The Virtuous CIO  

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June 13, 2010 — Discerning Trends — Part 3

I have a memory of watching a NASA scientist on television demonstrating the shoebox sized computer used in the Gemini space capsule. During that time when a small computer was the size of an upright piano, this machine was a marvel of compactness and power. I suppose in terms of absolute power it was roughly equivalent to a mid-1970s handheld calculator. In the mid-1960s, however, it clearly advanced the state of the art.

The moon program of the 1960s injected large amounts of capital and motivation into the technology industry. While the extent of the effect of this investment has been debated, it is without a doubt significant. The technologies we used to boost man into orbit in those early years were primitive, but they laid a foundation in computing, electronics, propulsion, and materials science.

Major conflict and the aftermath are also a drivers of technological innovation. It is an axiom that the military general staffs need to be busy preparing to fight the next war, rather than the last one. While military technology is highly specialized and cost ineffective, there is a constant trickle into civil industry. World War II drove the development of electronic digital computing, as well as aeronautics. The Cold War further advanced those disciplines as well as built the foundations of what we know now as the Internet.

As these things filtered into the civilian marketplace, the tipping point, or critical mass resulted in explosive advances which changed our civilization irreversibly. In the unfettered markets of capitalism, the combination of the new technologies with the realization of potential profits resulted in a nearly unstoppable force. On a macro scale this is one of the factors in the collapse of the old command economies of the Soviet bloc. They were simply not immune from the laws of the free market. The inescapable conclusion is: the market is efficient!

While the marketplace is driven primarily by the basest of human characteristics: greed and selfishness, the more noble or Christian businessman seeks to ameliorate the worst characteristics of the market. Social theory wishes to ignore that the growth of the economy and of wealth tends to lift the lower sectors as well as the upper. One interesting result of the economic growth of the last generation is that the poorest people in America live substantially better than most people in the Third World.

Technology has not accomplished this. Rather, it is a tool used by the free market to create wealth, and provide more comfortable lives for everyone.