Go Beyond

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Small Scale Technology vs Organization Dependent Technology

I had an interview today. Thought the interviewer was great, but I don't think I did so well. At one point he asked me if I had three months to spend on a project, what it would be. Thinking more on the question, I'm getting more of an idea as to at least the topic of what I might like to work on for a three month project.

Ted Kazinsky wrote about "Small Scale Technology vs Organization Dependent Technology" in his Unabomber manifesto (pdf, epub).

I find it a fascinating topic. While I think you should read his manifesto for yourself, I believe he is saying that Organization Dependent Technology requires excessive socialization and makes for a less free society. For multiple reasons, particularly growing dependency on the improved life such technologies offer. Small Scale Technology is technology which can exist in a small community without outside help. The blacksmith making nails that the carpenter uses to put together a cabinent, which he stains with stain made locally from his neighbor. Advances in such technology could be a more efficient plow design that's still able to be made by a traditional blacksmith.

Organization Dependent Technology would be a carpenter using brad nails and a nail gun that no one in his neighborhood could have made on their own. For a more extreme but not exactly innaccurate plot twist, the brad nails could be packaged with a QR code to verify the "authenticity" of the nails (Keurig K-Cups and printer ink already do this). The carpenter can now build cabinents 30% faster and spend less in materials. At least in this situation, switching from brad nails to regular nails isn't the most complex process. In time, technology stacks on technology which makes it even harder to give up.

One thing about the socialization aspect of Organization Dependent Technology is that with much of it, you have to be in good social standing (or unknown) with many different groups. People can be blacklisted for "incorrect views," at many layers. The cell phone store, the cell network, and then what you access with that cellphone (Facebook, Twitter). Now realistically, only the social media blacklisting is all that common, but the social dependency can be a liability. In a small community you are very socially dependent on your neighbors, however I feel the feedback loop of actions to reality and relationship are much shorter and more reasonable.

I'd like to discuss some of the pros and cons of Organization Dependent Technology.

Organization Dependent Technology Pros

  • Cheaper. With economies of scale, you can get more of it for less.
  • Better. With modern materials and manufacturing methods, superior products can be made. Is that always done? No, but it's possible.
  • Faster. Easier to acquire.
  • Replacable. Most, if not all, things produced with Organization Dependent Technology are not one of a kind. If you get attached to something and you lose it, you can likely buy it again.
  • More efficient to produce.

Organization Dependent Technology Cons

  • Further and further removed from nature and primitive manufacturing processes.
  • Enables stupidity by over-simplifying things like getting directions, weather predictions, self-parking cars, etc.
  • The ease of technology may enhance one generation but handicap the next. For instance, driver aids in cars.
  • Advances in Organization Dependent Technology usually lead to things that are harder and harder to fix. Not always, but often.
  • Technology becomes an arms race where everyone must participate whether they want to or not. Whether for social or practical reasons, old technology is phased out or considered taboo, especially as far as communications go.
  • A society has much further to fall in a collapse if it's using Organization Dependent Technology.

Small Scale Technology Pros

  • You can make it yourself or within a community.
  • Since you made it, you can always repair it yourself.
  • Since you made it, you can understand it. You might be able to understand how to make everything you own or at least how it works.
  • Much of it is unique and handfinished. It doesn't lend itself to soulless goods.
  • There is very little technological ladder to climb and become dependent on, to the point where you don't know where it all came from.

Small Scale Technology Cons

  • It's more time consuming to build, procure, and repair.
  • You get less for your effort.
  • It's less efficient.
  • Good produced this way will likely require more maintenance, albeit less major.
  • Little incentive for Organization Dependent Technology to adopt what you've produced, so hard to export aside from novelty (like Amish furniture).

I'd like to give some loose examples of Organization Dependent Technology and its Small Scale Technology "alternatives." Keep in mind, this is not literal. Many of the things I'm listing as the Small Scale Technology alternative are just different forms of Organization Dependent Technology, albeit less organizationally dependent.

Organization Dependent Technology Small Scale Technology
Cell Phones Ham Radio
Hosted Cloud Services Self-hosting
Keurig Coffee Maker Drip coffee
Rented VPS Servers Servers in your garage
Credit Cards Gold/silver bullion
iTunes Independent music CDs
Computerized Toyota Prius Carbureted truck
Non-stick fry pans every year Seasoned carbon steel
Plastic crates Wooden crates
Department store knicknacks 3D Printing
Amazon Kindle Independent books
Grocery store Farmer's market
Google Maps on your iPhone Dedicated GPS
Dedicated GPS Printed maps

There's certainly a sliding scale of organization dependence with technology. I'd say there are some things which are obscenely dependent and don't operate at all without a multitude of services running which you may or may not control. The worst offenders are perhaps Amazon Fire TV Sticks, Ring doorbells, and those Alexa devices. Certainly not just those, there are many others.

So a burned DVD Linux installer is less organization dependent than iPXE or a network installer image. Cell phones use centralized towers, whereas Ham Radio is point or point or on voluntary repeaters.

Technology has exploded in a rapid transition from small scale to organization dependent. I think this has many effects, not all of them good. I'm letting computers think for me, so without a computer I am dumber than when I started. (Of course, there's a difference between learning using a device and becoming dependent on it.)

There are a couple of movements against Organization Dependent Technology. I'll try to describe some of those.

Small Scale Technology Revitalization Movement

Now, no one would call it that, but to one degree or another it is.

  • Right to repair.
  • 3D printing.
  • Open source.
  • Self-hosting.
  • Ham Radio.
  • Anti-DRM.
  • Peer to peer.

These all are less organization dependent than their closest alternatives.

Conclusions

I do have to wonder if Kazinsky was right and life really is better without Organization Dependent Technology altogether. It may not be easier, the death rates are higher, the medicine is worse, and the comfort is not the same, but that doesn't mean life is worse. It just seems like social interactions are worse in every way, getting worse year after year. Dopamine is being gamed, electronics are less repairable every year, and consumerism is more rampant than ever. We know less and less about lives consisting of more and more.

But aside from that, I think it is clear if we continue to use Organization Dependent Technology, especially to its severest degrees, if there is a catastrophe, the fall will be far greater than the alternative. And so in this way, Small Scale Technology is clearly survivable and has gotten us a long ways as a species. Are the sacrifices worth the gains of Organization Dependent Technology?

At a minimum, I'd like to strike more of a balance between the two. Be less and less dependent. Know how to fall back to simpler technologies. Have fewer failure points in my life, more modularity and adaptability. Even something as mundane as having a GSM cell phone where you can swap the SIM card into another one if the phone fails. Or perhaps an axe versus a chainsaw. Things you can repair yourself vs in a shop.

I suspect this balance also exists with computers, as I've written before. And I do wonder if there is any kind of business model or advantage to supporting smaller, more decentralized infrastructures as opposed to selling centralized infrastructure. Imagine if Amazon's EC2 went down for a week? What would happen? I know it's not likely, but it's possible. And I suspect at a certain point malicious people would rather attack centralized infrastructure than the internet itself.

How far will we have to fall if this all fails? When all of our software needs some internet service that's down. When we can't communicate point to point like Ham Radio, only to centralized towers that could be overloaded. When we don't even know how to get to our friend's house because we've been using GPSs for so long? Or even how to drive because our cars are driving us? Or how to walk hundreds of miles because we only walk hundreds of feet? Do we even know how to sharpen knives, let alone make them? Do we know how to plant food or only how to order from Instacart?

Our comfort and incredible technology may well be our demise. And set us back far further than where we were before we had it, if there is a great fall.

Thank you for reading.