Robert Reich on Technology
Former Secretary of Labor; Democratic Challenger MA Governor
Think again. What about slaves? The human genome? A nuclear bomb? A recipe? Most contemporary societies have decided you can't own these things. You can own land, a car, mobile devices, a home, and all the things that go into a home. But the most important form of property is now intellectual property--new designs, ideas, and inventions. What exactly counts as intellectual property, and how long can you own it?
The problem was that Microsoft's Windows had become so ubiquitous that buyers and sellers of computers, browsers, and other software had little choice but to license it from Microsoft if they wanted to connect with everything else. This gave Microsoft power to effectively block new products using a different operating system. Arguable, it also gave Microsoft power to deter innovation by rivals. So ruled a federal judge.
What begins as a convenient standard can end up as a barrier to innovation. The trade-off: common standards were needed. But rather than one company setting them, the standards were set by emerging industries as a whole, and made freely available to all comers.
Economically, this is to our great and unequivocal benefit. But what it means for the rest of our lives--the parts that depend on firm relationships, continuity, and stability--is acutely problematic.
The easier it is for us as BUYERS to switch to something better, the harder we as SELLERS have to scramble in order to keep every customer, get every contract. As a result, our lives are more and more frenzied.
The faster the economy CHANGES--with new innovations and opportunities engendering faster switches by customers and investors in response--the harder it is for people to be confident of what any of us will earn next year or even next month, what they will be doing, where they will be doing it. As a result, our lives are less predictable.
The world is in the middle of another great opening: the Age of the Terrific Deal. It started in America several decades ago and has been gathering momentum ever since. It's about to accelerate very sharply. It's based on technology and imagination. Combine the Internet, wireless satellites, and fiber optics, great leaps in computing power, a quantum expansion of broadband connection, a map of the human genome and tools to select & combine genes and even molecules--and you've got a giant, real-time, global bazaar of almost infinite choice & possibility.
Finding and switching to something better is easier today than at any other time in the history of humanity, and in a few years, will be easier still. We're on the way to getting exactly what we want constantly, from anywhere, at the best value for our money.
I think it’s a good thing that we have a Justice Department, and that antitrust laws are enforced against powerful companies. I don’t want to live in a country dominated by the interests of big companies, even the ones I own. In short, I don’t want Microsoft to maximize the value of my shares at the expense of my values as a citizen. When I bought my tiny piece of the company, I wasn’t saying, “Take my money and do whatever’s politically necessary to give me a big return on it.” I was only asking the company to do whatever was technologically and economically necessary to give me a big return.
Microsoft’s political tactics are making an eloquent case that it and other corporate behemoths should be either more directly accountable to the public or busted up.
The same transformation has undermined the implicit social contract that once existed between companies and their employees, such that when the company did better, its workers did too. Technology and global competition have allowed investors to move capital quickly to wherever it earns the most.
The main answer is to improve education and job skills. The other part of the answer is to renew the compact between companies and their workers. Encourage profit-sharing. Strengthen unions.
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