How Big is Enough?

The recent death of Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on the moon, unleashed a flood of reminiscences about Apollo 11 and moon landings.

One of my favorite anecdotes involves the computer on the LEM that made the lunar landing and the astronauts’ safe return possible.

While there some anxious moments when it needed to reboot, it did just fine.

How big a computer was it?

About 64k.

You can go to the moon and back with a Commodore 64.

Given that my cell phone has thousands of times more capacity than this — and that every computer I owned before this one, combined, had less memory than what I now have clipped to my belt — there is a lesson here about sustainability.

Check out your home computer, your laptop or your own cell phone, and realize how much of the power we have literally at our fingertips is simply unnecessary.

Wasted. Not needed. Redundant. Excess capacity. And yet we obsess about having more and more, newer and newer, bigger and better.

Perhaps as an early adopter of computers, I can see it more clearly. I used an Osborne 1, owned an Osborne 2 (a “luggable” at a mere 26 pounds!), and when it came to shifting platforms from CPM to DOS, I was not sure that the XT processor I was considering was fast enough for my needs.

Asking a friend wiser in the ways of computers, he responded with a question of his own: “What do you use it for?”

I proudly responded, “Mostly typing, word-processing, because I do a lot of writing.”

His pragmatic response still sticks in my head: “How fast do you type, anyway?”

A crude typist still, I don’t need a Stonybridge processor when a Stone Age one will do.

Twenty years ago, graduating to a Mac Powerbook (that today still works just fine), my 20 MB hard drive was gargantuan and largely untouched when my Ph.D. was done, holding everything I had ever written and with caverns to spare.

In computers as in many of the technological choices that shape our lives and foreshorten our futures, inexhaustible need has replaced common sense. We have lost sight of the technology that is appropriate to what we actually have to do.

Power – of all kinds – needs to be placed in the context of necessity, not of desire. We need far less of it than we want—or are told that we want.

When I look up into the night sky and dream of travelling beyond the chains of earth, I am reminded that a little bit of power, used wisely and appropriately, can take me to the moon and back.

Sustainability in all things, personal or social, requires us first to understand power, not simply to have it or merely to wield it.

That’s a 64k answer to the most important question of our generation:

How big is enough?

PowerShift 2012 will be held from October 26-29th in Ottawa/Gatineau.

My blogs leading up to the event (where I am a panellist and workshop leader) will reflect on different elements of “power” and what it means in the context of a sustainable world.