Will technology shift back towards the old?
Some interesting theories by historian Martin Hutchinson
A Wall Street Journal article last weekend suggested that discomfort with novel applications of technology such as Twitter was a function of age. By refusing to sign on to Facebook or buy the latest expensive gadget one was merely confessing to being old (the author claimed to be 33, and seemed worried about the symptoms of aging – he should get out of Manhattan more!) But it set me to wondering: has new technology always been unattractive for older people, or was there a period in which they truly benefited from it? And if there was such a period, has it disappeared forever, or will we see a return to it as the population ages?
Without going back to ancient history, we can imagine that in the early stages of the Industrial revolution technology was not kind to the old. A Newcomen or Boulton and Watt steam engine, for example, required huge amounts of coal shoveled into it to make it function and was itself an enormously heavy piece of machinery – thus those who had passed their first peak of fitness would have found it difficult either to operate or to repair. Likewise the early factories with belt-driven machinery powered by gigantic steam engines had a tendency to catch the unwary and sever their limbs – the quick reaction speeds of youth were a definite advantage in surviving such places, and older workers would frequently exhibit disfiguring industrial injuries. Then there’s the notorious Rainhill Trials railway accident of 1830, in which the unfit, overweight 60-year-old William Huskisson, standing on a railway line in discussion with the Duke of Wellington about the formation of the Duke’s new government, was unable to get out of the way of the onrushing “Rocket” engine and so was crushed to death. With heavy, awkward machinery and few safety features, the old were at a natural disadvantage in the early years of industrialization.
The inventors of early industrial machinery were themselves towards the youthful side of middle age, even though they had to establish themselves financially before making their leaps forward. Newcomen was 46 when he developed his engine; Watt developed his first working model at 30, Arkwright patented his water frame at 36, Trevithick invented the locomotive at 32 and while Stephenson was 49 when he built “Rocket” his first successful engine was developed at 33. Thus early industrial machinery was developed by men in full physical vigor, and was poorly adapted to the older and more sedentary such as the unfortunate Huskisson.
As the industrial revolution developed, its products became less age-unfriendly as they became lighter. Furthermore, the age of their inventors tended to increase. Joseph Swan was 50 when he patented the electric light bulb, after which even the feeble and elderly with poor eyesight were able to live full lives in the evenings. Karl Benz was only 41 when he developed the automobile, and the early models remained age-hostile, since they had to be cranked by hand to start them, an operation impossible for the elderly, feeble and arthritic. The 35-year old Charles Kettering invented the self-starter, a major advance, but changing gears still required a level of coordination and strength that old people generally lacked. The two great breakthroughs were made by the General Motors engineer Earl Thompson, who brought out the synchromesh gearbox in 1928, when he was 36 years old and the first full automatic transmission in 1939, when he was 47 – but the inventions were paid for within a huge corporate structure under the direction of GM’s legendary CEO Alfred P. Sloan, 55 in 1928 and 66 in 1939; hence easily old enough to reap the benefit of both inventions (though doubtless his chauffeurs were younger!)
By 1960, the world was well designed for the elderly. Cars were large, easy to get in and out of, and equipped with soft suspensions, fully automatic transmissions and air conditioning. Homes were fully electric, with labor saving devices that not only reduced the work of women but also made them easy to live in for the elderly, who no longer had to stoke coal fires but could simply turn on the heating, while cookery had equally become a matter of twiddling a few dials. On the other hand, almost all machinery was electromechanical, thus easily comprehensible to its users and repairable by the millions of handymen and repair shops who found active blue-collar employment without the need for specialized training or expensive electronic machinery. Shopping no longer needed to be carried home each day; instead the supermarkets had car parks, and if necessary attendants who would help you load the car with the weekly groceries.
While diabetes, heart attacks and cancer still carried off many people in middle age, antibiotics at least prevented truly healthy individuals from succumbing to infections after an accident, or to pneumonia. At the same time, youth culture was confined to the young, while popular entertainment and marketing was geared to the late middle aged, who had accumulated seniority in their workplaces and hence had most of the money. Nobody harassed the aging and overweight with gymnasia, or with any unwanted exercise beyond the occasional round of golf. Finally, mild inflation, buoyant stock markets and high dividends rewarded well-established savers and homeowners, while final-salary pensions rewarded those who had become middle-aged early in life, and remained for several decades with the same employer.
Needless to say, this geriatric Nirvana has not lasted. Modern gadgets, so unlike the comforting electric cooker or room air conditioner, have minute control systems that are impossible for aged arthritic digits to manipulate. Modern televisions’ hundreds of channels become useless once the remote control (itself incomprehensible) has been lost. The replacement of the PC first by the notebook and now by the tablet and the cellphone is a retrograde step as far as the old are concerned – on a BlackBerry they can neither read the screen nor manipulate the keys accurately. Modern gadgets are also subject to incomprehensible but devastating failures at unexpected times, and need to be replaced more or less yearly -- far, far from the standards of a 1950s Maytag washing machine, which if bought in middle age would generally see you out.
The Internet itself took some getting used to for the old, but Facebook and Twitter require entirely new means of communication, involving new social norms with which the old are necessarily unfamiliar. Even though scientific progress has if anything slowed in the last fifty years, it has been made more difficult and unpleasant for the old to adapt to. Yes, medical advances have been superb, and one must always be grateful for them, but even in this field old people may perhaps be less than fully grateful to the inventor of colonoscopy, Dr. Bergein Overholt, a 28-year-old sadist when he did his most critical work. .
One huge difference between modern technological advances and those of the mid-20th century is the age of the inventors. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and the other computer geeks were in their 20s when they revolutionized the world, as were Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin and now Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Naturally, such people had no experience of being old, or understanding of the condition, and indeed having grown up in the nexus of youth-oriented culture they had very little contact with older people in their daily lives. It is thus unsurprising that new technology was designed without regard to the limitations that age brings. Whereas when the youngish Thompson invented the automatic transmission he operated under the direction of the elderly Alfred P. Sloan, the inventors of 2011’s advances have little or no adult supervision.
There are a number of factors that suggest technology’s youth-orientation may be about to reverse. First, the returns to investors on the innumerable venture capital investments of the late 1990s were abysmal, and there is every reason to believe that the results from the current crop will be no better. At some point, investors will get fed up with pouring their money down rat-holes; the prolonged period of tight money and high interest rates that will be necessary to combat rising inflation will intensify this pullback. This will again make it much more difficult for the under-30s to get funding and force most technological innovation back within large corporations, where it resided in the 1950s.
A second factor will be the continuing aging of the population in general and the refusal of the baby boomers to retire (largely because their overspending will have left them destitute in old age.) Within the corporations that increasingly become the principal nexus of innovation, decision making cadres will age in place, so that even if the new gadget producers are young, operational and funding decisions will be taken by the old. This is already happening; Steve Jobs, guiding force of the leading gadget innovator, is now 56.
A third factor will be the redistribution of purchasing power towards the old. With the baby boomers continuing longer in the workforce, and the young increasingly burdened by massive student debt at escalating interest rates, companies will be forced to go where the money is. Products designed by 25 year olds for 25 year olds will no longer find a sufficient market to be viable.
The redistribution of wealth towards emerging markets will alleviate this tendency, but not much. Most emerging markets have relatively low consumption as a percentage of GDP so the youthful gadget-oriented middle class are a small fraction of the total population. Then the emerging markets themselves are aging. China in particular is aging rapidly and will revert to the elder-orientation that is traditional to its culture. Currently the Chinese old are impoverished, having lost their prime earning years to the Cultural Revolution, but the next generation, young in the years when “to be rich is glorious” will have much higher purchasing power and will use it to pull producers towards their own needs. In any case, even with the emerging of new markets, much of the world’s purchasing power will remain concentrated in Europe and Japan, where the old are increasingly dominant.
If I were young, I would mourn the rapid passing of the years when innovations were designed by my contemporaries with my desires primarily in mind. Since I’m not, I will welcome the arrival of 2030’s equivalents of the 1957 Chrysler Imperial – self-driving, so that I no longer need to test my aging reflexes against those of insane youthful hot-rodders. I will also welcome the demise of the youth-oriented arrogance of the WSJ article – no more 33-year-olds lecturing me about my inadequacies!
Above all, I will welcome the arrival of that 1950s dream, sidetracked by the IT industry and society’s foolish orientation towards rootless, hyperactive youth: the fully functional household robot, built to withstand a generation of use with simple, easy to operate controls– the ultimate in making life easier and pleasanter for us old folk.
Ayn Rand Was Right: Wealthy Are on Strike Against Obama
I think Wayne Allyn Root is partly right below but that the effect he describes is just beginning so far. I think a lot of business people are waiting to see what Nov. 2012 brings forth
The U.S. economy is crumbling. Businesses are collapsing in record numbers. Jobs have disappeared. Tax revenues are down dramatically. Coincidence?
Everything happening today under Obama resembles the storyline of Ayn Rand’s famous book, Atlas Shrugged, one of the most popular books of all time, selling over 7 million copies. Now, under President Obama, Atlas Shrugged has come to life. Rand prophesized a country dominated by socialists, Marxists and statists, where looters, free loaders and poverty promoters live off the productive class. To rationalize the fleecing of innovative business owners and job creators, the looter class demonized the wealthy, just as Obama and his socialist cabal are doing in real life today.
The central plot of Atlas Shrugged is that in response to being demonized, over-taxed, over-regulated, and punished for success, America’s business owners were disappearing — dropping off the grid, and refusing to work 16-hour days to support those unwilling to put in the same blood, sweat and tears. They were going on strike. Because of that the original proposed title of “Atlas Shrugged” was “The Strike.”
They were going on strike to teach that civilization cannot survive when people are slaves to government. That without a productive class of innovative business owners willing to risk their own money and work 16-hour days, weekends and holidays, there are no jobs and no taxes to pay for government. If you punish the wealthy, the risk-takers, the innovators, you kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. In Obama’s America, fiction is becoming fact.
The lesson of Atlas Shrugged is that without the $100,000+ earners paying into Social Security, there are no pensions for the poor and lower middle class. Without the wealthy owners of million-dollar mansions paying $25,000 and $50,000 annual property tax bills, there is no funding for public schools. Without the wealthy paying into Medicare, there is no “free” healthcare for the elderly. Without capitalists motivated by profit, there are no discoveries to eradicate polio or create miraculous cancer and AIDS drugs. Without capitalists motivated by profit, there are no jobs, period! That is what happens when the producers of society go on strike to protect themselves from the looters.
Ayn Rand was warning the looters that there are consequences to their overzealous actions. She was warning that if the productive classes felt used, demonized, ripped off, and taken for granted, they would go on strike — stop working, retire early, go underground, or move to places where achievement is celebrated and they feel appreciated.
The latest U.S. Census proves Ayn Rand right. Under Obama the wealthy are striking, voting with their feet. They are moving to low-tax red states in droves, escaping from high-tax blue states where they are being demonized and punished by the millions.
The Census proves that Obama’s tax and spend philosophy is a dismal failure, an economic disaster killing jobs. It is no coincidence that 1.9 million FEWER Americans are working than before Obama’s stimulus. It is no coincidence that jobs are not returning to the private sector. It is no coincidence that tax revenues have dropped dramatically and cannot support Obama’s bloated Big Brother government. The innovators, risk-takers, and wealthy he demonized and punished are on strike.
The high tech revolution has killed the progressive-liberal tax-and-spend dream. Because of the Internet, email, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Satellite TV, I-phones, I-pads, and cell phones, business owners are no longer prisoners of Big Brother. Take a look at states where the latest Census shows Americans moved during the past decade: Nevada, Texas, Arizona, Florida, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alaska, Virginia — all low- or no-tax red states, states that lead the USA in economic freedom.
Now look at states they escaped from: New York, New Jersey, California, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan. Taxpayers, business owners, jobs creators, retirees with assets are fleeing the high tax, big spending, Big Brother states — the states being run like Obama is running the nation.
Progressives be afraid, be very afraid. If Obama is re-elected, these valuable producers will pick up and leave America altogether. There is a big world out there begging them to come. Places like Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Monte Carlo, Belize, Costa Rica, Panama, Bahamas, and Cayman Islands are low-tax havens that appreciate business owners and their sacrifices. They welcome wealthy ex-patriots. They celebrate individual achievement. They reward instead of punish business owners and financial risk-takers. They are wonderful places to live and are aggressively pursuing Americans.
I am just one small businessman, a third-party Libertarian political leader. Yet I personally have heard from thousands of fans, friends and supporters who have left America, are thinking of leaving America, are visiting other countries right now to decide where to go, or making preparations to leave in case Obama is re-elected. Just as Ayn Rand predicted, business owners are going on strike. Permanently.
The high tech revolution has freed them to run their businesses from anywhere in the world. The same high tech tools and toys that toppled a powerful and invincible 30-year dictator in Egypt and now threaten to topple powerful leaders throughout the Arab world, also offer mobility and freedom to U.S. taxpayers. Obama better learn the lesson of Mubarek before millions more business people decide they do not need to put up with looters, free loaders, and politicians who despise them.
Atlas is shrugging. Ayn Rand is saying “I told you so.”
The medical marketplace, free and unfree: "Prior to the advent of Medicare and Medicaid, individuals paid for the majority of medical goods and services out of their own pocket and utilized health insurance as a rational tool for mitigating financial risk posed by catastrophic events. During this time a real market existed for the vast majority of medical goods, and services and prices were reasonable. However, after the advent of these programs, third-party spending on routine medical services increased, and out-of-pocket spending fell dramatically."
Genetic determinism versus parental irrelevantism: "I think that parents affect their kids in lots of ways. Parents have big effects on religious affiliation and political party, small effects on many other traits, and a clear effect on the quality of the parent-child relationship. And those are just long-run effects within vaguely normal, First World families. In the short-run, and outside the vaguely normal First World range, parents matter far more. Still, if someone were to caricature my position as 'parental irrelevantism,' I would take no offense. It's an inaccurate summary of my position, but not wildly inaccurate."
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The Big Lie of the late 20th century was that Nazism was Rightist. It was in fact typical of the Leftism of its day. It was only to the Right of Stalin's Communism. The very word "Nazi" is a German abbreviation for "National Socialist" (Nationalsozialist) and the full name of Hitler's political party (translated) was "The National Socialist German Workers' Party" (In German: Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei)