Friday, May 26, 2017

Prosperity is not the same thing as technological progress (A perspective from an expat in Ukraine)

In this video, I talk about a somewhat complicated issue--the idea that technology and progress are not the same thing. I got the idea for the topic from a conversation that Yulia and I had about older generations in the West who experienced a simultaneous and coincidental rise in technology and progress in their lifetimes. Although people have learned to equate the two, I would argue that they are not always related to each other, which might explain why technology is currently getting better while people's quality of life is not keeping up. It's hard for young adults to find jobs and a place to live. lt seems that the average lifespan is actually declining. People are obligated to work hard for little money. Etc.

I turn to the example of Ukraine and the Soviet Union, and point out that, in the past, our village was much more prosperous. People of all ages were living here. There was a school and kindergarten. There was a medical clinic. People had jobs. The infrastructure was much better.

But if you come here now, you will notice that most houses are abandoned and that there are few people under retirement age. The infrastructure and buildings have decayed, and there are few functioning institutions left.

Despite this, there is more access to goods and services than ever before. For instance, there are more building materials than in this past. There are a wider variety of foods available at the store. We have 3g and high speed internet. Although there is more access to things that might theoretically enhance people's lives, technology hasn't necessarily lead to concrete improvements in people's lives.

While it is easy to see here, it might be harder for people living in wealthier countries. However, I think there are signs which point in this direction, and we should be aware of them.

1 comment:

  1. Michael, I think you are onto something here. I grew up across the street from a train track and developed a fascination with trains at an early age. This progressed into a fascination with all things of a mechanical nature, and eventually into electrical and electronic contraptions. I eventually became an engineer and worked in the computer industry until I aged out. For reasons largely having to do with the cost of insurance engineering careers in America tend to end somewhere between the age of 40 and 45. There was a lot of technological progress during the time I worked in that industry though. A 100 megabyte disk drive was the size of a washing machine and cost about as much as a new small automobile when I started working as an engineer. Twenty years later it was the size of an average paper back book, used less than 1/20 the amount of power to operate, and cost no more than a small color TV (about $ 300).

    But, does technical progress equate with societal progress and prosperity? You are right in questioning that. There isn't a simple answer. In some cases and for some period of time it might seem equivalent. Beyond a certain point though, that often breaks down. The rapid growth of the computer industry during the 1970's and 1980's did bring a measure of prosperity to the localities where the R&D and manufacturing facilities were situated. That evaporated as computers became smaller and cheaper, with more entries into the industry and therefore more competitive pricing and tighter margins. Most computer manufacturing eventually moved to Taiwan and China. At the same time computers found their way into many manufacturing processes, displacing many low skill workers, whose jobs had been automated. Automation contributed to the prosperity of the owners (usually shareholders) of many manufacturing companies, but, definitely not to the prosperity of workers displaced by automated machines.

    At the same time though, automation benefited purchasers of many products by making them much less expensive. And it made some technologies possible that would have otherwise been very impractical or even impossible (such as the pocket sized cell phone). Semiconductor device manufacturing is a very uncertain undertaking without automated process controls to regulate with allowable tolerances in reactant concentrations in parts per million. Yes, it's possible to make small batches of transistors in a laboratory setting using carefully monitored manual controls; but that is about the extent of what is practically possible that way.

    The big question though is has all this technological progress in the past half century or so improved the quality of life for people? Well, again, there is no simple answer. For many of those who work in high tech industries, it is a step up in work environment and pay from their former occupations. For most of those who use these products, one would have to come up with some very contorted arguments to say they have improved their quality of life. I for one do not consider managing information overload and tighter scheduling an improvement in the quality of life.

    One of the biggest drivers for technological development during the past couple centuries has been advancing the art of war craft. The military application of technology greatly accelerated beginning in the mid-19th century. Technology has turned warfare from something localized to scattered battlefields and casualties directly related to combat into widespread destruction with millions of collateral casualties, such as what occurred during the second World War. And since then we have “progressed” to making bombs that can singly destroy entire cities. This is definitely not an improvement in the quality of life for anyone. And herein also lies the greatest perversity of human nature.