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:
- A Cultural Solution – Try to convince everyone to be nice.
- A Legal Solution – Design laws that dictate the distribution of food. Create a government to enforce these laws.
- 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)