Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Harm/Benefit Analysis

[Technologies : analyse préjudices / bénéfices]

According to Kaczynski, we need to reject organization-dependent technologies that tie us into the technosphere, and cultivate organization-independent ones:
Small-scale technology is technology that can be used by small-scale communities without outside assistance. Organization-dependent technology is technology that depends on large-scale social organization. We are aware of no significant cases of regression in small-scale technology. But organization-dependent technology does regress when the social organization on which it depends breaks down.
Easier said than done! It implies eliminating just about everything that makes it possible for people to survive. It implies living without electricity—not even off-grid systems that use batteries, photovoltaic cells and small-scale wind generators. It means living without pumped water, because demand pumps, pipes and valves are all manufactured products. It means living without electronics of any kind, since the electronics industry is globally integrated. No internet; no vaccinations; no cosmetic dentistry; no eyeglasses; no antibiotics or painkillers... Nothing that's mass-produced... It means living off the land using crude tools you can fashion yourself in a primitive smithy using salvaged metal. Very few people would ever settle for that!

Sorry, Ted, but we need a better metric on which to base our decisions than simply sorting technologies into organization-dependent and organization-independent, and depriving ourselves of all the organization-dependent ones. So how about we do this instead: define a reasonably complete list of positive and negative aspects of technology, and then select which technologies we do use in order to maximize the benefit while minimizing the harm?

Calculating the harm/benefit ratio

Unlike the primitivist, extremist approach outlined above, this is a perfectly copacetic, constructive initiative, but I believe that the end result will be exactly the same, although achieved more gradually. You see, the harm/benefit analysis maximizes technology's benefit to us while minimizing technology's harm to us—not the technosphere. And I would conjecture that, based on which aspects of technology we regard as positive or negative, we can structure the process so that whatever helps us also shrinks the technosphere, and vice versa.

Here are 30 aspects of technology, in no particular order, which, for each technology, take a value somewhere between harmful and beneficial:





limited useful life

unlimited useful life
fosters dependence

fosters autonomy




depletes resources

conserves resources



limits options

opens up possibilities

requires specialists

requires generalists


individual use

community use

consumer grade

commercial grade
rarely used

frequently used






requires access

requires skill
individual effort

team effort

To analyze a particular technology, add up its harm h and its benefit b. To determine its Harm/Benefit Ratio (HBR) divide one by the other:

[Click here to download a Harm/Benefit Calculator in spreadsheet format.]

Note that there is nothing magical about the 30 aspects of technology listed above, and you can modify this list or come up with one entirely your own. It is just a way of evaluating the pros and cons of technology, but with a particular view in mind: what is considered beneficial is that which is beneficial to you, within your local environment, human or natural, which makes you autonomous, self-sufficient and free. And what is considered harmful is what disrupts the natural environment while depriving you of autonomy, self-sufficiency and freedom, forcing you to relinquish control to impersonal, remote, nonhuman entities.

Technology is neither good nor bad, and it is essential for survival. Our job is to pick and choose carefully, to embrace technologies that liberate and empower us, and to look for ways to avoid or eliminate the ones that weaken us, make us dependent on outside interests and forces, and can even result in our extinction as a species along with all the rest (yes, there are a few such technologies).

If we do this job well, then we will shrink the technosphere—the oppressive, totalitarian, malignant, global entity into which technology has been allowed to coalesce. The mechanism by which the technosphere will shrink is a simple one to describe but rather difficult to evaluate in a quantifiable fashion. But sometimes such quantifiable evaluation isn't necessary; all that's needed is the ability to predict with confidence that the required result will be obtained through some finite, physically possible amount of effort. For example, there is no need for precise mathematical models to estimate how many whacks with a stick it will take to break a piñata; it sufficient to know that some reasonable number of whacks is enough to get at the candy inside it. And so it is here: some amount of effort, of which we humans, being adaptable and resourceful, are most certainly capable, provided we are sufficiently incentivized and motivated, will produce the result we are looking for.

The technosphere expands when it gains efficiency. The efficiency in question is not some relative measure of the amount of useful output for a certain amount of input. Rather, it is the systemic efficiency of the technosphere as a whole: does it, all other things being equal, gain a greater measure of control over us? If we select technologies that cause us to relinquish control to the technosphere, then we are doing its work for it, making it more efficient. Conversely, if we select technologies that specifically deprive the technosphere of control or make the exercise of control more expensive in terms of time, resources and energy, then we reduce its efficiency and its scope.

And this will cause it to shrink. This effect is automatic. The technosphere's emergent intelligence is the intelligence of a machine. Its internal programming is such that it always acts rationally in its own internal self-interest. For the technosphere, the ends always justify the means, to the exclusion of every other consideration. These ends are: limitless growth and expansion; complete domination of the biosphere; and complete control over us humans. If we succeed in thwarting it to a point where increased effort leads to decreased results, then, being rational, it will have no choice but to decrease effort... and shrink. This process, if taken far enough, will reduce it to a set of mere instrumentalities, from which we can choose à la carte—no longer able to pursue its own agenda but pressed into service if needed and allowed to dwindle and disappear if not.


MigrantWorker said...


This begs for a practical example!

Let's consider a car:

1. toxic/radioactive vs inert/biodegradable/edible: toxic. Harmful 1, Beneficial 0
2. disposable vs maintainable: maintainable. Harmful 1, Beneficial 1.
3. mandatory vs optional: optional. Harmful 1, Beneficial 2.
4. limited useful life vs unlimited useful life: limited useful life. Harmful 2, Beneficial 2.
5. fosters dependence vs fosters autonomy: fosters dependence. Harmful 3, Beneficial 2.
6. standardized vs custom: standardised. Harmful 4, Beneficial 2.
7. expensive vs free: expensive. Harmful 5, Beneficial 2.
8. obsolescent vs perpetual: obsolescent. Harmful 6, Beneficial 2.
9. single-purpose vs multiple-purpose: multiple-purpose. Harmful 6, Beneficial 3.
10. depletes resources vs conserves resources: depletes resources. Harmful 7, Beneficial 3.
11. artificial vs natural: artificial. Harmful 8, Beneficial 3.
12. synthetic vs organic: synthetic. Harmful 9, Beneficial 3.
13. industrial vs artisanal: industrial. Harmful 10, Beneficial 3.
14. limits options vs opens up possibilities: opens up possibilities. Harmful 10, Beneficial 4.
15. transnational vs local: transnational. Harmful 11, Beneficial 4.
16. requires specialists vs requires generalists: requires specialists. Harmful 12, Beneficial 4.
17. classifiable vs unclassifiable: classifiable. Harmful 13, Beneficial 4.
18. analytical vs intuitive: analytical. Harmful 14, Beneficial 4.
19. individual use vs community use: individual use. Harmful 15, Beneficial 4.
20. new vs (re)used: could be both. Harmful 16, Beneficial 5.
21. consumer grade vs commercial grade: could be both. Harmful 17, Beneficial 6.
22. rarely used vs frequently used: frequently used. Harmful 17, Beneficial 7.
23. networked vs standalone: standalone. Harmful 17, Beneficial 8.
24. powered vs unpowered: powered. Harmful 18, Beneficial 8.
25. automatic vs manual: automatic. Harmful 19, Beneficial 8.
26. branded vs generic: branded. Harmful 20, Beneficial 8.
27. proprietary vs open-source: proprietary. Harmful 21, Beneficial 8.
28. registered vs anonymous: registered. Harmful 22, Beneficial 8.
29. requires access vs requires skill: both. Harmful 23, Beneficial 9.
30. individual effort vs team effort: individual effort. Harmful 24, Beneficial 9.

Which gives a final HBR of:

HBR = Harmful / Beneficial = 24 / 9 = 2.67.

So in other words a car does 2.67 times more harm than good.


Unknown said...

Hi Dmitri,

Even though I was trained as a Boeing pilot, I am a Latent Luddite. Nothing I can think of in our technological advancement has increased our internal human happiness. I suspect that even education has not done much for internal happiness.

Our downfall has been that every time we invent any technical advancement we lose something or change something so we have to invent another technical advancement to compensate for the loss. Arguably if one lived in a small stable village one would not need a car, until one invented a job in a distant town.

We old guys had a very happy and fulfilling life before TV, computers and cell phones, Certainly long before Mc Donalds and Chipottle.

Your argument is compelling but I fear we as a species have no way of taking a step backwards from the technologies we have deluded ourselves are necessary for a comfortable life. Comfort is not a fulfilling human condition, as our cancers, heart attacks and diabetes prove.

"Sustainable" is not in our vocabulary. Most of us only think pay check to paycheck. We all do the best for our children but within the limits of our daily existence only. We are happy to run the shower for as long as it takes. We are happy to leave food on our plates and to let food be wasted with abandon.

It is not a coincidence that as the price of gasoline goes down we drive more, and as the price of anything goes down we buy more of it. Clearly it is not "necessity or conservation" which is driving us.

I do not believe we give a damn if our Trinket or Toy needed exploitation, forest destruction, water pollution or planet depletion. We are greedy self centered little animals of "The Very opportunistic" type. Our biggest fear is that somebody else may get more than we can.

I suspect We will use and exploit anything and everything including each other, as long as it is possible for us. All of our recorded history, all the way from Abraham, (Mooted as 2004 BC) has shown us be Smiting and grabbing anything we can lay our hands on. (especially Philistine property), with never a thought of the consequences.

Regards Graham

Robert Magill said...

31. Manufactured Consent / Truth

ogardener said...

Superb! Thanks Dmitry.

Roberto said...

Yet another article on properly choosing technologies: this one regarding pre-positioning assets for collapse recovery on a localized basis:


Whyawannaknow said...

History of technology, science & engineering are a long time hobby of mine... I believe Dear old Tedd's dichotomy and your extrapolations are RATHER too narrow, hard and fast in that initial list of which technologies can and can't be accessed by a small group of knowledgeable people.

Especially given the background of the detritus likely remaining from our present culture, quite a bit can be cobbled, and even more scratch built. We are not going to be starting our projects with nothing but flint rocks and bear skins!

Ted never experienced a high speed Internet connection with the present facility to network world wide and data mouse EVERYTHING... A very smart (and sadly, very alienated) guy, he might have ended quite differently with internet access and exposure to the rapidly evolving "maker" culture.

Given time, I can bloody well make ALL of these from the junkyard left by a societsl collapse and/orfrom commonly available materials in my environment:

Antibiotics and pain killers

Pumps, piping and water handling equipment sufficient for a small village, at least.

Electrical generation equipment, and analogue electronics of many kinds, up to and including radio equipment.

But I do like the attempt to assign societal values to tech. Unfortunately, such values derive purely from the uses made of the tech, including the decisions made in the production of the facilities to implement same. Can't ignore the users and say BAD MACHINE! GO AWAY!!!

Dmitry Orlov said...

MigrantWorker -

I would quibble with "maintainable" since many new cars have a frame that's welded around the engine, which doesn't even have an oil fill. The entire car is designed to be crushed, not maintained.

Robert -

This works only if you consider that the medium is the message, which it generally isn't. Manufacturing consent is certainly a technology, though. But a distinction such as "manufactures consent/enables plurality of opinions" might be useful.

Whyawannaknow -

I am sure that faithful servants of the technosphere will try to go on cobbling together all kinds of crazy things. Question is, should they? Well, first they should read my article, which, judging from your comment, I am not so sure you did. Where did you see an "initial list of which technologies can and can't be accessed by a small group of knowledgeable people"? There isn't one.

MigrantWorker said...


Good point; I didn't know about it.

So that's yet another advantage of older, used cars over the new ones. That, plus they are already known to have stood the test of time. They still have a limited useful life as per point 4, but at least the limit has a higher lower bound: if you crush a 20-year old car upon purchase, it will still have 20 years of service behind it no matter what.


Robo said...

Yes. Maintain a rational balance between cost & benefit. Question everything.

Alas, many humans prefer that difficult questions be asked and answered on their behalf by self-appointed authorities, and the Machine always has a ready answer when it comes to technology choices: more.

It seems that the larger and more complex a society becomes, the greater the tendency for the average citizen to yield responsibility to authority. Yet another good argument for self-directed communities of less than 150 members.

MoonShadow said...

Dmitri, I too have skills that would enable a lot of the modern technology enabled by industry to be maintained for a -long- time. I'm an electrician by trade, with a ham license and a background in electronics repair. Many people would be very surprised to learn just how dispersed & useful such trade skill knowledge actually is. So the real question isn't "can we maintain these systems/networks" but should we? Some of them have really grown to a scale that cannot be maintained in their current state, this certain. But the basic, local scale, technology can be maintained to whatever degree we really deem worthy.

Anonymous said...

Automobiles are considered standard today in most of the world, albeit not for just everyone in many places. In 1920, not so much, yet we had trains, subways, electric trucks, etc. at that time.

As an owner of a 1940 era tractor, and a 1950 era truck, I can tell you that these two vehicles can virtually be repaired over several generations. My truck has had engine rebuilt twice since manufacture, but has the same transmission. They were built to last, to be repaired and to survive - over-engineered is the common parlance today.

Today's technosphere equivalents are designed for rapid and cheap manufacture, to include safety devices to prevent humans lacking common sense from injuring themselves and to be recycled - planned obsolescence.

This is true of integrated circuits, microchips, washing machines...pick your tech and the 'design engineers' have been hard at it, cutting corners and adding complexity to the simplest of things, as in our new refrigerator that actually talks.

Until the current madness of lowest cost production is overturned, there is little hope of making things that last - which would solve a lot of the issues currently in the technosphere. Over-engineering is simply building it to last and be repaired.

Backup cameras and GPS on tractors? Why is my old dual Pentium computer running NT 4.0 still working and running just fine?

The priorities have to change before anything else. Trying to take the human out of the equation is simply ignoring the use of nature's best and strongest logic system.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of maker spaces:


Many are high tech, but most do deal in lower and more appropriate tech. If anything, they are getting people to get their hands dirty, which is critical.

Sharam said...

I think we all need a better handle on the real meaning of 'survival', 'comfort', and 'happiness'. Comfort and happiness are often confused as being the same thing, but they are vastly different concepts. You can have all the technologies and gadgets that would make your life comfortable and still be very miserable, as modern life proves. And you can be very happy with very little comfort, as some of the existing tribal communities around the world demonstrate. Humans can survive on very little, as our ancient ancestors did. It is our misguided search for comfort that's the root of all our problems -- without which the technosphere would not have emerged in the first place -- and our false belief that more comfort means better chances of survival.

D.Mitchell said...

You said; "Easier said than done! It implies eliminating just about everything that makes it possible for people to survive. It implies living without electricity—not even off-grid systems that use batteries, photovoltaic cells and small-scale wind generators. It means living without pumped water, because demand pumps, pipes and valves are all manufactured products. It means living without electronics of any kind, since the electronics industry is globally integrated. No internet; no vaccinations; no cosmetic dentistry; no eyeglasses; no antibiotics or painkillers... Nothing that's mass-produced... It means living off the land using crude tools you can fashion yourself in a primitive smithy using salvaged metal. Very few people would ever settle for that!"

No, I'm sorry. You are wrong. He said small "communities" which when I was younger meant more than one family. So let us examine how we could succeed in accomplishing what you claim is impossible in a small community.

Electricity is and was done in small communities for many years before the national grid emerged, with home windmills made from scrap parts and copper wire. We have an abundance of items in junk yards and scrap around the country that can be reused. If we had none of these things I would agree. Electricity isn't required for human life though, so let's move on.

Pumped water can and is done without mass produced items. Again, a local blacksmith could and did make the pipes needed for such things long ago. The Romans had piped water, even in little backwaters. We could certainly smelt iron and shape it here on my own property. Yes, we can even make the charcoal needed to make it hot enough, here on my small property too. So yes, we can pipe water.

There have been vaccines since before the industrial revolution took off. One of the earliest examples in American history is when George Washington had all of his soldiers vaccinated against smallpox, by sharing the infection through a cut on the arm with the healthy. When I was small a case of the measles would have our local community in a panic. The child with measles had infected pus from a measle placed on a blade. Then all the children were scratched with a blade and that pus rubbed into the scratch. That is how I have lifelong immunity. I had a slight case and have been immune since.

You do know that people can hand grind lenses down to the right shape and size so that a person is better able to see right? We have had lenses since Galileo.

Additionally, willow bark has been used for centuries to reduce pain...as has the poppy flower and cannabis. The idea that we need a pill is just silly. Nature provides all that we need for pain. There were desiccated pig thyroids for hypothyroidism. There was the all meat and fat diet for type II diabetes. There was ephedra for asthma. There was belladonna for cough and diarrhea. There is a world of medicines you can grow if you know where and how to use them.

You are right about one thing. Nothing can be mass produced indefinitely. People understand this and the smart ones are learning how to live without many mass produced items. I grew up Amish. I lived without electricity and running water at my grandma Mary's house. I had dinner out of a garden and a chicken shed. Dinner is made on a wood stove. We still wash by hand and line dry. We had to heat dish water on the wood stove. The wood stove at grandma's house was made of bricks her husband made and built. He built the house too. I am only 36. There are perhaps many more that have lived as I have. The world is not as frightening without mass produced items as this writing would imply. It is a simpler world, without gadgets and gizmos, but life abounds.

John D. Wheeler said...

I think the real issue that some commenters are trying to get at is that in the very long run, Kaczynski is ultimately correct. The ultimate solutions will have to follow his formula. However, in the long run, we are all dead; and, if we try to adopt those solutions cold-turkey, a great many of us will end up dead prematurely. What we need is a method to decide how to transition to make it as smooth as possible, and this is where Dmitry's cost-benefit analysis comes into play. We need to eliminate those technologies with the worst ratio as quickly as possible; meanwhile, we should also try to adapt those technologies with very favorable cost-benefit ratios towards organization independence so we may keep them.

Avi said...

Did you notice that a paper book is the ultimate beneficial technology according to your criteria:)