Technology, like everything else, is changing exponentially. At the human level, can anything change other than who gets richer and who gets poorer?
Yes. The nature of life in a society changes. Two fundamental changes appear in the U.S. Technology is changing the goods and services that can be sold, and new marketing mechanisms change the manner by which things—even ideas—are traded.
Technology: Twenty-five years ago nobody owned a smart phone. Now most folks regard it as a necessity. Miniature computers changed communications—from the demise of investigative journalism in newspapers to the way we socialize. Think Facebook. Better yet, don’t. The massive escalation of communication has increased social complexity, accenting the polarization. We don’t even question the relevance of sending a driverless car into space.
Marketing: In the city twenty years ago, you hailed a cab, just like a century earlier—except back then the cab had real horsepower. Now, enabled by smart phones, there’s a fleet of independent car owners hailed through Uber or Lyft or other touch-pad office. The car and driver haven’t changed, but the marketing, taxation, and regulation have.
The Future: What will emerge from evolving technology and imaginative marketing? An awful world ruled by artificial intelligence [AI]? A better world ruled by AI? Cities absent private cars and traffic jams, with parking space converted to open space, commuting done by shared rides? Technology will increase its impact on society without addressing social issues directly, issues we’ll call “the commons.”
What commons, for example?
Public schools are owned, used, and valued in common. A market model of education, no matter how distributed by technology with on-line classes including job training, cannot provide the base for an intelligent, reflective, participatory democracy. Universities are moving toward a market model, with teaching by adjunct (temporary) professors while actual faculty are required to bring research funds of which the administration gets half. The university administration becomes a profit-oriented bureaucracy with smooth political connections and televised circuses (called football) to retain alumni who contribute. A university president is highly paid—to bring money. The objective becomes economic survival. Market competition is good for products but does not produce a united, thoughtful, empowered citizens. Quite the opposite.
Health care operates well in a fee-for-service competitive market system, but the objective is maximizing profit rather than minimizing pain. In our insurance-based system, you pay the insurance company to do the market bargaining for you. Insurance (private or Medicare) sets a price cap for hospitals, doctors, and drugstores. Without insurance, you pay an inflated price. For example, my recent bill was $323. Primary and secondary insurers together paid $143, and the rest was not “approved,” paid by no one. Medical prices are meaningless. Maximizing profit provides motivation to either to minimize the service at a fixed bill or to add unnecessary services to increase the bill—especially to a remote insurer.
So what’s the point about technology?
Technology can reduce human effort or replace human judgment, but it cannot decide whether health care or public education or personal mobility is a value in common or a service to be optimized for profit. The communists said all values are common. That didn’t work. Our society attempts an argumentative middle ground, retaining poor public transportation, vacillating between public and private elementary schools, and debating a medical system that no one understands. Technology cannot ascertain the value of anything else that’s common—national parks, clean air, water, even the interconnected electric grid. The choices must be made in the political arena.
When you vote, don’t be mechanical. Trust your values and your gut feelings, not the technical glitter.