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Panamanian Musings
Jeff Pasternack

I'm sitting in a hammock looking out over the Charges River in Panama, writing this with pen and paper: international air travel is tough enough and I didn't want to complicate things by dragging along a laptop. The sun is setting and the jungle rush hour is marked by a myriad of unfamiliar, and decidedly wet, sounds of frogs. With this as my backdrop, the definition of technology has sprung forth into my mind: the practical application of science to commerce or industry. Yes, I am, shall we say, touched.

Without question, the Panama Canal, which is a few hundred yards off to my right, is a technological marvel. 75,000 people worked from 1906 to 1914 and the project cost a staggering $336 million (nearly $6 billion today) and 22,000 lives were lost. The canal reduces the ship trip from San Francisco to New York by 7,872 miles.

By comparison, the Panama Railroad, which runs alongside the canal, took five years and $8 million ($145 million today) to build. 12,000 lives were lost. In 1913, almost 3 million passengers and over 2 million tons of freight were hauled across the Isthmus; and it was reported to have the heaviest per-mile traffic of any railroad in the world. The railroad also reduces the mileage that a container must travel by 7872 miles, however, there isn't any realistic expansion possible for the railroad that would let it come close to what can move through the canal. In the second quarter of 2003 alone, 62.3 million tons were shipped through the canal.

The problem of moving freight across the continents was solved by railroad and improved upon by the canal. By any measure, the rate at which commerce could occur dramatically increased with the opening of the canal. But without a practical understanding of physics and, to a lesser degree, medicine, plus the ability to apply the knowledge, the canal could never have been built. Sure, it cost a ton of money and many lives, but it's an example of applying different technologies to solve the same general problem.

A little further up the Charges River from where I am is a village populated by Embera Wuanan. This tribe has preserved their lifestyle and tradition despite the presence of the railroad and canal. If you opened up an issue of National Geographic and saw them, you'd not bat an eye: they are the real deal. Some of them seek aphrodisiacs to enhance, or make possible, sexual performance. Whereas their allegedly civilized counterparts flock to pharmacies by the thousands to purchase Viagra, Embera Wuanan walk twenty yards into the jungle, pluck a particular plant and within a few hours, are ready to roll.

Pfizer claims to have spent nearly $500 million to develop Viagra. Initially researched as a treatment for angina, it carries a retail price of about $10 for a 50mg dose, which makes it about 15 times more expensive than a similar quantity of gold. Had I been able to speak with the tribe's shaman, I would have had great difficulty in explaining the benefits of paying $10 to solve a problem that he can solve by taking a short walk and harvesting a plant. Although the recipients of both products trust in the knowledge of the distributor and know little of the technologies used in development, I'd wager that the tribesmen know more about how plants grow than Viagra users know about developing and manufacturing pharmaceuticals. That said, even though these plants and others like it have inconsistent dose levels, this dime store analysis also exemplifies the application of different technologies to solve the same general problem.

The setting sun reminds me that its getting close to dinner time. Unbeknownst to my 16 travel mates, the Peacock Bass that I caught today will be served as an appetizer. The best way to describe this fishing experience is with these three words: hand over fist. It was non-stop action and my guide and I kept about 30 of the fish we caught. From a technology perspective, this wasn't my life's lowest technology fishing experience. When I was on the Grecian island of Rhodes, we had a motorized boat, but no fish finder, GPS, depth finder or fishing rods. We used twine and tiny hooks and fished for 4 to 6 inch reef fish such as wrasses. Today's trip was slightly more high tech in that we used rods and reels to fish around stumps and other visible underwater debris. The vast majority of my trips, however, have been supported with the usual gadgets.

The cost of these fishing trips is directly related to the technology. The Grecian trip cost $75 for 5 hours and today's trip cost $110 for 6. My last deep-sea trip cost $750 for 8 hours. The result of each trip has been largely the same: food for the table. Granted, the fish I can catch for $750 is unattainable at $75, but this comparison is another example of applying different technologies to the same problem and generating the same general result.

See the trend? In general, the same general goals are reached regardless the technology, but the cost of the replacement technology is much higher. The Panama Canal, Viagra and fishing technologies all make new things possible and by so doing, increase productivity. Each segment of the population touched by the offshoots of these technologies will somehow benefit from it.

So help me out: name five new things you can do with Microsoft Office XP that you couldn't do with Office 98 and that you can't live without due to the productivity gain. Will Office 2003 be any different? Will we use the XML capabilities? How many of us even know what XML is? And therein lies the rub; most of us can't create that list.

The must-have benefits of the canal over the railroad and over the absence of both are clear. The same goes for Viagra, if only for the reason that plants with aphrodisiac qualities aren't readily available everywhere. Finally, every grocery store is stocked with fish products brought to you by the latest fishing technology available. The jury hasn't been selected for Office 2003 yet, but my bet is that, for most of us, the benefits will be unattainable. And that's just as much of a drag as the knowledge that I'm leaving the Gamboa Rainforest Resort tomorrow.


Jeff Pasternack is The TechnoPeasant. If you have questions about technology or comments about this column, please write to him at These articles may not be re-used or reprinted without the author's written consent. Dynamic Consulting Group, LLC.1998-2005.