Do You Believe In Magic?

Earlier this week, the Financial Times in an article entitled: “US West Coast ports look to hi-tech solutions to fight congestion — ”, stated that container ports on the US west coast, which suffered severe congestion problems last year, have since been putting a lot of money into technology in a move to avoid a similar fate during this year’s peak season. The article explained that last year’s problems along the west coast were partly to be blamed on “antiquated systems” and a shortage of proper equipment, resulting in a dramatic slowdown in port operations. With increased investments in technology, some ports along the US west coast are reportedly moving towards automation to keep labor costs down. Despite these initiatives to boost efficiency, the FT article casts doubts that the problems facing the industry would be resolved, pointing out that attention is now increasingly shifting to railway backlogs, roads and waterways beyond port areas.

There are too many in the industry and the media, however, still hung up on the idea that a computer programmer somewhere in Silicon Valley, or maybe even in India, or China — or someplace — will put together a program that will make all our troubles disappear overnight. This “technology” will make it possible for us to punch in a few letters and numbers on a keyboard, and in no time at all the cargo that’s barreling in from Asia will just zip along the supply chain right to Wal-Mart’s shelves. Technology is magic, and the shoppers will love us. Not really.

We hear the question being asked, “How will we ever handle the ever increasing volumes of imports in our congested ports?” More often than not, the simple, unelaborated answer given will be “technology”. We’ll never learn. We’ve been hoodwinked a number of times in recent years by the magicians in the Information Technology field, and it would be wise for us to spend a moment or two recalling some of those sad events. Y2K comes to mind, and so does the “dot-com” fiasco … more commonly referred to as the “dot-bomb” fiasco. The government estimated that on the advice of IT consultants, some companies spent as much as 10% of their annual budgets in each of the two years in preparation for the non-event of Y2K. Consultants ended up being sued not just for failing to protect companies from the bug, but also for exaggerating the threat and the level of work necessary. In the get-rich-quick dot-com scheme, investors became caught up in the stock gold-rush without even bothering to find out what those companies were actually doing. Now we know what they were doing though, don’t we? They were taking us over the coals. The IT pros paid dearly as well though, because several hundred thousand IT jobs were lost because of this dissembling.

Have we really learned any lessons from this overhype? When we were tykes, Santa Clause came through for us. So did the Easter Bunny and so did the Tooth Fairy. We always came out ahead. So what’s so wrong with putting our faith, and hope, in technology? Technology, in this case, is tantamount to mythology. It won’t happen. It’s another fairy tale — for grownups this time.

Every so often we should pay attention to what outside observers are saying — like the Financial Times. One magic button isn’t going to do it because every “antiquated system” in the chain has rusted. “Railway backlogs, roads, waterways beyond port areas …”, an entirely new system must be installed. [When the handwriting was on the wall, we replaced the horse and wagon, didn’t we?]