March of Progress

You are a scientist at the top of your field. The government has given you millions in funding, because they believe your research might be of long-term practical use to them. You’re weeks, maybe days, away from completion, and you find out that the government you believed to be peaceful and only wants your dangerous technology for the greater good of man is in fact building a weapon of mass destruction. Desperate you have to choose between letting them take the device and possibly killing millions with it, or destroy your research and bury yourself in some distant third-world country and hope they never find you and force you to recreate the work. What do you do?

I hate to take the edge of this riveting hypothetical moral dilemma, but it doesn’t matter what you do. If you’re that close to completing your research then three or four other people around the world probably are as well. And even if you’re ahead of your game on this, it’ll be reinvented in a year or two. There’s no motivation for the human race to get something done then knowing for certain that it can be done. You can destroy your research, but that won’t stop it from being recreated. Once something is invented, even by just one person, it can’t be un-invented. We can’t go back in time. Technology has this way of sticking around whether we like it or not.

For hundreds of years people have screamed about the march of progress. As an acquaintance of mine once put it “I’m sure horse breeder decried the auto-mobile as well.” This attitude continues today. “This technology is harmful. It should be banned, or legislated or suppressed.” Or maybe we’re afraid technology will put people out of work, and upset the economic balance. Never mind that overall it is progress: better not to go there. Suppress the research, pass laws restricting the use of the tech, and spread discontent through a culture to inhibit it’s usefulness.

Guess what? There’s no point. Sooner or later it will come into use. And you know what? We’ll survive, just like we always have. The horse breeders found some other line of occupation. Blacksmiths phased out of existence without upsetting the economy. And you know what? Writers, and publishers, and agents and musicians and record labels will survive the existence of the internet as well.

I mean, the organizations might not. But the human race will get by without them anyway. Didn’t see that coming, did you? Yes, this is a post about ebooks and pirating and people who can’t recognize when they’re not needed any more. It’s written in response to this article by Wired, talking about how insane ebook pricing is right now. It’s understandable; we’re afraid of change. And the publishing companies have the most to lose, so of course they’re going to fight. But in the end there’s no point. And we shouldn’t encourage them. A quick merciful death is the best way.

The world is changing. “The old rules don’t apply anymore, and no one knows what the new rules will be.” And that’s okay. It’s going to be chaos and pandemonium for a while as we figure out how writers are going to get paid, but we’ll figure it and things will stabilize again and books will still get written for as long as there are people to read them. The sooner we all give up and stop fighting the machine the quicker and easier the transition will be. Stop fighting the inevitable. Stand aside and let the world march on.

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