A couple weeks ago I went to China. Of all the amazing things and people I saw and met there, one of the most striking things for me was The Great Wall. On the ride out there my eager guide was telling me all sorts of stories about rulers and clans and infighting and this guy built X many KM of the wall and that guy built Y KM. It all sounded like bees buzzing until she said she said: “at one point ruler XYZ had 1/5 of the entire population of China working on the wall, over 1,000,000 people and over 300,000 troops.” Wait, What? 20% of the entire country on one project? Building one technology? And that technology is now falling down and completely obsolete? 20% of the national resources on something today totally useless. Wow. A couple thoughts came up:
- There is NOTHING today that you could get 20% of Americans to work on all together. Ok, in China that 20% was basically slaves, but I am even thinking of any common project that we could all voluntarily agree on is in the national interest. Could we get 20% of us to do anything? Unlikely.
- That is a massive investment in technology, in this case, defensive technology, that served for a time and is not completely and utterly useless. Literally falling down and of no use other than tourism. All those resources and dead people, thousands of years of effort. Now obsolete. How many of our current massive investments will be obsolete even that much sooner? What massive efforts am I making today that will be useless even 10 years from now?
- Man, the command and control economy has some benefits.
Now when I think if the Great Wall, I think about technological change and investment. How massive investments in technology can become useless. How the timing must be right. China likely got their money’s worth out of that technology. But it is no longer useful. Everything has a useful life. No investment lasts forever.
Also published on Medium.