Science and the Boing Boing economy - that yellow bastard

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+ flattop: I may be talking outta my butt, but...

March 23rd, 2007

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2007.0323.2145::Science and the Boing Boing economy
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Cory Doctorow, writer, technologist and blogger-proprietor of was recently interviewed by US News and World Report about the projected downturn in American productivity. His suggestions about what we should do to turn the economy around in the long term resonate pretty well with me, given that I, myself, am something of a technology buff.

A while ago a link came up on about a biotech company in Singapore that was able to create human embryonic stem cells without introducing living non-human tissue. In the discussion that followed, two comments stood out to me: "are we losing to Singapore?" and "How is medical advancement about winning or losing?" I've posted about the general American distrust of science previously, where I included the following quote, which I think sums up why medical advancement is about winning and losing:
Jobs and wages depend on science and technology. If our nation can't manufacture, at high quality and low price, products people want to buy, then industries will continue to drift away and transfer a little more prosperity to other parts of the world.
--Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World
Our ignorant politics and corporate salad-tossing are eroding our competitive edge against the rapidly-modernizing third world. With the advent of the internet, countries like China and India, countries that value science as a discipline are overtaking American industries. With idiotic laws and copyright policies, the government is (at times, literally) handcuffing software companies with novel products, such as Napster. The kowtowing we do to the RIAA and MPAA will prevent companies like and Pandora from seeing their innovative software to a profit. And the president's close-minded veto of government-funded stem cell research will only make for profits for cures created in other parts of the world.

We are shackled to our old ways--we are far too scared, too dumb to change our cars, our business models, our minds. The technology that American ingenuity has created will only bring us so far--if we're unwilling to continue to learn, to stay on the bleeding edge, then we will, as the commenter on Digg stated, "[lose] to Singapore" and all the other developing countries of the world.

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flattop::2007.03.26.06:50 pm::I may be talking outta my butt, but...
[User Picture]This subject has so many facets and variations I can hardly pick a starting point, but I'll try.
The part of the Sagan quote about manufacturing high quality at low price is at the heart of why so much manufacturing has moved to less expensive labor markets. Between the demand for cheap goods and the demand for higher manufacturing wages, something has to give. You hear people spouting off about Buying American, and then those same people spend all their money at Wal-Mart.
And even when something is inexpensive, it’s not enough. Americans have confused the concept of value with the idea of cheap and as a result, even items that are already cheap are pressured to be cheaper still. This isn't market pressure to create quality goods at a reasonable price; this is pressure to make the price as small as possible, period.
Of course, this doesn't apply to big ticket items like cars and refrigerators as much as it does to commodity items, but these big items have their own problems. A lot of them are made in unionized plants where pressure to increase wages and benefits is making them uncompetitive. The unions seem to have gone from their original purpose of protecting workers when laws didn't to gouging companies in the name of fair pay. If they really want to do right by the workers, they have to take a hard look at the world labor market and do what it takes to keep as many of their members employed as possible, even if that means reduced pay and benefits. The options seem pretty limited: face reality and keep jobs here or try to push an outdated model and send the jobs elsewhere. And maybe I come from a different generation, but since when is it the company’s job to take care of you for the rest of your life?
As far as innovation goes, I don’t think there is a lack of creativity or ingenuity in the US, but there does seem to be an assload of hurdles to overcome. Patents, particularly software patents, seem to have gotten out of hand. I was going to go off on a rant, but found this instead. It illustrates just how vague this idea is. At one point, they discuss whether electrons are patentable. Really. China and India, as well as other developing economies, don’t seem to be too far up the innovation scale. They have large, inexpensive labor pools but don’t have huge R&D sectors. When was the last time you heard of a truly new idea come form a developing nation? I’m not saying they won’t get there, they will, but I agree that even then the thing holding the US back will be the government’s sloth in adapting law to new technology and industry’s adherence to outdated business models.
Don’t get me started on the “moral” decision to cut off embryonic stem cell research funds.

thepeopleseason::2007.03.26.08:42 pm::Re: I may be talking outta my butt, but...
[User Picture]As far as innovation goes, I don’t think there is a lack of creativity or ingenuity in the US, but there does seem to be an assload of hurdles to overcome.

I think there's a significant cultural difference between China, India and the Western World, where American culture values the individual over the collective and pushing boundaries over the safe, sure way. But that's not to say that you'll never find new and innovative technology coming from that part of the world--South Korean technology companies like Samsung and LG are attempting to innovate in their own areas (say like, cellphones, before someone like Steve Jobs comes along and derails everyone). For the most part I think we agree on much of what's going on in this situation--I predict, however, that sometime in the near future, the US will be reacting in shock to the "third world," precisely because of its sloth and unwavering resistance to change. and that the next big breakthrough will not be centered here, but elsewhere.

One of the things I was thinking about when I wrote the above post was how resistant the old guard is to change. I recently watched Al Gore's statement to Congress about climate change, and Senator Inhofe's somewhat immature response to it. I know you don't necessarily agree with the whole treehugger stance, but in An Inconvenient Truth, Gore presents the following formulae:
Old Habits + Old Technology = Predictable Consequences
Old Habits + New Technology = Dramatically Altered Consequences
One way you can read this is that our idea of Manifest-Destiny-with-a-car-per-person is causing damage to the world.

But if you turn it around, it doesn't just apply to things like energy production/conservation. We see the RIAA fighting tooth and nail, suing 10-year olds to keep their old-paradigm business models, while CD sales have taken a serious nosedive. Their old habits don't turn the same profits with newer technology.

When it all comes down to it, we don't like to learn, and we don't like to change. We're ironically mistrustful of science. We'd rather believe that John Edwards can see our dead father floating beside our heads instead of learning about cold reads, which is more the pity given our history:
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
--John F. Kennedy

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