Pity the Googs
Why Inclusive Language Offends

Tech as Pyramid Scheme

Contains naughty ideas.

Susan Maxwell Schmidt.Pyramid SchemeIs technology a pyramid scheme...? No wait, don't go yet. This crazy thought is worth thinking through.

Pyramid schemes are any system of activity where the greatest benefit accrues to the first to sign up, while those who join last are unlikely to ever see any benefits. They are so named because of their triangular (pyramid) structure - the people who get the most benefit (the earliest to join) are at the apex of the pyramid, while the more numerous later joiners are arranged in tiers of ever-increasing sizes.

We do not think of technology as anything like this, yet only because we do not consider the implications of the global reach of technology coupled with the rather limited number of beneficiaries from the production and sale of technological devices. Instead, we tend to assume that we all benefit - a thought requiring a very special construction of 'we' to avoid being evidently preposterous. To get a proper handle on this, we have to understand that the division between the so-called 'First World' and the 'Third World' corresponds directly to tiers in a pyramid scheme where industrialisation and its by-products are precisely the criteria by which these 'worlds' were originally ranked. As such, the 'First World' is the top of a pyramid scheme it has been working harder and harder to maintain.

Think of this firstly in terms of the escalation of costs of living. Consider motor vehicles: once a nation adopts this form of transportation, it then becomes a requirement for its citizens to purchase motor vehicles for them to live and work - dramatically escalating the cost of living by several orders of magnitude. You can add to this the national costs associated with maintaining a road network, which are far more significant than we are permitted to admit. The car is, in many respects, the biggest step up in cost of living, since no technology thus far has demanded such a vast increase in living expenses as the automobile. (It is not coincidental that this comes first, either). Yet there are many smaller steps to follow: radio, television, telephones, mobile phones, computers, industrialised medicine... We (as in: the top of the pyramid) think we have to have all the new things because they are new. (Why?) They (as in: everyone else) will get the new things later. They are behind us according to this way of thinking. The unstated thought is that these others (whoever they are) are behind us in the pyramid scheme.

Now think of this in terms of the oh-so-magnanimous way in which the top of the pyramid views everyone else. "Those poor people in such-and-such a land... they haven't even got computers. Everyone needs to have computers, they'll be at a disadvantage if they don't have them." But this is ludicrous, because by the time 'everyone' has computers, the software and operating systems these computers require to function will require higher-powered hardware - the computers 'they' needed will have already become obsolete. They will then need new computers... the beneficiaries of our ill-advised charity will be perpetually behind the curve the moment they opt to step onto the technological treadmill behind us. Not that Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg will wait, of course - they will generously invite other nations to join the pyramid schemes they benefit from at their earliest possible convenience.

The fact of the matter is, the so-called 'Third World' cannot catch up the 'First World' because technology as we currently pursue it operates as a pyramid scheme - and any attempt to 'join' this scheme amounts to a commitment to being perpetually out-of-date, or perpetually in debt or, more likely, both. The wealthiest people on the planet (the elite citizens of the US, China, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France etc.) set a standard of living that the non-elites of these nations strive to emulate, and these nations then set standards of living that the other nations strive to emulate, in a grand pyramid scheme of technological lust. The assumption that more technology necessarily means a better life has not been borne out by any research I've seen, and I think it fair to say at this point that this kind of academic validation is not, in fact, ever coming, despite a plenitude of Big Tech apologists at every university. If you want to know what it's like to be at the bottom of the tech pyramid scheme, ask Indian farmers how it feels to be on the receiving end of Bill Gates' 'generosity'.

Escalating technology raises the cost of living by consistently adding new technology to the list of 'must have' items... this is not merely in terms of wants but increasingly now in terms of requirements. It seems that the nations of Europe and elsewhere look with envy upon the degree of social control the Chinese government enjoys overs its populace... They thus increasingly expect their citizens to validate their credentials with a smartphone to gain access to services. The result is that these expensive devices become another item you cannot make a living without. Public transportation compensates for absence of a car (which is probably why so many people associate it with poverty), but nothing these days compensates for failure to own a computing device that renders itself obsolete within a few years, necessitating further purchases. This Sisyphean purchasing scheme is something we have accepted for no reason other than we simply cannot be bothered to think.

What's the alternative to an ever-rising waterline of technological living?

This is a difficult question to ask, because we have adopted a position of resignation with regard to technological development. "It's going to happen, and there's nothing we can do to stop it," we say. This is basically akin to claiming "well, we're going to go extinct, so there's no point fighting it", which is to miss the only vital point: when we go extinct makes a world of difference. I personally would prefer our species lasts at least to the tenth millennium, rather than, say, exhausting the liveable environment in a few mere centuries because we were too stubborn and unforgiving to make viable political compromises in order to learn how to together.

The only way out of this finger-trap is to begin to think differently about technology. We would have to refuse to participate in technology that is framed as an endlessly moving target, because such technology will always operate globally as a pyramid scheme. If we can just manage to see this clearly, we could usurp the technological monopolies built on planned obsolescence like cars and computers (and now too, pharmaceuticals) and replace them with common standards that smaller companies (and countries) can viably create and maintain. There's a lot less money in these kinds of technology, so expect those at the top of the pyramid to do everything in their power to prevent this from happening (they have in fact been blocking this for some time). But such sustainable technology is the only way to give our species a future worth having.

The thing is: you don't want that. You might be perfectly happy to froth over the mouth about 'climate change' but you're not actually willing to change your technological habits if it means reducing our dependence upon mechanised transport or computers. Oh, the bristling anger that comment risks provoking! Am I - perish the thought - a climate change denier...? Well, I accept that human activity produces carbon dioxide that changes the composition of the atmosphere and will, at some threshold, produce a profound change in our planet's climate. That much has been clear since the 1970s. The relevant scientific question remains: what level of carbon dioxide is required...? And on this topic, the research seems to have stalled in an all-too-familiar way. Politics once again usurps the sciences, and frankly Blue Team corporations (e.g. media and Big Tech) just love the idea that all our environmental problems can be blamed solely upon those naughty Red Team corporations (e.g. Big Oil and motor vehicles), as if they were all just innocent bystanders and not in fact the beneficiaries of huge advertising revenues provided by the automotive industries.

Besides, my scepticism about this specific political skirmish seriously doesn't deserve the name 'climate change denial' half as much as the rhetoric itself does. After all, 'climate change' has become our favourite way to utterly avoid thinking about our atrocious environmental impact - to ignore every aspect of our global environment except one single atmospheric gas, carbon dioxide. Could there be any greater denial than this misdirection from the key environmental issues of land usage and material consumption rates...? But land ownership and resource acquisition are how the wealthy elites fuel their empires, so don't expect any changes here. Instead, witness yet another case of passing the blame to our political rivals instead of facing up to the truth of the matter: we're all responsible, but none of us want to change.

What if securing the future of our species means giving up the endless treadmill of computer upgrades...? What if it means going back to cars with parts that anyone can replace...? Or even giving up the illusion of freedom the automobile seductively offers...? What if it means prudent medical policies, rather than endlessly escalating pharmaceutical solutions...? What, in short, if it means dismantling the tech pyramid scheme entirely...? Well, it won't happen, of course. Not just because those with the power and the money do not want to give up either of these precious commodities, but also because you don't want to give up your technological conveniences either. And until we are willing to confront this self-deception, we're all just members of the same pyramid scheme that puts Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and so many others at the pinnacle of wealth, influence, global impoverishment, industrial greed, and endless environmental denial. We'll never be on top of the pyramid but hey, at least we're not at the bottom, right...?

You want to save the world? Escape the tech pyramid scheme. Nothing else has the power to do it.

The opening image is Pyramid Scheme by Susan Maxwell Schmidt, which I found at her website. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.. 


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I was listening to an old discussion about human rights recently and one of the participants mentioned the idea that, having gotten enormously wealthy through exploiting slavery, the 'first world' was then rich enough to say 'right, slavery is bad and nobody else should be allowed to do it' and one result of this is that the rest of the world was unable to ever catch up. This was introduced as being a rather cynical view, but one grounded in some sense of history, and I had to think to myself that this feels quite similar to the way we treat high intensity polluting industry today. Having gotten enormously advanced and wealthy as a result of it, we now decide that it is improper, that nobody else should be permitted to operate with such intensity, and that it must be heavily regulated.

Of course, it is impossible to be opposed to the abolition of slavery, and it is impossible to be opposed to striving towards a cleaner planet. It hardly needs to be said. But curious how willingly the wealthy become hypocrites about their past sins as soon as it suits them.

Interestingly, I started shopping around for new headphones this week, as the cushions on my 10 year old Sennheiser pair finally started to fray and become torn. What particularly confused and pleasantly surprised me is that rather than trying to sell me a whole new pair, Sennheiser actually sell replacement cushions, as well as having instructional videos on how to replace them. I've grown so accustomed to the way of our world now that I fully expected to have to buy a whole new pair of headphones. That was a nice surprise.

Conversely, I was talking to my mechanic recently while he was installing a new rocker cover gasket in my now 16 year old car, and we were discussing how much harder modern cars are to work on than those of old. He was telling me that in some modern vehicles the oil is no longer checked via a dipstick, but has to be viewed on a display inside the car. Considering the perfect, flawless simplicity of a dipstick, I had to wonder if this really felt like a necessary addition to anybody, or if it's just another step towards needless complication. These things often feel like a redundancy - but then, I'm a willing user of services like Twitter, so it's impossible to complain about such things without accepting that I, too, actively participate in the foolishness.

Hi Chris,

I am not sure how one escapes a tech pyramid without jeopardizing the other benefits of advanced civilization. Technology has a direct relationship to the complexity of civilization for better/worse. Irony is found in the survivalists who train for civilizational collapse because they can buy the gear and knowledge thanks to Amazon and YouTube. Advocates like John Zerzan want us to go back to much simpler times but Zerzan can attain this goal by moving to less hospitable environments.

I am a geography determinist following the theories of Jared Diamond and Peter Zeihan. I think that those nation states that are further behind the West is because their geography is less hospitable for development. The irony is that to overcome this geographic limits would require an intensification of technology like we see in Wakanda.

Let's hope there is a middle-road solution that can be gleaned that allows technological expansion without the pyramidic scheme behind much of what we see in the West.



I am trying to think how it could even be done. If I decide to eschew modern technology how do I live? Life doesn’t become simply more difficult but increasingly impossible as the rest of the world right shifts around me. The only way, so far as I could see, would be to move to a 3rd world country where such technology could not be depended upon for infrastructure and simpler systems were still prevalent. But now I have created a new raft of problems for myself starting with having no network in a society that probably depends more upon it than my own does. It requires a mass movement. I think it’s impossible unless you go with the Ozymandius solution.

@Matt - Technology requires energy to operate and if its manual technology that requires calories. Those less hospitable places provide poor access to all forms of energy. Perhaps there is a technology still to come that can bootstrap these energy collection issues? Once you get small-scale success, then you could create the conditions for larger mass movement. Then you get into the politics of this - most developing nations have poor Rule of Law systems and protecting your gains would likely need some kind of armed protection.

Sincere thanks to everyone for these thoughtful commentaries! This was primarily intended as a explanation to @sree as to how technology could be understood as a pyramid scheme (hope I got that handle right - I can't go into Twitter to check right now).

Some specific replies...

Ben - the comparison with slavery is an excellent addition to this logic that I had not quite joined the dots with before! Indeed, the phenomena of 'pulling up the ladder' is a fascinating and disturbing one that has repeated itself probably more than twice. In terms of "actively participating in the foolishness", it is certainly difficult to avoid this - but it is not impossible, as your headphones anecdote indicates. I am increasingly of the view that we can create pressure through collective action to produce change, but we have to be able to exercise solidarity to do so. It is the decline of solidarity that gives so much power to 'capitalist sorcery' (as Philippe Pignarre and Isabelle Stengers put it in 2004). Although I do not have much faith in the free market, I do believe the possibility to game that marketplace is there - we might first need authentic sustainable values we can build solidarity around. Automobile maintenance is as good as any place to start, along with promoting bicycles (and other self-powered devices), but the forces are, of course, rather stacked against us... that is, however, how it always must be when a movement begins! :)

Chris - "I am not sure how one escapes a tech pyramid without jeopardizing the other benefits of advanced civilization." The same way one escapes any trap - with great care! The more I come to realise that the "Big X" commercial forces are in no way essential to what is being delivered, the more I become convinced that if we can form the solidarity, we can reform the market. The best example is "Big Pharma", since it does NONE of the discovery (small chemists do this work), it just buys the products of this smaller economy and then markets them - in highly disreputable ways. Although "Big Tech" is not directly parallel, open source/crowdsourcing absolutely CAN replace these providers - but not until we can get solidarity over the issues we want to apply pressure upon. A non-violent revolution is required... I believe it is possible, however unlikely, we can bring it about.

Matt: "I am trying to think how it could even be done. If I decide to eschew modern technology how do I live?" A similar issue occurs here as in Chris' comment - the issue is not to abandon all 'modern technology', but to usurp the powers of 'capitalist sorcery' (see above) that ensure that technology is developed in ways that are antithetical to sustainable or self-perpetuating systems. We have the germs of the movements we require to fix this e.g. open source code, crowdsourced network power (I wish that we hadn't tried to replace money with blockchain technology, as there were far, far better uses for this...). The root problem is the prevention of solidarity. Once we can form movements again (it has been more than half a century since the last successful movements), we can regear the entire system - and the free market, such as it is, will comply with the values we forge once we can determine what they should be. The root problem is our failure to exercise solidarity successfully... and in this regard, I begin to suspect that "Big Media" is the first domino we have to topple.

Many, many thanks for these thoughtful commentaries! Truly appreciated.

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