Everything Old Is New Again

Everything changes so quickly now that sometimes it’s hard to keep up. Today’s technology is revolutionizing the way we think about things, the way we do business, and even the way we relate to each other. It changes the way we live and work and earn a living. Modern society is going through a time of disruption and adjustment that seems unprecedented. It is not.

History can teach many lessons relevant to the present, but the official story recorded by sanctioned professional historians is typically a narrow, shallow view that reflects the biases of the story teller. There is a much richer source of stories that can give a broader and more nuanced view.

One of the benefits of modern technology is that that source is much more readily available to everyone. The thoughts of brilliant minds are now available in digital form at little or no cost to anyone with an Internet connection. The incredible insight and wisdom of people like Cicero, a Roman statesman from 2,000 years ago, has been translated into many languages. Important foundational works of science, philosophy, and literature can be downloaded and studied without the constraints of geography or high cost. It is tremendous irony that excerpts from people like Cicero were required reading for 12-year-olds 150 years ago.

It amazes me how people from thousands of years ago were just like us in so many ways. The politics, intrigues, and conspiracies, the tears of a mother’s despair, the fear of the unknown, and the challenges of making a new life when the old ways are destroyed are all timeless. Technology has changed. People have not.

Some experts express increasing concern that, with the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence and robotics, it won’t be too many years before computers and robots are able to do everything that humans are capable of doing, but faster and cheaper. That would seem to imply that human labor, physical and mental, will be obsolete, foreshadowing mass poverty and concentrated wealth for the owners of technology.

The Luddites of the early Industrial Revolution had the same fears. They tried to destroy the new technology and pass laws to protect their jobs. What happened in the long run was that, rather than destroying jobs, the technologies opened up vast new realms of possibilities and dramatically reduced costs and increased standards of living for everyone.

The same is happening with technology today. Rather than making the great majority of people poorer, improved technology, including robotics and artificial intelligence, will enhance lives by improving the tools that people use while, at the same time, reducing costs. As robotics and AI become ubiquitous, that also means that they will be inexpensive. Everyday people will be able to purchase and use the technology, not only for their own personal pleasure and comfort, but also to compete against other users of technology. A free economy adjusts as people take advantage of the new reality to accomplish their own goals.

Important caveats to this thesis are that the economy is actually free, that competition is allowed and encouraged, and that politicians don’t artificially increase the cost of living by inflating and taxing away all of the gains. Unfortunately, economic and monetary interference is increasing and is a major reason why personal incomes have not been keeping up with technology gains.

Those who are concerned with protecting the future should not worry about technology. They should, instead, focus attention on reigning in arrogant public officials who steal the future with politics and the devaluation of money, as they have tried to do throughout history. Indeed, everything old is new again.

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