Going Faster- But Where?
The New Convergence of Technology and Society
by Steven Luz
Giant steps in the advancement of information technology have accompanied remarkable improvements in the quality and efficiency of transportation. Emerging economies have benefited from access to technology products as well as their workforce’s opportunity to provide the labor in manufacture of these products. The availability of unlimited information via the Internet has coincided with the advent of increasingly cheap and unfettered mobility of the world’s population, even as efficient shipment of freight has opened technology employment to the third world. This convergence of events will empower a greater percentage of the world’s citizens than ever before.
Wonderful information technology products are already “shrinking the globe.” Chat rooms, news groups and special interest websites assemble participants from around the world to discuss myriads of topics. In time, the declining cost of telecommunications will enable video teleconferencing between people in remote areas and urban centers. The social and intellectual enlightenment afforded by such technology products is self-evident.
This generation’s advances in energy and transportation technology are somewhat less obvious. These less-appreciated offshoots of the information revolution have already opened new labor markets, thanks to the application of modern technology. Hi-tech and low-tech products are manufactured differently than before. Today, manufacturing capital chases labor anywhere in the world. An “American” camera assembled in Canada may be constructed from plastic parts molded in Mexico, glass ground in Germany and electronic chips manufactured in Korea. Families formerly farming fields of grain are now not only working in the hi-tech world, but also becoming consumers in that world.
Penetration of technology deep into the emerging economies is now creating a sort of global “suburban-technology-sprawl.” Innovative thinkers in the societies that benefit will ensure that more social mobility and political self-determination accompanies this new geographic mobility.
Here in the developed world, we easily gather information to support and execute our important decisions and satisfy our curiosity. We can conveniently research the qualifications of our political candidates in newspapers, magazines and public records of their activities. We can also freely travel and arrange delivery of products we want. Most take for granted the mature infrastructure, which supports our access to rich sources of information and allows us the mobility we so cherish. All this information in the hands of individual citizens has a way of keeping the government in check. In many democratic governments, staffers poll the informed populace before making weighty decisions. This environment of access, openness and influence took generations to develop.
Our freedom to act on informed decisions empowers us in ways that have not been widely available to the population of most “emerging economy” nations.
In fact, the ignorance of the masses in these areas has perpetuated a hording of the knowledge capital by those who wish to continue their domination. When some event sparks a questioning of the motives of these dictatorial regimes, clever propaganda can smooth over the cognitive dissonance of the naive villagers. In some cases, subtle forms of bribery and even martial law have been employed to prevent such outspoken questioners from upsetting the status quo.
Some of the great businesses of the world, however, have begun to spread the wealth of information, freedom and power, perhaps unintentionally. Some time ago, the need for relatively cheap labor, combined with lower shipping costs and efficient methods of shipment, met up with a trainable emerging market workforce. Companies in all sectors need this cheap labor. Soap, shoes, cars and computers can all be manufactured in emerging market locales. A manufacturing workforce can exist anywhere in the world, as long as it has accessible roads and proximity to international freight terminals. In short order, millions of people who were previously nomadic hunters or subsistence farmers became manufacturing or technology workers. The corporations that built this infrastructure were likely concerned with enhancing their profits. Information, freedom and power can flow across this same infrastructure.
As the new emerging market factory workers adapt to their new roles, their standard of living clearly increases. The evolution of developed society provides clues to the pattern of the emerging market society’s changing status. Formerly a society of farmers, the United States matured first into an industrial society, then to a consumer-oriented society. Social mobility followed their geographic mobility. Exposure to the tools and the writings of this societal progress gave our economic forefathers impetus to explore new ideas. Enhanced income and proper employer practices gave them more time to develop their ideas. Thoughtful contemplation was no longer the exclusive domain of the few. Eventually, there was a growing marketplace for education, health care, the arts and even political activism. The growing informed class has now achieved a level of freedom and self-determination few expected even a generation ago.
This same pattern promises to replicate itself at warp speed as the penetration of prosperity follows the industrial revolution into the world’s emerging markets. Powerful factors will increase the speed of this transformation.
One factor is the global information revolution. Many emerging market governments do not offer what we would call freedom the press or free trade. However, growing access to advanced telecommunications technology makes many government restrictions on traditional media less important. Today’s mobile phones can access uncensored news reports. In moments, interested students can learn about current events. Shrewd entrepreneurs can quickly make markets in products. Anyone with a networked computer can meet counterparts and execute transactions across the globe. Individuals with investment capital can even allocate their funds into international ventures with varying degrees of risk. Some of the more nefarious operators have used technological means to defraud the gullible. Unfortunately, traveling con artists have haunted the highways for centuries. They too are using more modern tools to sell their snake oil. Nevertheless, ingenuous entrepreneurial endeavors can be more easily implemented than ever before, and the principal caveat emptor is no less important today.
Most importantly, centralized control is made obsolete by an uncontrollable source of accurate information. As this information becomes more freely available, political abuses of all types are much more difficult to smooth over with propaganda. Further, widespread attention can quickly be brought to bear upon these leaders, who are often quite concerned with saving face and appearing civilized in the international arena.
Additional engines accelerating societal enlightenment are the same factors that enable industry to rapidly train and deploy a workforce in emerging markets. Rapid introduction of cheap, efficient transportation and experienced managers who can quickly impart knowledge and skill prime the pump for a population’s quick adoption of enlightened thinking. Our more mobile society promotes free movement of the wise teachers among those with hungry minds. Government leaders have thankfully facilitated the introduction of infrastructure improvements to advance international commerce and their tax base. The ability to freely assemble and petition the government for a redress of their grievances is made possible by these same improvements. In this case, the unintended consequence of this development may be the obsolescence of centralized government power.
Among the Internet’s thousands of chat rooms and websites, many focus on political issues of emerging market nations. Participants and readers from Nigeria to China can view and analyze their governments’ actions and policies. These participants can quickly begin to cultivate a mature position on the way their leaders act, and compare notes with their counterparts in democratic lands. They do not need to reinvent the wheel. This international forum is also replete with historical accounts of political influence and revolution. Neither is there a shortage of altruism in those with the wherewithal to exert political influence externally. It is so easy to make friends with people in faraway lands. Friends help friends, and with computer generated plane tickets also now available on the Internet, friends can easily meet friends in all reaches of the globe. Many political activists with international aspirations would also like to help elevate the working masses in third-world lands. Here again, ease of instant communication, combined with cheap transportation of influential people and the tools of progress promises to provide the leverage to unwind political power from the dictatorial strongmen to the increasingly well- informed majority.
The world is only beginning to utilize the synergies of the new technologies available. Continued enhancement of energy technology will add more cheap fuel to the enlightening engines of information technology and transportation technology. Soon, many of the auto factory workers in Mexico and Korea will be able to complement their new intellectual status with totally unfettered movement across international borders. Citizens from all around the world benefit from being technology consumers, and refuse to sit still being just consumers. Every day, innovative people put increasingly more powerful tools at our fingertips. As the emerging market’s consumers graduate to producers of the advanced thought these tools facilitate, the marketplace of ideas will increase exponentially. Even as the third world’s workforce benefits from our need for their cheap labor, we in the developed nations shall be further enlightened and empowered by our exposure to the infinite knowledge base that they have contributed to.
contributed by Steven Luz