Karl Wittfogel's notion of hydraulic despotism is an interesting way to frame ideas around resources and technology. At it's core, the concept is:
control the water, control the people
To paraphrase myself: "Water, in any society, is crucial to its health. This was perhaps more obvious in a community less distanced from its agricultural backbone than we are. Without water, there is no irrigation of crops. A rich flow of irrigation water would lead to an increased local human population–where better to start a farm? Eventually, the demand for the water would reach a level of sensitivity which was ripe for despotism. More people means more infrastructure. More infrastructure means less mobility for the populace as they become reliant on the local goods and services to support their size. At some point, the loss of the water wouldn't simply mean that the populace had to leave, but that the populace would die because they were unable to leave. Control of the water at this point would mean a total control of the people."
This particular idea has been variously expanded and criticised since Wittfogel's seminal work, but the key idea that some resources act as a kind of control mechanism for different political entities has remained an attractive one over time.
I suggest that the idea is in fact more attractive than it's historical application to political entities and empires implies. Rather, we can consider many examples of hydraulic resources and at least incidental hydraulic despotism which has many interesting and problematic outcomes for the behaviour of everyday people.
Again I quote myself:
The same pressures that erode our communities also promote hydraulic despotism: "[t]he shift from an agricultural lifestyle meant the centralisation of communities in urban areas and social pressures that reduced the size of families. Education and familial care could be delegated from the members of the extended family to institutions. Food could be bought, rather than produced". Modern society, if not by design then by nature, encourages us to hand our responsibilities off.
Hydraulic despotism in the wild
This particular example represents a slew of despotic opportunities for the enterprising entity to exploit.
An obvious example, under the current circumstances during the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic, would be the monopolistic character of the pharmaceutical companies over a predominant aspect of our health and wellbeing—pharmaceuticals. More to the point, what's obvious is the effect of that monopoly on information during the crisis. One broad narrative has been overwhelming during the last year or so—stay home until we have a vaccine. This narrative has been accompanied by a great number of obviously detrimental attitudes towards the people it was designed to 'protect' and which only now is being recognised for the public health disaster it facilitated.
One key problematic attitude has resulted in the absolute lack of helpful information available about treatments. All well and good to wait for a prevention assuming you're living the kind of life that permits such a thing, but what if you're already sick? Prevailing narratives have concentrated on how various treatments are experimental and therefore could be quite bad. This stands rather at odds with the parallel narrative that the vaccines are also kind of experimental but we should embrace them because the outcomes of SARS-CoV-2 are worse. The narratives are not precisely the same, but the nuance, I would suggest, largely escapes discussion and probably has something to do with the general skepticism surrounding the vaccines.
The most airtime has been given to hydroxychloraquine, which certainly doesn't appear to be particularly helpful against SARS-CoV-2 but also clearly isn't the devil it was made out to be, nor was the weird confusion of chloroquine and hydroxycloroquine and their apparent competition with remdesivir helping to clear things up. Once again, all these things sparking public distrust in the pharmaceutical outputs of the epidemic. A newer example surrounds ivermectin which seems kind of promising as a treatment at the time of writing but despite what might have been lessons learned, is still being treated as extremely problematic because of the unknowns. All this odd and contradictory messaging around drugs and yet, we still see articles surprised at the number of vaccine skeptics.
What is almost certainly happening here is that the pharmaceutical companies are providing a great deal of the information around these drugs. In a manufactering consent kind of way, their monopoly over drugs, drug trials, and thus the information around those drugs, is filtering the media that gets produced. Some companies want to promote their treatments, some companies want to promote their vaccines, no companies particularly want cheap generic treatments to be promoted, and no one else has much idea about anything apparently. Particularly not an academic community half paralysed by the strange behaviour of the peer-review process lately, ordinarily problematically slow and now rupturing under the pressure to be problematically fast.
The pharmaceutical monopoly on drugs has us watching their antics play out during a crisis, instead of the kind of information that would help us better understand the crisis.
Another example, somewhat related, is the monopoly on media various information tech companies wield. Deplatforming is not a new phenomenon, and various content filters can be quite sensible. But recent crises like SARS-CoV-2 and various political trouble in the US appear to have emboldened or perhaps forced the hand of tech players to lean into censor-like activity. This to the point that it's a common topic of dissatisfied conversation across many social circles, no longer just the 'marginalised' right.
The difficulty, though, is that without innovation in the domain we're stuck with it. The existing infrastructure is dominated by a tiny number of companies, and thus Parler-like sagas are far more likely than success stories about new digital frontiers.
Both of these are nice topical examples of hydraulic despotism in a local field of influence. The confused result of pharmaceutical rivalrous dynamics dominating as one of perhaps three or four narratives in the COVID crisis seems like a problem, but what is there to do about it? Health and drugs are essentially synonymous terms in the modern era, and no one knows much about that anymore outside of the drug companies themselves it would seem. No one likes the idea that their digital social outlet could be swept out from under them due to automatic COVID filters, but what's the alternative? Set up your own Mastodon or Matrix server? One wonders how many people reading this article even know what those are, let alone the complexity of setting them up. Without even taking a stance on the intentions at play, accidental despots or malicious ones, their influence on our behaviour and potential for control over our possible sphere of actions is sharply apparent.
Technology is necessarily a hydraulic resource
I would suggest that such hydraulic despotism is, in fact, a feature of technology and not a bug. Peter Thiel is often depicted as a some kind of blood-drinking tech capitalist—sometimes quite literally. But if you look a little past the headlines you notice that, perhaps unsurprisingly, there are some pretty clever ideas behind all those billions of dollars.
One of his most regular beats is his distinction between technology and globalisation, or zero to one vs one to n.
This is the idea that technology is the process of creating something new, something that produces more from less. Here, we have gone from zero to one.
Globalisation, in contrast, is the process of spreading technology, replicating the 'one' n number of times. He says "taking a typewriter and making 100 of them is very different to taking a typewriter and creating a word processor". Both feel like improvements, and both often are, but Thiel points out that globalisation, thus construed, has some implicit problems.
A related theme to best explain these problems is Thiel's distaste for competition. For Thiel, the common notion that competition is a productive force is an erroneous one. Rather, "[o]nce you have many people doing something, you have lots of competition and little differentiation". The need to compete drives organisations to become more similar, to take on the features of competitors and make them slightly better or cheaper. This drive discourages the kind of resource-intensive processes required to create something truly new and innovative.
Thiel's desire for less competition and more technology of the 'zero to one' kind is related to his somewhat apocalyptic view of the future. He views the last 60 years as one of increasing stagnation driven by the competitive drain on innovation, and views it as a fundamentally untenable position. A decline that will lead to a collapse without the intervention of zero-to-one technologists. His talks, then, frequently end with a call for creators to create monopolies. For Thiel, monopolies are a social good. Monopolies—companies that corner the market in one way or another—have the opportunity to step outside of the competitive equilibrium and find there room to continue to innovate.
All of this does not, perhaps, do justice to Thiel's thinking and I encourage you to listen to him communicate them. But it does serve the purpose of highlighting the fact that technology does indeed seem to emerge in this monopolistic space. From undifferentiated competition, something new arises. Something that produces more with less. Something that is valuable enough to be adopted as part of the human ecosystem. These technologies are hydraulic by nature, controlled by a monopolistic creator for as long as it takes before it can be globalised.
So what happens when it becomes globalised? Subject to competitive diffusion, surely we are relieved from the threat of hydraulic despotism? Not quite.
Globalisation doesn't mean that we gain control
Consider just how few of the globalised technologies we know and understand. Once, hydraulic despotism was a function of the water supply. Today the same is just as true. The recent ice storm in Texas caused the state water supply to fail in a number of ways. If the water no longer flows from the tap, one wonders just how many people would have recourse to find water somewhere else. Bottled water? From where? Another company, with a complex supply chain. But today, possibly more so than times past, this hydraulic dynamic has spread to other things. For the sake of finishing the first iteration of this article, I will, I think, simply paraphrase myself again.
"Not just water, but the product of arable land. Or hydrocarbon fuels like petrol and coal. Indeed, any major source of energy, from electricity to gas. Our sources of medicine and medical aid. All of these things are controlled by small and centralised forces" and poorly understood at the level of the individual. "All of these things are subject to hydraulic despotism.
The kind of infrastructure that supports the vast majority of modern human life lies in the hands of a tiny number of people—not simply our governments, but with increasing frequency private corporations and industry groups.
The reason for this is manifold, but two causes stand out. The first, of course, is the pressures of industrial society. The same pressures that erode our communities also promote hydraulic despotism: "[t]he shift from an agricultural lifestyle meant the centralisation of communities in urban areas and social pressures that reduced the size of families. Education and familial care could be delegated from the members of the extended family to institutions. Food could be bought, rather than produced". Modern society, if not by design then by nature, encourages us to hand our responsibilities off.
The second is more personal. It's because this delegation of responsibility is convenient. We are active participants in relinquishing control, because as technology develops, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand. There is no place where this is more evident than in the changing shape of our social networks and communications.
For many people in a modern society, the need to be mobile is paramount. We don't simply move to where the work is, as sociologists complained of in the early 20th Century. We also increasingly need to move to where the education happens that permits us to work in the first place.
As such, our social networks often span cities, states, countries, and continents. Not simply our networking contacts but our friends and family too. To stay connected we rely on a handful of tools, owned by an even smaller group of companies. Our emails by Microsoft and Google. Our messages by Facebook, ByteDance, and Google again. Our very links to those who are important to us are subject to the very same conditions that sparked Wittfogel's thesis. And this seems like, not just a problem, but a preventable problem.
To live in modern society is to relinquish control of our water. But there seems no need for us to lean into that fact, and hand over everything else as well. The defining feature of humans seems to be our capacity for nurture. To share ideas, and bring them into the world."
And so begins a new project here, a project of taking back control of these resources we've delegated to others. Hydraulic despotism by our own hand seems an unfortunate position to default into, and straightforward enough to rectify.
For this, we can adopt an idea that has floated around the site for a little while—'from zero'—the notion of learning how to recreate the basic systems that support us from zero, and so relieve ourselves of the hydraulic threat. Unlike Thiel's zero-to-one, this is, I suppose, zero to anything at all. The nature of humans is to share ideas. We only need a place to start.
No better place perhaps than right where you are: claiming a digital architecture that we can call our own.
Another on a more thoughtful approach to building community.