The new engine of economic productivity: Video games

For centuries, the military has driven technology forward, fostering new waves of industrialization and corporate use. James Watt’s steam engine was perfected with the help of a cannon-boring tool. Computers were created during World War II to calculate artillery firing and to break codes. The military bought half of all semiconductors until the late 1960s. Even the first global-positioning systems (GPS) were funded by Congress, not for navigation but as a nuclear detonation detection system. Add microwave ovens from radar, Blu-ray discs from lasers, or Velcro and Tang from NASA, and there’s no doubt how much government acquisition programs have shaped our lives.

Fifty years ago, President Eisenhower was worried enough to declare that “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” No need to worry anymore. That game (pardon the pun) is over: Welcome to the entertainment-industrial complex…

So why has the military been displaced? For one, capital formation. Governments had the unique capacity to raise (read: tax) the enormous capital needed to fund state-of-the-art projects. But a fully functioning stock market can raise billions for productive commercial applications, bypassing the military connection. Hate Wall Street all you want, but it’s now better than wars at driving progress.

Second, displacing the military is about high sales volume. Often that means lower costs. The $300 Roomba automatic vacuum, which the company iRobot says it has sold to five million customers, helps drive down the cost of the Army’s robotic bomb removers. Volume is especially good at spurring the creation of new applications. Hardware is nothing without software and apps. Caffeine-fueled coders won’t even think about writing apps unless there are millions, if not tens of millions, of potential customers.