The path more downtrodden

I normally avoid watching the news if I can. For the most part, it ends up being a depressing catalogue of human callousness and greed, which is just what I need with my dinner. But two news articles recently managed to slip past my carefully cultured disattention.

I normally avoid watching the news if I can. For the most part, it ends up being a depressing catalogue of human callousness and greed, which is just what I need with my dinner.

But two news articles recently managed to slip past my carefully cultured disattention. In the first, some earnest young men in their last year of high school declaimed ardently on the value of the “knowledge economy” in New Zealand. It appears that they had written essays that had resulted in them being asked to participate in a conference on the subject.

In the second piece, a plan was afoot to muster support for turning the Auckland harbour basin into a technology park: a room was shown full of allegedly attentive businesspeople being forcefed the usual diet of OHP slides by someone who might have been a radio presenter.

Seeing these articles led me into one of my usual tangential trains of thought, during which the realisation slowly dawned on me that these, and presumably many other people, actually somehow think the economy matters. This is an absolutely bizarre notion. It’s like a worker on a production line believing that the component he or she works on is somehow more important than the finished product.

The economy — knowledge or otherwise — is obviously important as a cog in a functional society, but it does not matter on its own. In this country, however, we seem to be walking down a path the US has trodden for decades, in which the economy becomes an end in itself — a holy grail that society expends all its efforts to find. The horse has become so important that we now put it in the cart and pull it along ourselves.

As a nation, we have become so focused on the economy that we have managed to lose sight of almost everything else. In our crusade to worship market forces, we have:

  • Produced a health system that has people being stacked in the corridors in Auckland hospitals.
  • Taken one of the finest university and education systems in the world and turned it into a living hell for teachers, and a place where nobody in their right mind studies arts subjects any more because they don’t lead to jobs.
  • Created an incomprehensible electrical power industry that is almost as out-of-control as the fiasco in California.
  • Taken our most famous national sports team and turned it into a product you have to pay to see (with the likelihood of pay-per-view to come, according to the news).
  • Sold off the rail network, only to see the (foreign) buyer threaten provincial services almost immediately, all in the name of “profitability”.
  • [Insert your own pet piece of lunacy here.]
We have become so obsessed with making dollars that we’ve forgotten the proper way to spend them — on making a better society, making a place where we are happy and comfortable living. The dreary counter-argument to this, of course, is that we have to make the dollars before we spend them — and with that, naturally, I cannot argue: but the way we’re going about making the dollars is like selling the piles underneath our house — we’re destroying the foundations of a society that has taken 150 years to build. I hate to use tired old clichés, so we are quite definitely throwing the baby out with the dishwater.

It’s all very well to talk about turning Auckland into a “technology harbour” — indeed, it’s probably an admirable notion and may result in significant profits for the large multinational corporations involved; but I’d sooner we spent a little more time producing university graduates who didn’t all have marketing degrees and functional illiteracy problems. I’d sooner see a culture where culture was valued, a society where the people came first.

Of course, by saying all this, I’m simply proving that I’m naive, that I’m foolish, that I obviously don’t understand the issues.

Welcome to the know-less economy.

Harris is the Dunedin-based developer of internet mail package Pegasus Mail. Send email to David Harris. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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