Networking

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Why are we so wasteful?

Common sense has left the building

Compiled on the Ipswich to London train and dispatched to silicon.com via 3G during the same journey

As a young man I worked in a number of 'mom and pop' stores and small businesses before joining a state-run enterprise.

In each case there were great examples of smart operation and slick processes. But there were also many glaring examples of a complete lack of common sense. The latter I generally categorise as investing £1,000 in deciding how to spend £200!

Fast-forward more than four decades and I wish I could report some significant improvements - but I can't. The rule of process over common sense now seems to be the established norm everywhere and at all levels of society.

My most recent example was the need to fill in a series of questionnaires pertaining to a contract. I didn't object to this in any way until I worked out for a contract worth £x, the completing of all the forms was going to cost me £5x. How come?

The organisation involved had developed a single process for all contracts no matter what the size. When I pointed out the lunacy of what they were asking me to do, and the totally uneconomic proposition before me, they said there was nothing they could do. So I just walked away, and I have no idea if they ever got someone to comply with their process and get the work done.

Unfortunately, this general state of madness is no longer contained by the world of accounting, or indeed the world of physical processes in all its varied forms. Bureaucracy rules - no doubt about it. The unnecessary now consumes far more than the necessary.

If only this were not true of our digital world. Going back a few decades to our analogue technology beginnings, the focus was on efficiency of bandwidth, power, components and physical effort.

We might have hoped that 'going digital' would improve things but it hasn't. Waste on a gross scale is not only alive and well, it is growing at an alarming rate. Any form of modern software is a prime example with gigabytes of storage and millions of lines of code required to produce a simple letter or an email.

But what of the invisible waste?

Delving into the inner protocols of digital computing and communication reveals a world of escalating waste and inefficiency. The modest 'handshakes' of old have been superseded by 'session management overheads' designed to get the most utility out of some standardised system.

Take wi-fi. What do you suppose the ratio of message-carrying bits to management bits is for a simple, off-the-shelf wi-fi link is? In most cities and densely populated locations it is far less than 10 per cent. Most of the bits are employed in keeping links connected and synchronised through standard processes and protocols while avoiding, or minimising, interference from other sources.

And when I say less than 10 per cent I mean it can often be in the range of 1 to 3 per cent!

In contrast, less populated areas such as isolated buildings and rural developments can see utilisations as high as 40 per cent. But that's it - all very inefficient, and getting more so with each successive technology. Goodness knows what 4G radio will look like as an efficiency proposition given our efforts to make it 'all things to all men'.

So here we are with people worrying about the crowded radio spectrum and the need for more wireless devices and applications, while at the same time we squander more and more of this resource in the hidden business of protocols and signalling. Sort of reminds me of recycling and 'green' issues which seem to be on a similar bender of invisible inefficiencies.

I cannot see why it should be so but it appears to be our inevitable future.

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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