Wednesday, 9 November 2011


Eli Dourado's excellent discussion of technologies of control and technologies of evasion reminds me of the anarcho-optimism of Cryptonomicon. Eli builds a business cycle story:
Here’s my model. First we need to differentiate between two kinds of innovation and think about their effects. The first kind of innovation is geared toward brute maximization of production. It is typically centralized and makes use of economies of scale. Examples might include an assembly line factory or a big, coal-fired power plant. Because these innovations tend to be centralized, they introduce points of control. The capital is typically fixed and therefore easy to tax and regulate. It’s well known in the development literature that it’s really hard for governments to control rural peasants who live off the grid. Once they move to the cities and plug into centralized services, it is easier to require them to send their children to school, for instance. Because these innovations introduce points of control, I will call them technologies of control.
On the other hand, not all innovations are about brute maximization of production. Some are about producing things that we already know how to produce in ways that have ancillary benefits. An important ancillary benefit is evading control. Examples of these innovations include 3D printers and solar power. The evasion of control that is possible with 3D printers is the subject of Cory Doctorow’s short story Printcrime. And portable solar power cells can make people harder to control by supplying electricity without the need to register an address, have a bank account, stay put, and so on. These are obvious examples, but control can be evaded through more subtle innovations as well. I will call innovations that circumvent points of control that can be used by governments or monopolies to exploit, tax, or regulate technologies of resistance.
Now, postulate some background rate of innovation. How many resources will be devoted to technologies of control and how many to technologies or resistance? The answer is that it depends on how invasive the state (or other monopolies) are. When the state is invasive, at the margin the incentive is to find ways to circumvent the points of control; a greater proportion of resources will go into technologies of resistance. When the state is non-invasive, at the margin the incentive is a purer maximization of production; a greater proportion of resources will go into technologies of control, which results higher growth.
Add in time-to-build or other frictions in shifting capital from technologies of control to technologies of resistance, and we get cycles.

I love the story, but I'm not sure how well parts of it match the stylized time path. Here's Eli:
So far, I’ve been pretty general about technologies of resistance, but I want to tie it back into McJolfsson’s story about rapid skill-biased technical change. The key point is that labor is extremely regulated; firms that use labor are subject to intense government control. In part this is because policies that give labor a “bigger piece of the pie” are popular with voters, and in part it is because labor can complain and enforce its rights in a way that machines cannot. If you own a business and you are subject to intense government control, you are going to invest resources in circumventing the points of control. In our economy, that means getting rid of lots of labor as cheaply as possible, which means skill-biased technical change. As Arnold Kling has said, “if a job can be defined, it can be automated or outsourced.” But it’s because there is so much control exercised in the labor market that the incentive to automate and outsource is so high.
Agreed. But surely American labour market regulation has been in decline since the late 1970s. I have a hard time seeing a big labour regulation shock anywhere in the 2000s that would have precipitated a dumping of labour. I suppose the shock has to come from technology reducing the costs of substitution more quickly than labour market deregulation reducing the need for such substitution. Do read Eli's full argument, which brings together Brynjolfsson's techno-optimist story with Cowen's Great Stagnation.

I'm a long term optimist on technologies of evasion. Eventually, something like BitCoin will be successful. Meanwhile, Patri is sparking more real-world hacks around control. The latest one: floating platforms 12 miles off San Francisco where foreign tech entrepreneurs could route around idiotic American immigration laws.
This immigration issue deeply affected the Blueseed team, of which two are immigrants (from Serbia and Romania), and the other is the son of Cuban immigrants. Rather than accepting the current reality, Dan tells us, "If U.S. policy hasn’t kept pace with the changing economic realities of the era, someone needs to find a solution that will help entrepreneurs come to Silicon Valley if they so desire. And that someone might as well be us. In other words, it’s time to stop complaining and start solving the problem."
On their website they state they plan to start accommodation prices off at around $1500 a month, and transportation will be provided to the mainland by a daily ferry. Internet connectivity will be provided via a point-to-point 40Gbps laser link with satellite link backup. They are also looking at additional backup solutions using submarine cable and potentially a series of WiMAX relay buoys. A visa is not required to earn a paycheck on Blueseed, and most residents will be able to travel back and forth to the mainland with a business/pleasure B1 Visa.
I worry that it will be really easy for the government to change a line of regulatory code to make it tough for Blueseed residents to commute back and forth; but, I'm also not sure that they'll face big pressure to do so and regulatory inertia would then work in Blueseed's favour. Until some California Congressman reckons the extra votes he gets from making a stink about platform-dwellers stealing jobs swamps the costs he'd impose on the tech industry.


  1. I'm with you that labor market regulation has increased since the 1970s, and that the biggest impact of SBTC has only been felt since about 2000. But I don't think that contradicts my story. Technology has momentum. Innovations developed under one set of incentives continue to yield low-hanging fruit for follow-up inventions even after incentives have changed. The shift in resources might be small and it can take a lot of time to make a cumulative difference. And the ability to exploit the technologies may be non-linear. Maybe a lot of advances have to come together for the big shift to occur.

    I, too, am optimistic about technologies of evasion and resistance. However, I'm starting to think they can be more mundane and less dramatic than BitCoin and seasteading (though I hope these or similar projects succeed), as with labor-displacing technology. And *that* is what is really exciting to me. The market is fighting back against invasive control; it's just taking it a while to get up to speed.

  2. @Eli: I love the fighting back against invasive control; I worry that the political push-back to labour displacement may well wind up rather worse.