The uncomfortable necessity of progress

Progress is never easy.  As a new technology emerges, it almost inevitably means the demise of the technologies preceding it.  Blu-Ray replaces DVD, which replaced VHS.  Digital photography is replacing standard photography, and Polaroid.

These developments are relatively straightforward.  A superior technology benefits consumers, and in many cases the companies that offer it are replacing their own technology, trading sales of the old product for sales of the new.

Sometimes, though, it gets complicated, like when the march of progress uproots entire industries.  The combustion engine replaced the horse, and in so doing ended the gainful employment of many a blacksmith and buggy manufacturer, to use the cliched example.  Sometimes progress means that a particular country or region becomes extremely efficient at a particular type of production, and so becomes the primary source of that production.  Electronics, by and large, are manufactured in Asia.  Banking is largely based in the major centers of London, New York, and Tokyo.

In retrospect, this advancement seems reasonable and inevitable.  I like to think of the analogy of an emerging village as Europeans settled the US and Canada.   Initially, most people grew their own food, built their own homes, and repaired their own tools.  Then experts began emering: a baker; a tailor; a builder.  These people became skilled at a particular trade, and would barter their services for goods and services provided by other experts.  Fewer and fewer people grew their own food, instead relying on the emerging expertise of specialist farmers, who in turn relied on other experts for their equipment and clothing.

There are two instances when this starts getting particularly complicated: when the development crosses borders; and when it threatens an entire industry.  When one nation focuses its energies on electronics, or cars, or entertainment, it often does so at the expense of labourers in other countries who were previously in the same industry.

But what’s the difference, really, between an individual deciding to focus on leather making, and a nation deciding to focus on electronics?  In the short term, it causes grief for those in the industry who are unable to effectively compete.  In the long run, though, it allows production to be localized to where it’s most efficient.  Certainly, the town becomes dependent on the baker for his bread or the blacksmith for her horseshoes — but the baker and blacksmith are likewise dependent on the town.

That’s why it frustrates me to see industries lobbying for legal or political backing to prop up their failing businesses, like the recording industry, or the auto indistry in North America.  Losing jobs in these industries hurts us in the very short run, but allowing these people to focus on areas where we are able to more effectively compete is much better in the long run.


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