Earlier this year, a number of Uber cars in Poland came under attack by a group of vandals who were likely taxi drivers. In general, these types of vandalism have a long tradition in human history and have contributed to keeping populations’ general living standards at very low levels.
Attacks on Uber drivers are simply the latest chapter in a long story of efforts to intimidate and destroy innovators who are moving markets and societies in new and unfamiliar directions.
Reactions to Early Machines
For a very long time, separation of grain from the chaff was done in a very primitive manner. The process took weeks, involved hard working men, hard working women feeding them, and also children working as additional helpers. Finally, someone invented a threshing machine that allowed farmers to get rid of all this hard work: the machine could do the job much faster with less physical labor involved.
The change happened contrary to what many historical books claim: the move to threshing machines did not occur because of the patent system put in place 150 years before the change. It happened because social and political forces were too weak to stop it from happening.
Beginning in the eighteenth century in Europe, the entrepreneurial class was growing. They were a group of small profit-driven innovators interested in selling various products, and beating their competitors to markets. This “Great Change” was driven forward by many cultural, religious, political, legal, and technological factors.
At first, threshing machines were very imperfect. They didn’t always work well, and they also were expensive. There was a lot of room for improvements, and for making them better, faster, and cheaper. As they were slowly improved, it quickly became apparent the new machines were more efficient than the old manual methods. It was only a matter of time until someone would realize that steam engines could be combined with the threshing machines.
Not surprisingly, threshing machines were not welcomed by everyone. Swing Riots flared up and the Luddite movement attempted to crush technological innovation. Despite such obstacles, the entrepreneurs won out, paving the way for the future chain of market innovations, well symbolized by the modern farmer sitting in the modern air-conditioned tractor (with a good stereo system). Over the past two hundred years, agricultural workers were reduced from more than 80 percent of workers to less than 5 percent.
Economic Growth and Social Change
One of the big mysteries of human history is the question of why rapid technological and innovative growth started only around the nineteenth century. Many new ideas and technological changes were present for ages (and invented centuries before). Other cultures introduced many new innovative ideas as well.
Some steam engines were even being used in ancient times. They were applied in narrow places, however, due to social and political circumstances.
One early example of political resistance is related to us through the Roman Emperor Vespasian’s opposition to new labor saving innovations. Faced with the prospect of replacing workers with machines, Vespasian reputedly said: “You must let me feed my poor commons.”
Vespasian’s reaction is understandable; it is hard to predict what will happen in response to innovations that make certain job skills obsolete. And it’s not just the workers who fear the change. The ruling class, faced with an idle and unemployed population might also fear social upheaval.
The words of Peter Green summarize many of these concerns:
The ruling class were scared, as the Puritans said, of Satan finding work for idle hands to do. One of the great things about not developing the source of energy that did not depend on muscle power was the fear of what the muscles might get up to if they weren’t kept fully employed. The sort of inventions that were taken up and used practically were the things that needed muscle power to start with, including the Archimedean screw. On the other hand, consider that marvelous box gear of Hero’s: it was never used. That would have been a real conversion of power. What got paid for? The Lagids tended to patronize toys, fraudulent temple tricks in large quantities, and military experiments.
Naturally, human history is complicated and subject to many different factors. Nevertheless, there appears to be some truth in the argument that fixed social and political structure did not favor society open to the widespread adoption of innovation. Otherwise, it is hard to explain why so many new technical discoveries were not applied for so long, even though science and intelligence supplied them centuries before. We had to wait for the new political and social arrangements that either were tolerant of new innovations, or were unable to stop them.
Uber and Beyond
Everywhere we look, we see both the creative and destructive power of innovation. First threshing machine sellers lead to reductions in agricultural employment. Later, tractors killed the threshing machines. Telegraph and railway killed communication systems that relied on horses. Cars destroyed the horse industry. Mass production of textiles destroyed the demand for hand-crafted items. Big stores destroyed smaller shops, now discount shops (in parts of Europe) are destroying big stores. Video rentals hampered the cinema industry, now Netflix and others killed video rentals, while Napster’s success (despite its illegality) predicted a coming end to the old music industry. China’s growth and cheap efficient outsourcing reshaped traditional industries in developed countries. (From an economic perspective there is no difference between hiring cheaper labor or hiring a better machine.)
Dell smashed the traditional computer industry with eliminating many middle men. Ikea did something similar in the furniture industry. The internet destroyed regular newspapers, while Google smashed the marketing industry. Amazon destroys bookstores around the world, while Uber is doing the same with the taxi industry.
Economic progress decreases employments in one place, allows for creation of new ones, even in the service sector. During the process of liquidating employment positions, huge economic development is capable of multiplying per capita production within one generation, positively affecting all social classes.
The current state of affairs is not the end of history. Those companies, innovative today, will be endangered tomorrow. Even Jeff Bezos, creator of Amazon.com, admits Amazon won’t last forever:
Companies have short life spans. … And Amazon will be disrupted one day. I don’t worry about it ’cause I know it’s inevitable. Companies come and go. And the companies that are, you know, the shiniest and most important of any era, you wait a few decades and they’re gone.