The Distributed Generation: Technology, Politics, Law

I. Conceptual Tools

This essay addresses the following question: How can the things we have learned so far in this course be applied to have useful ideas about dealing with climate change?

One useful conceptual tool introduced at the start of course is the triad of "law, technology and politics," accompanied by the suggestion that these three elements affect each other and are affected by each other in complex ways that vary over time. A second conceptual toolset is the network metaphor to explain the technology element. In the network metaphor, things are either "pipes" or "switches," things that carry things, or things that send things.

Putting these toolsets together creates a model which provides a description of reality, which can be used to generate strategies for change. As a general matter, one simple prediction of this model is that if law and technology interact to produce a system in which control over the network's switches is centralized this will encourage corruption and unfreedom. This essay will now discuss the model's applicability in two issue areas, internet freedom and sustainable energy.

II. Applications for Advocacy

A. Internet Freedom

These conceptual tools are not just good for generating explanations, but also for generating a strategy for change. They highlight two structuring systems that powerfully affect the internet, technology and law. Many people with an interest in social change, perhaps especially those with legal training, seek to cause social change through legal change. This is based on the theory that political activity (I would include impact litigation as well as grassroots mobilization in that category) can change law, which in turn can change the societal distribution of power. However, the way telecommunications laws have concentrated wealth and power in a few telecommunications companies means that a strategy based on legal change is unlikely to succeed. The relevant organs of federal government are too far captured.

However, in broad terms, one might instead focus on the triad's other structuring principle: technology. It turns out that technology might be used to route around the current legal system's roadblocks to education and its surveillance checkpoints. Thoughtfully developed technology might even, in the long term, sufficiently change the political opportunity structure to enable the realization of a better legal system. Technology might reinforce and expand desired political goods like the freedom to share.

B. Sustainable Energy

Our class focuses on the freedom to move bits to people that want them without spying. However, these conceptual tools are also applicable to thinking about strategies for dealing with climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions produced by our energy system are a major driver of climate change. Changing the way our energy system works such that it produces less greenhouse gas is therefore a major strategic objective. The term "sustainable energy" is sometimes to used to refer collectively to the basket of technologies that help accomplish this goal, from renewable energy generation, to distributed generation, to energy storage, to the smart grid.

Our class's law-tech-politics triad is applicable to goal of sustainable energy, because as with network freedom, technology and law are very important structuring principles organizing the political opportunity structure. Further, energy, as with telecommunications, is tightly regulated, which means technology and law interdigitate. However, there are some relevant differences. As with telecommunications, prospects for salutary changes in the relevant federal law are poor. However, unlike telecommunications, there is significant lawmaking power at the state level. This is the result of differences in how the relevant law and technology are structured. A network performs its bitmoving functions better the wider it can cast its net. Energy, however, can be generated and used locally and regionally, which contributed to the evolution of state-level regulation. Although some federal laws powerfully affect energy, state public utility commissions also play an important role in modulating the sustainability of the energy system. The creates a broader field of potential openings for directly affecting law through politics than is the case for network freedom.

Within the domain of technology, aspects of our class's pipes-switches concept are also applicable. One key strategy for protecting network freedoms is decentralizing: to multiply the number of switches and help them talk to each other. This entails helping users convert zombie "platforms" into working switches. Decentralization is also a helpful strategic principle for sustainable energy advocates. On a technical level, decentralization has special relevance for sustainable energy because electrons don't travel well, even with the best infrastructure. On a political level, however, decentralization benefits both network freedom and sustainable energy by dispersing malignant concentrations of economic power. Finally, on a personal level, decentralization benefits individuals psychologically by contributing to a sense of personal efficacy, which is a useful trait for individuals engaged in advocacy in any domain and for sustaining justice generally.


I wonder how much of the analysis we've applied to informational goods also applies to energy. The biggest difference I see is that energy is not produced at zero marginal cost. Maybe there is value in moving energy over pipes. Thus analyzing the pipes and switches for energy may not be as helpful when it comes to energy.

-- AaronChan - 27 Oct 2011

That's a great point. I can't believe I didn't think of that distinction. I will incorporate it into rewrites. Thanks!

-- DevinMcDougall - 27 Oct 2011

These are useful revisions. I don't see a way to improve the argument within the space available; you are necessarily hampered, at this point, by the inability to be specific. I still think some narrowing of focus would have facilitated that strengthening, but that's not the essay you've written, and within the scope chosen, I don't see how you can proceed further.

In another context, however, I would suggest again that you write out some of the ideas that follow from this with respect to electricity. The technical meaning of "liberalization" in this market has been the separation of generation from distribution. If you had said a twenty-five years ago that Con Ed was going to remain the dominant electric utility here, but that it would altogether stop generating power, no one would have believed you. Now, it's not even a remarkable fact. Some rumination on that point will bring you to a useful insight or two, I still believe.