A Pirate reads Piketty, part 2: The Caprices of Technology

George Walkden's picture

Part 2 of Piketty's book deals with the relationship between capital and income over time. There are fluctuations, there are differences between countries, and some forms of capital have changed in importance: agricultural land, for instance, has shrunk to a tiny proportion of the overall capital of the countries investigated. Still, the overall trajectory is pretty clear: capital is on the rise. Piketty cautions that "there is no natural force that inevitably reduces the importance of capital ... over the course of history" (p234).

One contention that should resonate with Pirates is that "technology, like the market, has neither limits nor morality". Piketty clarifies this by arguing that "Progress toward economic and technological rationality need not imply progress toward democratic and meritocratic rationality", and hence that "If one truly wishes to found a more just and rational social order based on common utility, it is not enough to count on the caprices of technology".

It's perhaps too easy to write off the Pirate movement as a product of a very particular set of technologies, and its members as Bitcoin-loving, torrent-surfing cyberhippies. While these technologies have certainly played a role in the movement's origins, though, the Pirate worldview is by no means dependent on them or limited to them. In fact, I'd argue that it's the very changeability of technology that is central to the way Pirates do politics. As I discussed in Part 1 of this series, laws have often been made, and political decisions taken, on the basis of a particular time-bound technological contingency (such as the dominance of the printing press). The flaws in this system only become apparent in their true ridiculousness when the technologies are changing so fast that laws written a decade ago now seem impossibly archaic. (The 2001 EU Copyright Directive #opennorm">makes specific reference to CD-ROMs.)

But the problem is not linked to the rate of change; it just becomes most obvious when things are changing fast. The key is to be future-proof: the moral and social decisions we make about how our world should be run must be "platform-independent". If the Pirate movement was founded as a response to technological change, its core message can only be that executive and legislative power must be aware of and responsive to technological developments without restricting its world view to the technological status quo.

Sometimes technology will limit us. We can't, for instance, cure cancer, nor can we implement web blocking without also preventing at-risk groups from accessing vital resources. It would be a mistake to assume, however, that either of these things is a necessary truth: we still need to think about whether we want to do these things, and why. More worrying is the opposite situation: technologies being put into action just because they are possible. I'm thinking of the military use of drones, for instance, or the blanketing of our public spaces with CCTV cameras. In all cases, the ethical argument needs to take precedence over the purely technological argument. 

Links: Part 1 - Part 2 Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5

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