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  • How to halt technological progress

    Posted by ken on May 2nd, 2005 (All posts by )

    What drives technological progress?

    Customers do. They pay the bills in exchange for the gizmos. Government science doesn’t produce technology (except in very limited cases where the technology is a weapon or a showpiece) – it produces basic science, which is of use mainly to other scientists until some private operation sees a way to use it to make new gizmos that people will pay good money for.

    So what determines which gizmos get developed and which gizmos get improved, and what improvements are made to them? The potential market for the gizmos and improvements to existing gizmos.

    If you want the best chance for some physically possible gizmo, or improvement to an existing gizmo, to come into existence, it should have a large potential market. This enables it to be made at a lower unit cost than if it had a small potential market, and increases the odds that, at a given overall level of technology, it can be made cheaply enough to be sold at a profit.

    If you want the best chance for the gizmo to end up being relatively easy to use, then the potential market should include plenty of people that are not highly trained in its use and not willing to invest lots of time and money to get that way. This means that ease-of-use translates directly into size-of-market which brings profit.

    The general public has both of these nice properties, so any gizmo that’s useful to the general public will, in the fullness of time and technological development, become relatively cheap and easy to use. As long, of course, as the general public is permitted to use it.

    If, for example, a high training requirement is imposed on anyone who would use the product, both of these nice properties go away. The potential market drastically shrinks. Unit costs go way up and stay there. And, any effort to make the gizmo easier for an untrained user to use is money flushed down the toilet, since that untrained user is forbidden to use it and is therefore not even a potential customer, which means that the difficulty of safe use which was used to justify the regulation never goes away. Especially since the high unit cost means that demand for the unit’s complement, training, stays low.

    This Catch-22 produces an impressive stall in the gizmo’s improvement and proliferation for generations. If you want to see an example of this mechanism in action, just go in your yard and look up at the sky at all the traffic that isn’t passing overhead. You might see a single private plane, along with a couple of flying cattle-cars. Then go for a drive, and look at all the groundcars bottlenecked on thin strips of concrete.

    Or you can go to the hospital. You’ll see a large array of gizmos, drugs, and other useful things that are unbelievably difficult to use safely and outrageously expensive, even if they’ve been in use for decades. The potential market for the whole mess is practically microscopic, and the training requirement is among the highest in the known world. And if your life depends on hiring someone to use this stuff on you, well, you’ll see the true cost of this for yourself. You might even be driven to suicidal despair by the prospect of such expensive, primitive, and uncomfortable means employed to keep you alive, and hire a lawyer to help you write a “living will”.

    And you’ll see the true cost of four little words: “for your own good”. These products could have been made easier to use, so that many more people could use them, yielding a much larger potential market, leading to much cheaper products, leading to more demand for both the training that’s actually needed and a demand for a version that requires less training even if it’s more expensive, leading to more development, leading to more ease of use and more advanced functionality, etc., etc. But that would have meant accepting a small amount of natural selection at the outset of this process. Society’s consensus is that this is unconscionable. So several kinds of gizmos are locked in stasis, including one class that could be saving far more lives than could ever have been lost through natural selection if they and people capable of using them and the capital for further developing them were as abundant as they could have been.

    But no one could make a convincing case for untrained users being able to hurt themselves with computer, nor for the possibility of evil corporations to hurt innocent little 40 year old children by selling them crappy computers that they don’t know better than to buy. So that gizmo developed in cheapness, ease-of-use, and functionality with lightning speed, and remains one of the brightest spots in our generally depressing technological landscape.

     

    9 Responses to “How to halt technological progress”

    1. Kevin Fleming Says:

      Excellent summation of the problem, certainly inasmuch as it affects healthcare. As I trained in medicine, I had no problem accepting the implicit assumption that intense program and rigid heierarchy was necessary for the protection of “society”. After perusing the simpler works of Hayek and Mises, I can see the ‘barriers to entry’ problem as one with mixed motives.

      “For your own good” translates all too frequently to “for my own good”. I have spoken with doctors who consider it treasonous to work with nurse practitioners because they are undertrained. But frankly, I see little purpose in denying that many symptoms are fairly easily diagnosed with training far less than mine.

      If we ran computer use the same way, we’d be required to make appointments to see the DOSmaster for every dadblamed question we had, and a laptop would cost a year’s salary.

      While I cannot envision cardiac surgery in a low-barrier economy, I can see how sewing up a simple laceration doesn’t require an MD or RN. In the military, such techniques were taught to rank novices, often in the field. Anyway, the desire to protect us seems to be a hardy mix of paternalism and a desire for power.

    2. David Foster Says:

      It strikes me that there are no other industries in which the status divides are as wide as in medicine…you’ve got doctors, nurses, and a wide gap in between. Why shouldn’t there be a whole continuum of practitioners with various skill levels and focus areas?

      Military medicine would be one interesting area to look at in this regard.

    3. Richard Heddleson Says:

      It’s a good thing Henbry Ford didn’t know about this aversion to natural selection.

      There simply isn’t sufficient need for these medical devices in the mass population given current costs. But when there is, the technology is emerging. I can take my blood pressure reliably at home, diabetics check blood sugar and inject insulin themselves, CPAP machines provide better sleep to OSA sufferers, women can get reliable pregnancy results in their own bathroom and defribillators can be purchased for use anywhere.

      The problem is most medical devices are needed so infrequently that it is not yet economical to purchase devices and place them in locations where they may never be used. But look in the back of any EMS truck and compare the equipment to that in the fire department am,bulance of 50 years ago and the change is astounding.

      Finally, if people want ease of use so much, why does the Mac have 3% market share?

    4. Richard Heddleson Says:

      An interesting variation on this is being played out at DOD

    5. Dave Schuler Says:

      Government science doesn’t produce technology (except in very limited cases where the technology is a weapon or a showpiece) – it produces basic science, which is of use mainly to other scientists until some private operation sees a way to use it to make new gizmos that people will pay good money for.

      This is fatuous nonsense and you certainly are smarter than this. Shall we make a brief list of the contributions of “government science”? The first successful vaccine for yellow fever was developed by Army doctor Walter Reed. Nearly all atomic technology weaponry and not has been done with government money. Government science? The digital computer was a direct outgrowth of the work done on guidance systems in World War II—engineering work, not basic science. The printed circuit board and the connector technology that made the personal computer possible were direct outcomes of the space program. The direct ancestor of the Internet was the DARPANet—that’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The list is huge.

      It’s fine to favor small government. I do myself. But don’t take leave of your senses. There’s good science and there’s pseudo-science (like Lysenko-ism). But there is no government science.

    6. Lex Says:

      Agree with Dave — Moreover, technology often has developed from an initial hand-made state to marketable and cost-efficient to production due to initial government purchases. Marconi and the Wright Brothers both knew this. They knew that the money needed to produce multiple iterations of their radios and planes could not be obtained in the marketplace. They needed price-insensitive government (military) purchases to finance the manufacture and refinement of their invetions. Mass production has its roots in the American military’s weapon making, and it was Eli Whitney who introduced the idea of interchangeable parts to make this possible. There are countless other examples. Government is an incubator of science and technology, particularly for military use, and has been for centuries.

    7. Jonathan Says:

      There’s no question but that govt institutions and employees, and those subsidized by govt, are capable of doing good science and technology development. A more important question might be whether we do better, in the long run, by taxing productive citizens for the purpose of underwriting govt R&D programs than by letting those citizens keep more of their money and investing it where they please. Some govt-underwritten R&D work is unavoidable, e.g., for military purposes for which there is no private demand, or for some public-health purposes, or maybe for research in areas like global warming and the asteroid threat.

      But the rest of it is harder to justify, and govt programs, unlike private businesses which face bankruptcy if they make bad decisions, have an inherent problem dealing with mistakes. You can’t just look at the successful tech R&D programs, you have to look at the expensive failures too. How much tech R&D could have been accomplished in the private sector with the billions of $ wasted by govt in the Synfuels boondoggle? Is spending on additional Space Shuttles justified, given that there’s now a burgeoning private space-sector that evaluates new ideas at a fraction of the cost of NASA? You have to look at costs as well as benefits.

    8. Ken Says:

      “Moreover, technology often has developed from an initial hand-made state to marketable and cost-efficient to production due to initial government purchases. Marconi and the Wright Brothers both knew this. They knew that the money needed to produce multiple iterations of their radios and planes could not be obtained in the marketplace. They needed price-insensitive government (military) purchases to finance the manufacture and refinement of their invetions. ”

      Yes, government acting as customer causes beneficial effects on technology much like private entities acting as customers. But in these cases, government was spurring technological development as a customer, by purchasing devices to help fulfill legitimate public purposes, encouraging the development of devices to meet those purposes. As a customer, either the government or a private entity drives the development of technology to meet its own ends, with which it is intimately familiar, and not to meet what it thinks somebody else’s ends are or should be.

      Customers pay for results, and encourage the development and production of useful things. Government funded research encourages activity that the funders can be convinced falls under the heading of “research”, which may or may not be activity that leads toward results. Military orders for fighter jets lead to the production of really good fighter jets. Government funding for fusion research leads to… well, so far it hasn’t led to any fusion reactors.

      Sometimes you get lucky no matter what you do. But you get better results on average when you let customers use their own resources to acquire and use whatever tools they judge best for meeting their own needs and reward people for producing such tools.

    9. Lex Says:

      “much like private entities acting as customers” Yes, but the Government has some unique characteristics as a customer. In particular, for military purposes, it will pay lots and lots to get a potentially valuable technology developed and manufactured, where chasm between “good idea” and “consumer product” is too wide and deep for commerical development. The line between research and manufacturing for a government purchase of military goods may not be as clear as you are suggesting. The government sometimes funds research that it thinks may eventually lead to a deployable weapon. The Manhattan Project itself was speculate in nature. It was not clear that they would be able to make a bomb that worked, no matter how good it looked on the blackboard. My point is that technological development is frequently driven by government spending and government priorities, with important civilian spin-offs. William McNeill’s book the Pursuit of Power asserts that military competition was the fundamental force driving technological development in the West, and he makes a convincing case.