Phil Mullan: Why are we so afraid of economic success?

From a speech given by the chief executive of Cybercafe ltd at the 'spiked' conference in London
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The Independent Online

The terrorist attacks on the USA and what has followed since cast a shadow over this discussion on the meaning of the new economy and the prospects for information technologies, as it does on so many other discussions. And while I share the view of Alan Greenspan last week that the economic implications of the Manhattan attacks will be a "mere footnote" among everything else that needs to be said, this turn of events does reinforce some of my themes.

"The bubble has burst." "The Gold Rush is over." "The new, new thing is the dead, dead thing." "The revolution has failed." These are the sort of negative sentiments which exist today in the aftermath of that roller coaster of the internet phenomenon.

Contrary to the usual assumptions, our real problems with IT are not the result of the over-hyping of, nor over-investment in the technology. The problem is that there was too little investment (mental as well as financial) in developing productive uses in the business and social sense. There was too little deep thinking and too little purposeful experimentation.

The task we have as advocates of the new technology is less to find a cure for the hangover, than to get people to see that the party never really happened and that the real party needs to get under way.

A few more words on this "culture of limits" and this prevalent notion that society should hold back and be more restrained. At the root of this is a historic reversal of attitudes to economic growth and technological development. Growth and rising productivity and progress in general are viewed with apprehension, if not antipathy. This about-turn has happened quickly within about 10 to 15 years. I can remember giving talks on the economy in the 1980s when to bemoan the weakness of productivity growth would produce nodding agreement that this was a problem – today in most audiences it is more likely to elicit relief and reassurance.

And it has become much more explicit. When I first started to describe this shift in sentiment in talks in the mid-1990s and seeking to be balanced, I used to make a small quip that for society to be "anti-growth" did not mean that people were going round demonstrating with banners saying "No more growth". Reality has overtaken my poor humour when we have the anti-capitalist protests in Seattle, Gothenburg and Genoa.

The anti-globalist perspective is not an exceptional sentiment anymore. It is simply the militant wing of a deepening and widening consensus. Economists, politicians of all persuasions, church leaders, the future king, and even business leaders espouse the view that we should recognise the limits to growth and do something to contain the destructive aspects of capitalism as effecting the environment, community, society, and the economy. Very rare these days to see capitalism viewed positively; at its best, it has become a zero-sum game – material gains are offset by other losses (job insecurity, breakdown of community) counselling the need to hold back and be less ambitious. The aim should be to learn to manage capitalism within its constraints rather than expand it; the state's role is not to intervene to stimulate the economy but to regulate and tame it.

And when it comes to the productive use of IT, unfortunately, many business leaders have assimilated this sense of limits and restraint too.

So what needs to be done? I doubt anything much can stop a recession and this will be bad for IT spending and developments. But in the spirit of trying to minimise the damage, it is worth pushing and updating that old FDR maxim for the business world: "the only thing to fear is fear itself". I believe we have only begun to scratch the surface with what these technologies could do especially in the way they could take human co-operation – always a powerful productive force in itself – to a much higher level.

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