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I was recently involved in a presentation on the role of technology in business. The following is the text of my portion of the presentation. I realize that it’s a little vain to put it up like this, but I really do hold these sentiments quite strongly, and I wanted to share them here. And in any case, what are personal blogs for, if not for indulging in a little vanity?

The twin developments of business and technology have woven together to create the fabric of human society for not just centuries, but millennia. Indeed, it’s probably not often appreciated that without the one, there would be very little of the other. A species with no technology- no tools or know-how that could be used to alter its environment to its benefit- has nothing to trade, and no reason to do so. That’s why humans alone in the entire spectrum of life knowingly engage in trade and commerce with one another.

And just as significantly, without specialization and trade, humans would still be nomadic hunter-gatherers, with very limited technology and no real civilization to speak of. The technologies associated with farming, pottery, cloth-weaving, carpentry, and later the extraction and working of metals could only develop once it was realized that society as a whole benefited if no single human being- or family group- produced everything that he needed, but instead specialized in a particular trade.

Now, we’ll be going into a slightly more detailed look at how business and technology developed in tandem through the ages after a bit, but before that I just wanted to pose a few questions for you to think about. You’ll have to forgive me if you feel this is a little irrelevant to the topic at hand, but it’s not often that one gets to discuss this kind of thing, and I’d like to take this opportunity.

I’ll start with the following proposition: even though, as we’ve just seen, business and technology are inextricably linked, and have been for ages, they are not on equal footing in modern human society. One has subjugated the other, and perverted both its form and its function. From there, I’ll go so far as to say that many of the problems that currently plague humanity would disappear if only we managed to reverse this trend, and take it to the opposite extreme.

To explain just what I mean by all that, I’d like to call upon… this guy.

History’s most famous pessimist, the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus. In 1798 he published- anonymously- the first edition of his Essay on the Principle of Population. In it, he made the dire claim that a section of the population in any human society would always be relegated to poverty, because of the inexorable tendency of human populations to grow in a geometric series, whereas food supplies could only grow in an arithmetic series. According to him, the world population would therefore be forever held at close to 1 billion people- the level in the year 1800- and that would be thanks to famine, disease, and warfare over scarce resources.

Malthus’ prediction was, of course, wrong- but not entirely wrong. He was right about global population continuing to grow at a geometric rate [see graph below], but what he didn’t foresee was that food production would also begin to grow at a geometric rate.

So, in the year 2010, we have more than enough food for every man, woman and child in the world. How could that have happened? Technology. The Agricultural Revolution that preceded, and partly caused, the Industrial Revolution led to a huge increase the amount of food that could be produced.

But does that mean that there are no longer any people who go hungry? No, of course not. Just take a look at these numbers from the website of the World Food Program.

Everyone see that number in red? The line above it reads ‘Children who’ve died of hunger’. You don’t have to stay on the site for very long all for that counter to reach this:

and then this:

In fact, there are 1 billion people, 1 billion people who chronically go hungry- despite the fact that we can, and do produce enough food for them. What possible excuse could there be for that?

Well, the answer is that we only know of one way to distribute resources among ourselves. In general, it’s called business, and in its most current incarnation, it’s known as capitalism. And it’s because of capitalism that the benefits of technology do not accrue to the entirety of the human race, but only to a select few. That’s what I meant earlier- that business has conquered and enslaved technology.

I’m not sure if any of you have heard of Bertrand Russell. He was a Nobel Prize winner, and one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. I’m going to quote a few lines from an essay of his that I think captures brilliantly just how ludicrous our way of allocating resources is. By the way, I strongly recommend that all of you read this essay; it’s called “In Praise of Idleness”, and it was published in 1932. Just Google it, you should be able to find it, and it’s not too long, so don’t worry about that. Anyways, here’s what he said:

Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?

In case you didn’t quite get what he was trying to illustrate there, what he meant was that technological progress should have made life easier for everyone, but instead, because of modern capitalism, it actually made things worse for everyone.

By now you might have caught on to the fact that these are things that I’ve been thinking about for more than just a few days. I honestly do hope and believe that technology has the power to take us beyond capitalism in its current form. I believe that any social system that encourages the belief that human life is only valuable to the extent that it is able to produce desirable goods and services is fundamentally flawed and extremely depressing. I hope that one day people will realize that capitalism had its place in the history of human social development, but that it could only be a temporary place, like slavery, or colonialism.

In the end, I’d just like to mention that I’m really glad that we were assigned this topic, because I think I’ve learned a lot in reading up for it. And also, as I was doing that, I felt- vindicated by finding that some very respectable people have had ideas that were broadly similar to my own. I’ve already mentioned Bertrand Russell, and there’s one other thinker worth mentioning who also perceived a conflict of interest between technological development and capitalism: this guy:

Karl Marx. And by the way, I strongly recommend that you all read The Communist Manifesto; it’s not too long, less than fifty pages, and it’s- fascinating. Of course, Marx’s advocacy of bloody revolution as a means of achieving human social progress is not something that I can really agree with.

Anyway, I think that’s enough rocking the boat from me for one day. Here I am, studying in a business school and I think I’ve been railing against capitalism for the last ten minutes. I hope I don’t fail this course.


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