The Technology of Obedience: Corporate Research and the Invisible Hand


December 12, 2006


Browse in Freedom Technology

Is technology an independent force that evolves inexorably along a particular path – the path of best answers?  Or do the corporations that drive innovation steer it towards their own convenience and not necessarily for the benefit of the society as a whole?  The question might seem naïve.  But it still has to be raised, given the ideological hackles that it raises.

About two decades ago, an MIT professor by the name of David Noble made a painstaking study of the introduction of computerized controls in the machine tool industry. In his book Forces of Production, Noble showed how, at practically every turn, managers at the General Electric company had chosen the path that would increase their own control of the shop floor and diminish the role of workers – even when this did not improve the quality of products or the efficiency of the production process.

The managers had their own agenda, in other words; and this agenda determined the form of the new technology of production. This finding is heretical to market fundamentalists, who view the corporation as the agent of the invisible hand; and posit that any innovation it brings about must be by definition good.  To the rest of us, however,  Noble’s findings probably come as little surprise. Why would printer manufacturers go to such lengths to make their cartridges hard to refill; and auto companies design cars so that a fender bender can cost thousands of dollars?

Could it be the same reason that the University of California at Berkeley dropped its department of biological pest control, when it started getting corporate money to develop genetically engineered – and therefore patentable – versions?

These questions are rhetorical of course.  Those who get to frame the questions get to control the answers.  That is axiomatic; and corporations often have different questions than the rest of us do.  I want an inkjet printer with cartridges that are easy to refill.  At the very least, I’d like one that uses a generic cartridge at a low price. Lexmark, HP et al by contrast want to lock me into a stream of high-price replacement cartridges for which they have a patent monopoly.

Ms. Invisible Hand: where are you when I need you?  Where are you when pharmaceutical companies play patent games to keep drugs as expensive as possible for as long as possible?  If the chemists at Merck, say, were to stumble upon a compound that cured cancer and was abundant and cheap and in the public domain, do you think that would rush it to the stores?  Or do you think they would fiddle with the compound and come up with one that the company could patent and sell at a higher price?

That scenario is not entirely hypothetical.  A recent story in the Wall Street Journal  (11-15-06) reported on how Novartis, the Swiss drug giant, has signed agreements with institutes in China that study herbal medicines, to gain access to the biological materials in their collections.  The article casts an intriguing light on how the property imperative of Western firms skews the process of research.

In China, the only concern is whether a particular substance works. Medicine has evolved over centuries through trial and error.  They try this, and then that; and when they find something that works they go with it, even though they don’t know exactly how it works. In the U.S. that is not enough.  Partly this is because of Western concepts of science, which are analytic and require knowledge of an underlying mechanism.

But note how neatly that meshes with the property imperative: a natural substance cannot be patented, but an underlying compound derived from it can.

Drug companies argue that this process of analysis and patenting gives them an “incentive” to develop better and more effective compounds. To what extent that actually happens, as opposed to their finding new ways to charge for what nature has provided for free, remains to be seen.  Could research funded by government or nonprofits develop cures that are more effective and also less expensive, because free from the iron grip of Wall Street and its expectations of return?

These are empirical questions, not ideological ones; and they need to be answered in a spirit of open-mindedness and experimentation. (Fat chance, I know.) It is beyond dispute, though, that corporate profit mandates can lead research down paths that are downright creepy and bizarre.  That was illustrated in another recent Journal article (11/28/06) on the use of magnetic resonance imaging to study – I’m not kidding – how the brain responds to brand names.

Researchers in Munich, Germany, the Journal reports, have discovered that logos for insurance companies create as much buzz in the brain as do those for auto companies.  This apparently was big news; most marketers had assumed car logos to be much sexier.  The research was presented at the annual conference of the Radiological Society of North America; and was the “first ever to use magnetic resonance imaging to study the impact of brand recognition on brains.”

Most of the papers at the conference were devoted to better ways of diagnosing disease and saving lives.  Why would anyone use scarce research dollars to study the impact of brand logos? Corporations did not pay for the research, the Journal says.  But would anyone be surprised some came calling?  Already they have been pursuing kindred lines of research with great interest.

An example is neuro-marketing, which is the use of the brain’s neural pathways to enable corporations to push our “buy” buttons more effectively  Professors associated with some of the nation’s most prestigious universities have been assoxiated with this research —  Harvard, Baylor and CalTech among others.  The epicenter is something called the BrightHouse Institute at Emory University, which uses the magnetic resonance imaging department of Emory University Hospital.  (The Institute is connected to an ad agency that includes among its clients Coca Cola, K-Mart and Home Depot.)

BrightHouse tries to cast its work in terms of high public purpose.  It is helping companies design “better products” it says.  It will help them satisfy consumers more completely.  But when speaking to potential clients, researchers there are more candid.  “It will actually result  in higher product sales or in brand preference or in getting customers to behave the way [corporations] want them to behave,” one Adam Koval of the BrightHouse Institute said.

Now there’s a cheery thought: a technology that will get us to behave the way corporations want us to.   It’s even more cheery when you consider what will happen when politicians and the CIA get access to this research.   The invisible hand has been up to a bit of mischief it would seem. The late Professor Milton Friedman would call this “freedom.” Myself, I’m not so sure.