Muscle, Intellect, and Technology

by Don Boudreaux on July 21, 2015

in Innovation, Myths and Fallacies, Seen and Unseen, Technology, The Future

This morning I had an interesting e-mail exchange about technology and the future with an historian.  I don’t know this man (whose first name is Marc); he was e-troduced to me by radio host Bob Harden.  Anyway, at one point in our e-mail exchange Marc suggested that the reason why technology in the future might prove to be economically worse for humans than it has proven to be in the past is that, in the past, technology replaced human muscle while today it replaces human brains.

Here’s a slightly edited and expanded version of my reply to Marc on this point:

It’s untrue that technology until now has replaced only our muscles; there has always been innovation that replaced our brains.  Think of Grecian auditoria that allowed the voice of one speaker to reach many more people than could be reached before such structures were devised.  (The microphone, radio, television, the Internet, etc., have, of course, only amplified this effect.)  Think of the telegraph and the telephone, each of which allowed people to share knowledge and information across great distances at low cost and, hence, reduced the need for people to keep handy, either in their own brains or in the brains of people within earshot, certain kinds of information and knowledge.  Likewise – and even more so and more obviously – think of the printing press, which enabled knowledge to be stored inexpensively with paper and ink rather than requiring that that knowledge be toted around in human brains.

Think of the abacus; think of printed multiplication tables; think of the calculus (which is a clear net-saver of brain power).  Think of the cash register.  Think of money itself, which eliminates the need to learn of the precise identities and locations of trading partners who both have the goods and services that you want and want the good or service that you are willing to exchange.

Think of roads (which embody knowledge of direction and, thus, require of travelers far less knowledge than they would otherwise require of how to get from point A to point B).  Think of paper road maps.  Think of the sextant.

Indeed, think of the division of labor itself, which dramatically reduces the range of knowledge that a person must possess in order simply to survive.  (Each of my grandfathers – both born and raised in the United States – knew how to raise, slaughter, and pluck chickens [and my paternal grandfather knew also how to milk cows and how to raise and slaughter hogs]; they each knew how to repair car engines; they each knew how to do household repairs that are an utter mystery to me and that fewer and fewer Americans know how to do.  And I’m quite certain that the range of knowledge that my grandfathers’ grandfathers possessed and used routinely was even greater than was that of my grandfathers.)

As these latter examples (of my grandfathers) make especially clear, the distinction between technologies that replace muscle-power and technologies that replace brainpower is ultimately rather vague, anyway.  At the end of the day, technology is useful if it allows human being to get more desirable outcomes with less human effort and sacrifice.


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