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SJan 1, 1995

The Expanding Electronic Inevitable

Things change. Twenty five years ago an Adult Authority Figure could advise Dustin Hoffman to make his future in one word: "plastic." At the same time, artist Andy Warhol had a rock group called "The Expanding Plastic Inevitable".

Now things are different. Allow me, please, to provide three magic words for the remainder of the millennia: electronics, pixels, and bandwidth.

ELECTRONICS. In 1995 it's The Expanding Electronic Inevitable. It isn't even close to getting tired. For proof, see if you can get through a day without examining a newspaper special section with electronic goods at Best Buy, Circuit City, or Amazing Universe, not to mention CompUSA or Computer City. See if you can get through a day without hearing or reading the word "Internet".

It isn't possible.   Like it or not, ready or not, electronic technology is THE fundamental force in our society. It will continue. One wildly un-esoteric reason: price.

The most consistent source of worry over the last 25 years has been inflation, the fact that prices of goods --- whether it is houses, cars, medical care, taxes, or energy costs--- have risen dramatically.

Except in electronics.

Prices for electronic goods, in dollars, are the same or lower. The comparison point is not last year. I am talking about zero inflation or actual deflation for twenty-five or thirty years, a generation. Let me give you some examples:

o           In the early sixties I bought a KLH Model 20, the first solid state stereo set, for $400. You can buy the same capabilities today, with superior CD-rom technology, for $400 or less.

o           In the late sixties I bought my first color TV set, a 13" Toshiba, for about $270. You can do the same today for less and get wireless remote control, to boot.

o           In 1979 I bought my first personal computer--- a Zenith Z-89 with 64k of memory, a 300 baud modem, and a clumsy dot matrix printer--- for $4,300. Today I could replace the THREE computers I regularly use--- the 486-33 at work, the 386-25 at home, and the 386-25 laptop for the road--- with about the same expenditure.

Then and now the Japanese were major providers of electronics and they have continued to thrive, outrunning both inflation and the depreciation of our currency for decades. In 1970 the exchange rate was 357 Yen to the dollar compared to just over 100 today.

Raise the price on something and you'll sell less of it, lower the price and you'll sell more of it. It's that simple.

This won't end soon. One reason is the growing efficiency of production in electronics. Another is the brute fact that we are the Baseload Nation--- unless you can sell into our market, you won't have enough volume to be competitive on a global basis. Manufacturers will sell product here at break-even prices simply to keep their factories busy, banking on higher price sales in other countries. It will be a decade, or more, before other countries have markets that rival ours in size. That will happen, inevitably, and when it does happen we will have real problems with inflation. For the moment, however, we have a consumers paradise: the best priced products in the entire world. Enjoy it now.

PIXEL. A pixel, in case you've never encountered the word, is a single point of light on a computer monitor. When computer memory was expensive the number of pixels directly controlled on   a monitor was limited because you needed memory to control the pixels.

Decreasing electronic memory costs have meant the onrushing 'pixelization' of all experience. When historian Oswald Spengler declared that the object of Western culture was "the annihilation of space and time", he was probably contemplating the invention of the automobile and telephone. But the real Annihilator is the pixel. Skeptics should take another look at the offer Microsoft makes in their image advertising, "Where do you want to go today?." Pixels are the vehicle to travel in space and time.

The problem with early computer monitors was that they led people into a world of sensory deprivation: staring all day at 26 lines of 80 characters on a black and white screen. Put enough pixels, in enough color shades, on a TV screen and sensory deprivation disappears. Year by year image quality improves. ( Skeptics should read the back pages of the computer magazines: ten years ago they were dominated by parts for home computer builders; today they are dominated by offers of CD-ROMs or computer bulletin boards offering eros in all varieties.)

BANDWIDTH. If our only use of a computer is to write letters, build spreadsheets, or balance our checkbook, the number of pixels we see isn't that important. But if the computer is to be the Annihilator of Space and Time, it must be able to absorb images and information from anywhere, at incredible speed. In 1968, when I wrote my first computer program on a Bolt, Beranek, and Newman time sharing terminal, it was 30 baud. By 1980 that speed was 300 baud, a finger drumming dribble.   Now it is commonly 14,400 and vendors are gearing up for speeds fast enough to force-feed the entire world into your monitor.

Thirty years ago the only people interested in computers were nerds who enjoyed living in their heads and focusing down, excluding the raw world of experience. Others were turned off by its narrowness, its sensory deprivation. Computer screens were no competition for actual experience.

No more. What's on the screen becomes more compelling day by day as our capacity to fill and change the screen improves. Having spent centuries trying to find ways to move our bodies faster to get from one place to another, we solve the problem in reverse: we stay home. Now the mountains of experience move to us.

On a crowded, affluent planet, electronics, pixels, and bandwidth may be the best way to see the world.

Filed Under: Burns at Large