Technology, the great equalizer

In the past few weeks people have been talking about how technology destroys jobs.

Some stats have been thrown out there.  Did you know that there were 3.25 million horses employed in England in 1901?  Sadly, those jobs went away with the rise of the automobile.  I have nothing against horses, and in fact my name means “lover of horses.”  But, I wouldn’t say these horses really had jobs, just like I wouldn’t say a VHS player had a job.  Humans are different, we can think and adapt when faced with change.  What I’m saying is, the horse stat isn’t all that relevant.

Another statistic revolves around the macro economy.  GDP grew at a rate of 2.5% from 2000-2009, but jobs actually fell 1.1% as technology supposedly replaced humans in many tasks.  To me, this is really fuzzy math and there could be lots of things that account for the discrepancy besides technology.  First off, it’s very probable that while the economy grew, sectors that employ large amounts of people, like auto manufacturing, took a hit.  And, it’s arguable that these sectors are struggling because they didn’t innovate fast enough to become stronger, cheaper, and more beautifully designed then their competition overseas.  Furthermore, even if technology were replacing  jobs, the net effect on the world seems to be positive (until we hit the point where SkyNet goes crazy and John Connor has to save us all).

First off,  technology adds value to society as whole.  If it didn’t add economic or social value, then it wouldn’t be adopted.  For example, a piece of software which turns a $5B industry into a $1B industry will hurt the incumbents.  However, the buyer of this software just saved $4B, now they have more capital to invest in their people, and grow their company (of course the shareholders may just decide to pocket the cash, but that’s a debate for another day).  Another example: Twitter is a technology which provides a non-economic value to its regular users (regular meaning not a celebrity or business).  It allows them to digest news faster, interact with new people, share ideas, etc.  This may cut into advertising revenues for the New York Times a bit, but I’m guessing that the overall change to society is a big net positive.

To me, the most important point about technology is that it is the great equalizer.  Today, you can take classes at some of the best universities in the world, for free, because of technology.  Take a Stanford entrepreneurship class on iTunes U, download a Harvard Business Review Podcast, or study computer science on MIT’s Open Course Ware.  Further, technology has enabled talented and ambitious people to build businesses, whether that’s through an eBay store, or an online dating site – because there are a set of tools out there that allow people to quickly turn their ideas into companies.   Lastly, the future spread of technology will enable entrepreneurs in places like rural Africa to spring up more readily, and help to solve some of the key problems plaguing emerging markets.

There’s no doubt that the automobile really messed up a lot of horse’s dreams of pulling wagons around.  And, there are good people today who are displaced by technology, I’m sure.  However, net/net innovation has been the key to the advancement of our society and will continue to be a positive influence on people’s lives in the aggregate.  And so, I’m not quite sure what all this debating is really about?

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  • Allen

    Technology really is such an equalizer – it’s crazy how quick and easy it is to start a company these days. You mentioned the spread of technology to rural Africa – clearly there’s a huge market there. I’m wondering how long it will take Africa to develop the tech “backbone” (i.e. hardware/software infrastructure) needed to make the internet and web start-ups accessible to virtually anyone. It seems like this is the final frontier between technological progress in many developing nations. Great connection to history btw – with the horse/auto references.