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Technology And Globalization Have Failed Us

2019 November 24
by Greg Satell

In November 1989, there were two watershed events that would change the course of world history. The fall of the Berlin Wall would end the Cold War and open up markets across the world. That very same month, Tim Berners-Lee would create the World Wide Web and usher in a new technological era of networked computing.

It was a time of great optimism. Books like Francis Fukayama’s The End of History predicted a capitalist, democratic utopia, while pundits gushed over the seemingly neverending parade of “killer apps,” from email and e-commerce to social media and the mobile web. The onward march of history seemed unstoppable.

Today, 30 years on, it’s time to take stock and the picture is somewhat bleak. Instead of a global technological utopia, there are a number of worrying signs ranging from income inequality to the rise of popular authoritarianism. The fact is that technology and globalization have failed us. It’s time to address some very real problems.

Where’s The Productivity?

Think back, if you’re old enough, to before this all started. Life before 1989 was certainly less modern prior to 1989, we didn’t have mobile phones or the Internet, but for the most part it was fairly similar to today. We rode in cars and airplanes, watched TV and movies, and enjoyed the benefits of home appliances and air conditioners.

Now try to imagine what life was like in 1900, before electricity and internal combustion gained wide adoption. Even doing a simple task like cooking a meal or cleaning the house took hours of backbreaking labor to haul wood and water. While going back to living in the 1980s would involve some inconvenience, we would struggle to survive before 1920.

The productivity numbers bear out this simple observation. The widespread adoption of electricity and internal combustion led to a 50-year boom in productivity between 1920 and 1970. The digital revolution, on the other hand, created only an 8-year blip between 1996 and 2004. Even today, with artificial intelligence on the rise, productivity remains depressed.

At this point, we have to conclude that despite all the happy talk and grand promises of “changing the world,” the digital revolution has been a huge disappointment. While Silicon Valley has minted billionaires at record rates, digital technology has not made most of us measurably better off economically.

Winners Taking All

The increase of globalization and the rise of digital commerce was supposed to be a democratizing force, increasing competition and breaking the institutional monopoly on power. Yet just the opposite seems to have happened, with a relatively small global elite grabbing more money and more power.

Consider market consolidation. An analysis published in the Harvard Business Review showed that from airlines to hospitals to beer, market share is increasingly concentrated in just a handful of firms. As more expansive study of 900 industries conducted by The Economist found that two thirds have become more dominated by larger players.

Perhaps not surprisingly, we see the same trends in households as we do with businesses. The OECD reports that income inequality is at its highest level in over 50 years. Even in emerging markets, where millions have been lifted out of poverty, most of the benefits have gone to a small few.

The consequences of growing inequality are concrete and stark. Social mobility has been declining in America for decades, transforming the “land of opportunity” into what is increasingly a caste system. Anxiety and depression are rising to epidemic levels. Life expectancy for the white working class is actually declining, mostly due to “deaths of despair” due to drugs, alcohol and suicide. The overall picture is dim and seemingly getting worse.

The Failure Of Freedom

Probably the biggest source of optimism in the 1990s was the end of the Cold War. Capitalism was triumphant and many of the corrupt, authoritarian societies of the former Soviet Union began embracing democracy and markets. Expansion of NATO and the EU brought new hope to more than a hundred million people. China began to truly embrace markets as well.

I moved to Eastern Europe in the late 1990s and was able to observe this amazing transformation for myself. Living in Poland, it seemed like the entire country was advancing through a lens of time-lapse photography. Old, gray concrete building gave way to modern offices and apartment buildings. A prosperous middle class began to emerge.

Yet here as well things now seem to be going the other way. Anti-democratic regimes are winning elections across Europe while rising resentment against immigrant populations take hold throughout the western world. In America, we are increasingly mired in a growing constitutional crisis.

What is perhaps most surprising about the retreat of democracy is that it is happening not in the midst of some sort of global depression, but during a period of relative prosperity and low unemployment. Nevertheless, positive economic data cannot mask the basic truth that a significant portion of the population feels that the system doesn’t work for them.

It’s Time To Start Taking Responsibility For A Messy World

Looking back, it’s hard to see how an era that began with such promise turned out so badly. Yes, we’ve got cooler gadgets and streaming video. There have also been impressive gains in the developing world. Yet in so-called advanced economies, we seem to be worse off. It didn’t have to turn out this way. Our current predicament is the result of choices that we made.

Put simply, we have the problems we have today because they are the problems we have chosen not to solve. While the achievements of technology and globalization are real, they have also left far too many behind. We focused on simple metrics like GDP and shareholder value, but unfortunately the world is not so elegant. It’s a messy place and doesn’t yield so easily to reductionist measures and strategies.

There has, however, been some progress. The Business Roundtable, an influential group of almost 200 CEOs of America’s largest companies, recently issued a statement that discarded the old notion that the sole purpose of a business is to provide value to shareholders. There are also a number of efforts underway to come up with broader measures of well being to replace GDP.

Yet we still need to learn an important lesson: technology alone will not save us. To solve complex challenges like inequality, climate change and the rise of authoritarianism we need to take a complex, network based approach. We need to build ecosystems of talent, technology and information. That won’t happen by itself, we have to make better choices.

– Greg

Image: Pixabay

4 Responses leave one →
  1. November 24, 2019

    The Foolish Idea of “Settled” Science
    The Main Stream Media trumpets (almost endlessly) that the science regarding climate change is “settled” as evidenced by 97% of climatologists who have reached a “consensus” about anthropogenic (human-induced) global warming. What the press does not stress is that this like-mindedness among these experts is based almost entirely upon computer simulations (GCMs or climate models) and not on any significant experimental data or evidence. Even more distressing is that many (most?) climate advocates see the current scientific findings as fixed and they reject out of hand any actual contrary research results. Like it or not science is simply never settled.
    Any historian of science will quickly belie the unsound position regarding “settled” science. A few solid examples should suffice to dismiss this misbegotten belief. During the late 19th century the entire scientific community accepted as fact the necessary existence of a “luminiferous ether” through which photons from the Sun traveled to reach the Earth. Then in 1887 Michelson & Morley of Case Western Reserve conducted a single experiment that showed that no such “ether” existed. Thus, all the prior evidence and belief was discarded. [Note: Interestingly, it was M&M’s research that set Einstein on his search concerning relativity.] The bottom line is that the 97% “consensus” concerning the “settled” science regarding the existence of a luminiferous ether was wrong.
    Next, at the turn of the 20th century, virtually every cosmologist and astronomer agreed that the stars and galaxies that made up our universe were fixed in position. Then in 1930, Edwin Hubble by studying the “redshift” of the light reaching Earth from these heavenly bodies showed that our universe was expanding and that it was doing so at an accelerating rate. Once again, all of the “settled” science was placed in the trash bin of history.
    Another excellent example is “continental drift”. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, virtually every scientific expert insisted that the position of the Earth’s continents was fixed. This scientific conclusion was based upon the observation that although granite existed on the continents, the seafloor was composed of denser basalt, and the “settled” science during the first half of the twentieth century was that there were two types of crust, named”sial” (continental type crust) and “sima” (oceanic type crust). Furthermore, it was “accepted” by all researchers that a static shell was present under the continents. Then in 1947, a team of scientists using an array of instruments confirmed the existence of a rise in the central Atlantic Ocean and found that the floor of the seabed beneath the layer of sediments consisted of basalt, not the granite which is the main constituent of continents. They also found that the oceanic crust was much thinner than continental crust. All these new findings put the “settled” science into question.
    Subsequently, beginning in the 1950s, scientists using instruments that measure attraction (magnetometers) began recognizing odd “striping” across the ocean floor. After the maps with this “zebra pattern” of magnetic bands were published, the connection between seafloor spreading and this layout was correctly linked to the historic evidence of geomagnetic reversals. Like it or not, the seven continents had been moving. Again, the 97% “consensus” regarding the “settled” science of fixed continents had to be discarded. In science, the idea of a “settled consensus” is simply silly. Science is constantly uncovering new truths.

    The Concept of “Settled” Science Regarding Anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change has recently been falsified

    In 2014, a group of Chinese researchers found evidence suggesting that the current warm phase of a 500-year cycle could terminate over several decades, ushering in a 250-year cool phase. Then on July 3, 2019, Science Daily announced that new evidence suggests that high-energy particles from space known as galactic cosmic rays affect the Earth’s climate by increasing cloud cover, causing an “umbrella effect.” When galactic cosmic rays increased during the Earth’s last geomagnetic reversal transition 780,000 years ago, the umbrella effect of low-cloud cover led to high atmospheric pressure in Siberia, causing the East Asian winter monsoon to become stronger. This is evidence that galactic cosmic rays influence changes in the Earth’s climate. “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has discussed the impact of cloud cover on climate in their evaluations, but this phenomenon has never been considered in climate predictions due to the insufficient physical understanding of it,” stated lead Japanese investigator, Professor Hyodo. “This study provides an opportunity to rethink the impact of clouds on climate. When galactic cosmic rays increase, so do low clouds, and when cosmic rays decrease clouds do as well, so climate warming may be caused by an opposite-umbrella effect. The umbrella effect caused by galactic cosmic rays is important when thinking about current global warming as well as the warm period of the medieval era.”

    Subsequently, on Aug. 11, 2019, it was reported that a new study had found winters in northern China have been warming since 4,000 BC. The study found that winds from Arctic Siberia have been growing weaker, the conifer tree line has been retreating north, and there has been a steady rise in biodiversity in a general warming trend that continues today. It appears to have little to do with the increase in greenhouse gases which began with the industrial revolution, according to the researchers. Lead scientist Dr. Wu Jing, from the Key Laboratory of Cenozoic Geology and Environment at the Institute of Geology and Geophysics, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said the study had found no evidence of human influence on northern China’s warming winters. “Driving forces include the sun, the atmosphere, and its interaction with the ocean,” Wu said. “We have detected no evidence of human influence.”
    Then the web site,, on Nov. 6, 2019, cited three papers from the Federal University of Sao Paolo, Brazil which partially affirm the studies from Japan and China. This research insists that “The composition (of marine) sediments carried by rivers from the mainland to the ocean can be used as a basis for calculating variables such as temperature, precipitation, and marine salinity. In the context of ongoing global climate change, the study of the past is fundamental to validating the accuracy of the climate models used to make predictions.”
    The world-famous philosopher of science, Karl Popper, insisted that to be a valid scientific theory must be falsifiable. This includes the widely held conjecture of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change. In short, a single set of scholarly findings that is not explained by the premise of man-made global warming which is attributable to the burning of fossil fuels can falsify this entire body of scientific speculation and this has now occurred. Today, six peer-reviewed scientific papers that were conducted by six separate groups of expert investigators from four different universities in three separate countries and which have all been published in eminent peer-reviewed scholarly journals have found no evidence to support the assertion regarding human-induced climate change. Instead, all six groups independently found that the warming that has happened was almost entirely attributable to galactic cosmic rays that affect the quantity of the Earth’s low hanging clouds. These expert investigators call this canopy or blanket the “umbrella effect”. The bottom line is that the entire climate change hysteria has now been falsified and is untrue. These six experimental results have shown that the IPCC and its computer simulation models (GCMs) are not valid.

    For those who require links here are six:…

  2. Michael Breeden permalink
    December 17, 2019

    Wow… and the politicking never ends. But then there is that pesky the “predictability” aspect of science a well.

    How amazing. None of your links seem to work… seems like your discussion. … If you play with them you can get to National Center for Biotechnology Information, but the articles you are trying to link to are mostly unguessable. Playing with the last link you can get to the article about the Chinese research. Not very compelling. Talking about the sun might be more convincing if the sun wasn’t in a quiet phase. This is really lame…

    Actually, any mention of “Settled Science” just shows the ideological bent you follow, but that’s OK, truth doesn’t care. There is that predictability aspect of science thing. I mean even the Seven Big Oil companies said in court that they predicted global warming from fossil fuel use. Who are you to argue with them? As for the computer simulations you blithely dismiss at the end of your discussion, no, actually they have shown not only to be accurate but that the worse case models are what are occurring.

    So 10,000 scientists signed a letter saying there was a Climate Crisis but you’ve found a couple of articles that might suggest things are jsut fine. Cool. … Cosmic… but not remotely related to what Greg wrote about.

  3. Michael Breeden permalink
    December 17, 2019

    Back to your essay… I’ll just ask can we expect our historic economic system to function well when a basic change in the fundamentals of it has changed (many have changed)? I’m talking about automation. The jobs that supported the middle class are gone. Pretty big change. Low paid service jobs have expanded while wages have been stagnant and the cost of living has multiplied. The big tech companies are not big job producers and “Digital Transformation” is mostly about automation – getting rid of employees.

    You wrote: “To solve complex challenges like inequality, climate change and the rise of authoritarianism we need to take a complex, network-based approach. ” OK, a networked approach… to what? You described the problems “low prosperity and the system isn’t working for them”. I described the problem with a focus on automation, which is going to increase, so how do you solve those problems with a network-based approach? Articulate a target for the network. What is the path the network will follow to the target?

  4. December 20, 2019

    Hi Michael,

    My point about a network-based approach links to an article that provides more depth. However, the short version is that complex problems have multiple causes that reinforce each other in nonlinear ways. So attempting to mitigate individual causes in isolation is unlikely to be very effective. You need to treat the causes as a network and devise integrated solutions.

    – Greg

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