11 February, 2011

How Writing An Article About Bar Code Technology Helped Make Me A Liberal

Sometimes when conservatives ask me how I became a liberal I tell them that some of the seeds of liberalism were planted in me when I wrote an article about bar code technology for Rx HomeCare magazine nearly 30 years ago.

Why was it taking so long for bar code technology to "catch on"? Why wasn't bar code technology becoming affordable faster? Why was the technology that was transforming the retail industry not catching on in other industries?

These were the questions managing editor, Dana Bigman, wanted me to answer in the article she asked me to write.

I thought I was writing a boring technology article. I was wrong. As I began to interview the developers, manufacturers and prospective customers of bar code technology I expected to hear a lot of tech talk but what I heard instead was a lot of talk about economics and human behavior and how waiting for free market forces and Adam Smith's "invisible hand" to show up were costing businesses billions of dollars and even costing human lives.

Yes, the lack of bar code usage in hospitals was literally killing people. Patients died because they were administered the wrong drugs or given the wrong surgeries. The technology existed to information about meds, nutrition, etc.,  on bar coded patient bracelets. Nurses and doctors could then scan these bracelets and find out everything they needed to know to prevent deadly mistakes. But hospitals weren't investing in the technology. What were they waiting for?

Here's what I found out: competition wasn't driving the price of bar code technology down the way conservatives tell us it always does, competition was actually preventing bar code technology from becoming cheaper because there were, at the time, 17 different bar code standards and since potential buyers didn't know which of the 17 competing standards would survive, they simply waited for that "invisible hand" of free market forces to select winners and losers.

Remember when you had to choose between VHS and Beta?

Perhaps you're trying to decide between e-readers. You're paralyzed with indecision about a $100 purchase - and nobody will fire you if you buy the wrong product.

30 years ago businesses were paralyzed with indecision about which bar code standard would eventually be adopted by enough other buyers that it would become the obvious and affordable choice.

Remember when your small business lost untold time and money while you delayed the purchase of a computer system because you didn't know if you should go with OS2, Mac or DOS?

As I interviewed hospital administrators, distribution executives and electronics developers I kept wondering why instead of sitting idly by and doing nothing while lives were lost and  businesses sustained untold billions in lost opportunity,  governments didn't get all the developers and patent holders together and figure out a way to hasten the adoption of a universally-accepted bar code system.

30 years later, I know the answer: conservatives and businesses - the very people who stand to profit most when new technologies make business more efficient - would call such a government role "socialism" or even "tyranny".

The "invisible hand" of free market forces doesn't always choose the best products, either. VHS won the compact videocassette race but Sony's Beta provided the best picture quality in a smaller cassette.

Since I wrote that article about bar code technology for Rx HomeCare nearly 30 years ago I haven't kept up on which bar code standards survived so I have no idea whether the better technologies won or lost, but I do know that America's self-defeating and irrational fear of a government role in helping new  technologies succeed will delay the deployment of important new products and cost conservative Republican businessmen billions of dollars in financial sacrifices to the "invisible hand" they worship.

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