Technology and Freedom: The Virtuous Circle

Policy Backgrounders | Government | Regulations

No. 158
Friday, January 10, 2003
by James K. Glassman

Technology as a Force for Good

Table I - Improvement and Spread of Technology

The technology of computers and advanced forms of telecommunications speed information throughout organizations, lowering costs by reducing uncertainty and the need for redundancies. Innovative businesses have made possible the widespread adoption of these technologies. New technology also makes possible the development of new products to meet previously unmet needs. And by empowering individuals, technology helps the spread of human freedom around the world

Lowering the Cost of Information.

"Over 5 years, Internet users increased from 96 million to 650 million."

Many technological innovations are due to the increasing power of computers and the falling cost of information. Today we think of technology involving applications that are innovative or exotic. In 1965, Gordon Moore, the cofounder of Intel Corp., predicted that every 18 months the processing power of a silicon chip would double as transistor density increased, a forecast that has proven uncannily accurate.5 The increasing power of the computer chip has made possible the spread of related technologies. [See Table I.]

  • Over 30 years, the cost of sending 1 trillion bits of information has dropped from $150,000 to 17 cents.6
  • Ten years ago there were only 23 million wireless phones in use worldwide; today, there are 1.4 billion.7
  • In just five years, the number of global Internet users has increased from 96 million to 650 million, with more than half in Asia; within a year, users are forecast to reach one billion.8

Improving Human Welfare.

Figure I - Examples of Health Improvement Deaths per 100%2C000 from Two Diseases

Technology can directly improve human welfare. For instance:

  • Due to biotechnology first put to practical use in 1995, biotech seeds account for 75 percent of the soybean acreage in the United States, saving time, money, fertilizer, pesticides and topsoil.9
  • Computer technology has made nearly every machine more productive; for example, "a Ford Taurus car contains more computing power than all the mainframe computers used in the Apollo Space Program."10

"Biotech seeds save time, money and topsoil, and reduce fertilizer and pesticide use on 75 percent of the U.S. soybean crop."

Technology is a tool. Like a pencil or an ax, it can be put to good or bad uses. It has generally improved human welfare because individuals allowed to pursue their own choices will choose technology that improves their lives. For example:

  • Mainly because of technology that insured the safety of water supplies and spread sanitation, the number of deaths from influenza and pneumonia per 100,000 population in the United States fell from 202 in 1900 to 33 in 1997; deaths from tuberculosis, from 194 in 1900 to 0.4 in 1997.11 [See Figure I.]
  • Year after year the United States produces record amounts of coal, and coal remains the number one source of energy in the country.12 Yet because of new technology, the number of coal miners killed at work has dropped from an average of more than 2,000 per year between 1900 and 1940 to just 32 in 1997.13 [See Figure II.]
  • For all sectors, the increase in industrial workplace safety caused the rate of accidental deaths at work to fall from 428 per million in 1930 to 38 per million in 2000. [See Figure III.]
Figure II - Coal Miners Killed at Work

Empowering Individuals.

But is it naïve to view technology as generally beneficial? Doesn't the existence of advanced technology provide an incentive to a central government to try to exert more control? To limit freedom? Yes - but technology also provides countervailing power. Government now has the power to eavesdrop on conversations a mile away, but the speakers themselves now have the power to block the reception. Government can intercept Internet messages, but the senders of those messages can encrypt them in a way they could never encrypt written messages. In the end, technology provides, at the very least, a draw between individuals and overweening governments - and, more likely, gives the upper hand to individuals who want to be left alone. Much computer technology, after all, is distributed - that is, it does not rely on a single gigantic mainframe.

Central governments can disrupt communications. For example, China, which will soon have the most Internet users in the world, blocks access to certain Web sites, including that of the Washington Post, but not of my own far more subversive free market technology site, It is not difficult for clever users to work around the roadblocks. The more important point is that computers allow work and information to be distributed widely rather than funneled through one channel that can be monitored and controlled by the state.

Figure III - Accidental Workplace Deaths

"If not for the industrial Revolution two out of three people would not reach adulthood."

Thus technology is basically a force for good. It decentralizes power, and it creates wealth and health, which are both conditions of freedom and products of a free society. Robert Fogel recounts how David Landes began his first lecture each year to students in a popular introductory economics course at Harvard University: "Look to the left of you and to the right of you. If it were not for the Industrial Revolution, two out of three of you would not be alive."14 Landes himself posits the idea of "Technophysio Evolution," a process that has allowed humans to gain "an unprececdented degree of control over their environment" through a "synergism between the changes in technology and improvements in human physiology," which produced "enormous advances in health and life expectancy."15

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