Al Alborn

Al Alborn

I am writing this column on my Apple iPhone 10X max. It has an Apple A12 chip that runs at 2.49 GHz.  That’s nine times faster than last year’s chip. This is already “old technology,” as Apple has moved on to the much more efficient A14 chip, which has 40% higher performance.  

My iPhone has replaced my video and still cameras and my word processing, spreadsheet and slide software, and it hosts a number of useful applications.  I store my data in Apple’s iCloud.  I remember the computers of my past: the IBM 360 & 370, the Honeywell 6000, the Sun Solaris.   My iPhone has more computing power than most of them.  My Apple MacBook Pro has more computing power than all of them. 

The only thing constant in technology is change.  Businesses are designed around following trends and selling “what’s next.”  Government…. not so much.   Buying into trends is not a good idea.

Data centers are the current trend.   The Prince William Board of County Supervisors appears to have made a conscious decision to go “all in” to attract data centers. Some on the board would like to open up all of the county as potential sites for these “big box” facilities.  The hype cycle among those looking for quick hits on creating business tax revenue is at its peak.  

As I watch some supervisors ponder just how much of our community to pave over, what concessions to make, and which community to disrupt with data centers, I ponder “what’s next” for government and business in the world of storing “big data.” 

I recognize the compelling story for attracting data centers to our county.  I used to tell the same story in its many variations to convince customers to buy whatever I happened to be selling.  I also remember going back to those same customers to convince them “what’s next” was even better.

Visionaries in back rooms are quietly working on quicker, faster, cheaper replacements for “big box” data centers as we know them today.  They are envisioning “what’s next.”  If you doubt my hypothesis, consider this: DNA may be “what’s next” for big data.  A team at Harvard’s Wyss Institute predicts that global digital data is expected to grow to 175 zettabytes (1 zettabyte = 1 million petabytes) by 2025, and because all the digital data in the world can be theoretically stored in about 81kg of DNA, DNA storage is being actively pursued as a compelling storage medium for the future.  And then, there is the world of quantum computing.

The money is always to be made in services for “what’s next.”  Fortunately, that is also a focus area of Prince William County’s Department of Economic Development.  Regardless of “what’s next,” people are required to consult, advise, write the code, operate and maintain it.  Paper towels need to be replaced, copy machines maintained, floors swept, vending machines refilled and so on.  People may be retrained and repurposed to support whatever is next.  Things become abandoned relics as advances in technology leave them behind.

Buying stock in companies good at “what’s next” is always a good idea.  If you examine their business model closely, you will find the services they provide are a major revenue source.  Long after their product line has moved on, the people who sell and support that product have jobs and careers.  

I suggest that our Prince William supervisors consider what they choose to attract to our community carefully.  We live with whatever they choose long after technology moves on.  Asphalt is forever, and the big box buildings left behind may be hard to re-purpose.

Al Alborn is a political and social activist in Prince William County. His column appears every other week.  You can learn more about Al at www.alborn.net and LinkedIn.

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