Thursday, January 22, 2015

What to do with the fast pace of technology

TIME’s Rana Foroohar is concerned about how technology is making all of us less trusting.  It’s moving too fast, she says, at least for the average Joe.  

Backing her up is the 2015 Trust Barometer Survey, released every year at the World Economic Forum in Davos that’s ongoing now.  Two out of every three consumers in the 27 countries surveyed said they were unable to cope with the fast pace of technology development.  Ms. Foroohar didn’t mention this, but we’re already on the knee of the technology exponential.  As change moves into the vertical part of the curve and accelerates at a blinding pace, what will consumers do then?  Taking a Trust survey will be pointless.

I suppose this might be why she’s so concerned.  Warning to tech giants: The average Joe, she believes, will line up behind politicians promising to do something about it.  

What might they do?
Expect more push back on sharing economy companies that skirt local regulation, a greater focus on the monopoly power of mammoth tech companies, and closer scrutiny of the personal wealth of tech titans themselves.
You’ve been warned, Tech Giants.  Get with it, or else.

Or else what?  Let’s see . . . “expect more push back,” she says.  Who is doing the pushing in the first place?  Companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, or IBM?  When was the last time you saw Jeff Bezos or Tim Cook “pushing” something in the coercive sense?  Whatever it is they’re offering can always be declined.  Millions of people do it.  The phrase “No, thanks” comes to mind.  Average Joes are free to use it whenever they wish.  Even Joes way above or below average have been known to use it.  

Maybe they’ve been habituated with government programs that don’t allow saying no without suffering a penalty, like the income tax and ObamaCare. 

Note: Governments push in the coercive sense.  They also push back coercively whenever their subjects resist laws or regulations they don’t like.  

But aren’t these tech mammoths monopolies?  If they were, they’d be pretty much impervious to competition and consumer wishes.  That’s hardly the case with the ones making headlines with new products.  To repeat: Anyone uncomfortable about the pace of technology can stop buying the gadgets and services the techs are offering. 

I don’t question the veracity of the Trust Barometer survey, but I would like to remind Ms. Foroohar of another poll taken every day, 24/7.  I’m referring to the free market, of course, where surveys are carried out by way of the buying decisions of consumers.  Unlike other surveys this one is comprehensive.  It is democracy in action, people voting or abstaining from voting by buying or not buying.  Want to get a tech giant’s attention?  Stop buying their products.  They’ll get the message.

We all know people who don’t embrace the latest and greatest.  I have a buddy who is very happy with his iPhone 4s and not at all interested in the latest models.  I have another friend who would almost prefer death to using any digital device.  A very prolific writer still uses PC-AT keyboards of the 1980s because he found they get the job done better than newer ones.  I promised my father shortly before his death that I would get our mother to use email.  Never happened, and she was perfectly content without it.  My siblings wade slowly into the tech world, but they’ve never mentioned being overwhelmed by it. 

Of those who buy digital gadgets or do their shopping online, the message consumers are sending is give us more — more features, more memory, faster processors, more delivery options — at the same or lower price.  Most of them can’t wait to get something better.  Knowing this is where their profits lie, tech companies do what they can to comply.  This is capitalism in action.  This is freedom in action.

For decades we’ve heard how fabulously rich some of the “tech titans” are, and now that a consumer survey shows distrust is in the air Ms. Foroohar expects government to scrutinize their wealth more closely.  She doesn’t say why, but I suppose it has something to do with envy.

Long ago sociologist Franz Oppenheimer made the distinction between the political means and the economic means of acquiring wealth.  The first is by theft, the second, production.  The state provides the political means of getting rich through confiscation and favors — favors that include antitrust investigations targeting one’s competitors, for example.  Any big company that wants no part of politics would soon change course, as they become ripe targets for bribe-seeking legislators who threaten some new regulation or investigation.  It is the state apparatus, not the free market, that makes possible entrenched business corruption.  Rent-seeking, as it’s called, is a way of increasing one’s share of existing wealth without creating wealth.  

And speaking of monopolies . . .

Why is she so concerned with the threat of monopolistic power yet makes no mention of actual monopolies, such as the state itself and its counterfeiter, the central bank?  As noted above we can remove ourselves from the effects of any market entity but how in the world can average Joes avoid the greedy and threatening reach of the state?  How can they avoid losing wealth if they have no other option than the central bank’s monopoly money?

Maybe technology and entrepreneurship will solve these problems in short order.  I hope so.

Ms. Foroohar, a graduate of Columbia, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an occasional commentator on various TV shows, is well-aware of the points presented here, I’m sure.  Why she turns her back on them is a mystery.  

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