Vertu, the maker of exclusive smart phones costing thousands of pounds, is set to be liquidated. It illustrates a truth about technology, that some people overlook.
It is well known that there is more processing power in a smart phone, than the whole of NASA had at its disposal during the period of the moon landings.
Technology advances, of course, but this is not an automatic process. Moore’s Law, which describes how the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles every 18 months to two years, needs something rather important for it to work. And when Moore’s Law dies, which may happen soon, the technology that is used to compensate for this will also require this rather important thing.
Technological progress requires demand – mass demand. As demand for a product rises, specialisation and investing in R&D creates leaps in technology. Back in the 1980s, a PC cost several thousand pounds and was clunky and not at all user friendly. When the price finally dropped below £1,000, demand soared, and the technological advances gathered pace.
Technological progress needs a mass market – which in turn needs keen pricing.
We can theorise as to why Vertu has gone bust. Some blame the management, some say what is the point of having a phone bedecked with jewellery when it will need upgrading every few years?
But the real point is that the electronics inside a Vertu, the software apps it ran, were no more sophisticated than the electronics and software in an iPhone.
Indeed, the Vertu smart phone wasn’t even state of the art.
There is a wider point here. To continue advancing, technology needs economies of scale – really big scale. It needs a mass market.
If the ultimate result of technology is greater inequality – creating a world in which you get a small percentage of the population who are very rich, and everyone else is poor, then demand may be inadequate to support further advances.
And that may not be in the interests of the rich, themselves.
King Henry VIII was one of the richest men in the world, although he spent much of this wealth on his extravagant life-style. Even so, he died at 55, we are not sure why, but it is possible his death was caused by syphilis – in other words, the death of one of the richest men in the world could have been avoided by use of medicine available to the poorest people in the UK today.
Just like smart-phones, health tech needs a mass market to advance – it is in the interests of the super-rich to ensure wealth trickles down creating a prosperous and numerous middle class, or they may be able to afford the equivalent of Vertu healthcare, but it wouldn’t do them much good.