Technological change is the fundamental driving force that shapes history. It has a dynamics of its own due to human curiosity about the world and the rest of the universe. Since humans cannot be stopped from being curious, the advancement of technology will go on. Only the adoption of technology can be slowed or speeded up subject to human desire.
To see how fast a country develops, one must consider how eager its people want to embrace new technologies, just like how eager a person wants to learn new things. There always exists a segment of the population resistant to new things due to culture, religion, self interest, or pure ignorance. When the resistance overpowers the desire for technological change, the whole country falls behind in its development.
Technological change in modern days has brought two biggest consequences — globalization and climate change, both are affecting our lives with increasing speed.
Globalization means the spread of technology and knowledge worldwide with the result that goods can be made somewhere else and shipped back to the home market at much lower costs. This encourages companies to outsource production and cut domestic employment.
On the other other, climate change means that today’s technology is not good enough to sustain the natural environment of tomorrow. It requires constant advancement to prevent a cataclysmic disaster that can be called Mother Nature’s revenge.
In Europe and the United States, a wave of backlash is generated against modern technological change as seen in the 2016 Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump respectively. The backlash centers around a few main problems — job loss, stagnant wages, the middle-class squeeze, and non-white immigration which many people are not used to. There are ways to solve these problems but the politicians have turned them into emotional scapegoat issues such as “Foreigners are eating our lunch!” and “Let’s take our country back!” They have no plans for a solution except to arouse emotions and gain votes.
Most of the job losses are caused by globalization that cannot be stopped. Do we really want to bring back those jobs where foreigners are willing to accept much lower wages? Those jobs are lost forever due to our higher living standards. They might come back if the reverse was true. Do we really want to continue making typewriters or Kodak-film cameras which have been wiped out by new technology? It’s the ever-advancing technology that drives those jobs overseas. However, the people who lost their jobs should be taken care of. This is done by both the private and public sectors through job training and government subsidy to ease the transition, but not much has been done, only talks and scapegoating. The result is the unexpected protest votes by a large number of angry voters who justifiably think that they are the forgotten ones left by the wayside due to advancing technology.
With respect to climate change, why must we always choose between job creation and cleaner environment? Can we achieve both? Certainly, because they are not mutually exclusive. A cleaner environment requires advancing technologies to improve efficiency and recycling. This is where the potential lies for new industries. Also, this is where new jobs are created. We will fall behind if we are obsessed with preserving old jobs in outdated industries at the expense of creating new jobs in modern ones.
In fact, an energy revolution is in the making for over a decade now in the form of fuel efficiency and electrification. This is evidenced by reduced consumption of fossil fuels in the world economy as reflected in falling oil prices (China’s slowdown is only part of the equation). Wherever you look, you will find better fuel-efficiency in cars, airplanes, house lighting and heating, and industrial production. You will also find fast-rising industries that generate electricity from renewable sources such as wind, solar, and agricultural products. The next big thing will likely turn out to be the energy revolution where electricity generated from clean sources will make burning fossil fuels obsolete.