A recent National Vital Statistics Report, released September 6th, 2013 by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) outlines “Births: Preliminary Data for 2012. The thirty-three page report says “The number of births and fertility rate either declined or were unchanged for most racial groups from 2011 to 2012…” In the bigger picture it’s the “unchanged” part that is significant. Since the economy tanked in late 2007, women have been ever more reluctant to have babies. Economic hard times produce the usual result—less fertility. More of the middle class is cast into uncertainty about their future and therefore respond by pulling back from family growth.
A Bigger Picture
So here we are in 2014, some six years later and women are not running away from fertility at ever increasing statistical levels, or at least that’s one likely interpretation of the CDC report. But what more is there to learn form these statistics? If fertility is no longer declining then it’s possible the larger economic growth trend is reemerging from beneath the financial disaster that came to light in 2007. Oddly, the economy has been on an upward swing this entire time. The severe recession of the last half decade was a symptom of the social reorganization that accompanies a major historical turning point. To not see the complex confluence of cyclical, geopolitical and economic forces that are now in play around the globe and especially in America, is to miss what is happening now and what is most likely to happen in the near future. Since the mid 1990s digital equipment, digital methods and digital innovation have driven the economy and that hasn’t stopped, not even during the financial crisis. In fact, without an underlying economic expansion, the last six years would have been much, much worse. A stabilizing fertility rate in many social groups is an indicator that the underlying economic expansion is still at play, otherwise why would women begin having more babies? Well, of course, they want to have a family, sure; but I’m talking statistically.
Fertility is a leading indicator of sorts. When women stop having as many babies as they previously were having society has changed. And by way of corollary, when women begin having more babies society has changed yet again. Changes in fertility are a long-standing social indicator. A hundred thousand years ago the fertility of women in migratory tribes changed with the nutrition levels of the tribe. If the tribe came upon hard times and nutrition levels fell past a certain level the women of the tribe became infertile. Their hormones shut down the baby-making process. The same thing happens today if nutrition levels fall, but that isn’t what usually happens in developed countries. Instead, fertility is now tied to personal estimates of available economic opportunity. If a woman now feels uncomfortable about the economic prospects in her near future, she’s likely to put off any plans for conception. In fact, the woman probably isn’t alone in her choice, her male partner is probably just as likely to hesitate in the face of grim economic prospects. But as the financial disaster loses its immediate drag on the economy those concerns begin to shift. It’s that shift that is at the root of any leveling out of the fertility decline. In the next year or two we will see if there is a turn around leading to birth increases.
In connecting digital growth in the underlying economy with fertility, we are considering a very old connection. That connection is the way society responds to territory. In this case the territory is the new digital economy and the opportunities it offers and hardships it imposes. Just like ancient migratory tribes responding to the opportunities and limitations of their territorial circumstances, American society is now adapting. It’s been a wild ride and it’s no where near ending. In fact, it has just begun. The digital cycle is built around servers, and servers are control devices that centralized power in society among a small number of corporations that own the most central servers. The other part of the digital cycle are catchments, which can be far more diverse and way more broadly distributed throughout society. Catchments are small collections of online tools and properties that lead people towards a particular website or software property. That property doesn’t have to be owned by a server owner. For example, this blog is just such a catchment yet the owner of the blog isn’t the owner of the server on which the blog is registered. In a new territory there are fabulous opportunities, ridiculous stupidity and shameful misdeeds. The story of “patent trolls” is a story about overarching ambition seeking fabulous opportunity but willing to commit shameful misdeeds. A patent troll is a business designed to gain and sustain profitability through obtaining patents by purchase and then trolling the internet looking for opportunities to bring legal suit against companies they accuse of violating their patents. The legal suits are often frivolous, but because it costs more to defend against this type of suit than to settle out of court, the real object is to obtain settlement money.
Patent trolls are the equivalent of highway robbers in earlier territorial conflicts. When new territory opens up, all sorts of activities begin. There’s a website that tracks patent litigation called, PatentFreedom. According to their count of yearly patent suits, the increase in litigation has gone up dramatically in the last eight or nine years. Of these patent suits, software litigation counts for an overwhelming portion, close to 90% of the law suits. Patent trolls are at least one of the sources of this dramatic increase in litigation. We are at the very beginning of the digital era. There are severe actions and developments occurring that are obviously not the final structure of digital networks. Society is pinched by these developments and there appears to be little balance between the control of servers and the breadth of opportunities offered by catchments. For now it seems that servers are winning out and their effect on the economy is positive while their effect on society has negative features. Increased births in the US is probably an indicator of the positive, while patent trolls are almost certainly an indicator of the negative.