The web of dependency

Ran Prieur:

Review of a book about uncontacted tribes in the Amazon. The best part is about how a large complex society defeats primitive people, when it is no longer socially acceptable to conquer them with violence. Quoting two bits out of order:

Pacification was accomplished through the proffering of Western goods, including machetes, axes, metal pots, fishhooks, matches, mosquito netting, and clothing. The seductive appeal of such things was nearly irresistible, for each of these items can make a quantum improvement in a sylvan lifestyle. Acquisition of several or all of these goods is a transformative experience that makes contact essentially irreversible.

With the convenience of matches, one quickly loses the knack for starting a fire. Shotguns decisively outperform bows and arrows, but cartridges must be bought at a good price. Such newly acquired dependencies fundamentally altered the life of the Indians, who were compelled to work for wages instead of spending their days hunting, fishing, and tending their gardens.

This is the kind of thing Ivan Illich wrote about all the time, and it’s still happening today, to you. With the convenience of frozen dinners and restaurant meals, one quickly loses the knack for preparing food. iTunes decisively outperforms radio, but music files must be bought at a good price. To navigate sprawl you need a car, to pay expenses on a car you need a job, and so on. But at the same time, many of us understand this web of dependency and are fighting to get free of it.

Compare:

Right now, almost all genetic modification is being done to make crops that are dependent on industrial agriculture with high energy inputs. The danger is that inevitable biotech catastrophes will serve as the excuse to give central control systems a strict monopoly over biotech, and they will use it to stamp out biodiversity and create life that is dependent on those control systems for its survival.

And:

As long as genetic modification is being done primarily by big agribusiness, plants will be altered to make them more compatible with central control of the food supply.

I’m not sure if he’s right about genetic modification, but if he is, it’s another illustration of the same pattern: “In practice, technologies will be used by control systems to maintain their power and stability.” People subject themselves to the control system for some perceived (and perhaps even real) benefit, and then get bitten by the tradeoffs.

Another example: the replacement of folk culture (decentralized/distributed, varying and variable, illegible to bureaucracies, difficult to control) with mass culture (centralized, impossible to edit, bureaucratic, easy to control) — less effortful and allowing for much higher production values and potentially much more talent, but in practice, buying in tends to mean letting your enemies put thoughts into your head.

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3 responses to “The web of dependency

  1. Pingback: The web of dependency | Reaction Times

  2. Candide III October 21, 2014 at 8:21 am

    Even if, as I think, this is correct, what we would consider a civilized society entails a fairly high degree of mutual dependence in individuals. It may be possible to argue about how sustainable a given point along the dependence axis is, but the question is fundamentally a matter of taste and judgement. Moving into the practical plane, interaction between societies with different levels of dependence creates such a hairball of problems that it gives me a headache just to think of it.

    • nydwracu October 22, 2014 at 9:02 pm

      Mutual dependence and pressure against defection / opting out.

      Contra Prieur, saying something is a control system doesn’t immediately make the case against it; what matters is what it’s used for. Control toward reduction of violence, protection of property rights, etc. is good, because the consequences are good on net; you can’t have a civilized society when everyone is killing each other and looting the corpses. Progressive control is bad, because civilization is incompatible with progressivism, so folk culture should be protected against mass culture.

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