Sunday, January 4, 2015

It's not Technology's Fault

Suetonius tells how the emperor Vespasian, who ruled between AD 69 and 79, was approached by a man who had invented a device for transporting columns to the Capitol, the citadel of Rome, at a relatively small cost. Columns were large, heavy, and very difficult to transport. Moving them to Rome from the mines where they were made involved the labor of thousands of people, at great expense to the government. Vespasian … refused to use the innovation, declaring, “How will it be possible for me to feed the populace?”
In 1583, William Lee returned from his studies at the University of Cambridge … [he] became obsessed with making a machine that would free people from endless hand-knitting… Finally in 1589, his “stocking frame” knitting machine was ready. He … arranged for Queen Elizabeth to come see the machine, but her reaction was devastating. She refused to grant Lee a patent, instead observing, “Thou aimest high, Master Lee. Consider thou what the invention could do to my poor subjects. It would assuredly bring them ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars.” 
- Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty
Technological advancements are not always lauded, and can often be a two-sided coin. On one hand, technology increases efficiency, and should theoretically increase leisure time. On the other, that leisure time often manifests in the form of unemployment. One need not look beyond the city of San Francisco to see both effects of technological advancement: though it is a hub for new technology, its inequity levels are now on par with developing nations.

Startup companies are often credited with job creation, somewhat paradoxically. A successful startup could very well develop technologies that displace existing workers, therefore decreasing net jobs [1]. We could even judge new companies by how many jobs they displace, rather than create -- those that are more innovative would increase efficiency and reduce labour more than others.

But nobody wants to think of it that way. Efficiency is theoretically good, but can cause detrimental effects.

How do we reconcile that? Does that mean technology per se is bad for society as a whole?

The crux of the issue is that technological advancement not only increase production capability, it also concentrates it. That is, it transfers the ability to produce from a larger group of lower-skilled workers to an elite group of higher-skilled workers and entrepreneurs. It is this transfer that brings instability, disruption, and hardship. Thus it is not technology advancement per se that the emperor Vespasian and Queen Elizabeth was critical of: it was the transfer of power and the changes that it may cause.

Once we separate the two effects of technological advancement, we can focus on solving its problems without writing off new technologies altogether. The building of robots that can do most of our work for us is a good thing. The real issue is to figure out who should own those robots in the long term, and what happens to the people displaced.

This is a political problem, and not a new one. We even had a cold war that was nominally based on two answers to the question, "who should own the factory". It is exactly the same problem.

We've learned that it's a tricky problem, too. Don't reward the innovator, and you stifle innovation. Give exclusive rights to the innovator to own the robots, and inequity could breed instability and violence. I would argue that with the kinds of innovation that we have today (e.g. drones, self-driving cars, and 3D printers -- to name a few), the stakes are higher than it used to be.

We have also learned that there are middle grounds -- which is why along with democracy, we now also have social safety nets and universal health care (well, north of the border at least). Guaranteed minimum income is also being talked about again.

At the end of the day, technological advancement can in theory be beneficial to everyone. The trick is to set up the right social and political structure so that this can be the case. Vespasian and Queen Elizabeth could have found other ways of feeding the populace. Of course, it is easier said than done. Not only is a good implementation difficult to find, rulers and the existing elite may not want such change because it can undermine their power.

The point is though, that no matter how difficult the politics may be, it is not the fault of the innovation if people are hurt by it. It is the fault of the political system, and people who are unwilling or unable to change it.


[1] This doesn't work for all companies, especially the consumer focused, and especially "entertainment" sectors. I use that word in the widest sense possible, encompassing "things that we don't really need but that makes us feel happier". That is, companies that create a new product/service that we didn't realize we wanted or was possible. Those companies should add net positive number of jobs, and do not increase efficiency. (I've conveniently left those out of the analysis.)