Blinded by Tech?

These days, apparently, “tech” is ubiquitous.

Technology will save us?

Yet technology, the word, now means much less than it used to: it has been slimmed down to mean mobile phones, apps and gadgets. I asked a few friends: they said tech means an electrical gadget like a phone. Is an electric toaster technology? Oh no, they said, it’s too simple, too ancient. So “tech” has to be complex? “Ah, yes!”

Our minister for Industry and, among other things emissions reductions, Angus Taylor says we can rely on technology to reduce our greenhouse emissions. And he seems quite confident about it.

Well, given its new meaning, technology is literally a phone in the palm of one’s hand. And if our leaders driving this country are gazing at their phones in their hands, thinking that “technology” is the solution for climate change, we’ll soon have a rather predictable disaster!

Thanks to Alex Atkins, I came across this video proclaiming yet more wonderful innovations in technology.

(https://www.realvision.com/shows/the-interview/videos/the-electrodollar-venture-capitalism-technology-and-silicon-valley#.Xwkv5_bQB2c.linkedin)

Many economists think that the digital economy (these days also called Industry 4.0) is the answer to the productivity paradox, the slowing of productivity growth we have witnessed since about 2005. (Bughin, J., Manyika, J., & Woetzel, J. (2018). Solving the Productivity Puzzle: The Role of Demand and the Promise of Digitization)

However, my comment on this video is that it helps to demonstrate that the emporer’s new clothes are still in vogue. In a recent interview, I rhetorically asked “How many gigabytes does it take to grow a mango?” (Apologies for the sound quality in the interview). In my opinion, unwise investments in information technology, spurred on by slick marketing like the Electrodollar interview above, have crowded out investment in real technologies that produce real benefits. I cite the US Department of Labor Statistics, reporting recently that US Labor Productivity in manufacturing increased by just 0.4% between 2007 and 2019 (https://www.bls.gov/lpc/prodybar.htm), at a time of unprecendented investment in IT, iphones, apps, etc.

Until 2005, US productivity increased steadily at around 0.7% a year: a rate of improvement that led to remarkable prosperity till then.

Alex queried my comment…. “What about the success of the FAANGS? Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google?”

“Seduction”, I replied. “Look at the USA today with the world’s worst incidence of Covid-19 infections, high death rates, the quality of health care, the Black Lives Matter protests, gun violence… ”

(We in Australia could improve too: our imprisonment rate, health and education indicators for our First People are appalling.)

In my articles and forthcoming book, I argue that as engineers we have to focus on real productivity improvements, and not be fooled into thinking that information technology, data science, the information revolution, whatever you call it… has the answers. We need to enable people to do much more with much less, less effort, less material resources, less energy, less uncertainty, less health risk, and less environmental disturbance. Yes, information is part of that, but only a part. We have to keep real technology that yields real benefits firmly in sight. And anticipate how people will use it.

Tech is blinding us to this apparently simple, yet challenging task!

Just like a VR headset blinds one to the real world, the internet has made it almost impossible for ordinary people to distinguish real knowledge from self-promotion, uninformed opinion, slick marketing, and political manipulation. We engineers have created the internet. It’s time to change our focus for more important issues than “tech”.


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