Unless you can address the economics of capital, rents, labour, public goods, and assets, and their relationships to power, privilege, and oppression, then technology itself either does not help, and frequently worsens, power imbalances.

Might as well just say everything will be increasingly shit until humans stop being human.

@dredmorbius Here's a non-exhaustive list of other things that don't help (and frequently make things worse, society-wide) if the aforementioned issues remain unaddressed:
- Apple pie
- Opinion pieces
- Prozac
- Kitten videos
- Putting humanity in technology
- Polarisation (of communities, that of light is fine)
- ...

Point being, the aforementioned issues are the cause we should be discussing. Technology is a red herring, and painting it as the direct cause of social problems is a big category error.

@dredmorbius I keep reading these articles/opinions/discussion threads about Bad Tech, and I feel like I'm reading about how widespread use of induction stoves is responsible for people getting food poisoning in restaurants.

Sure, undercooked food made on a dirty stove may give you diarrhea. But the actual induction stoves cook well and are trivial to clean, so it's not a tech problem. A restaurant undercooking food on a dirty stove is making a business decision.

The solution here doesn't involve stoves.

@temporal So I think we're somewhat talking past each other.

Induction stoves impose obligations and limits which alternatives (mains or tanked methane gas or propane stoves, say) don't. Gas tends to work when the electric mains go out, induction doesn't. Induction limits cookware (glass or ceramic doesn't work), and may cause "screams" from induced frequencies. Induction requires high-output power systems (1kW+).

Induction does reduce some forms of indoor air pollution and affords independence from fossil fuels, it's not all bad ;-)

@dredmorbius Yeah, maybe my example was bad. The points were:

- Induction stoves are perfectly good stoves and don't intrinsically cook bad food.
- As a restaurant, to give people food poisoning, you need to actively stop doing the obvious things - like cleaning, or cooking properly - which suggests either extreme lack of care, or a business decision (lower costs, faster customer turnover).
- Business decision like this is mostly independent of technology being involved. Same could be made for gas stove.

@temporal So, unpacking my argument a bit, because I'm sort of telegraphing some conclusions without the supporting argument.

  1. Technology is a means to an end. That's almost always a method, though there may be specific tools or devices which serve that method.

  2. Technology increases some capability, which is to say, it reduces costs. Preferably real costs, though very often only apparent or financialised costs, by way of some economic externality --- an under-priced natural resource or sink, including side-effects imposed on others.

  3. Any time you reduce costs, a Jevons Paradox effect is incurred. The new tech doesn't just make previous activities more economical, but directly enables entire classes of new activities, some beneficial, some not.

  4. You also trigger a Red Queen's Race: the competition amongst agents in the environment (or market, or community, or ...) becomes more intense, and adoption of the new technology ultimately becomes mandatory, not optional.

Ultimately, those who for structural reasons of the environment (market, community, ...) were disadvantaged previously now have one additional thing to worry about, and if there are marginal multiplier effects, those with more resources can typically apply the technology more effectively than those with fewer resources.


@temporal There are some mitigating possibilities:

  • A technology may disrupt or bypass some existing gatekeeper. This can be liberating to those who were previously managed through that gate. But ...

  • That usually means replacing smaller and distributed gates with larger and more centralised gates. Ultimately, the remaining gatekeepers have more power.

  • There are some techniques and methods which seem to afford relatively equal benefit. Camouflage and herd / school / flock behaviours, for example, can be used by both predators and prey.

  • Centralisation can itself become a vulnerability for monopolists. They have or are SPOFs.

  • The key requisite capability of centralisation and power is organisation. A useful attribute of opposition is disorganisation, or the ability and capacity to operate independently and autonomously. (Power may also adopt such techniques, see US military doctrine over the past 50 years, putting a great deal of decision capability in front line commissioned and non-commissioned officers.)


@temporal But within a general market-political-economic society, there is a tendency for advantage to accrue to those who command rents, assets, and capital, whilst a net disadvantage to those who have only labour, information, and general public goods, and who must pay rents or accept take-it-or-leave-it labour arrangements.

That's a structural market-imposed power gradient which technology itself cannot address as I see it.


@dredmorbius Thank you for that. I agree with this analysis wholeheartedly and I should learn to not write unsophisticated disagreement toots.

Oh wait, I need to keep doing that, because it makes you unpack your thoughts ;).

I agree the technology itself is unlikely to be able to address the core issues (though I'm not ruling it out - particularly there may be new ways of organizing and pricing things, which may come from theoretical work, or an accidental side effect of some tech).


@dredmorbius As you say, technology is means to an end. So I wish more attention was paid to questions like:
- what the end is
- who wants it, and why
- why this particular technology was commissioned or employed
- on a meta level, is the degree of control over the method/artifact exerted by its wielder justified

I'm personally worried when people confuse business decisions with engineering, and then the engineers become guilty by association.

As for Jevons Paradox, I don't get that one.

@dredmorbius That is, I know what it is, but I question it's anything more than the system rebalancing after the (broadly understood) price dropped. Doesn't always have to cause increase in utilization, and the increase doesn't always take back the entire spare capacity. The typical description of the "paradox" just doesn't click in my head.

Thanks for mentioning disorganization as a tool, I always thought about it as "more freedom over centralization", and not a counter to it in a confrontation.


@temporal @dredmorbius I guess maybe the paradox is that you can never be efficient enough to meet demand, because if you increase efficiency you increase demand

@chee Technically, you're increasing the supply curve, which is to say, the quantity supplied at a given price. The apparent effect is an induced increase in demand.

But economically, the interaction is on the supply side.



I think my question is that you'd expect there to be eventual limits to demand, at least the immediate form. Like, if you widen a road from 2-lane to 4-lane, you'll release a lot of pent up demand and still have congestion. But if you keep doubling the width of the road, the latent demand will likely run dry around 8-16 lanes.

But I guess then people will find other ways to utilize the road; start using some of it as parking, or put mobile infrastructure on it, or whatnot.


@temporal Your questions are very much along the lines Neil Postman wrote of in Technopoly and Amusing Ourselves to Death. See also Michael and Joyce Hausemann's Techno-Fix.

An earlier toot mentioned ... Richard Meier, who's among several of the 1960s/70s critics of techno-utopianism who emerged.

The Jevons Paradox notes that by increasing efficiency, you are effectively reducing costs, and very frequently increase overall demand for some good, service, or input.

Coal-fired power generation climbed in efficiency from < 1% of input thermal power to ~50+% in combined-cycle generation plants (though most thermal coal electrical generation is closer to 40%). The rate of coal consumption correspondingly increased.

In the 1870s, US coal reserves were thought sufficient for a million years. Today, the projected exhaustion at present rates of use is ~100--300 years (depending on which estimates of reserves and demand are used). If you presume any sort of constant-percentage rate of increase, that falls to well under a century IIRC. (That is, an economy growing at a fixed rate, say 2-4% per year, dependent on energy consumption, as the global economy worldwide largely has been for the past 200 years. Which is to say, exponential growth.)


@temporal What you see in practice isn't so much individual consumers using far more of a resource (though that can indeed be a factor), but additional consumers coming on-board.

Electrical power customers in 1900 were a few million mostly in and around a few major US and European cities. The first power generation plants in New York City served a few blocks of Broadway (hence the Great White Way) and exclusive addresses on the Upper East Side.

Today there are billions of people who receive at least some electrical service on a daily basis.

A uni prof of mine, who'd returned to teaching after years in administration, commented one day in class that something he'd learned in designing computer systems for campus needs (enrollment systems and the like) was that you always had to greatly overprovision capacity, because after you created a system that could address the anticipated uses and demand, a whole set of new uses and needs would emerge that were simply not previously possible. He didn't specifically invoke the Jevons Paradox, but that's absolutely what it was.

Automobiles made travel over greater distances possible. And a consequence was that the built environment of cities expanded from a 5-10 km (the radius a person could walk 30-60 minutes) to 100 km. Assuming highway speeds above a crawl. (Los Angeles sees average trip speeds lower than in the horse-drawn period.)

Other factors also contributed. Sanitation (solid waste, sewerage, air pollution, general hygiene) reduced the death rates of cities to the point they didn't have to import fresh bodies to make up for the dead.

@dredmorbius Ok, I think it now clicked in my head. I always considered Jevon's Paradox to be about latent demand of the same kind as the original demand you're trying to satisfy. That is finite.

But then, back when running a Hackerspace, I used to say: let's always overprovision infrastructure, because spare capacity drives interesting new use cases (and in a HS, we're encouraging that).

So I guess this is the answer why the paradox holds: people can always find _something_ to do with spare capacity.

@temporal Economists will say that demand is infinite or unconstrained. In practice, especially in the short term, there are practical limits. (Food consumption is a notorious case: there are simply physiological limits to how many calories a person can eat in a day, even if we allow for well-above-healthy consumption. Food companies have been battling this for the past half-century literally trying to cram their product down people's throats.)

But for a large class of goods, there is some harebrained scheme that will come along. LED lighting is tremendously effective, but now all the neighbours are sporting outdoor night-lighting (with interesting environmental impacts).

And don't get me started on bitcoin's electrical consumption.

@dredmorbius @temporal Yeah, when something becomes significantly cheaper, suddenly it acquires use cases that were previously unthinkable. That's the driver behind Jevons the way I understand it.


Alright, but this still leaves a problem unaddressed. A typical on-line discussion I've been part of countless of times:

Person A: we need to increase capacity of X because there's overuse of X causing disruptions/annoyances.
Person B: But Jevon's Paradox means increasing capacity of X will only make disruptions/annoyances worse!

(Stereotypical X is road capacity).

But... if increasing capacity/supply isn't the way to go, then what is? How do we solve the disruptions/annoyances?


@temporal @dredmorbius Yeah, there are three ways: Pricing, rationing and displacing with some alternative. All three lower the effective demand and release capacity.


A different question then - how to prevent the now released capacity being lost over time, bringing us back to the original problem of use over capacity, just with lower capacity?

I suppose this is a general market problem: how to persistently keep supply slightly over demand, to give everyone room to breathe (and accommodate rapid demand fluctuations)?

Related: how to increase available buffer in a system, where ordinarily the system does its best to get rid of the buffer?


@temporal Very good questions.

  • Reducing quantity demanded can be done by imposing consumption or extraction taxes.
  • Equity considerations (see parallel thread(s)) can be addressed through employer of last resort, UBI, collective bargaining, and worker cooperatives.
  • Buffers can be sustained through strategic reserves and by imposing continuity-of-supply obligations on providers or warehousers.

See the US Naval Strategic Petroleum Reserve (now the Strategic Petroleum Reserve), established, during WWI, the Harbord List (also WWI), the Defense National Stockpile Center / DLA Strategic Minerals list.

If services such as utilities, grid supply, healthcare, etc., are assessed not on a quantity-delivered basis but on a value derived basis or SLA (effectively, uptime) basis, then you'll see supply continuity prioritised over mere quantity of sales. (Texans may have some sympathy with this logic following recent weeks).

Pricing nonrenewable natural resources based on their replenishment rate rather than according to extraction costs, as has been doctrine and theory since the time of David Ricardo (early 19th century) would be motherfucking peachy as well. We're extracting fossil fuels at 5 MILLION times their natural rate of formation. The price should reflect that.

Similar arguments apply to the utilisation of common sinks, as with atmospheric CO2, heavy metals pollution, and the like.


@dredmorbius You forgt the economics of racism and its relationship to power, privilege and oppression

@carl Good to explicitly mention, but I'd argue that's covered under:

and their relationships to power, privilege, and oppression

The point is that technology alone does not mitigate power imbalances unless it specifically addresses them.

If at all.

@dredmorbius Yes, I get that. whites are very good with forgetting racism in this kind of lists.

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