Posts Tagged technology

Instagram, Innovation, and the Almighty Government 8 Ball

Instagram, Government 8 BallThe makers of Instagram, a popular iPhone photo-sharing app, recently sold their company to Facebook for $1 billion. The company was founded a mere 18 months ago by a pair of twentysomethings. It has only 12 employees and brings in no revenue. No big deal.

This week at Values and Capitalism, I look at the story through a broader lens, pondering the implications of such sudden, unexpected technological changes and successes, particularly on those who think prosperity comes from creating five/ten/twenty-year plans to boost Industry/Company/Product X.

Here’s an excerpt:

The problem for the predictors and planners is that despite whatever economic or moral arguments they so cunningly concoct to justify shoving widgets X, Y and Z down our throats, one big, stubborn, complicating reality persists: as innovation continues, needs and desires change.

You can shake the Almighty Government Eight Ball all day long, but even if you get it right and are able to calculate some end-game net profitability for artificially propping up Failing Company X or Greenie Wizard Lab Y, who knows if such a plan will stay workable or cost-effective by tomorrow? Obama can toot the Subsidize Wind Farms horn till the ears of his great grandchildren are bleeding with debt, but what happens when Engineer Suzie wakes up the next morning with an idea for a cheaper, greener, more effective solution? Sorry Suzie, but we’ve already rolled the dice.

Yet this, I argue, is more than just an economic argument:

If you haven’t noticed, this is a clear economic problem (e.g. ethanol), yet coming at it from that angle will be unlikely to influence many progressives, whose positions, whether they admit it or not, rest mostly on rash-and-puffy moral superiority and a quest for control (e.g. “Smart Cars contribute to the common good, not your cute little digital Polaroids”). I’ll save those arguments for another day, because within the economic argument against this contorted game of Pick Your Favorites lies a different moral message about the way we view humans and human potential.

In short: Needs and desires change because people change.

To assume that the government can successfully pick winners and losers economically—whether with products, business or entire industries—is to assume that we humans live, or want to live, in a static world filled with static individuals who conceive of themselves in static terms. We will always buy what we currently buy, know what we currently know and pursue absolutely nothing of real value unless ole Goodie Government tells us otherwise.

But that’s not the way humans are, or, at the very least, that’s not what we were intended to be.

As much as folks might want to wield our semi-free economy toward constructing temples to Gaia and propping up eat-your-veggies initiatives, the market is or should primarily be about facilitating human engagement and human interaction. Such facilitation is integral to empowering human vocation, which should primarily informed by God and any on-the-ground cultural, social and religious institutions. All those select progressive “moral” causes might be fine-and-dandy as individual vocations in individual markets on any individual day of the year, but who is to say they are better or more desirable than innovating a new way to use our smartphones? (Don’t answer that, Joe Biden.)

To read the full post, click here.

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The Magic of Regression: Following the Leader in Reverse

I recently posted my thoughts on Hans Rosling’s TED Talk, “The Magic of the Washing Machine,” which does a fine job of illustrating how progress can feed progress, and how human ingenuity is at the heart of it.

In my most recent post at Common Sense Concept, I focus on a different phenomenon: our tendency to greet such progress with opposition:

If humans are really the “ultimate resource” as Julian Simon suggested, it’s no wonder that the continuous maximization of human time and freedom will lead us toward ever-increasing output. Yet just as the fruits of industrialization and widespread innovation seem to be evidence of some kind of “magic,” various opposing forces seem intent on demonstrating their own variety of bizarre tricks. Alas, just as society seems to progress, we exhibit a strange tendency toward regress.

Yet not all opposition leads to regress. We should indeed meet each new technological innovation with plenty of skepticism and criticism. In some sense, that’s what being a conservative is all about. So how do we properly discern? How do we know what will truly lead to progress and what will actually push us backwards?

We don’t. At least not always — which is why I think the more important question has to do with who is doing the discerning rather than what we are discerning about. As Thomas Sowell says, and as I quote quite frequently, “The most basic question is not what is best, but who shall decide what is best.”

Here’s more from the post:

We will always have error, and we will always have disagreement, particularly in the realm of progress. But when we as individuals truly screw up, the consequences come quickly. When disruption comes, we humans are pretty good at responding and adapting. Nobody likes to look stupid and nobody prefers to be on the “wrong side of progress.” In a society guided by self-interest a la Adam Smith, the invisible hand typically spanks us when we need it, and progress gets back on track accordingly.

So what happens when the central planners mess up? What happens when lofty bureaucrats and paper-pushers start making decisions about what light bulbs we use, what toilets we flush, and how much salt goes in our French fries?

An inescapable, large-scale game of Read the rest of this entry »

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WALL-E vs. the Jetsons: Materialism and Technological Progress

Jetsons, WALL-E, technology, progress, innovation, Jeffrey TuckerIn my most recent post at Common Sense Concept, I build on Jeffrey Tucker’s piece on the Jetsons and innovation, focusing on the bleak alternative to healthy modernization. As I argue, the society may very well result in the misaligned World of WALL-E.

For Tucker, the Jetsons represent a healthy view of technological progress — one in which the more important human struggles still remain largely intact, with the material stuff staying secondary:

The whole scene — which anticipated so much of the technology we have today but, strangely, not email or texting — reflected the ethos of time: a love of progress and a vision of a future that stayed on courseIt was neither utopian nor dystopian. It was the best of life as we know it projected far into the future.

Yet there is another possibility we all should be wary of.

Here’s an excerpt from my response:

This distinction about a society that “stays on course” is what separates the World of the Jetsons from the World of WALL-E, a realm in which humans assume the role of virtual robots, controlled by their possessions, consumed by their leisure, and subsequently doomed to an existence of myopic and self-destructive idleness.

Instead, the World of the Jetsons is one in which human potential is unleashed. There is a “love of progress,” but such a love is not detached from higher responsibilities and does not confuse or pervert the moral order. For the Jetsons, the stuff remains stuff and life moves on, whether that entails personal goals, family development, community engagement, or a relationship with God (one can only hope, George!).

So what separates the two?  If both worlds experience drastic technological improvements, what changes the people within them? How can we Read the rest of this entry »

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Charity as Investment: Bill Gates and the Malaria Vaccine

A couple months ago I wrote a post about the recent pledge by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to give away at least half of their riches to charity. In my post, I noted the potential of such charity while emphasizing that giving away your money is not necessarily as transformative as investing it for profit.

However, if one does decide to divert their resources to charity, the main focus of the discussion becomes centered on whether those resources are being allocated efficiently and effectively. 60 Minutes recently interviewed Bill and Melinda Gates about the targets of their charity, and their responses indicate that their efforts are not lacking in the realm of care and consideration.

You can watch the video here (HT David Henderson):





As the report indicates, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has 850 employees, all of whom are hired to determine “which science or development projects are worthy.” This reminds me of the daunting task undertaken by John D. Rockefeller.

As I’ve already mentioned, we are bound to disagree on where and how we think certain resources should be allocated because we all see value differently. For example, as a Christian, I am particularly concerned with the limits of Read the rest of this entry »

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From Poverty to Prosperity: Human Ingenuity and the Triumph over Scarcity

From Poverty to Prosperity: Intangible Assets, Hidden Liabilities and the Triumph over ScarcityLet’s say there’s an apple. I want to eat the apple and you want to eat the apple. Both of us can’t eat the same apple. We can divide it. We can determine who is more hungry. We can figure out who is willing to pay a greater price for it. We can find out who wants the core and who wants the seeds. But no matter how much we deliberate, we cannot share the apple in its entirety.

Economics used to be about how to distribute the apple most efficiently, but the world is changing. Although physical resources remain scarce, human innovation has flourished to the point where we can do much more with much less, and few have bothered to explain how or why.

Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz try to tackle this phenomenon in their new book, From Poverty to Prosperity: Intangible Assets, Hidden Liabilities and the Lasting Triumph over Scarcity. In the book, the authors try to grasp this new way of thinking by terming it Economics 2.0. Where Economics 1.0 saw the market as a means for allocating scarce resources (e.g. apples), Economics 2.0 sees the market as a mechanism for channeling innovation and triumphing over scarcity.

In the beginning of the book, the authors use laundry (of all things) to illustrate the difference. Economics 1.0 would try to explain how it might be more efficient for you to outsource your ironing to someone else. Economics 2.0, on the other hand, doesn’t look at the tangible items in the equation (the number of shirts, the cost of an iron, the cost of dry cleaning, etc.). Instead, Economics 2.0 is primarily concerned with the potential for innovation. For example, what about permanent press? What about wrinkle-free shirts?

As the authors explain:

Thanks to technical progress, many shirts today do not need to be ironed at all. Perhaps in another decade or two they will not need to be washed. Given the likely progress of nanotechnology, there is a good chance that shirts manufactured in 2020 will be ‘permanent clean.’ That’s Economics 2.0.

Another way to look at this is through what Kling and Schulz call the “software layer” of an economy. While Economics 1.0 is concerned with tangible inputs like labor and capital, Economics 2.0 is concerned with the intangible factors, such as collective intelligence, the existence of property rights, and levels of corruption. You can have all of the right hardware for a Read the rest of this entry »

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“Excuse me, operator, but do you know where I might find a toilet?”

Toilet

If you had a choice between making a phone call or taking a dump, which activity would you prefer to modernize?

According to this article, there are now more cell phones in India than there are toilets. In fact, as the article reports, “this lopsided statistic is true around the globe, as well.”

The detailed statistics are as follows:

It’s an irony that applies globally, too: this year, the International Telecommunication Union reports, the number of mobile subscriptions is expected to surpass five billion. By contrast, some 2.6 billion people — or nearly 40% of the world population — live in conditions with dismal sanitation. Fully 16% of the world is still forced to defecate in public every day.

So why is this the case? How has such a cutting-edge technology become available in so many areas that still don’t have proper sanitation? Is it really that much more important to call Aunt Mable than it is to be able to flush your stuff to kingdom come? Read the rest of this entry »

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