20 August 2014

Bet on decentralization

This article on the sluggish sales of the colossal Airbus A380 airliner (found via F169) exemplifies an important point about the future direction of technology.  Consider the different responses of Boeing and Airbus to the anticipated growth of the volume of air traffic in the near future:

A little more than a decade ago, the two dominant airplane makers, Boeing and Airbus, looked at where their businesses were headed and saw similar facts: air traffic doubling every 15 years, estimates that the number of travelers would hit four billion by 2030 -- and came to radically different conclusions about what those numbers meant for their future. Boeing figured that traffic would move away from big hubs and toward secondary airports. So it started to build a smaller, more fuel-efficient long-range aircraft, which became known as the 787 Dreamliner. Airbus, on the other hand, saw the rise of international traffic through major hubs and decided to bet on a big plane to connect those big airports.

Airbus bet on the continued dominance of the centralized hub-and-spoke model, with its implications of ever-further gigantism -- bigger and bigger planes serving bigger and bigger "hub" airports.  Boeing bet on a decentralized model where the growth would take the form of more direct flights between smaller, local airports, bypassing the hubs.

From the point of view of an air traveler, it's easy to see why Boeing's bet was the winning one.  Flying by way of a stop means being stuck on the ground in your plane at the "hub" or possibly having to hang out at an airport for hours waiting for your connecting flight, prolonging an already overlong journey -- and increasing the risk of delays, missed connections, etc.  For most people, a non-stop flight is preferable when possible -- and that means point-to-point.  If you live in Portland and you want to go to Copenhagen, you'll take a direct flight if there is one, rather than one that stops at a "hub" like New York or London.

(It's tempting to wonder if Airbus's decision springs from the same mentality as the European Union, another over-centralized entity which has forced a one-size-fits-all currency and set of policies on a diverse group of nations, with disastrous results.)

Some airlines have bet on piling on more luxuries, but I think this appeals only to the very wealthy (or those on expense accounts who aren't paying their own way).  Everyone else would rather save money.  If somebody offered you $500 to sit in a cramped uncomfortable chair for 10 hours, you'd probably take it.  So you'd probably choose the no-frills air ticket over the first-class one if it's $500 cheaper.

The point is that the centralized, gigantist model which came in with the industrial revolution is on its way out.  This first occurred to me with the way new power-generation technologies like solar give us the opportunity to break away from that model.  We're used to having a small number of huge power plants which each generates electricity for a vast area (nuclear power in particular requires this model).  This means that a failure of a single plant could black out a wide area, making such plants attractive targets for terrorist attacks, among other problems.  Giant plants inherently involve more danger since generating so much energy in one place means you need something immensely powerful or massive to be present, such as radioactive fuel in nuclear power plants.  Anything so powerful is difficult to control, and dangerous if it gets out of control, as Fukushima exemplified (and God help the world if this ever happens).  Solar power allows for a decentralized system of many much smaller generating plants, far less vulnerable and far less dangerous.

We've had a glimpse of this problem recently in the fighting in Iraq. Earlier this month the insanely murderous ISIS/Islamic State organization captured the Mosul dam on the upper Tigris, the largest dam in Iraq.  Having a terrorist gang in control of a major energy source presents obvious problems, and if the dam were to break or be destroyed (deliberately or as a result of warfare), the resulting flood would devastate the city of Mosul and perhaps even Baghdad.  ISIS/Islamic State probably does not want to wreck Mosul since they control it, but even after Kurdish forces recently recaptured the dam with the aid of US air strikes, they found that the fanatics had booby-trapped it with explosives; removing these will be difficult and dangerous.  And the site on which the dam is built is now known to be made up of weak, soluble soils and minerals which need continuous attention to prevent the dam from being undermined.  For the sun-drenched, perennially violence-racked Middle East, decentralized solar power systems would surely be preferable.

Fukushima is probably not the last high-profile disaster that will result from the centralized / gigantist model.  Each one will increase the attractiveness of decentralized, smaller-scale technology.  Bet on that to be the look of the future.


Anonymous Zosimus the Heathen said...

Another area where the new decentralized model seems to be making the old gigantist model increasingly obsolete is, interestingly enough, that of organized crime. I've read a number of books on the subject (the most notable being one called Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy), which have pointed out that the traditional mobs of old (ie rigidly hierarchical groups consisting of a kingpin at the top, and a large number of underlings, of various well-defined rankings, underneath him/her) are giving way to smaller groups of essentially freelance criminals: individuals who no longer specialize in any particular illicit activities, but instead dabble in whatever rackets look like being the most profitable at any given time; and who may not even come from the same country as one another. The upshot of this is that the gangs of tomorrow are probably going to be harder to defeat than the ones of today, as their more fluid structures will make them more resilient - it'll no longer be possible to bring down a criminal gang by identifying the person at the top, and arresting him or her, as the traditional mob boss is going the way of the old pyramidal hierarchy that he or she presided over. (The Illicit book suggested that law enforcement agencies may have to adopt the same fluid structure to effectively combat these criminals.)

On the subject of the future of flying, I'm one who'd certainly welcome the prospect of more direct flights in smaller planes. While some people I know love to fly, and think it's this wonderful, magical experience, I freaking hate it myself, particularly given that I live somewhere thousands of kilometres from pretty much any international destination of any note. I probably wouldn't mind it so much if it actually felt like flying, but it doesn't; instead, it's more like taking a very long, very boring bus trip (it certainly doesn't help that the airlines seem to be trying to cram ever more people onto each plane either!). As for forced layovers in airports, I'd be glad not to have to endure those any more, as, with a few exceptions, I've found airports some of the most boring places on Earth. A particularly bad offender, I've found, is LAX airport; that has to be one of the dullest, most depressing airports I've ever been forced to wait for a flight in (and given the ridiculous security theatre in airports these days, you have to wait in them for a long time). Given how many people no doubt pass through it each day, it's really unforgivable just how much of a dump it is.

21 August, 2014 05:51  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe decentralizing may just make life here sustainable. We could use it in our politics as well. It'll be messy but it'll also be more people centric than it is right now.

As for businesses, the amount of money that chain stores and restaurants take from the local economy is unbelievable. All of those billions can be used to build and maintain healthy local economies.

You already know that central planning is going to fight it. The problem with that is they're incompetent and outnumbered. If only the people on the ground could realize that...


21 August, 2014 11:54  
Blogger Green Eagle said...

I want to suggest that the Airbus plane was developed in response primarily to Airbus' projections of the needs of the Asian market, which will continue to be dominated by the need for transportation of very large numbers of people, whose economic status far outweighs a couple of hours more in getting somewhere. The 787 was developed (among othr reasons of course) to serve primarily the first world, where passenger incomes often allow them to choose convenience over cost. At the present time, the 787 is doing very well, but I think this may be primarily due to its composite construction, which makes life-cycle fuel costs considerably lower; in the long run there is going to be a great demand for "big iron" like the 320.

21 August, 2014 20:41  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Zosimus: Interesting point about crime. I hadn't heard of that, but it makes sense. Giant mafia-like organizations still seem to be thriving in places like Columbia, but of course we're funding them via our drug-prohibition laws.

I haven't generally found flying to be too bad -- I just nap or read something -- but trains are definitely preferable. Not practical for intercontinental trips, unfortunately.

Vic78: The fossil-fuel industry and the giant corporations are already using their lobbying power to fight like hell against more modern energy sources and against smaller competitors. Thanks to them, the US is falling behind other countries like Germany in energy technology.

Green: That may be so, but the A380's sales are running considerably below expectations, whatever the basis of those expectations was.

22 August, 2014 03:59  

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