Monthly Shorts 9/​22, and An Essay in Defense of Technodeterminism

Link post

Possibly all our fear over declining interstate migration is a …. data artifact? h/​t Evan Soltas.

CPS data seem to noticeably diverge from the rest of the models, which I think it’s fair to say is suspicious.

So, you know how everything started going wrong in America between 1969 and 1980? That’s also when the age of senators started rising.

You can pay money to get taller! 3-6 inches, and months of extremely painful recovery. Price tag, $70-$150k. We’re getting to the glorious transhumanist future day by day

The Canvas Cycle is a series of pretty images. All done in exactly 256 color options, and instead of rotating an actual image, individual locations get changed to different colors at a set speed. Look at the options and play around: it’s a really fun art style.

One of my favorites

So, the reason I haven’t been reading much this month is that I’ve been writing. A lot. Some of it you will be able to see eventually (I hope). And I’ve been going back to a piece by Anton Howes I read early in September on the balance of writing, something that I think is more true than many people want to admit. It makes one key point:

  • If you’re stumped writing, it’s probably because you’re not done thinking.

Finally, I leave you with a short piece I’ve written, because it’s been percolating for a while. I’d love feedback if you want to argue with it.

In Defense of Technodeterminism

The technodeterminism thesis:

The state of technology is the most important cause of social structures, because technology enables most human action. People act in the context of available technology, and therefore people’s relations among themselves can only be understood in the context of technology.

From An Introduction to Science and Technology Studies, by Sergio Sismondo. You can argue about the details, but it’s a description by someone who is largely critical, and I like it as someone who is largely positive: it will do.

It can seem a little too strong: what about love? The technodeterminist can respond that trying to understand any type of love in a subculture where men spend six months of the year away on boats in homosocial environments without taking that fact into account is futile, and if other societies need not consider that aspect it is because of differing technologies. Similarly, the ability of people to write letters to each other, or make video-calls, structures our artistic interactions, our friendships, our wars, and everything else.

That said, technodeterminism is often used to frame political and economic analyses. It underdetermines them: three popular frameworks, all techno-determinist, violently disagree with each other.

Progress Studies Thesis: Technodeterminism is true, therefore technological changes are more important than social changes, so you will do more good by working for technological progress than by advocating policy shifts. Productivity growth uber alles.

Orthodox “Marxist” Thesis1: The technological changes we faced in Marx’s time of de-skilling and factory work will largely continued unchanged. By the 21st century, advanced industrial countries will look like a bunch of factories with workers paid barely above starvation wages and an ever-shrinking number of bosses, who have no skills but merely possess capital. This continuing immiseration of the working class will inevitably yield proletarian revolution in the most advanced countries like the United States and Europe, followed by a spread to more agricultural countries like Russia, China, Vietnam, Korea, and Cambodia.

The youth are being corrupted: Smartphones cause teen suicide, anxiety, short attention spans, psychosis, family conflicts, depression in kids, and the productivity crisis. XKCD covers 1871-1915. The new technology is always terrifying and bringing about the end of the world.

But there’s a lot more out there!

Ten techno-determinist claims, for breadth and consideration:

  1. A society that centralizes economic power into the hands of a single person can’t remain a democracy.2

  2. America’s North did not start off much more inherently moral or inclined to abolitionism than the South. It started off less physically proximate with slave labor because of technological differences between the agricultural South, with better growing land for cash crops with easy observation, and the more industrialized north with better transportation infrastructure. Because there was less direct reliance on slave labor and fewer people owned slaves, there was less resistance to manumission and abolitionism.

  3. The needs of military power in a pre-1600s society will strongly influence who has power and how much they have. If the most militarily effective force is a tiny elite of well-trained well-equipped well-fed individuals, those individuals will call themselves “knights” and serve as the base layer of governance in a feudal society. If the most militarily effective force is a moderate to large fraction of the population, lightly equipped, you will tend towards the semi-democracies of ancient Greece. There was no unique and critical moral breakthrough about the equality of non-enslaved men.

  4. High demand for labor during WWI and WWII contributed to increases in the power in America of unions, African-Americans, and women. That was an important factor in women getting the right to vote in both countries during the inter-war period.

  5. Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Taylor, and many other historical British feminists were no less right, no less dedicated, and no less thoughtful than their successors who, well, succeeded in getting women education, the vote, and more. Rather, what changed was that returns to education increased, the value of land decreased as a fraction of total capital, and returns to physical strength in labor decreased. This increased the relative economic power of women. The increase in political power that followed is at least substantially attributable to the increase in economic power.

  6. The primary determinant of maternal mortality is tech, GDP, and inequality, not how much a society cares for its women /​ supports women /​ empowers women /​ uplifts women /​ however you wish to operationalize and describe the concept I am pointing at.

  7. Without access to abortion, women’s3 political rights will regress. The Pill, by being a form of birth control that did not require male action, enabled greater economic, social, and political independence for women.

  8. The rise in assortative mating (and corresponding contribution to income inequality) is driven in part by a diminished need for housework, in turn caused in part by the rise of labor-saving devices. Modern couples seem to have more complementarities of consumption (you enjoy spending time together) rather than production (without either of you the economically productive household would fail to produce critical goods like pressed shirts for business meetings).

  9. Cultures that farm with a plow have very different gender norms from ones that farm with a hoe, and this is caused by the difference in mode of economic production.

  10. “Rice cultures are more interdependent than herding cultures and wheat-farming cultures”

None of them are necessarily implied by technodeterminism, nor do they imply it. But they all assume weaker or stronger technodeterminism.

If you are convinced by this argument, but unsure what it implies, think about how you understand history and the present. Then apply a lens of technological change to the problem. Not everything has a clean solution: “why did Russia invade Ukraine?” has relatively little, directly, to do with new technologies. But if you want to understand why the same amount of corruption is a bigger problem for a military now than it was in 1980, let alone 1880, now a technology-focused answer looks attractive.

Some technodeterminist predictions I make that I will leave you with:

  • Increasing ease of surveillance is a principle cause of authoritarianism. Recordkeeping effective, facial recognition more effective, murderbots terrifying

  • Work spyware, or “bossware”, will depress both wages and the quality of working conditions. Because it transfers power to the users, it can be very strongly net-negative, including to overall profits/​productivity, and still be widely used

  • Countries that rely on natural resources that can be controlled via military force become ruled by militaries or paramilitaries very easily. Countries that rely on taxing a skilled population that can leave strongly resist becoming very authoritarian because authoritarianism is bad. Reversing democratic decline in developing nations and raising human capital in those nations are not opposed goals: they’re the same goal

Disclaimer: as always, maintain multiple models and lenses on the world. Technodeterminism is a particularly useful one that can make broad predictions easily, but it obviously generates errors all over the place and is relatively weak at offering pathways to improve the future.

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Disclaimer: I’m making somewhat more precise claims than Marx was *quite* willing to commit to, and there’s been a lot of post-hoc justification for how Marx was totally right about everything and we should use his intellectual framework even though he was wrong about those predictions he was willing to make.


Whether this is a strong argument for or against libertarianism largely depends on whether or not you’re a libertarian.


AFAB trans people also need abortions, but they are not a substantial voting block: changes in the economic, social, and political power of women have a very weak relationship to the political strength of trans people as a class.