Technology is a Racket

We make a categorical error when talking about how modern technology interacts with society. Until we understand the problem, we'll never make progress towards a solution.

· 5 min read
Technology is a Racket

This is not a post recommending that we all become Luddites. This is a post about the dangers of using reductionist, black-and-white thinking.

Aside from General Pershing, Smedley Butler was probably the best-known fighting man of the 1920s. Well-respected and knowledgeable, he was a multiple-award winner, a leader of men, and a popular example of how regular people could become great. He was one of a very few two-time Medal of Honor recipients.

So it stunned people when he wrote a book and made speeches with the title "War is a Racket"

"War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small 'inside' group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes."

(For tech, I'd change "profits are measured in dollars and the losses in lives" to "profits are measured in dollars and the losses in very small pieces of billions of lives, i.e., attention". Humans do a very poor job of reasoning about extremely small things spread across billions of instances)

Butler was no pacifist, although he became one. He reasoned that pacifism was a more moral response to conditions than accepting the war racket.

This was before WWII, a war which most observers felt was necessary.

It's easy to think of Butler as a reactionary, perhaps a pacifist or a kook, who just wasn't ready or able to deal with complex moral issues publicly. That's because all of us are deeply troubled that he might have been on to something bigger than the issues of his day. I suspect that the people most troubled by Butler were the pacifists, mainly because I suspect he'd not agree with them on most of anything else.

We want to think that war is all bad, of course he's right. Then we can ignore the rest of the mental work about how war might be necessary at times. It's easier still to think of him as a kook and not even start on thinking through the issues he brings up. Instead, let's expand on what the qualities of a racket might be:

  • Has a huge overall economic dimension which is ignored in everyday life and conversation
  • Tends to evaluate itself against itself instead of against some objective outside goal
  • Tends to make more of itself in response to any criticism or as the result of any improvement effort
  • Consists of a great, mostly-hidden moral hazard: The people we trust for using it to make things better are more incentivized to ignore and work around systemic problems than they are to solve them
  • Considered by practitioners to be a topic in and of itself as opposed to a topic that must be considered alongside other parts of life, such as morals or politics
  • When criticism eventually sticks, practitioners over-emphasize populist opinions instead of the underlying systemic issues, then monkey-patch the outside of the system to appease the popular will instead of addressing the underlying problem
  • Reasonable people agree that it has a vital and proper need. Beyond that anodyne statement, however, not much progress can be made for what, exactly, those "vital" and "proper need" mean
  • Over time grows outward from any particular use or instance to become a separate ecosystem existing outside of any values, morals, or ethics. Practitioners think the ends justify the means, and they have little desire to look too closely at the means or even what the ends may one day involve
  • If you are a practitioner, when problematic execution problems occur, your decisions are always heartfelt and difficult decisions made between the better of two evils. Other practitioners, however, are always making decisions that directly hurt others because of some flaw they have, e.g. greed or horrible ideology

Butler made the racket comment in 1935. He became completely anti-war. Flash-forward 26 years to a speech made by a successful two-term president and highly-decorated four-star general who was never a pacifist.

Decades later, same problem.Rackets occur when technology advances past our general ability to reason morally about them. We become reductionist, desiring quick and easy answers to problems we have no prior context to reason about.

According to history.com,

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex,” the 34th president warned. “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

According to Eisenhower, the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience,” and he feared it would lead to policies that would not benefit Americans as a whole—like the escalation of the nuclear arms race—at great cost to the nation’s well-being...Though dangerous, Eisenhower considered the military-industrial complex necessary

Society engages with technology and technology creation today much the same as society engaged with war and war making 150 years ago. It's considered the sign of an educated person to know something about both the creation and application of tech. The proper use of tech is the main thing that will raise our species from the swamps to the stars. There may be many downsides and unpleasantries but overall tech is a force for good. Good societies are able to make the best use of it (or, alternatively, avoid it all together) Tech is both the problem and the answer to the problem.

It's important to understand that the proper response to this situation isn't to get all hand-wavy and give the problem to somebody else to solve. There are no universal answers, and conditions change constantly. Butler was right that there was a racket. He was wrong to advocate ending war entirely. It's more complicated than that.

There are "rules of warfare". It's a crazy thing to say, but it's true. Widely-differing people can eventually reach practical agreement about things that people feel outrageously passionate about.

A healthy society views complex issues such as war or tech with a million different viewpoints. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of small social groups form. Complex religions and ethical systems form. New social mores are created. They change and evolve over time. Eventually it becomes clear to most that some of these address the underlying complexities better than others.

The first step in getting out of a racket is understanding that you're inside of one to begin with. Then you can begin the process of shunning easy solutions or villain/hero thinking.

We're not there yet.

Technology is a change to the nature of our species of the same level as war or the printing press. It's taken us centuries to deal with these complex social issues.

We're not there yet.

Technology is a racket.

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