Wednesday, September 7, 2011

There is no economy just technology II

Yesterday, I wrote that there is no economy just technology. Now this is obviously an exaggeration but I think I have hit on a point worth making.

From early in our lives we hear people talking about 'the economy'. We can start studying economics at high school and at university we can choose between an economics faculty, political economy or business - but there is no faculty for the study of technology.

It is natural for us to think in that the domain structure of social life is the economy and technology is a piece of machinery within that. However, let us revisit that assumption. The classical economists did not not even include technology. Their production function was land, labour and capital. More recently we have added technology but this is not technically true.

The expression should be: Labour (expressed through a particular techno system) * Land (the environment utilised for and with a particular techno system) * Capital (this itself is a techno system of its own). Now economic rules still have a role in our lives. Some industries grow and some decline etc.

But which comes first the 'economy' of a particular industry or is it the technological system.

Take an example - we now have an 'oil economy' but 150 years ago we didn't. We had a need for transport - humans have always looked for ways of moving more easily. Then multiple technologies came together: the ability to process oil, the internal combustion engine, the construction of a frame around the internal engine and the new forms of organisation that enabled the capturing of enough capital to mine the oil, transform the oil, ship the oil, build the vehicles, build the roads, build millions of oil distribution centres.

There is structure and an element of self organisation but it is all technology. And it doesn't matter whether you want to discuss the modern 'economy' or the salt based economies of ancient civilisations.

Keith Smith in his paper on knowledge based economies makes the following point:

Paleolithic and Neolithic was by any standards knowledge-based, and paleoanthropologists have demonstrated the existence of apparently well-formed bodies of knowledge with respect to animal behaviour, pyrotechnology, material, mining, symbolic communication, the aerodynamic properties of weapons, cosmology and even medicine in these societies. 

In which case what comes first the ability to modify our environment or the economy around those modifications.

Maybe it is time to get serious about the study of technology and stop seeing it as engineering or science or economics or business. It is the defining feature of human society. As humans we create technologies and those technologies shape us.

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