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February 21, 2012

MAKE OR BREAK In the lead story of our January/February package on advanced manufacturing (“Can We Manufacture Tomorrow’s Breakthroughs?”), TR’s editor, David Rotman, suggested that America’s diminished role in manufacturing was bad news for innovation everywhere. The article had readers scrambling to prescribe remedies—and lay the blame.

James Eubanks of Trenton, North Carolina, said one culprit was the American expectation of easy access to cheap goods: “One big reason for the decline of American manufacturing is the ignorance and apathy of bargain-loving Americans who know the price of a given thing but not necessarily its value. As long as they can get that $20 DVD player from Walmart, they couldn’t care less where it was made or how many Americans were put out of a job. Proponents of American manufacturing aren’t just right-wing flag wavers making noise about a nostalgic return to the glory days—they’re acknowledging the fundamental role that a strong manufacturing infrastructure plays in the long-term stability of our nation.”

In an online comment, kbillet suggested that the problem was simply corporate greed. “Senior management only understands part of the picture: dollars. They manage risk, and no risk is always better than even a little risk. And new designs and processes always involve risk. It’s easier to sit on your hands, where you are not personally put at risk of failure. The stockholders enforce this behavior with their profits-now mentality.”

Greed has nothing to do with it, responded R. Sweeney. It’s just that U.S. managers tend to have a financial background rather than a scientific or creative one. “In China, companies are organized and led by creative engineers and scientists. In the U.S., even companies started by technical people are quickly dominated by finance and law department types. And these people have zero understanding of manufacturing—which in their minds is merely a cost to be contained.”

JOB QUAKE In “Tectonic Shifts in Employment,” TR chief correspondent David Talbot investigated the damaging effects of automation and technology on the job market. MiceC540, in an online post, felt he’d missed a crucial piece of the puzzle. “Technology might be one force behind the tectonic employment shift leading us to a workerless society, but the outsourcing/offshoring of middle-class jobs is probably an even larger force. We’ve become a society that depends on millions of low-wage workers who are invisibly scattered around the world, and that is the real tectonic force behind the shift occurring in the U.S. job market.”

ZUCKERBERG’S LAW Will our capacity to share on Facebook ever reach its limit? Or are we doomed to share ever larger chunks of our lives in a nightmare social-media version of Moore’s Law? Paul Boutin explored that question in his review “The Law of Online Sharing.” In an online comment, zrzz responded: “I have yet to see anything profound or life-changing expressed on Facebook. It’s the lunchroom of the Internet. Just a bunch of people engaging in inane small talk. We have more information than we ever had before, but it’s all fluff.”

Sophie S retorted: “Sometimes when we pick apart the fluff we find grains of truth.”

“I used to be one of the biggest Facebook haters around,” wrote getsocial101. “Now I see the power of it and actually enjoy being on it. From the perspective of small local businesses, it’s a great way to attract new customers. And it’s free.”

EYE IN THE SKY And finally, our Hack on a camera-laden ball that takes a panoramic photo if you throw it in the air (“Eye Ball”) captured the imagination of several posters. “Would be very cool for sports,” wrote libchick26. “Viewers could get a whole new perspective of the game.” Erbium had other ideas: “I could use this in the center of an apartment courtyard. Throw it up in the air and see all the junk people store on their porches hidden behind the railing.”

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