Timwi (timwi) wrote,

Progress schmogress

Just the other day I went to the post office to post a letter. It’s been a while since I last did that — what with the age of e-mail and everything — but anyway, I was surprised to find that something seems to have changed about stamps in the UK.

It used to be the case that the stamp wouldn’t, by itself, stick to the letter. One had to wet it, and usually the only way to do that was to lick it. It’s not a huge thing, but it’s disgusting and annoying. But it’s not like we didn’t have the technology to do better; stickers have existed for decades. I had always wondered why stamps were so crap and nobody did anything about it. Even more mysterious was the fact that for international mail, an extra “airmail” mark was to be affixed to the envelope in addition to the stamp — and somehow, this one managed to be an actual sticker.

So now this seems to have changed. The stamp I was given was a proper sticker that I could just stick to the envelope like any other sticker. Finally! Decades-old technology has made it into everyday life. Why did it take this long?

The only explanation I could think of is that until now it has not been economical. The technology existed but was significantly more expensive than the less convenient one. The sheer volume of stamps printed and used in the UK exponentiates any such difference. Presumably the “airmail” sticker could get away with it because it affected only international mail, which is a small percentage of all mail.

The same is, of course, true for everything else where a better technology doesn’t instantly become commonplace. LCDs are commonplace now, but it took quite a while for people to stop buying new CRTs. I won’t make a long list of examples now, you get the picture. But I think there is one area in which the disparity between available technology and economic feasibility is clearly greatest.

And that area is poverty. There are many technologies available to counter the effects of poverty: for instance, there are cures for many diseases, but people still have the diseases because they “cannot afford” the medicine; there are efficient ways to make enough food for large populations, but people still hunger because there is no benefit for anyone to set up such a thing sustainably; and there is, of course, all the drinking water anyone ever needs, but nobody bothers to get it to the people who most urgently need it.

Maybe there is too much emphasis on “technological progress” — we have enough of that, but it doesn’t quite fully solve the problems that it is aiming to tackle. We need economical progress to enable those solutions, and we’re not making any. Or am I just getting that impression because I’m not an economist?
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