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Technology concentrates power.
February 26, 2014 6:39 AM   Subscribe

Our Comrade the Electron. Maciej Cegłowski (previously) delivered a talk at Webstock in Wellington, New Zealand on theremin inventor Lev Termen (previously), futurism, the Dutch Golden Age, and the modern surveillance state.
posted by Cash4Lead (14 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
That was fricking awesome!
posted by valkane at 7:16 AM on February 26


Technology concentrates power.

Or is it "power concentrates technology"? Seems to me that technology has some properties, and those properties can be used one way or another; it doesn't seem that one of technology's properties is that it must help people control other people.
posted by 3FLryan at 7:17 AM on February 26


If you enjoy bitter snark at the expense of startup culture (as well as near-instant responses to Pinboard support inquiries), I can also heartily recommend Maciej's Twitter.
posted by gilrain at 7:23 AM on February 26 [4 favorites]


Maciej's a treasure. I've enjoyed his short-form snark for awhile now, and his too-seldom blog, but this talk must have been thunderous. I'm hopeful there will be video at some point.
posted by Nelson at 7:40 AM on February 26


cum hoc, ergo propter hoc

The author mistakes momentary historical trends for universal patterns. At certain times, technology concentrates power in the hands of a few, while at others it distributes power more widely. In early modern Europe, the invention of the musket allowed for citizen armies to break the nobility's monopoly on violence, eventually paving the way for democracy. I can name another dozen examples off the top of my head of technology breaking up concentrations of power.

The author overreaches. There's no need to trace a history of internet centralization to make the case that government-surveillance needs to be curtailed. A direct assessment of that surveillance should suffice to tell us whether it is worth reforming.
posted by NapAdvocacy at 7:43 AM on February 26 [3 favorites]


I guess the article gets at my comment:

Part of this was not his fault, just due to the amoral nature of physics. You can't have a world with a theremin without also being able to build 'The Thing'. The electrons don't care.
posted by 3FLryan at 7:47 AM on February 26


Orwell imagined a world with a telescreen in every room, always on, always connected, always monitored. An Xbox One vision of dystopia.

Beautiful.
posted by Ned G at 8:25 AM on February 26


Technology concentrates power.

Or is it "power concentrates technology"? Seems to me that technology has some properties, and those properties can be used one way or another; it doesn't seem that one of technology's properties is that it must help people control other people.


Technology - like all of our tools - can cut both ways and be used for good or for ill. In my opinion, it's the intent behind the hand using the tool, not the tool itself that needs to be examined. It can centralize power; it can also decentralize it. These are the decisions we face - how to use the amazing variety of applications our tools can be put to. And, I think, our ability to make these decisions and understand their implications is far behind the capabilities that they have granted.
posted by nubs at 8:34 AM on February 26


It's a mistake to talk about "Technology" in general terms, period. What does he mean? Hammers? Clothing? Wattle-and-daub?

In the spirit that I think the author means it - information tech - it's just *so* much easier to make meaningful tech that concentrates power rather than that which distributes it. Centralizing information is what lets you make society-changing inferences, for good and ill. Imagine a CDC with real-time access to info like blood chemistry, location, heart rate, etc. We would know so much more about environmental effects on human health. Unfortunately, we instead think that trading this information for a list of all the restaurants in the world is a good deal.

Collective action for the common good has never really been a human strong suit.
posted by JoeBlubaugh at 9:19 AM on February 26 [1 favorite]


“I promised Lenin.”
posted by doctornemo at 9:27 AM on February 26


I think about this with regard to drones. On one hand, governments are going to have drones doing gigapixel resolution persistent surveillance over large areas. On the other, any civilian with a few hundred dollars can fly a small drone with GPS & camera and use it to document police conduct, watch for human rights abuses, or (with some ambition) penetrate and document classified military installations.

Maybe technology pushes things to the extreme at each end; both individual empowerment and centralized authority.
posted by jjwiseman at 11:10 AM on February 26


...any civilian with a few hundred dollars can fly a small drone with GPS & camera and use it to document police conduct, watch for human rights abuses, or (with some ambition) penetrate and document classified military installations.

And the existence of any such documentation will easily document that the civilian should be imprisoned as an "enemy of the state".

The musket was an interesting example of the democratization of technology. Why didn't the monarchy think to have a monopoly on the production and possession of such things? I thought control over the tools of violence was a must for keeping power, and I didn't think the musket or its ammo was that easy for any individual to manufacture (without an epidemic of "homemade musket blows up in face" accidents). I must research this further.
posted by oneswellfoop at 5:49 PM on February 26 [1 favorite]


That is basically several very interesting topics kind of mashed together. I'm not sure the overall thesis quite follows or fits together, but otherwise, great.
posted by blue shadows at 9:18 PM on February 26


I attended this talk, which was given at the Webstock conference, which is a sort of techie sort of designy sort of net culturey kind of event.

I got the distinct feeling that Ceglowski was using Termen's life as a subtle parable for the technocrats in the audience. The rant was an organic part of the whole talk, and not an insertion. He is not just telling you facts about Termen. He is telling you about what it is to be a technologist (or a designer or any other kind of talented and creative person). There was a lot of nervous tittering as well as laughs.

Or maybe I'm wrong and just projecting my own feels on the thing.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:40 AM on February 27 [2 favorites]


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