Staring into the depths of the yet unwritten

By the end of the next decade, there will be no oil left for consumers such as myself and we’ll have reached peak oil.
By the end of the decade after that, the last wild polar bear will have drowned because there will be no polar ice left for it to walk on, it will have been shot by some-one up North as it entered a home looking for food, or it will have died of starvation after eating the last of its cubs.
By the end of my expected natural life-span, there will be no edible fish left in the ocean.

These statements, which are corroborated by leading economist and, for the one about the polar ice cap, meteorologists rather than environmentalists, have a profound impact on the way we work and on the computing industry in general.

This is where we take out our crystal balls, get a cup of green tea (to look at the leaves) and start staring into the depths of the yet unwritten – spooky!

For one thing, communications networks won’t disappear just because we run out of oil, fish and polar bears, so the Internet is very likely to continue operating as if nothing’s changed. That’s a good thing, too: we’re gonna need it! Where else would we get the reports of all that lively stuff going on in our back yards – you know, that polar bear coming over for lunch (just before you shoot it) – if not on the Internet?

Then, there’s this decade’s equivalent of the 1970s’ moon colonies: we’ll all be driving electric cars! The link with communications? Well, for one thing, plug-in electric cars require the “smart grid“, which is all about communications. It isn’t around the corner quite yet, though. (But, you ask, didn’t the electric car already get killed once?)

The Smart Grid is also about avoiding things like the 2003 black-out of the North-East. I.e., there are a few peak hours in a year in which utilities have a hard time providing power for all of the demand. Smart appliances help, but the smart grid is really about saving power through technology.

Regardless, if we want to keep our economy going and want to continue doing most of what we do today, we’ll need to start doing things differently. That also means working from home, using communications tools such as Skype and Google Talk.

So, am I saying that the death of the final polar bear and of the fishing industry won’t make our lives any harder but will rather allow us to stay home more and grow even large waistlines? No. Just think of it: no more sushi! Seriously though, fuel is getting more expensive and will, soon, become expensive enough to become unaffordable. That doesn’t mean you won’t have enough money to drive, though: your driving is probably one of the smaller parts (in terms of cost) of your daily fuel consumption. If you’re like me, your driving accounts for about three liters (less than a gallon), which amounts to a little less than 1100 liters (290 gallons) a year. That, however, is just raw fuel. From the well to my car, there are only four or five businesses (well, tanker, refinery, truck, gas station) that need to make a profit from selling me that fuel. Now, let’s see how many middle-men there are for a loaf of bread.

Yes, there is oil in bread. Fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, they’re all made out of oil. So is the diesel that’s used to drive the tractor, the kerosene to fly the crop duster, the diesel for the truck to ship the grain to a mill, the diesel for the truck to ship the flour to the factory, and the diesel for the truck to ship the bread to the local grocery store. Each of these are bought through the same five middle-men, but from the field to the store there’s the farmer, three truckers, the crop duster, the miller and the bakery – seven middle men. each of these have the five middle-men to their oil, so you pay for the crop duster’s oil 35 times, the farmer’s oil 30 times, etc. That means that if they use roughly equal amounts of oil, you pay 130 times.

Does this mean that bread is going to be too expensive? Well, no. With wheat prices going down, any increase in their production cost should be offset by the decline in demand (due to the increase in production elsewhere) which, in turn, should offset at least part of the cost increase due to all those middle men. Other things may get too expensive, however (such as strawberries in winter or organic produce from the other side of the world). It does mean that it makes more and more sense to eat locally and, in the same order of ideas, to do other things locally as well – and that would include working.

So, from the employee’s perspective, the cost of life in general is going to increase, which means that for the same amount of money, in order to sustain the same quality of life, that extra cost has to be offset by cutting costs elsewhere or by increasing the quality of life through some other means, which would include (again), working from home and using communication technologies such as Skype and Google Talk to keep in touch with colleagues.

From the employer’s perspective, business is all about balancing costs against income: to make a profit, income has to be larger than cost by a reasonable (or, from the shareholder’s perspective, why not unreasonable?) margin. Cutting costs is a Good Thing. Keeping your employees happy is a Good Thing as well, because they tend to become more productive if they’re happier: just like a depressed cow yields less milk, a depressed work-force yields less work. If you can motivate your employees, they’ll be happy to do overtime for you, even if the overtime is under-paid (or not paid at all!).

The “new” generation (not all that new: we’ve seen them coming for two decades now) has a work ethic, and a way of working, quite to itself. They are changing the work place and, from what you’ve been reading above, it’s probably a good thing. They want to communicate more, spend time at the office less, exploit “sustained partial attention” to do lots of similar, but different, things, etc. One way to exploit that is to install an instant messaging system in the workspace so they can chat with their neighbors. In an open-area concept workspace (something the generations before Y are familiar with), that can help to dramatically reduce the noise level as people will just not talk to each other. Once those communications means are in place (faster than E-mail, less intrusive than the telephone), what do you really need the office-office for? Why not move to a home office? Even if you can’t move your entire operation to home offices, you can reduce your heating bill, your electricity bill, your rent, and all those other bills that come with having an office all the while becoming “greener” (tell Marketing that and your site will turn green) and keeping your employees happy.

The downside? Less meetings. But is that really a downside? Meetings will still be held, but they’ll be “e-meetings” and they’ll tend to waste less time, take less time, and allow people just “listening in” to continue their work on something else in the meantime.

Also note that if your company isn’t called “Google”, “Microsoft” or “Skype”, the means of communication you’ll be using will actually not be yours: you don’t own it, but you don’t pay for it either. If you agree on a business-wide solution being Google Talk and a fall-back on Skype in case Google bites the dust (like that’s likely to happen any time soon) you have the equivalent of a redundant means communication, both parts of which are free.

But, you ask, how do you check that the employees actually did their 40 hours? The answer is: you don’t. You pay them a flat-line base salary for agreeing to work for you, signing the confidentiality clause, signing off any intellectual property they create to you, etc. and you pay the rest of their salary based on results. If they’re late, so is their pay. This calls for more negotiation with your employees, but that’s what you do best anyway – and if one of your employees is really good at this, you might want to promote him/her.

Time to drink that green tea before it gets cold, put the crystal ball back in the cupboard and click “Publish”.

About rlc

Software Analyst in embedded systems and C++, C and VHDL developer, I specialize in security, communications protocols and time synchronization, and am interested in concurrency, generic meta-programming and functional programming and their practical applications. I take a pragmatic approach to project management, focusing on the management of risk and scope. I have over two decades of experience as a software professional and a background in science.
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