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21st Century Luddites

  • Date: 12/14/2002
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (p.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Ladies and gentlemen, members of the class of 2002, we continue today an ancient tradition of assembling in formal convocation to recognize those who have reached significant milestones on the road to knowledge and accomplishment.

    And so we are gathered for this commencement together with graduates in the arenas of business, education, engineering, polymer science and polymer engineering, and community service and technology.

    With no small measure of effort and self-discipline, each of you has learned to apply critical thinking and to use new information and technologies.

    You have discovered that learning is a continuous and exciting process, and little did you know that, as part of the process, today you would get one additional University of Akron lesson . . . this one from me.

    "The knowledge economy insists on speed," writes Andy Kessler. "As technology and communication speed up the flow of information in every business, instant analysis becomes critical. Just figuring out how to cope is an interesting exercise. Figuring out how to excel will separate the winners from the losers."
    (Andy Kessler, "Manager's Journal: If Only We Could Turn Back the Clock," The Wall Street Journal, March 23, 1999, p. A22)

    Ironically, this is not really a new phenomenon. Change in the workplace and in our society has always been the case, because as new technologies and innovations change the way we do business, companies have always had to retool their equipment, and their workforces.

    Quite simply, a changing workplace requires a changing workforce. Staying the same is not an option!

    And that is something that all of us must grow to accept and to understand, because most of us will have to continue learning and re-tooling ourselves for the changing nature of our work.

    Indeed, an expanding economy grows precisely because innovation adds new jobs at the leading edge just a little bit faster than it destroys old jobs at the trailing edge.

    You will remember from your history courses, I hope, the tale of the Luddites - those 19th Century British craftsmen organized to destroy new manufacturing equipment, particularly textile machinery.

    They believed that new technology - in this case, power looms and wool-shearing equipment - was being used to diminish employment, and they were willing to do almost anything to protect their jobs, even if it meant their execution or deportation.

    In the end, however, they lost while society gained. The new technologies added more product availability and increased demand for those products, which created many more textile jobs than it had eliminated, and the industry has grown and prospered.

    Today, in the U.S. alone, the textile industry employs approximately one-half million (443,000) people, with annual sales totaling nearly $60 billion ($57.8 billion).
    (American Textile Manufacturers Institute, 2002)

    Of course, the old jobs are gone, but newer and more satisfying jobs have emerged.

    Modern-day Luddites still can be found wherever new technologies and changes in the workplace threaten long-standing jobs.

    The recent West Coast Dockworkers' strike is a case in point, and it threatened $300 billion worth of economic goods passing through ports in California, Oregon and Washington. As with the original Luddites, the main issue was the introduction of new technology that was needed to keep the shippers competitive, yet effectively would do the work of up to 400 clerks.
    (Knight-Ridder Tribune Business News, September 11, 2002)

    Throughout history, you see, whenever there is technological change we find that those with the most invested in the status quo are the last or the least likely to change. So invested are they that some fail to see that there is no further status in the quo, and that leads to a general distrust of the free-market system and the belief that new technology encourages self-interest at the expense of self-worth.

    In his book, Who's Afraid of Adam Smith?, Peter Dougherty writes that the great 18th Century political economist, Adam Smith, believed that "capitalism was born with a soul" and that it embodies a genuine concern for the welfare of others.
    (Darrin M. McMahon, "Born With a Soul," book review of Peter J. Dougherty's "Who's Afraid of Adam Smith?", The Wall Street Journal, November 13, 2002, p. D10)

    Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations more than 225 years ago, and it is often referred to as the "bible of capitalism." Smith argued that an economic system based on self-interest, yet led by an "invisible hand" of competition, restricts selfishness and guides it into serving the common good.
    (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Encyclopedia, 2000, p.1499)

    "...Smith never doubted that every man is far more interested in ‘whatever immediately concerns himself, than in what concerns any other man.' But this, in (Smith's) view, only underscored the moral importance of the market."
    (Darrin M. McMahon, Ibid)

    "By bringing men and women together into ever wider networks, the market constrains us to gauge our conduct through the eyes of others while extending, incrementally, our sympathetic associations."
    (Darrin M. McMahon, Ibid)

    In other words, because the free market encourages fair dealings, the Enrons of the world are the exception, not the rule.

    "Far from rewarding naked greed, the market encourages probity, temperance and fair dealing. The fear of losing customers restrains ‘frauds' and corrects ‘negligence.' In trade as in life, Smith avowed, ‘honesty is the best policy.'"
    (Darrin M. McMahon, Ibid)

    Those same concepts are exemplified by fictional character, Sam Gordon, in Russell Robert's book, The Invisible Heart. Gordon, an economics teacher at a small, private school, not only wears his capitalism on his sleeve, he also hangs an Adam Smith poster on his wall.

    The book is a lesson in economics, cleverly disguised as a tale of intrigue and romance. In the story, Sam constantly promotes and defends the merits of a free-market system and insists that the only restrictions placed on the market should be that there are no restrictions.

    "The marketplace," Sam states, "...fettered by competition, gives each of us a chance to transform the world in the way we wish," and he suggests that humanity flourishes under economic freedom.
    (Russell Roberts, The Invisible Heart - An Economic Romance, The MIT Press, 2001, p. 224)

    So assured is he of his free-market ideals that he even defends his employer's right to fire him.

    "I don't believe you have a right or entitlement to a particular job at a particular place," Gordon contends. Otherwise, if you did, "...you (would) break the connection between choices and rewards that is the essence of responsibility."
    (Russell Roberts, The Invisible Heart - An Economic Romance, The MIT Press, 2001, p. 238)

    Ladies and gentlemen, success in the new economy will belong to those who are willing to take chances and make choices that create new knowledge and new technologies and quickly translate those discoveries into marketable products and services.

    And so, as you now close this chapter of your life, know that as you continue to expand your knowledge, so also will you expand your worth.

    And therein lies your lesson for the day.

    On behalf of the Trustees, the faculty, the staff and administration, your fellow students, and The University of Akron family everywhere - I salute you, the Fall 2002 graduates, together with your family and friends who have helped make your success possible.

    Congratulations!

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