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Wallpaper & Change

You can choose to see what’s really happening. Or you can go merrily to your end.

When things are common and familiar, we tend to take them for granted. Think of it as the “Wallpaper Effect.” If you’ve ever applied new wallpaper or paid to have it put up, at the time the last gluey mess is cleaned up or you fill in the figures on the check, you think you’ll never forget it. But then as time goes by, you don’t even notice the wallpaper. It simply blends into the environment. Which is sort of like this passage from Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology by Alexis Madrigal (DaCapo Press): “The basics of the grid-and-oil energy system rounded into place a little more than a century ago . . . [W]ave motors, wind turbines, solar power plants, electric cars, and a host of other ‘alternative’ energy ideas had already seen the light of day long before the average American had a single light bulb . . . If we don’t know these histories, it’s because the fossil-fueled economy of the twentieth century had a tendency to pave over alternatives to itself, leaving only curious hints of worlds that might have been.”

While Madrigal’s book is a fascinating examination of technologies and developments in what is now considered to be “green” (did you know “Aside from the stove, the windmill was the most popular personal mechanical power source of the nineteenth century”?), and a book that I strongly recommend, I think there is an underlying message, one that is germane to all involved in technology development and deployment, especially as it relates to the ever-increasing fuel-efficiency requirements and apparent consumer demand for more-efficient vehicles.

It’s the Wallpaper Effect, or, as Madrigal put it in that passage, “the fossil-fueled economy of the twentieth century had a tendency to pave over alternatives to itself.” There is nothing conspiratorial about any of this. Rather, it is merely a matter of not seeing things in some cases because they are so familiar, and also of some things simply becoming the de-facto standard such that we don’t even think that there might be other ways.

Consider the whole notion of “range anxiety” associated with electric vehicles. While going 100 miles without a charge is certainly well within the requirements of the daily commutes of most people, there is a fear that is pretty much predicated on the idea of being able to go 300 miles or more on a tank of fuel. This 300-mile range has become the norm, the Wallpaper. It’s just how things are, and it is difficult to think any differently. (What if the accepted quantity had been 400—how would we feel about 300?) In the real world, we probably don’t think much about gas unless (1) we’re running low—and even then there might be a “Well, I’ve still got some . . .”—or (2) some station has dropped the price noticeably so we swing in to take advantage. Gas is Wallpaper. But electricity? Yikes! Still, if you think about your behavior with your cell phone, something you probably didn’t carry with you 10 years ago as commonly as your car keys, chances are you’ve become an opportunistic charger, plugging in at airports and offices when you see an available outlet. Pre-cell, you didn’t pay attention to power outlets, but now you think differently.

Another aspect of not seeing things is predicated on what we’ve invested in. Once you’ve invested a significant amount of time and money into something, that becomes the way it is. If there is an alternative, the benefits provided by that alternative may need to be unrealistically huge for you to make a change. This is the situation that causes the square off between Mac people and Microsoft people. In the auto world, there is plenty of investment in internal combustion engines and complex step-gear transmissions. The notion of electric motors or simpler transmissions is hard to conceive for some because the Wallpaper doesn’t look like that. The investment—the commitment—is to other things, things that have become the status quo. For now.

The challenge here is that there are those who don’t necessarily see the Wallpaper the same way. In fact, they actually see it, and think to themselves, “This really ought to be changed.” And so they go forward and peel away what has been the norm, and offer new and different things. And for those who want to see what they always have: The wall decorations in bankruptcy courts and unemployment offices probably aren’t all that attractive.

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