Technology and liberty

Authors: Jonathan Grudin
Posted: Tue, May 03, 2016 - 9:22:39

The absence of plastic microbeads in the soap led to a shower spent reflecting on how technologies can constrain liberties, such as those of microbead producers and consumers who are yearning to be clean.

Technologies that bring tremendous benefits also bring new challenges. Sometimes they create conditions conducive to oppression: oppression of the weak by the strong, the poor by the rich, or the ignorant by the clever. Efforts on behalf of the weak, poor, and ignorant often infringe on the liberty of the strong, rich, and clever. As powerful technologies proliferate, our survival may require us to get the balance right. Further constraints on liberty will balance new liberating opportunities.

Let’s start back a few million years, before beads were micro and technologies changed everything.

Fission-fusion and freedom

For millions of years our ancestors hunted and gathered in fission-fusion bands. A group grew when food was plentiful; in times of scarcity, it split into smaller groups that foraged independently. When food was again plentiful, small groups might merge… or might not. A fission-fusion pattern made it relatively easy for individuals, couples, or small groups to separate and obtain greater independence. This was common: Homo sapiens spread across the planet with extraordinary rapidity, adapting to deserts, jungles, mountaintops and the arctic tundra. That freedom led to the invention of diverse cultural arrangements.

1. Agriculture and the concentration of power

It is a law of nature, common to all men, which time shall neither annul nor destroy, that those who have more strength and power shall rule over those who have less. – Dionysius of Halicarnassus

Agriculture was a transformative technology. Food sufficiency turned roaming hunter-gatherers into farmers and gave rise to large-scale social organization and an explosion in occupations. Everyone could enjoy the arts, crafts, diverse foods, sports, medicine, security, and potential religious salvation, but with it came implicit contracts: Artists, craftspeople, farmers, distributors, athletes, healers, warriors, and priests were guaranteed subsistence. People were collectively responsible for each other, including many they would never meet, individuals outside their immediate kinship groups. People who wanted freedom might slip away into the wilderness, but those who reaped the benefits of civilization were expected to conform to cultural norms that often encroached on personal liberty.

The leader of a hunter-gatherer band had limited power, but agriculture repeatedly spawned empires ruled by despots—pharaohs in Egypt, Julio-Claudian emperors in Rome, and equally problematic rulers in Peru, Mesoamerica, and elsewhere. The Greek historian Dionysius lived when Rome was strong and powerful.

Why this pattern? Governments were needed for security and order: to protect against invasion and to control the violence between kinship groups that was common in hunter-gatherer settings but which interfere with large-scale social organization.

The response to oppression of the weak by the powerful? Gradually, more democratic forms of government constrained emperors, kings, and other powerful figures. Today, violence control is the rule; strong individuals or groups can’t ignore social norms. Even libertarians acknowledge a role for military and police in safeguarding security and enforcing contracts that the strong might violate if they could.

2. The second industrial revolution and the concentration of wealth

Another technological revolution yielded a new problem: oppression of the poor by the wealthy. In the early 20th century, monopolistic robber barons in control of railroads and mines turned workers into indentured servants. Producers could make fortunes by using railroads to distribute unhealthy or shoddy goods quickly and widely; detection and redress had been much easier when all customers were local.

The response to the oppression of the poor by the wealthy? Perhaps to offset the rise of populist or socialist movements, the United States passed anti-trust legislation in the early 20th century, giving the government a stronger hand in regulating business.  Also, the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution was applied more broadly, encroaching on the liberty of monopolists and others who might use manufacturing and transportation technologies exploitatively. It was a steady process. Ralph Nader’s 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed identified patterns in automobile defects that had gone unnoticed and triggered additional consumer protection legislation. In contrast, after a loosening of regulations that enabled wealthy financiers to wreck the world economy a decade ago, the 2010 Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act constrained the liberty of the wealthy, an effort to head off a recurrence that may or may not prove sufficient. Some libertarians on the political right, such as the Koch brothers, are vehemently anti-regulation, but for a century most people have accepted constraints [1].

3. Information technology and the concentration of knowledge

Libertarian friends in the tech industry believe that they desire the freedom of the cave-dweller. Sort of. Not strong and powerful, they support our collective endeavors to maintain security and enforce signed contracts. They are not among the 1%, either, and they favor preventing the very wealthy from reducing the rest of us to indentured servitude in the manner of robber baron monopolists.

However, my libertarian tech friends are clever, and they oppose limiting the ability of the intelligent to oppress the less intelligent through contracts with implications or downstream effects that the less clever cannot figure out: “The market rules, and a contract is a contract.” Technology that provides unencumbered information access gives an edge to sharp individuals. The Big Short illustrated this; banks outsmarted less astute homeowners and investors, then a few very clever fellows beat the bankers, who succeeded in passing on most of their losses to customers and taxpayers.

The response to the oppression of the slow by the quick-witted? A clear example is the 1974 U.S. Federal Trade Commission rule that designates a three-day “cooling-off period” during which anyone can undo a contract signed with a fast-talking door-to-door salesman. Europe has also instituted cooling-off periods. The U.S. law applies to any sale for over $25 made in a place other than the seller’s usual place of business. How this will be applied to online transactions is an interesting question. More generally, though, information technology provides ever more opportunities for the quick to outwit the slow. We must decide, as we did with the strong and the rich, what is equitable.

Butterfly effects

Technology has accelerated the erosion of liberty by accelerating the ability of an individual to have powerful effects on other individuals. Twenty thousand years ago, a bad actor could only affect his band and perhaps a few neighboring groups. In agrarian societies, a despot’s reach could extend hundreds of miles. Today, those affected can be nearby or in distance places, with an impact that is immediate and evident, or delayed and with an obscure causal link. It can potentially affect the entire planet. It is not only those with a finger on a nuclear button who can do irreparable damage. Harmful manufactured goods can spread more quickly than a virus or a parasite. A carcinogen in a popular product can soon be in most homes.

We who do not live alone in a cave are all in this together, signatories to an implicit social contract that may be stronger than some prefer, which limits our freedom to do as we please. Constraining liberty is not an effort to deprive others of the rewards of their efforts. It is done to protect people from those who might intentionally or unintentionally, through negligence, malfeasance, oppression, or simply lack of awareness, violate the loose social contract that for thousands of years has provided our species with the invaluable freedom to experiment, innovate, and trust one another—or leave their society to build something different. If the powerful, wealthy, or clever press their advantage too hard, we risk becoming a distrustful, less productive, and less peaceful society.

Plastic microbeads in cosmetics and soaps spread quickly, accumulating by the billions in lakes and oceans, attracting toxins and adhering to fish, reminiscent of the chlorofluorocarbon buildup that once devastated the ozone layer. In 2013 the UN Environment Programme discouraged microbead use. Regional bans followed. Even an anti-regulatory U.S. Congress passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015. It only applies to rinse-off cosmetics, but some states went further. The most stringent, in California of course, overcame opposition from Proctor & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson. Our creativity has burdened us with the responsibility for eternal vigilance in detecting and addressing potential catastrophes.


1. Politicians who favor freedom for themselves but would, for example, deny women reproductive choices might not seem to fit the definition of libertarian, but some claim that mantle.

Thanks to John King and Clayton Lewis for discussions and comments, and to my libertarian friends for arguing over these issues and helping me sort out my thoughts, even if we have not bridged the gap.

Posted in: on Tue, May 03, 2016 - 9:22:39

Jonathan Grudin

Jonathan Grudin is a principal design researcher at Microsoft.
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@James Dissertation Writer (2016 06 04)

Nice post. thank you for sharing.