Hacking Technological Determinism for Fun and Profit

I’ve recently encountered and more fully grokked some ideas that invalidate my previous understanding of how to achieve political ends. To start with, I saw an interesting talk that urged Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to work on technologies that facilitate Exit from the influence of the “Paper Belt”, which in our terms is roughly the Cathedral. Then there have been our recent discussions with Scott Alexander, and his solid case for Technological Determinism. On that background, I’ve been rethinking our methods.

The argument is roughly that, if culture is downstream of technology, there is no point engaging historical inevitability at the level of culture. This is debatable and is currently being debated, but supposing it’s true, I want to explore methods for achieving our ends by placing ourselves upstream of technology.

We’ll start with the questions any decent entrepreneur should be asking continuously. First, what is the problem? The modern establishment has shown itself unable to protect us from crime and urban decay; unable to extract first-world living conditions from the materially richest country on earth; unable to preserve community, family, and civil society; unable to educate everyone to high-class standards of values and attitudes; unable to hold the flame of rational truth finding in public discourse; etcetera. We know that more is possible.

What is the current solution? The reflex answer, and therefor what we have been doing, is to use the usual method: intellectual discourse, movement building, ideological engineering, and organized political action. But in the cases where this worked – the French, American, and Russian revolutions, and the Nazi movement are examples – they had multiple seriously talented people in place, and it’s not even clear whether those people were driven by their own agency rather than historical inevitability. Perhaps we could try something different.

Why is the current solution inadequate? The world has changed. We’re all walking around with instantly networked supercomputers in our pockets; we’re seated all around the world having this discussion in a medium that doesn’t even physically exist, and barely existed at all 10 years ago; we have data about nearly everyone and every subject, and much else, accessible to all of us, in seconds. Surely something has changed in what methods are best? Further, the current set of methods at best produced some big events many years ago, and even that is debated. Then we have this other set of methods that has seriously changed the world multiple times in the last century, and dominates every serious prediction of the future. If we are interested in power, we should take interest in this second set of methods.

The second set of methods, and what I’ll explore here, is Technological Innovation.

So lets assume that Technology is our vector. What about the payload? Can Technological Innovation can be wielded for arbitrary purposes, or does it too just happen? We can look at examples: Bitcoin exists now because of the ideology of the cypherpunks community. We’re using mice and and hypertext because Douglas Englebert identified the ability to interact with information as critical to the future of humanity, and then invented mice and hypertext to help that. We went to the moon in 1969 because von Braun wanted us to, and built us the tools to do so. On the other hand, as far as I can tell, the Internet just happened because hackers gonna hack, and flight, calculus and many other innovations happened simultaneously in multiple places basically when the time was right.

It looks to me like there are two kinds of Technology Innovation, one of which can carry ideological payloads, and one which cannot. Tech like flight and calculus and the Internet are worked on by multiple people, improved on by others, and generally escape the control of any single philosopher-inventor. They get ruthlessly optimized for only the necessary and useful functions, so that ideological payloads are selected out. If the Wright brothers had designed their original plane for their particular concept of beauty as well as function, it would not have had a lasting effect on the development or impact of flight. On the other hand we have technology that involves a last-mover advantage explosion to monopoly status, where near-arbitrary payloads can be added. If Zuck decided that Facebook was going to include some social engineering feature, it would have to be pretty outrageous to cause Facebook’s downfall. If the Unix model subtly influenced the direction of society, there is not much we could do about it. Worse is Better, and Thiel’s Startup Notes are critical reading on these topics.

So there are two components to a working intervention:

  • Riding a tech wave to monopoly power the way Thiel describes in the linked series above. Without this, your tech cannot hope to have enough influence or the flexibility to deliver a payload.
  • Using the flexibility provided by monopoly status, build in features of that technology that strategically influence how society goes. Predicting this in advance a-la Bitcoin is hard. Better to install an agent with the right goals (eg you) in that position of power so you can have a tighter feedback loop and continue to mold the tech strategically.

Elon Musk is the best example I can think of of doing this well. He is building companies, Tesla and SpaceX, that have a good chance of taking the next wave in their respective fields, and loading a highly responsive and effective ideological payload on top of that. If those companies continue to succeed, Musk will achieve his ideological goals for human space exploration and sustainability. On the other hand we have Bitcoin. Assuming that Satoshi was ideologically motivated, and that Bitcoin is the future of money, whether Satoshi wins depends a lot on how smart he was in 2008 when the ideological payload of Bitcoin became static.

What this means for us is that a very promising way forward is for those of us with entrepreneurial aspirations to identify upcoming tech opportunities with room for favorable ideological payloads, and then execute like mad to make it happen. No one said it would be easy.

This piece by a fellow writer was reposted from our previous blog.