Memo from the front – Brief Article

Gerry Knermouch

During the recent election race, much was said about how PAC-donating, fundraiser-attending Silicon Valley brats belatedly have gotten wise to the ways of Washington. In truth, it’s been decades since these supposed naifs

attained a masterstroke of political positioning and marketing whose impact is still being felt today. They got the rest of us to buy into the notion that there is regular-issue technology and there is high technology You don’t have to ask which is more important in creating jobs and national wealth, or which camp they happen to fall into.

With its parallels to high priests and high courts, high-tech is a great phrase, but what exactly does it mean? Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary tracks the term to 1968 as denoting “scientific technology involving the production or use of advanced or sophisticated devices, especially in the fields of electronics and computers.” Note how that definition is broad enough even to include industries most of us would regard as low-tech. Peruse various regions’ Web sites boasting of their high-tech prowess, and you’ll spot everything from meters to machine tools.

In fact, some of those unfashionable businesses are adding a lot more to the nation’s wealth than all the software shops endlessly tweaking Windows or Unix code so that accountants have a niftier way to depreciate racehorses. They couldn’t have survived the past few brutally competitive decades if they didn’t employ “advanced devices” to offset the labor, currency and raw materials advantages of offshore rivals. But they don’t get the buzz.

And that’s the beauty of “high tech.” The phrase implicitly acknowledges that overly caffeinated electronics engineers and T-shirt-clad software writers didn’t invent technology–after all, we were putting people into outer space before high tech came along–and thereby steers clear of credibility-killing “I invented the Internet” hyperbole. Yet it implies that sectors brought in under the high-tech tent are disproportionate contributors to America’s welfare, and therefore deserving of special consideration in national debates on tax policy, education, immigration and the like. By creating the perception that these industries are qualitatively different from other technology-employing sectors, it amounts to special pleading that avoids any taint of being special pleading.

In their 1987 book, Manufacturing Matters, Stephen S. Cohen and John Zysman criticized the vagueness of the term, saying it “creates more problems and blind spots than it helps to solve.” More recent commentators, like Eamonn Fingleton in InPraise of Hard Industries, have argued that some of those segments, notably software, are a slippery foundation upon which to base the nation’s competitiveness.

Still, so weak has our power to make distinctions gotten when it comes to those supposedly low-tech segments, that Forbes recently thought it helpful to lump together cranes, oil exploration gear and machine tools in a photo essay on “Big Metal.” The point seemed to be that while most of us have pretty good gigs slogging electrons and photons and paper, there’s a whole other world out there that makes–well, big, heavy things that you wouldn’t want to drop on your foot.

For those of us who believe high-tech hype is distorting our national priorities, the best hope may be that, as with all catch phrases, this one will get so over-used as to become transparently meaningless, and thus lose its incantatory power among voters, policymakers and investors. (The dot-com implosion likely is also helping.)

There are signs this is happening. Take a recent account in The New York Times of the inaugural run of Amtrak’s Acela Express. The article described how veteran engineers Dotterer (is it my imagination, or is that a really unfortunate name for a guy operating the controls on the shakedown excursion of a 150-mph train?) and Quinn took the trouble to wear neatly knotted ties for the occasion. “We’re doing a professional job, making a professional appearnce,” Mr. Dotterer expalined. “This is high-tech stuff.”

COPYRIGHT 2000 BPI Communications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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