The Road Forward Paved is With Decentralized Technological Solutions

In a previous post I articulated how most problems have three types of solutions: cultural, legal, and technological. Suppose a hundred people are stranded on an island, and they keep fighting over limited food resources. To fix this problem, one could implement:

  1. A Cultural Solution – Try to convince everyone to be nice.
  2. A Legal Solution – Design laws that dictate the distribution of food. Create a government to enforce these laws.
  3. A Technological Solution – Invent new food technologies that ensure there is more food than anyone could ever eat.

Now the idealist in me likes (1) a lot, and it might even work in the context of a small island where everyone knows each other, but let’s face it, such solutions are generally not effective, especially as societies get bigger. Humans don’t necessarily respond well to just being told to “play nice.” Especially when it only takes a few bad people to ruin everything.

As for (2), it’s a necessary evil most of the time, but it has tons of undesirable side effects. Creating any government is going to lead to a concentration of wealth and power as per the iron law of oligarchy. Certainly some governments are more desirable than others, and we can quibble over those details, but at the end of the day I don’t think it matters whether or not you opt for a libertarian private property scheme, a socialist wealth distribution scheme, or anything else in between, once you start giving certain islanders spears and the authority to stab people who disobey, I think  inequality and abuse of power are likely to be unfortunate byproducts.

But as I articulated in the original article, (3) has tons of advantages. By finding a way to create more food you have potentially done an end run around the difficult challenge of getting people to be nice to each other.

However (3) has a big caveat: Who controls the technology? Is it centralized, or is it decentralized?

Some technologies are decentralized or centralized by their very nature. For example, fire, one of the first technologies, is naturally decentralized. The raw materials to create fire are cheap and readily available. All you need is some basic knowledge. Nuclear power, on the other hand, is an example of an extremely centralized technology. Clearly you cannot just create a nuclear power plant in your backyard.

The problem with centralized technological solutions, is you potentially run into the same sorts of problems as legal solutions. Let’s say the islanders develop an effective new farming technology, but there is only a very small patch of land on the island with useable soil. Then a situation arises in which the people who control that piece of land are effectively in charge of the food supply. This simply gives rise to another form of governance, albeit one based on leveraging technology rather than just force. Such a scenario is again highly likely to lead to inequality and abuses of power.

However, it’s not hard to imagine a more decentralized technological solution. For example, if the islanders discover a robust food-producing plant that can grow anywhere on the island, then this solution will be much more resistant to elite control. Thus, I would argue, it is decentralized technology solutions that have the most potential to create real progress. These are the types of solutions we should actively promote if we want to achieve a better, more equal society.

Of course, governments will often resist such developments as they tend to undermine government power. It is all too common for governments to take a decentralized technology and try to recentralize it into the hands of a few people. For example, we could easily imagine the government of the island making it illegal to grow certain plants unless you are part of a special farmer’s guild. (If that sounds silly, keep in mind that the effect of seed patents today isn’t all that different in principle.)

Because I believe in the power of decentralized technological solutions to create real progress, my political beliefs are shaped accordingly. I favor any government that enables decentralized engineering solutions to flourish, whether by actively funding research in a socialist fashion or simply getting out of the way in a libertarian fashion. Specifically, I want a government that:

  • Does not actively wage war on decentralized technologies (see the war on drugs and the war on piracy)
  • Does not enforce complex legal schemes whose main aim appears to be locking down knowledge that would otherwise be decentralized (see intellectual property law)
  • Encourages the development of new decentralized solutions (see solar panels, open source software, household 3D printers, mesh networks, etc)

3 thoughts on “The Road Forward Paved is With Decentralized Technological Solutions

  1. Maker fairs and “hackademics” are two of the manifestations of people’s desire to decentralize. We watch the shenanigans of elected and appointed “leaders” of government and other institutions and can only shake our heads at how they move further and further away from understanding or even caring to understand those of us they have sworn to serve.

    Something I just learned about today is Valve Anti-Cheat, which seems to be a totally arbitrary policy of banning people who have purchased games over Steam for breaches in the past of whatever policy Valve is miffed about today. This is an example of the desire to re-centralize, but also touches on your earlier post of artists believing they have the right to keep earning from the public even after the public has lost interest in paying them.

    Economists call this “rent seeking.” It’s the attempt to create artificial monopolies in a good or service through legislation, such as intellectual property law or professional certification requirements.

    If one looks at the consequences of legislation, what really happens when laws are implemented, it’s pretty easy to see that the purpose of government is only to concentrate wealth into the hands of fewer and fewer multi-billionaires, as you noted. Protests in Zuccotti Park have proven to be completely ineffective at reversing this. The only way to put power back into the hands of the people is to literally put the production of power, as well as goods and services, back into the hands of the people.

    This is why it is every more important for each of us to become technology generalists and learn to “hack” every aspect of our lives. Economic specialization and Ricardo’s description of comparative advantage hold true when there are major differences between producers. If, however, I can use the internet to produce for myself an education that’s nearly as good as what I can get from sitting in a university lecture hall, or if I can use my home 3-D printer to make most of what I need for daily living and I can use intensive farming techniques on my GMO crops to feed myself, then there is no more comparative advantage, and less and less need to be an employee – which is good, since there are fewer and fewer jobs anyway.

    If one also realizes that most of what we have we don’t need, and in fact is detrimental to us, then one can achieve material freedom even quicker. And, if the vast majority of religious traditions are to be believed, over-dependence on material goods prevents us from putting our attention on our “spiritual” or intellectual lives, where it belongs.

    • Yes, I think we are very much in agreement.

      I would also suggest that next time someone writes one of those “top ten jobs of the future” lists, they should include rent-seeker as number one.

  2. I do agree with everything you’ve said here; technological solutions are something we should always be looking for, and decentralized solutions are generally ideal.

    I will mention that, unfortunately, a side effect of new technology to solve one problem is often that it creates a new problem. And often, that new problem requires either a legal or a cultural solution, to either regulate the new technology or to at least try to get people to use it in a “nice” way.