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Technology Progress

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Some writers talk as if technological progress only really started after the second world war.

We are still living in a world that has been shaped by the enormous technological breakthroughs of the New Stone Age.

Even the current dominance of certain European and Asian races in computer technology can be explained in terms of earlier breakthroughs in agriculture and writing, not to mention weaponry. Where would we be without the wheel or the clock?

Read Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization
Read Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel.

relentless progress

progress as escape
progress as convergence

rate of change

falling rate of profit


technology of the millennium

Lewis Mumford

Albert Borgmann

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Relentless Progress

veryard projects > technology change management > technology progress > relentless progress
"Americans have a healthy scepticism about change, and demand safety. But once satisfied that the science is sound, they recognize that not moving to the next plateau of human achievement is a step backwards."

Richard Rominger, US deputy secretary of agriculture.
Source: Financial Times, June 11th 1999. 

There is of course a commercial and political context to this remark as well as a scientific one.

"Chalna - jeevan ki kahani. Rukna - mort ki nishani." Walking - you're alive. Standing still - you're dead. 

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"No society can escape the fact of change or evade the duty of selective accumulation. Unfortunately change and accumulation work in both directions: energies may be dissipated, institutions may decay, and societies may pile up evils and burdens as well as goods and benefits. To assume that a later point in development necessarily brings a higher kind of society is merely to confuse the neutral quality of complexity or maturity with improvement. To assume that a later point in time necessarily carries a greater accumulation of values is to forget the recurrent facts of barbarism and degradation."

Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization, p 184

A few years ago, the Whole Earth Review published a wonderful essay by Mary Catherine Bateson called The Revenge of the Good Fairy. If anyone know of a web version of this essay, please contact me.

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Progress as escape, progress as convergence

veryard projects > technology change management > technology progress > escape and convergence

Progress can be understood in two ways: as a moving towards the future, and as a moving away from the past.

A common attitude towards progress is captured in the eighteenth century political label of Whig. The Whig should not be confused with the modern Liberal, although the categories do overlap. The Whig takes for granted that traditional designs, traditional habits, traditional methods and attitudes, all deserve to be overthrown and replaced. Merely to label something as traditional is to imply it is ripe for change. When used by a Whig, the word traditional is always to be taken as an implied criticism. Stephen Jay Gould refers to 'whiggish history' - the placing of misconceptions into the past, so that the present can be shown as enlightened in comparison.

Technology vendors often present their wares against an artificial benchmark. Compare our tools and methods against the "traditional" approach, they say. Look at the potential improvements in productivity and quality! They imply (although they are usually careful not to state) that their prospective customers are still in the Dark Ages. Our products and services will make you Modern!
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Rate of Change

veryard projects > technology change management > technology progress > rate of change

I'm uneasy about statements about the rate of technological "progress", because I don't know what the metric is.

Of course we can count the number of patent applications (increasing and accelerating) or the number of new gadgets and devices (also increasing and accelerating).

We can also cite specific examples and anecdotes, although it is difficult to know how to generalize from these.

But to my mind, a real notion of technological progress entails a rather deeper (rich and complex) conception of technology, which cannot be measured solely by quantities of patents and gadgets.

What is the aggregate effect of a vast number of tiny technical moves? Can every technical move, however trivial, be regarded as a step forward? If one engineer develops a jamming device, and another engineer develops an anti-jamming device, do these inventions cancel each other out? If a mechanism is invented in the 1960s, but only becomes widely used in the 1990s, when do we date this event for the purpose of measuring "progress"?

There are many more questions where these came from, and I don't intend to answer them here. What I want to highlight here is the danger of using crude global notions such as Technological Progress, without an underlying detailed theory.

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Falling Rate of Profit

veryard projects > technology change management > technology progress > falling profit

There are Marxian arguments linking technological innovation with a falling rate of profit.

In many situations, innovation yields at best a short-term competitive advantage to the innovators, since rival firms are apparently "forced" to copy the innovation to remain competitive. Banks and ATMs are commonly cited as an example of this, although I have not examined the data.

This would suggest that technology "diffusion" is influenced by the competitive environment. It is "rational" for a monopoly to resist technical innovation, since innovation is likely to erode profit. We should therefore expect greater resistance from monopolies (and perhaps oligopolies), and lower resistance in markets where competition is keener.

This suggestion may only apply to some types of innovation. If so, it would be useful to know which types.

I am interested to know of any relevant studies on the relationship between technology change and profitability, possibly (but not necessarily) from a Marxian or neoMarxian perspective.

Theoretical Background

According to classical economic theory (e.g. Ricardo), there is a tendency for profits to fall, because of the marginal
productivity of agriculture. Since the workforce must eat, the productivity and profitability of all sectors or the economy are dependent on the productivity of agriculture.

In classical economic theory, this tendency for falling profit is alleviated by technological progress – both within agriculture and within industry generally.

Marx accepted the classical belief in the falling rate of profit, but instead of explaining this in terms of the productivity of agriculture – an argument that he dismissed as "organic chemistry" – he tried to explain it in terms of the inherent contradictions of industry itself.

Following Marx, we may suppose the tendency for falling profit may be locally alleviated by technological progress, but it is globally reinforced by technological progress.

Modern economists reject both the classical and the Marxian version of the falling rate of profit. Elster points out some confusions in Marx’s presentation of the theory, which he dismisses as contrary to both intuition and fact.

But any attempted empirical refutation of the theory misses the point. It may be possible to find evidence that technological progress is associated with maintaining or even increasing the rate of profit – but this evidence merely proves that profit levels can be maintained locally.

(Analogous arguments can be found in thermodynamics involving entropy. The fact that entropy can be contained or reversed within certain local systems for relatively long periods does not contradict the basic thermodynamic laws predicting a general increase in entropy. However, it should be noted that we are using the analogy with thermodynamics merely to indicate the invalidity of a certain line of argument, and we do not wish to stretch the analogy any further.)

Elster is hot on the fallacy of composition when committed by other writers – for example, MSOM p 159 – so it would be strange if he committed the fallacy himself here.

In fairness, it should be noted that evidence of technological erosion of profit levels could also be interpreted as local, and does not exclude the possibility of a larger/longer view in which technological progress restores profit levels, perhaps in a long-term cycle.

References and Further Reading

Jon Elster, Explaining Technical Change, Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx. Cambridge University Press, 1985.
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veryard projects > technology change management > technology progress > references
Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization

first published New York, Harcourt Brace, 1934

Mumford was one of the first writers to take a serious historical look at the impact of technology on society. 

Read his account of the complex relationship between the mediaeval development of clocks and the rigours of monastic life.

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Lewis Mumford, The Condition of Man

first published 1944.

A lesser work by Mumford.
C. West Churchman, Prediction and Optimal Decision

Englewood Cliffs NJ, Prentice-Hall, 1961

This was one of Churchman's early works. He went on to write the highly acclaimed book The Systems Approach and its Enemies

Sad to say, all of Churchman's books are currently out of print.

Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel

first published 1997

Why did "civilization" develop at different rates in different parts of the world? 

Diamond's explanation is based on the plant and animal species (biodiversity) available to mankind in different continents. 

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Richard Veryard is a technology consultant, based in London.
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