I recently watched a YouTube video about Tristan da Cunha, a tiny island in the middle of the south Atlantic Ocean with the population of 265. They live a simple life and are somehow managing to be self-sufficient. Watching the video, I felt I would go insane if I were born there, just farming all day and all year long with no intellectual stimulation. But then I thought, it’s probably because of people like me that this world has become pointlessly complex. Observing the people of this island, it’s pretty obvious that none of the modern complexity and technological advancement is necessary to live a happy life. It also reminded me of the TED talk by Jon Jandai whose presentation was titled “Life is easy. Why do we make it so hard?”
The problem is that there are no longer real problems that the human race needs to solve. At this point, whatever solutions we come up with are just creating more problems. But we have this massive brain power that we need to do something with. This is the real problem. So we keep creating all these complexities just to give our brains something to do, to fool us into thinking that we are doing something meaningful. But in doing so, we are just making other people’s lives harder. The people like Jon Jandai and the islanders of Tristan da Cunha, as well as the majority of the rural Americans don’t feel the need to keep making technological “progress.”
But the problem with technological progress is that once some people start using it to increase efficiency, the others have no choice but to use it in order to maintain the same quality of life. We do not get paid for the absolute amount of goods we produce. (If that were true, all farmers would be billionaires with today’s technological tools of farming. Each farmer produces far more than a single farmer produced a few hundred years ago.) We get paid relatively to others.
Suppose every farmer produces 100 apples and makes $100 every year. If one farmer gets a new technology that allows him to produce 120 apples every year, he would make $120 a year. But if everyone gets hold of this technology, everyone will start making 120 apples every year. The price of each apple will then start dropping, and soon enough everyone is back making $100 a year even though they are all producing 20 more apples every year.
This also means that, if you are the only person NOT using this technology, you would be the only one still producing only 100 apples. Since the price of each apple has fallen, you would be making only $83.33. You haven’t changed at all but the world did. It’s the invention of this technology that lowered the price of each of your apple. This is why you have no choice but to keep up with the latest technologies just to maintain the same quality of life. The technological advancement did not solve any problems for you; it just made your life more complex.
You might argue that, from the point of view of consumers, lowering the cost of goods would increase the quality of life because we can buy other things with the money we save. But a free market economy doesn’t work that way. If the lowest wage you can survive on becomes lower (because of the lower cost of goods), then it means there will be people who are willing to work for less. The employers would be able to get away with paying less, because they can find cheaper employees.
In order to stop this rat race, everyone will have to stop making technological progress at the same time. If some people keep making progress, the others will have no choice but to compete with them.
The problem is not the pointlessness of technological advancement; it’s the inevitability that, sooner or later, we will lose control over the complexity. It almost happened in 2008 when we lost control over our financial markets because of the complexity of credit default swaps and other derivatives.
I’m not sure how this problem will ever be solved. The billions of people from around the world will have to be enlightened at the same time.