Economics: “Laws” or social control?

by Judy Ferro

A recent vacation required that I go nearly two weeks without access to newspapers or the Internet. Since I had a four-hour-a-day habit, it was a startling break. Fortunately the change was made more than bearable by some intellectual conversation and the chance to soak up hours of sunshine.

My traveling companion, who was preparing to teach a theory class for students of Human Centered Engineering and Design, shared a number of concepts with me, including “technological determinism.”

Does technology drive the development of our social structure and cultural values? Or is the reverse true: that our social structure and cultural values drive our technology?

An example: today all professionals must use e-mail. Is that because the technology developed and forced a restructuring of our work days or because people liked the technology and chose to use it?

This isn’t a new query. The place of technology in our social evolution has been questioned since machines began replacing people in the workplace during the 19th century.

Today many call predictions of technological progress “laws,” implying that they are as certain as gravity. “Moore’s Law,” first voiced by a founder of Intel, states that the number of transistors per integrated circuit will double every two years. “Butter’s Law” says that the amount of data coming out of optical fibers will double every nine months. The “Carlson Curve” predicts that the efficiency and performance of DNA sequencing technologies will at least double every two years.

But such advances require that society devote resources to their development. Is technology, then, controlling the direction of society or does society select which technologies receive support?

For my companion’s students, and others who will be working in technology, the question is essentially: Can I control what I produce or must I go with the flow?

In a way, many of us face this question. Some educators battle against standardized tests dictating course content. Are they Luddites fighting an impossible battle or can they lead us to a better way?

Some farmers fight against the increased use of chemicals on crops and the use of restrictive cages for animals.

Some doctors pay little attention to insurance companies’ hoops and focus on treating the individual needs of each patient.

Some stock traders ignore the pressure to maximize profits and refuse to recommend risks they’d be unwilling to take themselves.

Do they all symbolize last ditch efforts doomed to fail?

My traveling companion pointed out that if we view ourselves as individuals, we feel powerless. It is uniting, becoming part of a group, of a social movement, which empowers us to go against the flow.

Nearly 200 nations have signed a pact to support renewable energy technologies and phase out coal and oil production. The pact itself is general and weak. Yet, the number pledging to work for change—corporations as well as countries—is heartening.

If they succeed, they will prove technological determinism wrong.

Could we hope for similar success in tackling “economic determinism”?

“The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”

That’s another way of saying that feudalism—where “freemen” pledge service to a “noble” who can support an army for protection—is the natural order of things.

Adam Smith, the 18th century political economist who formulated many of the “laws” of economics widely accepted today, believed they applied only if businesses were owner operated and would fail once corporations were added to the mix.

Still, many ignore the lessons of the Great Depression and insist that a “free marketplace” is best even when it is not free, but dominated by corporate Goliaths.

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