An era of high tech and low results

There isn’t a day goes by without hundreds of articles being published around the world about new breakthroughs in technology. From new biotech findings, to nanotech creations, to consumer products, to ways of manipulating information, to simply cheaper and easier ways to do things, we’re not short of innovations.

But have you noticed? We’re not getting results from them.

A hundred years ago, as houses first got electricity, then refrigerators, radios, a car in the garage and the like, the changes were palpable — and the resulting effects obvious to all. Life got significantly better, in a short space of time. Two world wars and the Great Depression, in fact, couldn’t stop the obvious improvements.

Since the early 1960s, though, we haven’t had that. We’ve had ever decreasing amounts of incremental change, instead, despite all the new gadgets, systems and hype.

Much of that is because we’ve put too many roadblocks in the way — and the paradox that underlies that is that we made it easier for corporations to have their way with the world, not harder.

Scale seldom helps new innovations to emerge. Instead, it makes it easier for the already large to lobby for concessions, meet the cost of regulations, patent troll and the like to slow down change to a pace they can deal with.

Consider Sarbanes-Oxley. When Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, Adelphia and others blew up in the early 2000s these regulations were put in place to ensure that never again would auditors fail to expose failings in the management of public corporation. (Ask those who owned IndyMac, Countrywide, Bear Stearns, or Lehman Brothers how well that worked.)

If you’re a big organization, complying with “Sarbox” is a line item expense. “The Lawyers’ & Accountants’ Full Employment” provisions mean a small increment in cost. For a small company just starting out, compliance can cost 3% – 5% – or more of the company’s revenues. As a result, companies are now built not to become public corporations, but to be attractive tid-bits for big players to acquire.

Instead of working to change the world, they work to get a quick pay-day for their investors. It’s as though Edison threw a few lightbulbs on the table and said “well, there you are, I’ve done my part, now who wants to buy me?”, instead of spending years creating a systemic change.

On the other hand, when we want to preserve our communities, we’re told again and again that we can’t. We can’t put up barriers to anyone coming in and destroying our business districts by underpricing them long enough to drive them out of business, then raising prices to profit from a near monopoly position. Farmers find themselves being sued by seed companies for “using” patented products they didn’t buy but blew in on the wind. Land owners who don’t sell leases to energy exploration companies find that fracking occurs under their feet through horizontal practices worthy of at best an “oops, sorry” if the corporation involved is pursued through the courts.

All the people who get excited about what 3-D printing might mean for relocalizing manufacturing, or other innovations and opportunities, had better realize that we have a lot of work to do to undo the past sixty years of handing the world over to the forces of the status quo.

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