1965 blackout of New York City and the entire northeast of the United States.

Not surprisingly, New York needs to be plugged in, it wasn’t designed to run on batteries. This sent Burke on a quest to find out how we arrived at this point. While we can create artificial scarcity through economic incentives and punishments in the billing for electric power use, these efforts take place within a context of an infinite power supply. There’s always the option to pay more for more power. Contrast that with a battery, no matter how much money you have, your battery will drain at the same rate as the next person’s.

The move from desktop to laptop to tablet/handheld traces an evolution from the infinite to the finite. It also traces a line from the finite contents of a hard disk to the infinite contents of the Network. The cloud computing factories that supply the endpoints of the Network are in the process of being retooled. Heretofore they’d just been plugged into the grid like everything else. Now the grid is positioned as backup power and the Network factories are plugged directly into the the standing reserves of the earth. Natural gas is transformed into electricity through local power generation. This isn’t a transformation from outlet to battery, it’s the substitution of one form of outlet for another.

The photograph of the earth that Stewart Brand put on the cover of the Whole Earth Catalog made plain the finitude of our planet. There is no infinite reserve of power behind the outlet on the wall. As we continue to build out the electronic Network environment, at some point, we’ll run up against this limit. Of course, we may have already hit the limit, or passed it long ago. But like the space battles in our science fiction films, we expected to hear a great crashing noise as the limit was reached. Surely there would be some sort of sign, some gesture from the earth letting us know that we’ve exceeded our allowance. But as the poet Milosz reminds us, worlds end, and sometimes no one notices.

A Song On the End of the World
by Czeslaw Milosz
translated by Anthony Milosz

On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be,
No other end of the world will there be.

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