Archive for the ‘Unabomber’ Category

What Theodore Kaczynski Got Wrong

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

I have read Industrial Society and Its Future, and had to agree with parts of it. One thing I think the author got wrong, though, was Paragraph 208 et seq.

Kaczynski distinguishes between “small-scale technology”, which he considers benign; and “organization-dependent technology”, which he considers toxic. I would argue that the distinction is better drawn between open technology (where users are permitted to inspect, modify and improve it) and proprietary technology (where this is absolutely not the case; inspection, modifications and improvements are reserved privileges, and the full force of the law will be brought upon anyone who dares even to try to usurp them).

Proprietary technology is necessarily organisation-dependent, since for there to be a privilege requires for there to be a privilege-holder. However, mere dependency on the presence of some organisational structure does not necessarily render any technology proprietary. I am taking as a premise that organisation-dependency is not, in and of itself, a bad thing; and if you consider this assertion to be a bold one, consider that humans possess a strong pack instinct, which leads naturally to the formation of organisational structures.

It’s true that open technology tends to be primitive, and proprietary technology tends to be advanced. This is probably because primitive technology is harder to keep proprietary than advanced technology, and also because we tend to regard less-universally-comprehensible technology as more advanced. Furthermore, even the breakdown of the rule of law would not be a sufficient condition to enable “unauthorised” actions in respect of the most egregious examples of proprietary technology: if the inner workings of something are a jealously-guarded secret and not obvious by inspection, adapting it requires access to privileged information — which might conceivably be unavailable altogether.

Anyway, I disagree with Kaczynski’s assertion that “it would be virtually impossible for a handful of local craftsmen to build a refrigerator”. Anyone who knows that P * V = n * R * T and can think laterally could build a refrigerator. It might not look like what we think of today as a refrigerator (Kaczynski correctly identifies some serious difficulties with generating electricity, which might be overcome by using some other energy source to compress the gas), but it would certainly perform the abstract function of a refrigerator: the creation of a localised region of space whose temperature is lower than that of its surroundings.

The biggest obstacle to anyone seeking to build a refrigerator from scratch, armed with naught but the Ideal Gas Equation and a healthy dose of creative problem solving, would not be lack of imagination; but Robert Boyle, standing over them with a big stick, and demanding that nobody else make use of “his” discovery.