Sunday, September 8, 2013

Technology Workers are Luddites

I'm going to be putting a number of economics essays on this blog in the coming weeks, because my experience in the American economy has given me unusual insights into the ways in which the American economy is ossified, sclerotic, and gummed up. These attributes of the economy cannot be explained by the mathematical models that academic economists depend upon. And these aspects of the economy are something that I understand much better than corporate executives and newspaper economics commentators. The health-care industry is particularly problematic, and does not get nearly enough attention from the mainstream media. My hope is to change that, because the high cost of healthcare damages a lot of people's lives.

One of the economic guidelines I've discovered over the years is:


Insulting? Sure. But it is, sad to say, oh so true. Of course, how true it is depends on the context, and depends on when certain economic incentives apply. But it is indeed often the case that technology workers simply do not care about worker productivity, and it is often the case that the economic incentives that drive technology workers are at odds with the economic interest of the people who pay them.

Those of you who know me know that there are more than a few pharmaceutical SAS programmers who are quietly hoping that I get run over by a bus, and that I am not shy in pointing out that their response to a recent computer science breakthrough is the height of irresponsibility. What did I do to earn their contempt? I created a new programming language that runs circles around SAS syntax , in terms of worker productivity, for a certain common type of statistical work. They do not like that, and they do not want me allowed in the building. Because the SAS language has serious worker productivity problems, that costs pharmaceutical shareholders a lot of money. SAS programmers have made it very clear that they do not want this problem to be solved.

So when are computer programmers jerks (or, more specifically, Luddites) and when are they rather nice people? Computer programmers fall into what I'll call cliques (the PHP clique, the C++ clique, etc.), or if you prefer, tribes. Computer programmers are a lot like high school students - they are very cliquish. And their behaviour is all about protecting their clique. If you say nice things about PHP, the PHP clique considers you a friend. If you are a beginner (who doesn't ask questions that are too obviously stupid) who is trying to learn the ropes of a certain clique (say PHP or Javascript) you may find the members of that clique to be very helpful. Welcome to the club!

When are computer programmers downright nasty people? When a new technology platform emerges that can be seen as a threat to their clique (often because of differences in worker productivity), when the new technology shows, by comparison, certain flaws of the clique's favored technology. In that situation, computer programmers have a strong economic incentive to stop change and stop worker productivity growth. In this context, computer programmers are Luddites. In addition, the fact that corporate executives are so ignorant of this dynamic does make the American economy more sclerotic, because corporate executive's ignorance of this behavior means lower worker productivity growth across the economy.

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