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Alice in Business

A seasonal sketch, with a moral for our times

Column I'm a developer. I spend my time sitting at a computer, working on our IT infrastructure. Contrary to stereotype, I have just a cheapo computer and no fancy gizmos. I take pride in the Apache hat I wear to write this column. But sometimes we need to take a step back, and look at the why of it. As we enter a new year, let's share a glimpse into that question.

Alice stood up nervously. This was her big day, the presentation she'd been working towards for longer than she cared to remember. For the first time ever, she had the full attention of the Red Queen and the board. The Queen gave her a nod, and she plucked up courage to start.

"Ladies and Gentlemen. As you know, energy is one of our principal costs. We have a target of an eight percent reduction in energy usage on existing business. Since the introduction of emissions trading, this represents not just a cost saving, but also a new asset we can sell. My proposal today is to reduce energy usage not by eight percent, but by one hundred percent!"

"Are you proposing a complete cessation of our business?", asked the Red Queen critically.

"Yesyesyes," interrupted the March Hare enthusiastically. "It's like agricultural setaside, where we get paid because we own land but don't farm it. Now we own emissions quotas because we're a highly polluting business, and we can get paid not to use it."

"Beats working for a living," added the dormouse.

"No, that's not what I mean," said Alice. "I'm not proposing to abandon any of our current business. I just want to do it more efficiently."

"But 100 per cent", asked the Caterpillar. "You can always grow or shrink a budget, but that doesn't eliminate it altogether. Unless ..."

"Look, dammit, we need energy just to make the tea," he continued, as the Mad Hatter poured another cup.

"Sorry, that's not what I meant", replied Alice. "I don't mean we eliminate all energy use. The 100 per cent figure is rounded to the nearest percentage point, because the actual saving is greater than 99½%. Our clients save time and hassle, too."

At this point, the White Rabbit rushed in, in a great fluster. "Terribly sorry about that. You wouldn't believe the traffic!" Alice sighed, but the Queen just nodded: travel delays are a fact of modern life.

"What is it that we do that uses energy?" Alice continued. "We move people around. But why do we move people around?"

"We're a travel business. That's what we get paid for."

"Only in an old-fashioned literal sense. But our clients aren't the people we move: it's their companies who pay us. In fact, the people themselves are quite an expense, what with the airmiles and other kickbacks. Why can't we service our clients' needs more efficiently?"

"Our clients need to move people around. To keep the wheels of commerce running. That's what they pay us for!"

"No!" replied Alice. "Our clients need is communication, with other companies around the world. That used to mean travel, but today we have better alternatives. We can provide our clients with the best ever communications infrastructure to meet their needs. And with the profits from emissions trading, we can do it all at no charge to them! And in place of airmiles, we can offer an honest incentive: business-grade connections to every employee's home, which it would be futile to try and restrict to business use alone."

"That'll save them commuting hassle and expense, too: they're not in the same emissions market as us!", added the White Rabbit. "And I need never be late for another frightfully important meeting again!"

"Exactly!" replied Alice. "It's not just the company that stands to gain!"

"So, we become our own client too. Our service stands out so much we'd be fools not to!"

"I'm sorry Alice," said the Queen. "It's a great idea, but if we adopt it, we're no longer a highly-polluting company, and the subsidies no longer apply. Do you think we can ..."

Alice woke with a start. Mother was telling her to get up. Of course, mum had to leave stupidly early to get to her meeting today, which meant dropping Alice off at the greasy spoon café across the road from school even earlier. Sigh. At least she could dream of a more sensible world. ®


Nick Kew notes: This year marks the 20th anniversary of his starting to bang on about the transport debate being altogether the wrong argument. While freight needs transport, most of our economy today is non-physical, and information needs communication instead. Even today, we take universal road access for granted (courtesy of the taxpayer), yet you cannot even guarantee broadband availability on a house you want to move to. So the information society is still at a huge disadvantage.

This is what motivates my work in developing our communications infrastructure, including my work with Apache and the W3C. Readers interested in a more serious take on the subject are referred to my online manifesto, and the dedication to my book, [which is actually about Apache development, and is available for pre-order here - Ed]:

To all who share my dream, and are working to help make it happen.

... the dream of a world where your work, your colleagues, and your opportunities in life are not dictated by where you live, or how far you commute. Where the old-fashioned office of the 19th and 20th centuries has passed into history, along with its soul-destroying bums-on-seats culture and Dilbertian work practices. A world inclusive of those who cannot work in a standard office. A world inclusive of those who reject car-dependence, but embrace a full and active life. A world inclusive of those who seek to fit study and learning in to a busy life, yet have no accessible library, let alone university. Of those who are housebound ...

Our information infrastructure is poised to liberate us all. We who develop with Apache are playing a small but exciting part in that. This work is dedicated to all of us!

I was motivated to write this slightly-seasonal sketch when I heard they might be introducing emissions trading including free quotas for airlines. The underlying assumptions are truly worthy of the original Alice's world. We make a big fuss about tiny reductions in pollution, yet put obstacles and disincentives in the way of huge reductions!

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