Technology's Symmetry Problem
The Monetary Wars Part IV
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." -Arthur C. Clarke (Clarke's Third Law)
The Monetary Wars Part II: The Right and Wrong Definitions of Technology lays out a solid definition of technology in economic terms.
Something is technology exactly when it expands net resources.
But there is a catch, and it's an important one:
Technology is in the eye of the beholder.
What exactly do we mean by this?
Let us define two categories of technology:
A technology is symmetric when its existence expands resources in a decentralized way.
A technology is asymmetric when its existence expands resources in a centralized way.
Consider the wheel. It is hard to imagine a life not improved by the wheel. This curve of constant width makes travel so much easier that it is easy to imagine that everyone's life is improved by the wheel. Thus, we categorize the wheel as symmetric technology. In contrast, we might categorize advanced weaponry as asymmetric technology. With symmetric technologies, all boats rise. With asymmetric technologies, one boat rises---perhaps to the point of advantage that allows it to conquer all others.
Now, you may be thinking that these definitions are not so cut and dry, and that would be fair. There are technical issues with most core economic terminology such as with utility (which sounds simple, but gets complicated) or happiness. There may be game theoretic equilibria that make technologies more and less symmetric. Nonetheless, the concept of symmetry is crucially important to humanity and the world we live in. We may adopt relative language ourselves at times.
History is full of examples of changing tides of power among civilizations and kingdoms according to relative symmetries of technological advancements. In each case, the conditions are important in understanding the process. Wood block printing appeared no later than the 4th century in China, the first book in the 9th century, and moveable type by the 11th. Around 1440, Gutenberg's printing press appeared in Germany. Large scale printing raised literacy following these developments in both China and Europe.
In Europe, the establishment of the printing press during the 15th century changed civilization in fundamentally different ways than it did in China. Perhaps balances of power between wealthy families and provinces tipped here or there in China, but the Imperial system sustained. But in Europe, the printing press helped spur the Reformation, a decentralizing turn of events which continued as the birth of the capitalist era. As the technological advantages, harnessed into feedback loops, unconstrained by a central authority, grew in the West, the West completely pushed past China in power.
With a conception in mind of the symmetry-based distinction between centralized and decentralized technology, let us examine a handful of contrasting examples:
Most tasks that we associate with unskilled labor are that because they are so highly decentralized. This includes some, but not all, farm labor or construction tasks.
Artificial intelligence is highly centralized as there are few people or companies with the knowledge and capital to make it productive for them.
Most military technology begins as centralized technology, often leading to immediate military victory. Such victories often change the course of history. In time, these technologies are often then adopted more widely becoming more decentralized. Currently, nuclear arms are more centralized than are guns or hand grenades.
In fact, most technology begins under centralized, perhaps even individual control. But technology includes the business practices of utilizing new inventions, trading products, and decentralizing the effects in return for profit.
Fiat currencies are highly centralized in their design and control, even if used widely. Bitcoin is substantially more decentralized, with many thousands of mining and validating nodes around the world running open source protocols whose utility is then dictated by market participants.
Common vaccines are somewhat decentralized in the sense that all educated societies include people capable of making them. Newer mRNA vaccines are more centralized in that only a handful of corporations know how to design and produce them, and have control over the ingredients.
Gene editing technology is highly centralized at this juncture.
Questions worth asking:
Under what conditions does technology decentralize into symmetric benefits?
Can we steer the development of new technology in a way that helps maintain societal stability?
What effects does it have on individuals or societies when technologies remain asymmetric?
What can I do about it?