A Theory On Technological Innovation

I’m currently taking an Economics course (ECON 222) at the
University of Alberta entitled “Economic Growth, Technology, and
Institutions.” I find it very interesting, which is hardly surprising
given my liberal use of technology and the number of economics courses
I have taken as part of my Computing Science degree. As a result, I
like to think that I know a thing or two about technology and it’s
relation to economics (though I am sure to learn more before this
course is complete). At the very least, I can make some educated
assertions and theories. So today when I came across Tony Long’s Wired
article entitled “Dark Underbelly of Technology
I felt the need to say something, presumably because I’m a blogger and
thus, in his words, “everything [I] say is so interesting it should be
shared with everyone.”

Besides that little swipe at bloggers, it’s actually a well-written
opinion piece. The gist of his column can be found in the second last
paragraph (incidentially, I’m also taking a Sociology course right now,
so perhaps I can touch on that):

Anything that diminishes the value of a single human being poses a
threat to a rational, humane society. When technology can cure a
disease or help you with your homework or bring a little joy to a
shut-in, that’s great. But when it costs you your job, or trashes the
environment, or takes you out of the real world in favor of a virtual
one, or drives your blood pressure through the roof, it’s a monster.

First, let’s tackle the issue of technology negatively impacting us
as individuals. Sure when the computer crashes, or something breaks, we
get annoyed. But if you really think your ancestors were not also
annoyed by their technology, you’re mistaken! I don’t imagine it was
very much fun to have to fix the farm equipment when most people lived
and worked in the fields. Technology is created by humans, and I don’t
know about you but I don’t know anyone who’s perfect, so there’s no
reason to expect that technology should be.

Then there is the very common argument that technology forces us to
lose touch with humanity; that technology negatively impacts society as
a whole. Being connected all the time but never interacting face to
face is “bad”, or so the theory goes. I think the claim that we’re
“losing touch with humanity” is pretty baseless. Most people who make
the claim overlook a simple fact of history – that has never been the
case. Here’s why.

Technology is not new! Since the dawn of time pretty much, humans have created technology. Take the printing press
for example, which was developed in the 15th century. There are a few
important things to note about its development. First, the printing
press took a while to impact society – it was not an overnight change.
Second, there were very few other “major” technologies created around
the time of the printing press. And while the printing press did put a
few people out of work (scribes, for instance), it created far more
jobs than it destroyed.

Why did I mention the printing press? Because it’s a good example of
something I learned in my ECON 222 class. To summarize what my
professor and the textbook said:

Before 1800, people figured they lived in a static world simply because
growth was too slow for them to be aware it was happening at all. While
some economists and historians will claim that economic growth prior to
1820 was 0%, this is most definitely not true and even though growth
rates were tiny, compounded they still result in significant economic
growth over time.

Technology is one of the major reasons we see economic growth, so
it’s not unfair to say that if there was economic growth, there was
probably technological innovation too. And as economic growth since
1800 has been much higher, it’s likely that there has been more
technology developed. And given that the year 1800 was only just more
than 200 years ago, it’s fair to say that the period of high economic
growth and technology development has been fairly rapid in the grand
scheme of things. And that’s what is forgotten in articles and opinion
pieces like the one I mentioned above.

Most people are too quick to say that technology is harmful, simply
because they see development and change a lot faster than their
grandparents or great-grandparents ever did. Does that make it bad or
harmful? I would say no. In the past, people were not aware that
technology was changing and improving, so they didn’t care if it
affected society negatively (sure a few individuals did, but nothing
like today). And as history has shown, it didn’t affect society
negatively – we are several times richer than our parents and
grandparents (in terms of money, standard of living, education,
productivity, all those things). So therein lies my theory:

In the long run, technological innovation will always benefit society.

If we didn’t pay so much attention to whether or not technology was
negatively affecting society, we would carry on with our lives,
technology would continue to develop, and everyone would end up better
off, just as in the past.

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