Refactoring Technology

March 2016

Anyone can walk into a Starbucks and pay $4 in exchange for a beverage made with ingredients, materials, and equipment sourced from a more expansive supply chain than any king or nobleman living before 1800 could have dreamed about. Why? Because people have invested in infrastructure based on the assumption that it would be profitable to do so. Now that this infrastructure exists, the marginal costs of manufacturing equipment and shipping goods is low enough to make the $4 coffee and many similar purchases profitable, even though it seems like they should be prohibitively unprofitable.

Someone could look at this $4 purchase and the underlying infrastructure that allows it and say this is wonderful. Humans have used their clever minds to shape their world such that it’s very easy to obtain things that come from a sophisticated global network. We have the security of never going without a pumpkin spice latte, any time of year, since somewhere in the world, pumpkins are growing (or they’ve been stored in the form of powder at least) and it’s easy - as in inexpensive - to transport them to you. One could even argue that the $4 globally sourced coffee is in fact no different than a $4 coffee produced entirely within the city where it’s consumed, and that we should in fact be indifferent to the choice between the two if they both suit our tastes.

I have three objections to this.

Just because infrastructure already exists doesn’t relieve us from the moral burden of supporting it. This is a fundamental philosophical conundrum that crops up in many places. The generalized form is “what impact could my individual actions possibly have on such a massive system that’s already set in motion?” Does it really matter if I make the “right” choice instead of just throwing my hands up and punting to “well, that’s what the free market is providing so I should be a rational, price-sensitive actor”? Why should I take these other things into account instead of just making the decisions based entirely on the price and deferring to that to determine what’s “right” instead of trying to determine that on my own?

We should have better taste. Things that are produced at a global scale might be the things that we want - but they’re not the things we should want to want. They’re almost always lower quality and more disposable than the things that are produced at a more appropriate scale. Just as people must be free to make decisions based solely on price, if they so choose, people must also be free to make a choice that may seem irrational (preferring the higher priced item that makes them feel better about their lives). This is the retort to the question of “does it matter what I do” - if it matters to you, that’s enough.

Technology does not always mean progress. Just because we can take the next step doesn’t always mean that we should. It’s too easy to hit a local maximum that way. Instead we need to constantly refactor technology the same way we refactor code. Leapfrogging technology isn’t just for the developing world. Technology often solves things first with the equivalent of a brute force algorithm, but then a more elegant procedure comes along and should take its place as quickly as possible. For example, the brute force approach of monoculture food production has the benefit of increased shelf life and food security; but because the we’ve also developed technology to instantaneously communicate, we can share techniques and information about local surpluses and refactor food production back to a smaller scale.