We speak about ‘technology’ in almost reverent tones and assign it a special role in the economy. Mostly we think of this as being the provision of electronic products, information and communications services and software in its many forms. However, this is a rather limited way to look at technology and we should broaden its definition to include everything that humans have ever invented, from the Stone Age axe to the self-driving car.
In many ways, the things we invent are a defining characteristic of being human. In some historic eras, we seem to invent at a faster pace – the Industrial Revolution is a good example of this – and the emergence of the Internet in the 90s appears to have ushered in another period in which we are working at speed to produce products that exploit the connectivity of the web to change society, business and the economy. Here is my selection of the top six ways in which new technology has changed all three sectors and the world.
By the end of 2015, mobile phone penetration was 97% compared with about 10% in 2000. Internet access grew in parallel with this. These two factors led to the arrival of ecommerce, which has transformed retailing and the music industry to name just two business sectors. It has also radically changed the way humans interact with each other.
It also shows up inequalities in the world, with the developed world having above 80% access to the Internet compared with 34% for developing countries.
Since information is power, it is vital that the developing countries have greater access to connectivity and we are seeing that those places where they have managed to overcome the problems of poor communications networks are progressing faster than those who don’t.
It hasn’t increased productivity
Contrary to what you might expect, mobile phones and the Internet have not made us more productive. If you look at the USA, which is both the world’s largest economy and the leading producer of new technologies, you will notice that although productivity rose slightly after the launch of the web, it has now dropped again to around 1 per cent in the last 10 years. But in the 1960s it was at 3 per cent annually.
This seems surprising, but Robert Gordon of Northwestern University says that electricity, modern sewage, the telephone, radio, internal combustion engine, the car and aeroplane, all had a much bigger effect on productivity and society than the web and your mobile.
It divides the world
In addition to there being inequalities in access to information technology around the world, the new technologies have created other types of inequalities. There are the markets where a handful of people and businesses dominate the world economy – Microsoft and Bill Gates are examples of this. Globalisation is another product of the new technology and there has been a huge growth in financial trading thanks to online access.
Big Brother is watching
Global communications have raised the question of security in cyberspace and the use of ‘big data’ brings the question of our personal privacy to our attention. The amount of data about each one of us that is stored on computers is enormous compared to the pre-computer and Internet era. It has also changed the individual’s relationship with government and corporate entities, and in a way that not everyone is happy about. The sense that Big Brother is watching us has led to all kinds of fears about infringement of our rights.
The Fake News thing
And finally it has created a monster in politics that we are now referring to as ‘fake news’. Whilst our almost instant access to global information has many benefits, it has also spawned an online media presence that spews out hatred, lies and often just plain stupidity.
We can see that new technology has brought us many benefits, but we must always remain aware of its dangers as well. If we use it thoughtfully it will advance us; if we don’t pay attention to its adverse effects, it can potentially destroy us.