“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 […]
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 giggles.
I spoke to him to try to engage him in conversation.
His mother was sitting on the side of pool and said to me, “He can’t hear a word you are saying.”
I thought by that she meant that when he is having fun, he is not interested in adult conversation. So I laughed and tried again. She clarified what she meant: He is completely deaf. Literally, he can’t hear anything.
I felt embarrassed.
But then she added something that amazed and surprised me. She said that when he is not swimming, he wears equipment that allows him to hear completely normally. He just has to take off the equipment for the water.
I asked for details, simply because, for whatever reason, I hadn’t really known about this technology. As she explained, the boy’s disability became apparent in the first few weeks of his life. In any other era, he would never have heard a sound. Fortunately, starting in the year 2000, implants became available for children. The ear implants that give him hearing came after about six months. Since then, he has heard nearly as well as everyone else.
My jaw just dropped open. Here is a miracle of our time, a brilliant example of how technological progress isn’t really about machines and efficiency, but about the quality and vibrancy of human life itself.
Deafness has been part of human life as far back as we can look in recorded history. It is mentioned by Aristotle, and Socrates was said to have addressed the issue. It is mentioned in Hebrew law and by the fathers of the Christian religion. It figured into folklore throughout the Middle Ages. Most of what was written and said treated deafness as a curse.
With growing enlightenment as to the nature of disability, we began to see real therapeutic efforts toward helping the deaf. In the 19th century, universities were founded. Languages were codified. Activists worked to have society treat deafness not as a wicked malady, but as a condition that comes with special gifts. A more humanitarian approach replaced age-old bias and even demonization.
Then, suddenly, everything changed. In our own time, vast numbers of deaf people have been given hearing, even from infancy. Technology changed everything. “Cochlear implants” became accessible to vast numbers of people. These small machines are put deep inside the ear to fix what is really just a small physical problem, and they are operated by sophisticated equipment that is barely visible.
It is today entirely possible that a deaf person will never know the fate of millions and millions of people throughout history, that of never hearing a song or the spoken world. The world has been opened up to them through the efforts of scientists and commercial providers over the course of some 50 years. As usual, when the solution arrives, people tend to forget the problem ever existed. That is where we are headed with deafness today.
As alert as I am to the surprises brought to us by market-based experimentation and innovation, learning of this genuinely surprised me. I suppose I had thought deafness was a permanent accident that humanity would always deal with. Before the late 19th century, people probably thought the same about infant mortality and hundreds of diseases that have since been cured. In the Middle Ages, it must have been this way with tooth pain, the pain of childbirth, and the inability to communicate with anyone outside your immediate vicinity.
All human problems seem intractable and perpetual when they are ever-present. But there are always a few among us who do not see problems this way. They see problems as rooted in the lack of some technological solution. And they get to work on a fix. Given time, given resources, given an open market in which to sell their fixes, they change history.
Work on fixing the problem of deafness through cochlear implants began in the 1950s, but no technology works out of the box. It takes learning and trying among many people who attempt marginal improvements, one bit at a time. Work picked up in the 1970s as the prospect of commercial viability of implants inspired more manufacturers to work with doctors and scientists.
As always, it took longer than it should have, but implants for adults were finally approved by the FDA in 1984. It wasn’t until just 13 years ago, however, that the government approved them for use in children as young as 6 months old. Another factor that slowed down development, as always, was the patent, which essentially assigned a monopoly of knowledge to certain individual firms. Even now, the market is hobbled and the devices overly expensive because of them. In other words, without government intervention, we would have seen more progress sooner.
Even so, I was fascinated to see a real-life example of how science and commerce radically changes life itself. How many people would have even imagined such a thing 100 years ago? Very few. Here is a beautiful example of how allowing entrepreneurs to be free of restrictions gives rise to genius solutions to problems most everyone else thinks are permanent.
And there is a still a long way to go. Already, this nice family that I met is looking into getting the next edition of the implants the child is using, because the new version is actually waterproof. He will be able to swim and hear at the same time. There are still other factors that need improvement: battery life, cosmetic appearance, the stability of the machinery itself, etc. And everyone looks forward to the day when the entire apparatus can be implanted with no external operation at all. These times are not far off.
Oh, and by the way, the implants are all manufactured by those kinds of capitalistic institutions everyone loves to hate. There is Cochlear Limited in Australia, Advanced Bionics (in the U.S, but a division of a Swiss company), and Med-El in Austria.
All are for-profit enterprises.
As we think about such things — seeming miracles accomplished through science and market entrepreneurship — what can we say about today’s anti-technology and socialist attitudes among the educated elite? The greens are habituated to be against all industrial progress. The neo-Luddites put down every advance. The socialists tell us that all solutions come from the public sector. Books and articles appear daily that tell us about the evils of technology and how it is ruining human community.
Meanwhile, people sneer at smartphones, gaming, and social media, and speak with trepidation about how Google Glass is going to turn us into cyborgs. The romantics long for a return to the simple life.
But do these people consider the lives of people such as this boy I met? Here is the truth: The return to the simple life means that deafness will not be cured. The simple life means pain, suffering, hunger, disease, malnutrition, early death, and the horror of struggling every day just to live another day. Every bit of the progress humanity has made over the state of nature is due to the unleashing of human creativity in the framework of an open society and an open market. This is the way to unleash the genius of innovative human service.
This is the path of progress. The path of regress is the opposite: command, regulate, control, coerce, and rule by those who imagine that they know what we need and construct a political order to impose it on us. Under such forms of political management, answers to intractable problems do not emerge through the regulatory thicket.
In the end, this is what is most scary about health care solutions like Obamacare. It is not so much how such political solutions misallocate existing resources. The real problem is how such systems lock down and control human creativity and end up preventing us from discovering what we currently do not know. They stop the emergence of seeming miracles such as tools to allow the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and the lame to walk again.
Might we someday truly find a cure for the remaining horrors in our world, such as cancer? It can happen, provided we have systems that are open to experimentation, commercial creativity, and trial and error. I met the living proof of this, a happy boy who will never know a world in which there was no solution for his disability.