Last night my brother and I had a good long conversation. It started off innocently enough — what the kids were doing, our plans for the holidays, etc. — but somehow we got onto the subject of economics and the Little House on the Prarie. Now, I know very little about either. I have a smidgen of understanding about Economics from reading various things and a smattering of knowlege about Little House on the Prarie because dvfmama is always reading the books to our kids. My brother knows about as much about the subjects as I do. Still, like any good conversation, that didn’t stop us from talking about them. He made two claims that I found outrageously ridiculous:
- Pa Ingall’s sod house had just as much “value” as my home, and
- The impact of IT, unlike modern medicine which was positive, was neutral.
Now, admittedly, we were talking past each other much of the time, and he claimed he was talking about “imputed value” (by which he meant the pride Pa took in a house he had built with his own two hands). Still, although I enjoy circular argument as much as anyone, eventually I was got tired and begged off. It was only later that I remembered a conversation I had today with dcm that provided me with ammo to crush both of my brother’s points into dust. As a bonus, I’ll try to give a real world example of what kind of impact IT has. First, the value of Pa’s sod house. By almost any objective measure, any house that he built would have been valued lower than a modern home. There was no running water, no electric light, no bathroom, no shower, a floor made of dirt and on and on. It didn’t matter how much he worked, it was technologically impossible for him to create as much wealth for his family as your average American home-owner has today. Our families are warmer and healthier today in part because of the modern house. I mention this to provide a concrete example of how improved technology makes a difference. I think this is something we can all agree on — I don’t know of anyone that would choose to live in a prarie home without plumbing, insulation, electricity and heat. I’m sure they’re are some weirdos out there, but they’re few and far between. I’ve a feeling that my brother felt IT had a “neutral” effect because technology “eliminates jobs”. Robots will replace people and of course, that’s morally wrong, isn’t it? Well, no, it isn’t. Just as the gas-powered engine eliminated the demand for the less efficient draft horse by providing more efficient transport, so technology will continue to materially improve people’s lives so that they don’t have to do repetative, exhausting and boring work. And, yes, even what we call IT today provides improvements that are just as real and just as much of a paradigm shift as the average modern American home is compared with Pa Ingall’s sod house. One example is the work I’ve been doing with IntraHealth. I’ve included a couple of pictures here from Mali and Uganda. The Ugandan picture shows haphazardly-stacked paper-based HR records that we hope to digitize and provide via a web-based system so that Ministry of Health officials can get a better understanding of where their health workers are and what they’re doing. If the project is successful to any degree, we will have a real chance of dramatically improving the health care in these countries by helping the health care workers get better access to training and by ensuring that they are deployed where they are most needed. This, from something as mundane as providing better access to personnel records. Oh, did I mention it is Open Source, too?