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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Technology: The Platform for the Game

I was thinking about the game, Monopoly.  Almost everyone could draw a reasonable approximation of what the game board looks like.  Even the expressions from the game like, "Do not pass Go and Do not collect $200," are understood in our culture to mean you somehow screwed up.  Curious, I checked Wikipedia and sure enough they had an article on the history of this venerable game.

The game as we know it (now owned by Hasbro) was introduced by Parker Brothers in 1935.  The supposed inventor who came up with the game was an unemployed salesman named Charles Darrow.  I was not surprised to see that Darrow was, in fact, only the last in a thirty-year chain of inventors who had contributed to the creation of the game.

The first inventor was a woman named Elizabeth Magie who patented a very similar game idea in 1903.  The picture at the right shows her game board from her patent. She called it "The Landlord's Game." But Lizzie didn't sell the game commercially.  She made her own board and taught her friends and it "went viral", in an early 20th Century sort of way.  The game kept being refined and passed on until it finally made it to Darrow who patented the now-familiar board and then tried to sell it to Parker Brothers.  Like the history of so many great ideas, Parker Brothers listened and then...they turned him down cold.  Darrow persisted and started selling his own version of the game in his hometown of Philadelphia.  Parker Brothers heard it was selling well so they offered Darrow a deal.  Like many ideas, when you look at them a little harder you find that they have many contributors, not just a single inventor.

So what prompted me to be thinking about Monopoly?  I was thinking that it could be a good analogy for the three big forces that make up modern life: Business (or the Economy if you prefer), Government, and Technology.  Of course, this is not all there is to life.  You also have American Idol and Dancing with the Stars.  But I do think these three are the major drivers of the world we live in.  The Monopoly game obviously represents Business or the Economy.  Buying and selling, banking, real estate, transportation - this is the competitive world of free markets. Isn't it ironic that the winner of the game completely wipes out free markets and achieves a complete monopoly?  Government represents the rules of the game.  It sets out what can and cannot be done.  In the parlance of business, "it levels the playing field." Government also runs programs for public safety (the jail) and the entitlement programs like Community Chest.  Government plays a critical function in the game. Without rules, the game would degenerate into chaos.

So where is Technology in my little analogy?  Technology is the platform that the game board sits upon.  It provides the underpinnings for Business.  The Monopoly board is, of course, static, i.e., no new properties can be added to the board.  There is no Google or Microsoft. But in the real world, technology is the one of the greatest contributors to new enterprises (i.e., properties) being brought into the game.  Without technology and innovation, we are stuck in a world which is based almost solely on real estate (kinda like Florida).  There is only so much real estate and the board never gets any bigger.

Many of the troubles we are now facing can be traced to the fact that we are generating new technology at a slower rate than we have in the past.  Our inventiveness is slowing down.  For instance, patent filings in the U.S. declined for the first time in over a decade.

Compared with other countries, we are no longer as innovative as we once were.  That does not bode well for the future.  We need to be doing more to support R&D in both our businesses, our universities, and our national labs.  If we think our economy is hurting now, wait and see what it will be like in another decade if we continue on the current track.  It won't be pretty.

Government can do a lot to help through tax policies, education initiatives, trade agreements, and assuring better broadband internet access.  Business has to get more innovative and be willing to stick its neck out a little further to support new ideas.   We, as a nation, have to try to understand better how the new global game is now being played to see that changes are not just suggestions, but mandates.   Like it or not, technology has been driving our world since the Industrial Revolution began over two hundred years ago.  As we move ever deeper into the Knowledge Economy, we have to do what is required to remain competitive.  Monopoly was invented deep in the Great Depression to provide a game to let people get their minds off their troubles.  We don't want to see our Great Recession become another breeding ground for fantasy business board games.

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