Technology innovation must not be moved offshore

By ara c. trembly

H.G. Wells’ classic novel “The Time Machine” depicts a distant future in which England’s industrialized society has “evolved” into a world in which workers and consumers have become separate but still co-dependent cultures, with the physically superior workers preying on the lazy, ineffectual consumers.

Wells’ dark vision shows us the peaceful Eloi (the consumers), a physically weak people who spend their days playing like children and their nights huddled and hidden in fear of the Morlocks (the workers, who actually provide the warmth and energy for the planet). The Morlocks live and work in the energy plants underground and can’t seem to tolerate the daylight. They have devolved into nocturnal cannibals, and among their favorite dishes is the helpless Eloi, who are eminently ripe for the picking.

So, their co-dependent dance goes on, with the Morlocks breeding a food source and the Eloi “enjoying” a habitable climate, like prized cattle being prepared for the slaughter. Certainly, we of the 21st century would regard such a scenario as horrid and impossible, yet we have only to look around us to see that seeds are being sown that could lead us down a similar path–and that technology is intimately involved.

It’s no secret that the United States is moving away from being a manufacturing economy and toward being a service economy, and that in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Clearly, technology–and in particular the Internet–has helped enable this shift to producing ideas and intellectual property instead of bolts and widgets. But what happens when we not only stop manufacturing hard goods but also stop manufacturing new ideas?

IDG News Service reported several months ago that Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates was warning companies not to outsource their core business functions and staff. He cautioned that companies should beware of outsourcing for cost savings alone and should keep their key engineering and intellectual property resources at home. “If you rely too much on people in other companies and countries…you are outsourcing your brains, where you are making all the innovation,” he said.

Coincidental with this disturbing trend is our own government’s seeming endorsement of a growing foreign “worker class” that will take the dirty, low-paying jobs “no one else wants to do.” As a nation of consumers, that appeals to us, so we look the other way as multitudes of illegal aliens stream across our virtually unprotected borders each day–even as some Southwest states have declared states of emergency because they are unable to support their new “residents.”

Meanwhile, the number of American students choosing to go into engineering and information technology is declining, meaning we can look forward to fewer American innovations in those areas. Apparently, these students feel they won’t make enough money in those professions, so they are opting for what they believe will be higher paychecks in other areas. Those paychecks, of course, will allow them to consume more and more things.

Where are these trends leading us? The culture of consumerism knows only one value–acquiring the best goods and services at all costs. This culture eschews making things, and it cannot be bothered coming up with innovative ideas. We are fast becoming a nation that wants more toys and more playtime, and very little of anything else. In essence, we aspire to become the Eloi.

Outsourcing is neither a good nor a bad strategy. It is an idea that makes sense for non-essential areas of a company in many cases, but it is clearly dangerous in the long run when essential resources–human or intellectual–are involved. Perhaps the most difficult task for any corporation in today’s breakneck business environment is to maintain a balance between in-house and outsourced operations that maximizes profits while minimizing risk to the very resources that make a company viable.

What can we do to avoid becoming the lazy, effete Eloi of this world upon whom stronger, more assertive forces (both within and without) will inevitably prey? We can reward technology innovation richly and provide incentives to U.S. companies and individuals who innovate. We can stop being irresponsible when it comes to short-term profits from outsourcing key resources. We can fortify the borders and get back control of our own nation.

Wells’ 1898 novel made the point that when man loses his assertive will to work and innovate, he loses his freedom. It is a point well taken more than 100 years later.