The Traditional Good of Innovation and the New Frightening Bad

Education required for the use of new technologies has always managed to stay ahead of the pace of innovation and adaptation. With the advent of the digital computer, however, all this is now changing, and it scares the bejesus out of me.

Anthropologists imagine a time in human history when fire had to be “stollen” from nature. Man had yet discovered how to make fire for himself. Accordingly, someone in the tribe or clan was entrusted with the important role of keeping the fire — flame or hot coals. This person held an important, even sacred, role in primitive societies, so it was not something practiced by many. To the extent, however, that this person held a special position beyond ritual, his job was obviated by the technological innovation of fire making — using friction or striking flint to iron so that sparks could ignite suitable tinder. This, like later inventions, the wheel, cutting tools, leveraged throwing weapons, weaving and pottery making, benefited societies at large. All had more as a result. When fire making technology came into practice, only the fire keeper was left without a ‘real’ job.


This tendency for innovation to benefit the greater part of societies has, for the most part, continued to this day. Examples of these technological innovations include: interchangeable parts, the steam engine, mass production, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, electrification and the automobile. Greater productivity has tended to create new jobs in greater numbers than those eliminated. This is because greater productivity, in the past, has driven costs down so that both supply and demand increased. This is not the norm today. Higher productivity today, owing to declining competition among suppliers due to mega mergers and the formation of corporate cartels/oligopolies, higher productivity results only in greater profits which are seldom shared with the actual workers.

Education required for the use of new technologies has always managed to stay ahead of the pace of innovation and adaptation. With the advent of the digital computer, however, all this is now changing, and it scares the bejesus out of me.

Innovation has long been thought to be the essence of economic growth. Think about it. Over the past two centuries, the world has reaped great benefit from the advent and incorporation of more and more general-purpose technologies: energy and manufacturing technologies, transportation technologies, medicine and pharmaceutical technologies, communication technologies, information storage and calculation technologies. But what happens when technology advances at a dizzying pace such as it is doing now? Education lags behind, even the ability of many to comprehend the use of new technologies, let alone do the programming and repair necessary, is beyond the average citizen.

When I was young, my grandfather could keep the family car humming along all by himself. He needed no computerized diagnostic equipment. All he need was in his toolbox, wrenches and screwdrivers and such. But, as it is today, I am challenged to even change my car’s oil and oil filter. When my computer or my smart phone goes on the blitz, only a few very highly trained technicians even know what’s wrong. Even they must resort to using other automated equipment and software to correct the problems. I am dead in the water until someone else with another machine and the knowledge to use it fixes my broken machine.

Until recently, this trend has not much concerned anybody, especially not corporate CEOs and government policymakers. The increased productivity has led to more and greater profits for those at the top, and those at the top make the rules. Economists and academics have been talking about this for years, a few have even been worried about it. But now some  forward thinking individuals in business are waking up, taking the longer view. They are concerned about competition and shrinking markets as average citizens’ disposable incomes shrink from declining, good paying work opportunities. Humans’ jobs are being taken over by machines.

Nearly half of the 1,344 CEOs surveyed by PricewaterhouseCoopers late last year identified rapid technological change as a potential threat to their organization’s growth prospects.”

One of the most disconcerting new technologies, in my opinion, is 3D printing. It has the potential to transform the competitive landscape of a wide array of businesses — businesses like manufacturing and construction. 3D printing could revolutionise industries beyond current imagination, provided of course that players within these industries embrace this new technology in an effective way. But will they all be able to do so and to what end? And how many workers in India, China and elsewhere will be displaced? What will this do to demand for goods and services?

These economic trends are not limited to just the United States, or even to the United States and it’s favoured trading partners. These trends are manifest in all but a few more enlightened nations — Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Germany, just to name a few, where corporations are more highly regulated and where fiscal policies benefit people before money interests. When considered in combination with growing and ageing populations, declining/more difficult-to-recover natural resources, and the consequences of global warming, manmade apocalyptic scenarios are easy to imagine.

Until the hungry beast of capitalism is either satiated or sufficiently constrained by enlightened regulation, the greater good, in my opinion, will just have to accept the consequences of greed.

Please feel free to post a comment in response to this. I would enjoy discussing this issue.

Published in: on April 14, 2015 at 9:00 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Kent, I agree, however, I see a greater threat to our economy and society.
    My fear is mostly narrow-minded, loud-mouthed bigots and GREEDY Bastards. Specially when those qualities are united in one person,group,corporation or nation. Wise men(I don’t recall who) have said, ” the Love of Money is the root of ALL EVIL”!
    Did you note that last quarter
    Apple Corp. claimed more Net profit than ANY COMPANY, EVER IN HISTORYof planet Earth! MORE THAN EVEN
    MOBIL/EXXON OIL !???!!
    Lord, please protect us from Evil…..Apple, et al!

  2. Thanks, Nancy. I am able, through my WordPress account, to track the number of individuals that visit my blog posts by day. This particular post has had a very high number of readers, yet none other than yourself have bothered to comment. I suspect this is because of the post’s controversial nature. We all have a love/hate relationship with capitalism, so engrained is it in our culture. Embracing it as an economic system justifies our human nature — self interest.
    The quote you gave about Biblical wisdom is from 1 Timothy 6:10. The whole passage for context reads, “9 But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”

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