Why populism dooms societies to technological obsolescence

Interesting essay by Ricardo Hausmann, a former minister of planning of Venezuela who is now an academic at Harvard. His argument is basically that societies which impose an ethnic rather than a civic idea of citizenship inevitably doom themselves to technological backwardness. The reason is that

implementing many technologies also requires ingredients that can be provided only through non-market mechanisms, and here governments play a critical role. Consider high-speed rail. Without government authorization and cooperation, no private company can build a rail line. Western Europe has more than 14,000 kilometers (8,700 miles) of high-speed rail, and China has over 25,000. The United States claims to have 56 kilometers, in a short stretch that covers less than 8% of the distance between Boston and Washington, DC. The reason is obvious: this is a technology that, like the electric car, requires a social decision and a government that enables that choice.

In short, technology requires a society that connects to the world, both through trade and openness to talent, in order to exploit the gains from modularization. It also requires a society that is able to develop a shared sense of purpose, one that is deep and powerful enough to direct the government to provide the public goods that new technologies require. The first requirement is facilitated by a society having a broader and more inclusive sense of who is a member. The second is facilitated by a deeper and more meaningful sense of membership.

Developing these attitudes is not easy. It requires a civic rather than an ethnic sense of nationhood. This is why the stakes in today’s policy debates in the West are not just about values. In a competitive world, societies pay dearly for being unable – or unwilling – to deliver what technology wants.

The Spanish Empire made the choice to expel the Jews and the Moors from its realm in the late fifteenth century. It tried and failed to impose its intolerance on its dominions in the Low Countries in the sixteenth century. But after an 80-year bloody war of independence, the Netherlands emerged as a beacon of tolerance and attracted some of Europe’s greatest talent, from Descartes to Spinoza. Not surprisingly, it became the world’s richest country during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

It’s a good essay, marred only by Hausmann’s inexplicable endorsement of Kevin Kelly’s daft book, What Technology Wants.

Zuckerberg’s monster

This morning’s Observer column:

Who – or what – is Mark Zuckerberg? Obviously he’s the founder and CEO of Facebook, which is, in theory, a public company but is in fact his fiefdom, as a casual inspection of the company’s SEC filings confirms. They show that his ownership of the controlling shares means that he can do anything he likes, including selling the company against the wishes of all the other shareholders combined.

But the fact that Zuck wields autocratic power over a huge corporation doesn’t quite get the measure of him. A better metaphor is that he is the Dr Frankenstein de nos jours. Readers of Mary Shelley’s great 19th-century novel will know the story: of how an ingenious scientist – Dr Victor Frankenstein – creates a grotesque but sentient creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment. Repulsed by the monster he has made, Frankenstein flees, but finds that he cannot escape his creation. In the end, Frankenstein dies of exposure in the Arctic, pursuing the monster who has murdered his bride. We never learn what happened to the creature.

Facebook is Zuckerberg’s monster. Unlike Frankenstein, he is still enamoured of his creation, which has made him richer than Croesus and the undisputed ruler of an empire of 2.2 billion users. It has also given him a great deal of power, together with the responsibilities that go with it. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that his creature is out of control, that he’s uneasy about the power and has few good ideas about how to discharge his responsibilities…

Read on