Thursday, April 28, 2011

One Last Post About “Low” Tech

A couple of last thoughts about technology. First, a funny video from several years ago showing that technology is a lot broader and more fundamental than most of us think:

Secondly, I didn’t have a chance to talk about the longer video in the “I, Toaster” post, but it is required for the final exam (you don’t need to know the details, so you can just put it on to play while you multitask). The point of this is not that toasters are complex, but that there is a huge amount of humanity behind the stuff you buy at Wal-Mart. That humanity is technology. When we dismiss a product as cheap crap, we’ve not only missed the point, but dissed the contributions of untold numbers of people. If their lives have meaning, then its embodied in the cheap crap, and we shouldn’t insult it.

Here’s a (funny and short) classic on that note about how our expectations are inconsistent with macroeconomic reality:

The only reason for studying macroeconomics is the overriding fact that the quality of your life has more to do with location of your birth than anything you do on your own.

This is embodied in that last result we obtained from the Solow model: that per capita income depends on per capita capital and aggregate technology, and that the (empirically confirmed) exponents make the latter much more important.

But, since high technology flows so easily across borders, it must be “low” technology — like how a book works — that doesn’t cross borders easily that is important.

So, it’s easy for us sitting in Utah to bemoan the priorities of the world’s poor: why do people in Chad have cellphones but not much else (and it’s not just Chad, that was this year’s example, but last year’s class had folks who talked about the same thing in Brazil). What’s important to the future well-being of people in Chad is not the high technology cellphones, but the fact that they use them to engage in a very old, and “low”, technology: talking to each other, and in particular, talking to strangers to expand their network of ideas. Briefly consider the article “Without His Mother’s Milk, a Haitian Boy Is Lost” from the April 25 issue of The New York Times, and ask yourself whether cellphones and/or Facebook make it more or less likely that a problem like this will persist. I assert that its less likely to persist because the great cultural contribution that America can make to the world’s poor is not Facebook, but that communicating with strangers is OK.

In that vain, consider these two posts. First, one about an experience I had finding a lost kitten’s home. The second is about the “Gates controversy” that Obama got himself into 2 years ago. I hope they help convince you that well-being isn’t about government macroeconomic policy, or macroeconomic exploitation by companies, but rather about the “low” technology of how your society functions. Macroeconomics isn’t, and shouldn’t be, about what the legacy media and politicians tell us is macroeconomics.

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