That Can't Do Attitude - Scott Adams' Blog

That Can’t Do Attitude

I am amazed at the negativity to my canal idea. (See prior post). Apparently it was one of my least popular ideas of all time. And that’s saying a lot.

I learned from your comments that some of you believe the following things will NEVER happen:

  1. Self-driving cars (legal ones).
  2. Robot-caused unemployment. 
  3. Artificial intelligence equal to humans.
  4. Engineers solving problems that you can’t.

Some of you were concerned that the water in the canals would evaporate into outer space. Someone should mention this risk to the oceans, lakes, and rivers of the world. Apparently they will be evaporating soon.

Many of you said it would be prohibitively expensive to build a canal network in the United States. But keep in mind that you start with the technology you have and you finish with the technology that you develop along the way. You would expect the first few years of canal-digging to have a high cost-per-mile. But as robots take over the hard parts, and we get smarter about how to approach the problem, costs could plummet.

Some of you wondered what happens to all of the dirt that gets displaced. How about pounding it into bricks or rammed earth at the site and using the materials to build houses and businesses along the canal route? Would that work? I have no idea. The point is that you can’t assume the future is a straight line from the past. Engineers are clever cats, and they are likely to come up with canal-building solutions we don’t anticipate.

Some of you said boats can never be cost-effective because water is corrosive. Yet there are plenty of functional boats that are over 50 years old. A standard house of that age is usually a tear-down. So while it is true that boat maintenance is expensive, so is house maintenance. I’m not ready to declare houseboat living of the future to be more expensive than inefficient land-based houses of the past.

Some of you say there are too many elevation changes in the United States to make it practical to build canals. That might be true, but can you rule it out without studying it?

The country is already criss-crossed with rivers that run downhill (of course) and drain to the ocean. To connect rivers west of the Mississippi, perhaps you only need one set of massive locks to get boats from the ocean to a central mountain lake. From there you could have several downhill canals to existing rivers that flow in different directions. You might need three such super-canal “hubs” that connect to existing rivers. As long as every boat can get to the ocean, everything is connected.

You would need to reengineer existing dams along the routes to accommodate boat traffic, but remember that you’re simultaneously bringing in a new water supply, energy system (turbines in the canals), and energy grid. So the old dam system might benefit from an upgrade anyway.

And that water you have to pump into the locks needs to flow downhill eventually, so you recoup some of the costs using dam-style power generators.

Keep in mind that the canal costs are shared by projects that include building out the water and energy infrastructures. So that helps. And when you evaluate the cost of a project, you have to compare it to the alternatives. In this case, the alternatives might be massive droughts, massive unemployment, and a failed energy grid. So if you think the canal project is too expensive, compare that to the cost of being eaten by your starving neighbor.

Is the canal project feasible? Probably not. I’ll remind you that this blog is for playing with new and often terrible ideas. But I am surprised at the knee-jerk negativity to this one. And it makes me wonder if there is a country and/or profession bias. If you hate the canal idea, can you tell us your profession and your country of residence?

[Update: Is it my cognitive bias as I look at the comments, or do Americans generally like this idea better than non-Americans? America has a strange DNA in the sense that many of us are descended from folks that at one time said some version of “You want me to cross the ocean to a hostile land, with no money and no plan? Sure. When can we start?”

I think the American mindset is to assume anything can be done and we’ll figure out the details later. But I’m aware that I might be romanticizing my place of residence. Am I wrong? 

Scott Adams

Co-founder of CalendarTree.com (Scheduling made simple)

Author of the best graduation gift ever.