The Great microSociety, part 1

In the 1960s former US President Lyndon Johnson signed off on laws to create what he called “The Great Society“, his follow-up to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.  There are mixed analyses to this day over the effects, some pro and some con, but his ostensible goal was “the elimination of poverty and racial injustice.”  Most of this change attempt was orchestrated through legislative means.

We’re not there yet, and perhaps never quite will be, but the ideal itself is certainly worth pursuing.  Opponent criticisms are tempered, I think, by the fact that the following two administrations (Nixon and Ford) extended the programs further.  Now current US President Barack Obama is touting yet another stage to this social progression, although couched in necessary contextual terms such as recovery and the ambiguously-useless change.

It is with that foundation in mind that I began wondering what a “great society” should look like presently given our opportunities and advancements, especially in medicine, agriculture and high technology.

The two main socioeconomic book ends, socialism and capitalism, push and pull at the citizenry of any country involved in large-scale trade and in many ways interfere with the natural tendencies of progress.  For example, capitalism is dependent on growth of some sort, usually by obtaining new customers (retention of existing customers leads to diminishing returns).  That growth has to surpass the true rate of inflation in order to provide investors with acceptable returns.  All of this is elementary.  But what I’m leading up to here is how capitalist mechanisms can impede the natural disruptive upheavals that technological breakthroughs would otherwise drive.

Socialism, on the other hand, pushes commonality on the people and tends to act like a drain on innovation.

While the bulk of capitalist transactions in the US today are in the purview of small businesses, these are the invisible, mundane exchanges which we take for granted and by their nature will rarely be drivers of significant change.  The lone inventor who alters our lives forever with that amazing little gadget is more myth than reality.

Instead, the advances that largely affect us come from massive corporate concerns, which have a vested interest in “leaking” them gradually.  Milking a research and development investment ensures that the initial product(s) will not be a flash in the pan and money can be derived from the work for at least as long as the patents hold out.

Think tanks, futurist authors and even media outlets such as Wired magazine are fond of exploring the landscape of tomorrow and speculating on its appearance.  In some cases their views have served as important guidelines and eventual benchmarks; the prescient writings of Alvin and Heidi Toffler come to mind.  All of these sources point out the great pressure of technological change drivers.

But as hard as technology may push, markets in a great sense push back– turning potentially sharp disruptive advents into steady, manageable releases.  And while individuals may clamor for immediate progress on some front, the general public ironically resists.  The result is a fairly-steady status quo that does occasionally succumb to massive paradigm shifts but only after the resistance has been thoroughly ground down from the assault.  However, the prospect of an impending Technological Singularity throws any confident predictions into doubt (more on that in a separate future article).  Next, I’ll dig deeper into some fun facts about societies and human behavior.

6 responses to “The Great microSociety, part 1

  1. turn.self.off

    im tempted to correct you on socialism being a drain. but then one have to ask what socialism really is.

    is it socialism to help people with disabilities to have a better daily life?

    the reason i ask is that there are products that one may take for granted that, iirc, was developed specifically to assist people with disabilities, and then later on one discovers that it may be convenient for general use as well.

    i guess one can say that the degree of socialism applied depends on how one wants the bell curve of capitalism to be.

  2. Good question, tso. I was speaking very broadly there but of course when one gets into specifics it isn’t so simple.

    One thing that irked me a great deal was the fierce resistance many businesses put up to adding wheelchair ramps and the like here in the US. It took legislation to make it happen to a large extent. I am always amazed when business owners are antagonistic toward certain customers! Acknowledging reality isn’t something that can be so easily pigeonholed into categories like “capitalism” and “socialism”.

    Also, thanks for providing more food for thought. This started as a one-shot post but now it looks like it will take 3 articles to get to my point! 🙂

  3. allnameswereout

    Your definitions of capitalism and socialism only apply on scarce goods; not on data. Because data has a property called zero-marginal cost. This means it is very cheap (almost free as in beer) to copy. With material and scarce goods this is not the case, and with a _government_ given monopoly such as copyright or a patent (or not being allowed to reverse engineer, …) this is not the case either. Furthermore, this explains why ‘information wants to be free’. And, arguably, neither copyright, patents or other state-induced monopolies are anything near free market; they are however, very ego-driven and pro self-interest; but that is not the same as free market.

    Business owners are antagonistic because they don’t see value. They are either wrong [e.g. there are enough disabled customers to make it profitable] in which case they must be proven wrong. For example, if I can’t get a certain ingredient in my local grocery store, I let the manager know this. Another possibility is that the business owners were wrong while designing the product [in this case: the building]. Or, the business owners are right: it is not profitable. Then they don’t change, or need external stimulus to change (e.g. by law, or because subsidized by government, or because subsidized by charity, or by public opinion, or because competitors do change and get good PR from this, …). OTOH, there are so many disabilities and niches in that. Wheelchair is just one of them.

    What I very much adored about the US of A is that the local communities are so vibrant (my limited personal experience, and my observation from other material such as documentaries); there is a lot of diversity, and people are able to have a say in their local community. Sure, that is true here as well, but in the US this is more distinctive and more active, transparent, and open. I find this very important, so that citizens with alike values (ethics, morals, interests, ideals, …) are able to live together without $deity intervening. Such would not be possible with an omnipresent government (either country or State). And, on some issues we’re also very connected such as economy and ecology. However, even in that regard I see initiatives.

    Obama’s ‘change’ will slowly but surely be phased out as its a PR reaction to 8 years Bush.

  4. Pingback: The Great microSociety, part 2 « Tabula Crypticum

  5. Great points about data as a commodity, anwo. Something else I’ll have to cover more…

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