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Social Implications of Technology

by richardk Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 09:03:33 AM EST

The filthy rich and their sellout lackeys would like us to believe the notion that technology, its forms and its uses, are inevitable and socially neutral. They will all roast in the deepest pits of hell for their filthy lies and we will certainly ignore anything they have to say. On the other hand, the notion that technology is inherently neutral but that its development and application are manipulated by the rich and powerful in order to dig in their razor claws into all walks of life is very widespread among the intelligentsia. Now, the fact that technology can be, and is, twisted by those in power in order to benefit themselves is very well documented. But, is technology inherently neutral?

[extracted from Social Implications of Technology by kind permission of myself]


As it turns out, technology is not inherently neutral. All technologies have certain affordances, certain features that cause them to enable certain usages better than others and, this is the key, these usages may be political in nature. So for example, the entirety of firearms technology is suited uniquely to murdering people. And just as the affordances of firearms technology make it inherently evil so too other affordances make certain technologies either inherently oppressive or inherently liberating. And while it is possible to force an oppressive technology to be neutral or to turn a tool of the rich and powerful into a tool of the masses, the inherent natures of the technologies remains unchanged.

With this in mind, we turn to the important question. What is it that makes a technology a tool of the rich and powerful? A technology is such if its cost is high. Conversely, a technology is a tool of the masses if its cost is low. The reason why this is so is simple. Because capitalism is dysfunctional, producers are perpetually at the mercy of customers unless truly extraordinary measures are taken by government to protect producers.

As a consequence, when the customers of any given technology are the poor, the titular owners of the technology are at the mercy of the poor even if they themselves are rich. This is so in the case of phone technology. The converse also holds true, as is demonstrated in the case of fashion designers, butlers and other servants.

Note that customers aren't the same as consumers. The consumers of newspapers are their readers (the poor), but their customers are advertisers (the rich).

Examples

Newspapers are tools of the rich and powerful because a daily costs $2-$3 x 365 days = $730-$1095 a year (the price of a daily covers but a fraction of its cost). That's the price of a computer nowadays, and a computer can easily last up to 3 years without becoming obsolete. For $2190-$3300, you'll get an excellent computer and between one and three years of broadband. In addition, computers get you much more information than a single daily, in an infinitely more accessible, convenient, and anonymous manner. So for the cost of a single daily, you get a networked computer that can also deliver music, movies, games and applications. The economics of newspapers simply do not make any sense, except of course as vehicles for state and elite propaganda. We would be talking about what people euphemistically label 'respected opinion' and 'advertising' respectively.

Robert McChesney explains that once newspapers were inexpensive and took on the heavily "biased" flavor that we see with today's blogs -- owners wore their biases on their sleeves. At some point, they became more expensive to create, and choice dwindled to the point where a city might have only a couple dailies. Since such bias stank when there was little competition, journalism schools were created where "professional journalism" was taught. This carried an ideological bias in favor of "official sources" like politicians and businessmen; and journalists would be accused of injecting bias whenever they attempted to provide context along with their reporting. (There do exist useful ideas from professional journalism, but it has very damaging effects which keep the press from fulfilling the role of effective watchdogs. Many have noted that democracy requires an effective watchdog press.)

Public transit is a tool of the masses because it costs between $1000-1500 a year, or $2 per hour, including subsidies and capital construction. In contrast, an automobile costs $5500-7000 a year in direct costs and a further $7700-10,000 in indirect costs. Now, the $2 per hour is probably only operating costs so with other costs that brings it up to $3-$4, but the per-hour costs of an automobile is $40 assuming an average speed of 33 mph. That makes car usage a cool 10x more expensive than mass transit which is itself a cool 10x more expensive than bicycling. And bicycling has the advantages of being much more available, more accessible and vastly healthier. This is exactly why automobiles are tools of the rich. Additionally, automobiles serve as an obscure and overcomplicated means for the rich to literally suck lifetime from the poor.

Internet

The internet itself is a powerful tool for organization, for CHEAP organization. The rich and the powerful have never had any trouble organizing themselves, all it requires is manpower & money. Well, there's no shortage of craven power worshippers and eager sellouts hypnotized by the lure of the filthy lucre. The number of people that obediently chant Heil Mein Fuhrer when Dubya commands "go forth and murder" is testimony to this. Cheap organization is something new. This has very important implications.

The most important consequence is that it is becoming impossible to marginalize a majority of the population by disorganizing them. So the traditional organs of the rich, the media, the management, and the sell-out unions, will become increasingly less effective, possibly disappearing entirely. Another consequence is that otherwise completely marginal groups can organize into small but effective groups. All the hoopla about the long tail of market distribution is about exactly this; organizing otherwise completely marginal groups.

We can also observe the Rupert Murdochs figuring out how to extend their media monopolies to the net. (http://www.newscorp.com/news/news_247.html)

Some argue the Murdochs fantasies' aren't the same thing as reality. There is a very long history of various agencies trying to push through totalitarian control of the internet, with consistent failures and equally consistent bewilderment among the totalitarians about why they are resisted.

Further examples

Subject

  • <tool for the poor>
  • <tool for the rich>

AIDS
  • condoms: $0.50 to $1.00 each, for < $500 / year
  • drugs: $2000 + doctors + reduced lifespan + intensive care + other social costs

Malaria
  • eradication
  • pay the social costs

Cancer
  • prevention
  • treatment

Long-distance passenger transport
  • trains
  • planes

Long-distance cargo transport
  • trains
  • trucks

Movie-making
  • machinina
  • digital cameras & editing software
  • video cameras
  • film cameras

Electronic networking
  • fiber
  • wireless
  • broadband
  • satellite

Insurance
  • single-payer
  • private companies (eg, HMOs)

Currency
  • negative interest (illegal)
  • positive interest

Management
  • worker self-management (Soviets, Syndicates, Shoras)
  • white collar totalitarianism (Capitalism, Bolshevism)

Poverty
  • eradication
  • class warfare

Economic inequality
  • eradication
  • class warfare (pigs and jarheads)

Economic development
  • agrarian land reform
  • Structural Adjustment Plan

Land allocation
  • Community Land Trust: eliminates speculation, disinvestment and overinvestment
  • private capitalist market: kicks out working blacks in favour of white yuppies who can plonk down a million dollars (5-10x) for a property

Knowledge Store
  • the web
  • libraries

Knowledge Distribution:
  • electronic journals $5 per journal
  • paper journals: $2000 per journal

Moral Philosophy
  • atheism
  • Christianity
  • Islam
  • Hinduism

Energy
  • conservation
  • shifting demand to off-peak hours
  • nuclear, hydro [update]
  • wind
  • oil, gas; the global warming costs of past usage may easily climb into the tens of trillion USD range
  • coal
[Update: nixed solar, added an exception to wireless]

Display:
Your two introductory sentences more or less preclude any necessity of comment.

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 09:56:50 AM EST
If you can skip past that, there is interesting stuff in this diary.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 09:59:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
In the interest of even-handedness, I will do just that. Thanks...

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 10:42:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
We are the angry ranters of the extremist left.  I think it's just a trick so that the filthy rich do not read on and learn dangerous stuff...

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 11:13:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Therefore, Sven is filthy rich.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 11:21:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You think?

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 05:22:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I was supporting the diarist's freedom to comment in yesterday's pie fight:

http://www.eurotrib.com/comments/2007/1/25/62946/1483/98#98

My comment here was merely a touch on the tiller of the SS Appropriate

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 05:31:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I was nodding my way through your list 'till I came to this one.

Knowledge Store

the web:

libraries:

Libraries operate differently to the web, I think.  I prefer your web/newspaper (or journals etc.) suggestion.  Any reason in particular why you chose libraries?  (Free to use, nowadays I can choose books--unless the issue is "the book" in and of itself...?--anyways, I can choose books from around the country.  Libraries also have the web in them--also free to use, so I'm not sure they act...what's the word...not opposition...hmmm...in contradistinction?)

I suppose you could argue that libraries are buildings and we have to get to them, while the web is a bunch of servers (small storage space=cheap...etc...), but in fact I think I would have put it like this:

ACCESS TO INFORMATION

Libraries
Book stores

Well, I mean that's what comes to mind right now.

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 12:22:30 PM EST
It's the cost of copy.

Information storage

  • websites
  • books


"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 01:06:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
And cost of access. Public libraries in the UK are full of crap. And access to university libraries is strictly controlled, and often costs money.

Web access - if you can afford it - is patchy. Arxiv.org is open. Phys Rev, Nature and the rest charge a subscription.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 02:10:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I can tell you nobody uses journals any longer for physics/math research, because of the arXiv.org, except when an old source is required. Nowadays, the only reason to publish in a journal is to pad one's CV. Those who want their work to be widely available use the web.

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 02:26:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I was only using physics as an example. There are journals that I'd love to read regularly - Leonardo, Computer Music Journal, some of the art photography journals - but I don't, because they're  

  1. Not available locally
  2. Too damn expensive
or
3. Both.

And Phys Rev and the rest still matter to journalists, if maybe not so much to scientists, because the content is easier to filter through if you're looking for a story. Arxiv.org is a sprawling free for all in comparison. You might find a story in there, if you're lucky. But it'll probably take you half a day of sifting through abstracts.

One problem with limited public access to information is that often you don't know that you're interested in a publication or book until you fall over it by accident.

Google may be a kludge, but at least you can search for things easily and have a decent chance of finding something relevant.

Not so with paper, where it's not only expensive, it's also inaccessible in the more practical sense of being invisible until you discover it. And your chances of discovering it depend on where you live and how rich you are.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 07:44:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Search engines suck noise. They suck because they return same results, the most popular results and not the most informative results. The quality and marginal cost of information available online is low: conversely, the search costs of specificity are high.

We come to judge the reliability, or integrity, of information by how many different publishers repeat the same news.

Over time though even this metric becomes unstable.

The upside of www distribution, besides low reproduction cost, is that many publications maintain  searchable archives. These are not cached by search engines. For the price of registration (0), one can retrieve the digital copy of an article for a fraction of it's original cost -- $4 or $6 is about market rate -- bundled in the annual subscription price valued which may be 1000x more.

That seems a small price to pay for specificity and convenience.

Diversity is the key to economic and political evolution.

by Cat on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 11:03:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
funny, i just learned that in umbertide (italia), a smallish market town half an hour's drive away, has free library broadband and free printing in colour.

commies!

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 08:53:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
If we go by access to information then the cost of just going to a library can be prohibitive. Especially so if you nurture a few lazy bones in your body. Libraries are rarely up to date when compared to web archives of fiction. Searching through a library always takes more time and is vastly more difficult since there's no way to search by a book's contents. There's no guarantee that you'll be able to get a book you found. And having borrowed a book, you've committed yourself to returning it within a specified timeframe.

But this isn't what I meant when I wrote this essay a year ago. But before we get to that, keep in mind that libraries' patrons are consumers of libraries but they aren't its customers. The customers of a library are the municipal council, private backers and taxpayers. And in that sense, libraries are extremely expensive to build, own, operate and maintain, while providing very limited services to a small clientele.

So back to the question of what's a knowledge store. A knowledge store doesn't merely store information, otherwise it would be an archive. Nor does it provide access without providing storage, otherwise it would be a daily. A knowledge store is something that provides storage and organized access to knowledge. So you really can't separate the two.

Finally, the web is far from being the ultimate knowledge store. For one thing, it's extremely poorly organized with very limited searching capability. Google is a hack and a clunky one at best. There have been several proposals for knowledge stores far more powerful than the web will ever be. If the kind of knowledge store I have in mind ever got online, it would put out the publishing industry like a wet match.

by richardk (richard kulisz gmail) on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 06:41:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Searching through a library always takes more time and is vastly more difficult since there's no way to search by a book's contents.

There are these nifty new things called 'databases' and when combined with another recent invention known as 'subject headings' make it fairly easy to search through a library.

There's no guarantee that you'll be able to get a book you found.

One word, or rather acroynym - ILL

And having borrowed a book, you've committed yourself to returning it within a specified timeframe.

Computer renewals - until someone else requests the book, also from their desk. If I actually had all the books I've ever checked out of libraries my apartment would be wall to wall books.

Major libraries are one of the world's greatest treasures. But you're right, they are expensive.

by MarekNYC on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 06:59:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The web is poorly organized only if you accept a Top-Down hierarchy - the Relational Data Model being the best known, perhaps - as the paradigm for Knowledge-bases. The web, as Information-Source/Storage, has a high degree of sophistication, nuance and flexibility.  

What is wrong with the web are the inane Information Retrieval (sic) methods, as you point-out.  Google is barely tolerable and only tolerable because everything else is even worse.  Of the vaunted alternatives XML is a joke: a computer-based natural language processing system completely relying on a human to process the natural language input into the system.  How's that again?  And the great Semantic Web? ...  pull-eeze spare me.

Crack the InfoRet problem and the world is gravy.  


She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 07:27:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What can organization mean if not a means to aid retrieval?

The web is poorly organized because it maintains no distinction between Works and Bullshit. Nor does it have any concept of a Work, only of a "web page" which is a completely artificial construct.

If you put a novel online, there's no way to specify, in its full generality, in a machine-readable manner, that the novel is a single, individual Work. Instead, you must trawl through individual archives to specify this to each one, each in its own unique manner. This is called "posting the novel" and it is tedious.

The inability to search through all, for example, scientific works and ONLY scientific works, is a liability. So is the inability to specify a search through works which you have already read. Nor by their publication dates.

by richardk (richard kulisz gmail) on Sat Jan 27th, 2007 at 04:05:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
"...the kind of knowledge store I have in mind..."

Could you say more about this? The nature of knowledge stores is vastly more important to the nature of society than almost anyone understands.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 10:23:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Could you say more about this?

I was about to ask the same question.

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Sat Jan 27th, 2007 at 12:31:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?UniversalCatalog

except I've been told it's not very descriptive

by richardk (richard kulisz gmail) on Sat Jan 27th, 2007 at 04:10:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't think the issue is with technology. In the days of feudalism the wealthy owned the land, but didn't have any better technology available to them then the peasants.

The real issue is "might makes right". It is easy to buy off people to work against their self-interest. The poorer they are the less it costs. Thus, in feudal societies a small group of enforcers could keep the peasants in their place. The fact that these enforcers were really in the same social class as those they were controlling was ignored.

Today we see the same dynamic. For example, academic toadies are willing to spin webs of pseudo-intellectual lies - and all it costs is a salary at some university or think tank. Look up the wealth of a typical US plutocrat (say the Coors family) and then figure out how many pundits they can afford to buy without putting a dent in their wealth.

Even the wars are being fought by those who stand to gain nothing (and risk life and limb). In the Civil War the bulk of the southern forces were American peasants who owned no slaves, but were fighting for a class that they got no benefit from. In fact the slave economy drove down the wages of poor whites so that they were actively fighting against their own economic welfare. (As Frederick Douglass pointed out it is hard to compete with somebody who is being paid nothing.)

Today we see our soldiers fighting in areas where they stand to gain nothing no matter how the wars turn out. The economic and human costs of the wars will exceed any expense that not controlling middle east oil would have imposed for decades to come. So they aren't even fighting for the right to cheap gasoline. What they may save in this cost will be more than made up in the future by higher taxes, inflation and declining social programs that will be the result of the huge deficits.

It's not technology that's the issue, its power politics. It always has been and even democracies haven't eliminated the problems.

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 12:47:49 PM EST
"I don't think the issue is with technology. In the days of feudalism the wealthy owned the land, but didn't have any better technology available to them then the peasants."

The wealthy did have superior technology: swords, armor, horse gear, and trained horses. These were extremely expensive and could be used effectively only by well-trained elites: knights. This technology was, of course, directly useful for maintaining power.

A major force in the destruction of this power structure was the gun: A simple gun need not be much more complex than a metal tube attached to a piece of wood, and learning to load, point, and fire took relatively little training. This radically devalued the older military technology. In Japan, of course, highly trained samurai kept a grip on power  by suppressing gun technology.

Regarding the view of guns expressed in the diary, one shouldn't regard the use of an effective technology by a power elite as evidence that the best alternative would help equalise power.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 10:18:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Unless we're talking about mind control or thought control, the purpose to which a technology is suited tends to be independent of the power relations it promotes. There are plenty of killing technologies that promote egalitarian relations.

The mine, the anti-tank missile and the anti-ship missile all have important democratizing effects, as was amply proved when Israel attempted to invade Lebanon. In contrast, the tank, the warship and the warplane are all authoritarian technologies.

by richardk (richard kulisz gmail) on Sat Jan 27th, 2007 at 03:42:32 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, and I like your drawing attention to the question of purpose vs. power relations across a wide range of purposes.

I'd like to see more attention given to the design of systems of technologies and law that could promote freedom and oppose oppression in a world with ubiquitous surveillance capabilities. If there is no vision of this sort, the next few turns of Moore's law could lead to quite unpleasant results.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Sat Jan 27th, 2007 at 04:16:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Surveillance will always be more expensive than non-surveillance. At least until we have AI.

Speaking of, when we do get AI, attention will become plentiful and most of the world will go nuts for lack of things to do. Switching to an economy of purpose (4th) would be an immense shock if the old economy of labour (2nd) hasn't already dissolved.

I think the technology you're looking for is the social concept of privacy so powerful in Germany and the Nordic countries. Think of Piratbyran and Piratpartiet.

by richardk (richard kulisz gmail) on Sat Jan 27th, 2007 at 04:56:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
"...Piratbyran and Piratpartiet."

Interesting. I assume that

"...the social concept of privacy so powerful in Germany and the Nordic countries."

includes the motivations behind this --

"Antipiratbyrån's tactics inspired some 4,000 Swedes to complain through e-mail to the Swedish Data Inspection Board that the group's IP tracking violated data-privacy laws."

-- and the concern that it shows regarding database contents. Are there aspects of this that are related, but markedly different? I'm interested in getting a better sense of this in cultural terms.
-------------

BTW, it is of course taboo to discuss AI as if it might be realised, and have consequences.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Sun Jan 28th, 2007 at 01:09:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
As if? AI is being realized. Most of the dimensions of it anyways.

As for privacy, Germany can't even run a census because citizens refuse to provide personal information.

But see also how information is used by the German bureaucracy.

by richardk (richard kulisz gmail) on Sun Jan 28th, 2007 at 10:16:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I do not understand your list.

 

by Jett on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 01:04:39 PM EST
As Dirac once said, "that is a statement, not a question".

A list of domains of human activity is given, and within each item a list of technologies, in increasing order of cost (and therefore, from "technology of the poor" to "technology of the rich").

"It's the statue, man, The Statue."

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 01:11:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think I understand better then. I was thinking that the first one appealed to the poor and the second to the rich. Then there were more than one item listed and I saw things like trains listed (in the US trains are the domain of the wealthy) and became very confused.
by Jett on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 02:57:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
good diary...i especially liked the observation on the long tail.

(personally mighty fed up with the 'short head'!)

thanks for keeping the ole bile duct on a tight rein, rk!

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Fri Jan 26th, 2007 at 08:55:28 PM EST
This diary is a demagogic construction.

The filthy rich...
Ah, the filthy rich digging in their razor claws into the back of the poor!
Feels so good writing this...

automobiles are tools of the rich
Wow. How many dozens of millions rich people around here.

What is it that makes a technology a tool of the rich and powerful? A technology is such if its cost is high. Conversely, a technology is a tool of the masses if its cost is low.
You use 'cost' in monetary terms. A constant theme here is how the real cost of a technology is way beyond monetary. So a low (monetary) cost tool for the masses may very easily become a high (overall) cost tool for the whole of us.

Of course, you have no choice but to use 'cost' as monetary, since you start up with your division between the rich and the poor. So you run into conceptual difficulties sooner or later.

The mine, the anti-tank missile and the anti-ship missile all have important democratizing effects
How can any one write this and go unchallenged? Mines are the single most awful weapon for the damage they inflict upon men women, children, donkeys, anything alive : think Angola, Southern Lebanon. Anti-tank missiles are a godsend for high seas pirates, islamic somali fighters and other assorted democrats.

I mean, I could go on and on. This diary needs a rewrite.

by balbuz on Sat Jan 27th, 2007 at 04:23:52 AM EST
And going by your logic, the fact the internet is used by pigs proves it is an inherently oppressive and totalitarian technology.

As for mines, yes they do kill an awful lot of people. So what? Killing is not the same as oppression. A plague may kill a great many people without ever being a tool of oppression.

The amount of illogic you've managed to squeeze into such a short comment is stunning. It's evident you don't want to learn. Probably because of the "demagogy" which you find so offensive.

by richardk (richard kulisz gmail) on Sat Jan 27th, 2007 at 04:42:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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