Tales of Power

No, this is not about the work of Carlos Castaneda. It is about electricity, the stuff that flows out of the wires when we flip a switch. We take it for granted. At least conceptually, although the electric utility gives us a roulette wheel instead of a switch. Why do we need it?

We believe our industries need it, our life styles demand it. Over seventy years ago Henry Ford wrote to Mahatma Gandhi offering to electrify every village in India. The Mahatma wrote back politely declining the offer. For electricity could only be generated centrally, and such a concentration of power –both literally and figuratively –would only detract from freedom.

To return to the question, why do we need electric power? The widespread use of electric power has been known for a little over a century. Man has lived on this planet for millions of years before that. But it was the logic of a particular pattern of industrialization that dictated the development of electric power. And it is only about a hundred and twenty-five years old.

Does the logic that gave birth to it still hold? The eminent scientist, philosopher and cyberneticist Nobert Wiener gave a definition nearly 60 years ago. He contrasted electricity –after the German fashion–as being “high current” or “low current”, high power or low power, the motors and machines of the industrial revolution on the one hand or the electronic, computer and telecommunication devices of the cybernetic revolution on the other.

Wiener foresaw vast changes in society and organization because of this revolution. Alvin Toffler –thirty years later –in his book the Third Wave returns to the same theme, calling future societies being like Gandhi, with satellites. No man is a prophet in his own land. And so it as been with Gandhi in India. We have castigated him by our actions, by adhering now to the Marxist or Fabian socialism, now to the capitalist road, each with an accent on vulgar materialism that is a characteristic of the industrial revolution. Gandhi had exposed the relentless illogic of mass production in another letter to Ford this time to point out that even if the world were satiated with cars, Ford would have to continue producing them!

What are some of the characteristics of a mass produced society? I was in the USA a few years ago visiting old friends who lived about an hours drive from New York City. Taking a suburban train to get there, I couldn’t help observing that there were a couple of hundred cars parked at each suburban station. Thousands of cars spent the better part of the day parked in a parking lot. What a tremendous waste!

Or take Los Angeles, for instance. You are driving on a highway which has six lanes each way going West, and each lane is full. It is morning so you are not surprised by the response to your query, “Where are all these people going?” which is that they are going to work. And every few miles you cross over another highway going North-South, each one with six lanes of traffic each way. You know the answer to my question: they are off to work too. Millions of people, driving and driven, practically the entire day either off to work or heading home from work; is this not a vision of madness? No wonder the folk singer Carole King sang a song “so far away, doesn’t anybody stay in one place any more…”

And this is what the rest of the world wants to emulate!

What are some of the implications of a switchover from high current to low current, from mass production to communication? Will we need anymore those gas guzzling creatures that endlessly ferry people back and forth in a parody of perpetual motion? Or the need to create those millions of cars that are parked at railroad stations and other parking lots? What is more, will we need any longer to pave over the country with asphalt to provide roads for the cars that we will no longer need for the people who will no longer need to travel endlessly?

And what of electric power plants which is where this story began? Need we worry any more about fossil fuel based power plants which eat into nature’s capital while spewing smoke and dust into the atmosphere? Or about nuclear power plants that need to be run by the equivalent of people with ten heads and twenty hands –and are promoted by a man whose name sounds like the name of an ancient with such a physiology, a grotesque parody of the phrase “yesterday’s men” –to control all the things that can go wrong?

Go in peace, people of Kaiga. [1]

R. SIDDHARTH is an business executive and occasional columnist. He lives in Bangalore, India. He can be reached at sidjourn@padiweb.com

[1] Kaiga, in Karnataka state, is the site of the latest nuclear plant commissioned in India.


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