“It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future,” says a proverb often attributed to Yogi Berra. Imagine the world of freedom, or lack of it. Who could foresee the technologies that make our lives so rewarding and convenient? The same technologies have us all under the government’s giant microscope. Thankfully, the brave have turned the microscope around.
In the months since Edward Snowden revealed the nature and extent of the spying that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been perpetrating upon Americans and foreigners, some of the NSA's most troublesome behavior has not been a part of the public debate.
The problem for NSA apologist is that when guys like Snowden disclose that the government conducts comprehensive surveillance in ways that would have made 1984’s O’Brien drool, it puts the entire progressive agenda in jeopardy.
The east coast and parts of the southern U.S. were to varying degrees paralyzed by blizzards a few weeks ago. The snow as expected rendered the roads treacherous, and in anticipation of slick streets, shoppers flocked to the grocery stores in advance.The rush into grocery stores, and its aftermath, offers worthwhile lessons in economics.First up, […]
The financial world is plodding along like a drunken sailor avoiding debt collectors by keeping no cash in his wallet. It’s not the kind of calm that’s going to last or end well. But the storm will have to wait until after the Olympics.What a game! We’ve never watched ice hockey closely before. But watching […]
In times of war and national emergency, it’s sometimes necessary to sacrifice civil liberties to secure vital gains in public safety. In those cases, we may have to accept a loss of privacy or freedom rather than invite mass slaughter of Americans.The National Security Agency’s domestic phone records collection is not one of those.Never have […]
Last year was quite the year for Bitcoin. We’ve seen exponential growth in Bitcoin’s exchange rate and extensive coverage in the media. Another phenomenon we have witnessed is the proliferation of alternative cryptocurrencies, five of which we’ve provided below.What all of these cryptocurrencies have in common is that they rely on a decentralized network to […]
Image: ShutterstockBitInstant CEO Charlie Shrem, along with alleged co-conspirator Robert Faiella, was arrested by federal authorities last week for allegedly laundering more than $1 million worth of Bitcoins. This is a tiny amount compared to the largest drug-and-terrorism money laundering case ever. Yet when British bank HSBC was found guilty in 2012 of laundering billions, […]
The exercise had an awesome name, inspired by the movies: “Quantum Dawn 2.”On July 18, scads of U.S. banks, stock exchanges and government agencies took part in a digital fire drill — a practice run in the event all of Wall Street came under massive cyberattack.This isn’t the first time banks have come under an […]
The faces of the Detroit bankruptcy are the thousands of pensioners whose promised benefits are suddenly part of the restructure negotiation. When Motown filed for Chapter 9 last July, the city had $11.5 billion in unsecured liabilities. The vast majority of this was pension and health care benefits owed to retired city employees.The images of […]
The New York Times published an interminable article on health care recently. Plenty of facts — how scrupulous are these journalists! — but the article displayed absolutely no comprehension of the basics of cause and effect. I was left wondering about the whole point.The article details how the health care system rewards specialists to an […]
We’ve pointed out in the past that President Obama’s views on the surveillance state shifted completely from when he was Senator to when he was President. As Senator, he supported a bunch of reforms that are very much like the ones his panel have suggested — and which he’s about to ignore. The NY Times […]
Bitcoins are largely considered digital currency (or “crypto currency”) so you’d expect it to be treated like currency on a retail web site. But the Internal Revenue Service might not think so.
The great inventors/businessmen of the First Industrial Revolution, such as James Watt and Matthew Boulton of steam-engine fame, were not just smart but privileged. Most were either born into the ruling class or lucky enough to be apprenticed to one of the elite. For most of history since then, entrepreneurship has meant either setting up […]
Both research and production look poised for a revolution as 3-D printing applies its high-tech charms to the business of creating chemical compounds and turns the production of medicine into a DIY project.
“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.”When Capt. Jean-Luc Picard wants a steaming beverage in his ready room aboard the starship Enterprise, he just utters those words. The ship’s “replicator” then assembles the necessary atoms — including those for the cup — and produces it, ready for the drinking. Picard thinks nothing of it — it’s hardly more […]
The market has selected different things as money throughout history. Some of these items have served as money in isolated places for specific periods of time — for instance, cigarettes in prisoner-of-war camps. Cigarettes continue to be a currency in prisons if allowed, but if not, according to Wikipedia, “postage stamps have become a more […]
[Ed. Note: This article originally published on Jan. 24, 2013]Stocks up. Gold down. Bitcoin… waaay up.The S&P 500 busted through the 1,500 mark this morning. Stocks haven’t been this expensive since 2007… right before they got a whole lot cheaper… for a whole lot longer. Gold, meanwhile, dipped a tad. This, despite central bankers of […]
Before the housing market collapsed and the government pumped billions into the economy to save it, there was a programmer named Satoshi Nakamoto. And without much fanfare, he created an idea that’s in the process of changing the world. His idea was Bitcoin.Some background information is in order before I go any further.Think back to […]
Americans are still trying to get a handle on the full extent of the government’s domestic spying activities, including the recent revelation that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting and storing the email address books of ordinary Americans using online messaging services. Many users of such services are looking to tech executives for […]
The online Internet exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act are up and running.OK, they’re up. Uhh, OK, some of them are sort of up.It has been almost a week since last Tuesday’s initial launch, and there have been more than a few problems.Website crashes, excessive response times and other problems have plagued the exchanges. […]
A growing consensus of IT experts, outside and inside the government, have figured out a principal reason why the website for Obamacare’s federally sponsored insurance exchange is crashing. Healthcare.gov forces you to create an account and enter detailed personal information before you can start shopping.This, in turn, creates a massive traffic bottleneck, as the government […]
As much as I love technology, part of me hates being so dependent on a live wall plug wherever I go. You find yourself trapped in some setting without accessible wall plugs and your phone is dying. You charge from you laptop, but that is dying too. You take recourse to your tablet, but that […]
U.S. and British intelligence agencies have successfully cracked much of the online encryption relied upon by hundreds of millions of people to protect the privacy of their personal data, online transactions and emails, according to top-secret documents revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden.The files show that the National Security Agency and its UK counterpart GCHQ […]
Today, like most days, I fired up my computer.I read freely available information on the latest developments in technology that would, in the not too distant past, have required a drive to a library to flip through journals too numerous for me to afford. I read the latest national and global news without having to […]
On a Sunday afternoon swim, a 6-year-old boy was bugging me in a sweet sort of way. He rode up and down the handrail on the stairs in the shallow end of the pool where I was trying to sit in peace. He was laughing and talking, but I couldn’t understand a word through the […]
I’ve just completed a heavy schedule of talks at the Agora Financial Investment Symposium in Vancouver. All my talks centered on information economics, Web startups, and the productivity of the Internet and its meaning. As usual, I learned as much from the attendees as (I hope) they learned from my talks. The research I did […]
Do we really need an iPad 3 after it seems as if iPad 2 was released only a few months ago? Was it absolutely necessary that Google give us Google+? Do phones really have to be “smart” when the old cell phones were just fine? For that matter, is it really necessary that everyone on the planet be instantly reachable by wireless videophone?
The answer to each question is no. No innovation is absolutely necessary. In fact, the phone, flight, the internal combustion engine, electricity, the railroad — none of this is absolutely necessary. We could freely choose to live in a state of nature in which most children die in childbirth, those who do not live only a few decades and “medicine” amounts to sawing off limbs if you are lucky enough to have a tool that can accomplish the deed.
It’s true that those people who bemoan the pace of technological development are not really longing for the state of nature. They are just sick of being hounded, badgered, hectored and pushed — as they see it — constantly to learn new things, acquire new gizmos, keep up-to-date and buy the latest thing.
A survey from Underwriters Laboratories last year revealed that half of consumers “feel high-tech manufacturers bring new products to market faster than people need them.” There are many concerns such as privacy, safety, finances and the like, but mostly, I suspect that what’s behind the report is a more inchoate kind of unease.
Learning new things can be uncomfortable. People sense that they were getting along just fine with the technology of the last few years, so why should they upgrade? They sense that always going for the new thing implicitly casts aspersions on our current or past lifestyles.
I get this all the time when I talk to people about new stuff. Their first response is often: “No thanks. I’ve had it with all this techno wizardry and digital age mania. Whatever happened to a world in which people had authentic human contact, admired the beauty of God’s creations and developed genuine relationships, instead of virtual ones?”
We’ve all heard some version of this. So let’s be clear: There is nothing morally wrong with not adopting the latest thing. No one forces anyone to buy a smartphone, a fast computer, a fancier e-reader or whatever. There is no gun at anyone’s head. Technological upgrades are an extension of human volition — we can embrace them or not.
And temperaments are different. Some people love the latest thing, while others resist it. There are early adopters, there are late adopters and there are refuseniks.
I talked to a person the other day whose aging sister absolutely refuses to get a computer, an email address or a cellphone. Yes, such people do exist. When siblings want to contact her, they call or write a letter with a stamp. There is no sharing of photos, no video Skype, no keeping up with daily events. Everyone in the family is very close in the way that only digital technology allows, but this one person is the outlier, cut off from what everyone else experiences on a daily basis.
I asked if she feels cut off. The answer: Yes, and she is very unhappy about it. She complains that people don’t travel long distances to see her enough. They don’t call enough. She is losing track of what is happening with the grandkids. She has a constant sense that she is just out of it, and this depresses her.
Exactly. She is not actually happy with her choice. It’s just that making this choice seems easier than learning new things and buying new stuff. So she rationalizes her decisions as a principled stand against the digitization of the world.
My experience is that these people have no idea the extent to which they inconvenience others. In fact, I would say that it comes close to being rude. It is not immoral, but it sure is annoying. Instead of dropping an email or posting on a Facebook wall or clicking a button on Skype, family members have to write out up their communications and stick them in an envelope and find a stamp and walk to a mailbox and wait a week or two or three to get an answer back.
It’s all kind of crazy. People do it for a while, but then eventually find themselves annoyed and give up. Then the person on the other end gets angry and upset and feels ignored or cut off. This is their choice, too! It is a direct consequence of refusing to join the modern world.
Then there are the late adopters who pride themselves in not glomming on to the new gadget. They imagine themselves to be above the fray, more wise and prudent than their fellows. There is a reason they are called “late.” They eventually come around. Those who resist new technology are cutting themselves off from the stream of life itself.
True confession: I was once among the late adopters. I freely put down the techno enthusiasts. I wrote a highly negative review of Virginia Postrel’s provocative book The Future and Its Enemies, which turns out to have seen what I did not see. After the digital revolution advanced more and more, I began to notice something. By being a late adopter, I gained no advantage whatsoever. All it meant was that I paid a high price in the form of foregone opportunities. If something is highly useful tomorrow, chances are that it is highly useful today, too. It took me a long time to learn this lesson.
Finally, I did, and my fears, excuses, rationalizations and strange anti-tech snobbery melted away.
To really engage life to its fullest today means being willing to embrace the new without fear. It means realizing that we have more mental and emotional resources to take on new challenges. If we can marshal those and face these challenges with courage and conviction, we nearly always find that our lives become more fulfilling and happy.
The biggest canard out there is that the digital age has reduced human contact. It has vastly expanded it. We can keep up with anyone anywhere. We make new friends in a fraction of the time. That sense of isolation that so many feel is evaporating by the day. Just think of it: We can move to a new region or country and find ourselves surrounded by communities of interest in a tiny fraction of the time it used to take us.
As a result, digital media have made the world more social, more engaging, more connected with anything and everything than ever before. This isn’t a scary science fiction world in which the machines are running us; instead, the machines are serving us and permitting us to live better lives that were never before possible. Through technology, millions and billions have been liberated from a static state of existence and been granted a bright outlook and hope.
In the 19th century, people loved technology. The World’s Fair was the glitziest and most wonderful thing that happened in the course of the decade. Everyone wanted to celebrate the entrepreneurs who made it happen. Everyone understood that technology that succeeds does so because we as people have chosen it and that we chose it for a reason: It fits in with our search for a better life.
Perhaps that sense of optimism changed with the government’s push for the nuclear bomb. In World War II, we saw technology used for mass murder and ghastly accomplishment of human evil as never before seen in history. Then we went through almost 50 years in which the world was frozen in fear of the uses of technology. It wasn’t called the Cold War for nothing. When it finally ended, the world opened up and we could turn our energies again toward technology that serves, rather than kills, people.
The real “peace dividend” you hold in your hand. It’s your smartphone. It’s your e-reader. It’s the movies you stream, the music you have discovered, the books you can read, the new friends you have, the amazing explosion of global prosperity that has visited us over the last 10 years. This is technology in the service of the welfare of humanity.
In conclusion, no, we are not oppressed by technology. We can embrace it or not. When we do, we find that it brightens both the big picture and our own individual lives. It is not to bemoan, ever. The state of nature is nothing we should ever be tempted to long for. We are all very fortunate to be alive in our times. My suggestion: Try becoming an early adopter and see how your life improves.