On May 24, 1844, the painter and inventor Samuel F.B. Morse took center stage among a group gathered in the U.S. Supreme Court chambers, housed at that time in the Capitol basement. Morse was demonstrating his electromagnetic telegraph to mark the official launch of a pathfinding service that reached 30 miles, from Washington to Baltimore. He clicked out dots and dashes to spell a Bible quote chosen by the daughter of the U.S. patent commissioner: “What hath God wrought.”
Sending and receiving a telegram required a code-skilled operator, who could transmit 30 characters per minute. Another operator on the other end was needed to translate the code, and unless the recipient came to the Baltimore train station a courier would be needed to hand deliver the message.
Thirty-two years later Alexander Graham Bell shouted into a mouthpiece: “Mr. Watson, come here—I want to see you.” It was an iconic moment that yielded another of history’s most famous quotes. The world press corps, on the other hand, paid no attention to whatever was said by the first shopper who prowled grocery aisles while conversing, by cell phone, with someone on the other side of the earth. Such is technological progress. Such are ever-higher expectations for the next gizmo.
Such is the easy danger of not paying enough attention to how new technology impacts society.
Technology’s great, obvious impact has been upon life’s most precious commodity, time. Only a few generations ago our ancestors worked long hours, six days a week, often in dangerous settings. Most, whether working a dangerous job or not, did not live long enough or well enough to enjoy retire- ment. Today’s exploding entertainment and sports industries, plugged-in internet lifestyle, and freedom for both household partners to get out and enter the workforce all derive from “spare” time provided by technology. How ironic that as tech- nology delivers more and more hours and days for us to use as we wish, technology also is about to deliver the greatest socioeconomic conundrum of the century. Citizens of the de- veloped world will have too much spare time and not enough hours on the job. Society will need to adapt. Eventually we will need to reinvent our relationship with the workplace— wherever and whatever the workplace might be.
This is not science fiction. It is our genuine challenge. The transition’s fully realized phase—when traditional “un- employment” reaches such a large, sustained number as to make the word meaningless—lies somewhere over the hori- zon. We have no real idea how far into the future, anymore than Samuel F.B. Morse knew that three decades after he set wires to clicking, Alexander Graham Bell would set wires to talking. The leap from Bell to the internet took more than another century. Predicting the arrival date of massive tech- nological impact is futile, but predicting its certainty is easy. This time-shifting upheaval will happen. It already has begun, even if many have chosen to label the cause as “globaliza- tion” or ignore it altogether behind the blinders of ideology and politics. Fact is, we live today on the leading edge of The TechnologIcal ImperaTIve.
When facing such a visionary challenge (meaning its most powerful consequences won’t happen tomorrow or the next day), it is tempting to set the proactive response aside in favor of the spectator approach. What we are facing, after all, is one of those irreversible consequences of technological progress. The challenge, however, is not to reverse the irreversible, but, as always, to find the best path toward coexisting with, and even flourishing amid, a new era’s reality. The positive here is familiar and obvious—still more “spare” time, though even I do not foresee technology adding a 25th hour to humanity’s days. The negatives (or the challenges, I prefer to say) are huge, spanning the spectrum of socioeconomic wants and needs and the structure of society itself. Clearly, the way most of us “make a living” will need redefining. Clearly, quality of life will become a dominant issue in the opposite of the way it was for, say, a coal miner who rarely saw daylight and was too tired to enjoy it when he did. Clearly, proponents of Big Brother statism in one form or another will seek to win out in competition for hearts and minds as society seeks to find its best way to cope, organically, with a new world that even Columbus could not have imagined.
I see no way the statists, the socialists, or even more be- nign big-government advocates can do right by the American people. In other words, I see no zero-sum system ever serving as an acceptable substitute for creating wealth within a free- market system—not even in a futuristic, strange new world where capitalism loses most of its traditional means of shar- ing share the wealth by creating jobs. Meanwhile, I readily concede that will be a moot point unless American free-mar- ket capitalism repairs itself during the transition from now to then. My suggested Economic Growth Corporations are one example meant to be implemented almost instantaneously, a very specific idea but one whose root—getting the capitalist system back to creating and sharing wealth before it is too late—will apply to every phase of The Technology Impera- TIve. We must achieve that, or some version of a Big Brother society will be inevitable.
Every human, I believe, is meant to aspire and, through the mechanism of competitive opportunity, to achieve everything he or she is capable of achieving. A statist society in which people are incentivized to rely on handouts at worst or bloated bureaucratic employment at best, rather than relying on their own realistic aspirations and training and labor and creativity, is doomed to fail. Such societies are the antithesis of what the American founders had in mind. True, the founders would no doubt be mystified and mortified if they were to assemble next week and forced to ponder The Technology ImperaTIve. I believe, however, the same free-market spirit the founders evoked in the 18th Century would be rewritten into their ideas for the 21st Century. I think almost everyone can agree with that assertion. The trick is how to flesh out those ideas and how to get them realized, and that is why we need a national dialogue on these things now, rather than taking a spectator- to-history approach. We know where the passive, spectator approach will end up.
I will not draw even one schematic, as I did with the EGC concept, to suggest ways of resuscitating and sustaining our free-market economic engine as technology decimates the need for human labor, then decimates it again, and again, and then again. I do challenge all capitalist practitioners and free- market advocates, though, to acknowledge and respond to The Technology ImperaTIve. Technology is trying to make you obsolete. You will be obsolete—or rather, you will be dis- carded—if our free-market system does not adapt to today’s challenges, let alone the upheaval that lies ahead. For today, we need to optimize the job-creation part of the mechanism.
In the futuristic part of the equation, we cannot rely on Henry Ford and other pathfinders to create a brand-new employment paradigm. We know free markets will, if allowed, continue to create new wealth even as job creation slows. But we need to be looking for new ways our capitalist system can broadly distribute the wealth it creates. If we don’t, there will be just two possible outcomes: a government-dominated economy and society, or a revolution—not in the figurative but the lit- eral sense.
The private sector must, at every step of our social and technological evolution, provide our citizens the ability and the incentive to seek and sustain a rewarding, productive life. The middleman in Washington, D.C., cannot do that. Our government can protect us from those who would do us harm, can pursue vital public-works projects that the private sector cannot accomplish, and can in fact rightfully pursue any nec- essary endeavor the private sector cannot do better and more efficiently. Few such endeavors exist.
One thing the public sector most definitely cannot do is create prosperity. This little book (see Reference below) has been deservedly tough on ideologues who somehow believe otherwise. The private sector, too, has some obligations and limitations in the social contract. In this century, that will mean, above all, honest and effective response to The Technology ImperaTIve. The real safety net is not a zero-sum proposition.
I suspect that in the end the best solution will include a large dose of—surprise!—the entrepreneurial spirit, in one form or another. If corporate America, for example, were to sustain some quasi-“foundations,” some entities or mechanism, for helping all who are willing and able to operate single-proprietor endeavors—from crafts to artisanal output to musical performance to tutoring to an endless list of service skills—that would be one example of new wealth being created and shared (and then creating more wealth) without intervention or waste or fiscal self-aggrandizement by the federal government. That suggestion is intentionally vaguer than vague. It is the bypassing of Washington and the preserving of the free-market system that I wish to illustrate. That is not a blueprint. It is just a citizen standing at roadside and pointing in the direction of where this pilgrimage needs to be heading.
We need lots of ideas, soon, on how to get there.