Justice Eats The World
In 2011 Marc Andressen wrote that software is eating the world.
Over the next 10 years,” Marc said, “I expect many more industries to be disrupted by software, with new world-beating Silicon Valley companies doing the disruption in more cases than not.”
Marc predicted that software would disrupt every business, and that every industry would become software dominated.
Using this analogy, I’d also like to note that justice is also eating the world, and it’s permeating every industry just like software has.
Scott Alexander alluded to this in his piece, Justice Creep:
“Helping the poor becomes economic justice. If they’re minorities, then it’s racial justice, itself a subspecies of social justice. Saving the environment becomes environmental justice, except when it’s about climate change in which case it’s climate justice. Caring about young people is actually about fighting for intergenerational justice. The very laws of space and time are subject to spatial justice and temporal justice.”
By justice here I mean egalitarianism/equity, or the desire to reduce disparities between people(s).
The basic thesis is that the demand for egalitarianism continues to rise and just like software, it isn’t stopping anytime soon.
Of course, this is a very old idea. Martin Luther King famously said “The arc of the universe bends towards justice.” Before him similar things were said by Hegel, Marx, the Fabians, and many others all the way back to Jesus.
We’ve long held a conception that there is a “right side of history”; That history is simply the process of our continuous pursuit towards a more perfect way of being; That society is on an upward trajectory towards greater levels of moral perfection through the process of continuously solving social problems, providing equity for everyone.
The theory is basically that anything that can become more egalitarian will see a demand for more egalitarianism. In short: justice eats every industry — or at least it tries!
Why is Justice eating the world?
There are several structural reasons as to why justice is eating the world at an accelerating rate:
For starters, there is an increasing demand for egalitarianism as a result of software making the world less egalitarian from an outcomes perspective. Software turns local marketplaces into global marketplaces, which means more markets become winner-take all. While everyone is better off, the rich get richer faster than everyone else.
Employment markets are a good example: Consider pre-labor markets when people were only competing with other people in their town vs post-labor markets where people find themselves competing with people from all over the world. Since the top people get all the matches, the system is, from an outcomes perspective, less egalitarian.
Before I wrote “employment-markets” in the above paragraph, I had written “dating apps”. This winner-take-all dynamic applies widely in sectors impacted by the internet.
Furthermore, internet marketplaces codified disparities in ways that didn’t exist prior. Only recently were we able to compare outcomes across the board and come face-to-face with the disparities. Software not only accelerates disparities, it reveals them in the first place.
Then you add in social media and the whole process becomes amplified. As an example: When people are being watched give a tip, they tip higher than when they’re not being watched. Since we're always being watched nowadays, the metaphorical virtue signaling “tips” just keep climbing in frequency and value. Egalitarianism is better for optics and there are barely any parts of our lives that escape optics these days.
So naturally, in an internet economy where disparities rise and people suddenly become aware of them, there are going to be increased demands for justice.
But there’s another, deeper, structural reason for the rise in justice that came long before the advent of the internet, and that is the fact that you can always care more. This has an escalating effect: if you don't care as much as the next guy, you'll get accused of all sorts of bad things (e.g. fascism, bigotry).
At its core this is fueled by the Christian ethic, what Nietzsche called "priest morality": valorization of the weak and vulnerable. If you put in place a value system that prioritizes the vulnerable over the strong — as Christianity did — then justice will be defined by greater and greater valorization of vulnerability. As a result we see both more and more people claiming to be vulnerable and more and more people claiming to be working on behalf of the vulnerable. So every year that goes by, morality and justice gets identified as caring more and more about the weak and vulnerable. This is how justice eats the world.
This cycle has no central organizing point for this, it's a self-reinforcing collective feedback loop. No centralized direction, mostly autonomous local communities that somehow all managed to converge on one catechism.
To be sure, the process of justice eating the world has fundamentally reshaped our society by giving us both civil rights and virtually all social progress, so it’s already had a massive impact.
Comparing justice and software
It’s interesting to compare and contrast the similar and different ways in which justice and software eat the world.
On the similarity spectrum, both justice and software are paper clip maximizers. Once they enter an industry, they disrupt everything in sight — unless something is there to explicitly stop them. Software will eat an industry unless something is actively preventing it. Justice will do the exact same.
Which is to say that justice, like software, has no breaks.
Software will try to eat the world down to the molecular level, and justice will try to do the economic equivalent. In both of these cases, the slippery slope is not a fallacy, it’s an inevitability.
Say you’re pro-justice and try to stop someone who’s slightly more pro-justice than you by saying something like “Well, we need profound social change, just not *that* extreme, given the second order effects it might have.” They’d respond: “How can you say that with all this injustice all around you? Obviously you're not in favor of justice *enough.*
The fact of the matter is that when something has a logical conclusion, nothing will prevent it from heading there unless there are other checks and balances put in place. This is why we originally separated church and state: so we wouldn’t be vulnerable to the logical conclusions of religion.
As discussed above, software makes markets more efficient. This creates more inequality since people contribute unequally. Justice then enters into the picture in the form of people clamoring to regulate the market in order to make it more equal. This is the process of software making disparities legible and then people or governments rushing in to remove the revealed disparities. What this means is that the more we create systems to track and standardize data, the more opportunities for justice will emerge.
Software and justice intersect in interesting ways. Sometimes they work in tandem and accelerate each other, as we see for example with the desire for gender equality accelerating the demand for fertility-tech, artificial wombs, etc.
Other times software and justice hold each other back. Think of industries like education and healthcare where the desire for justice has stifled innovation and prevented competition.
Software leads, and justice follows to balance out the distribution outcomes. Take any new technology and people will attempt to make it egalitarian. Ability to edit IQ? Let’s make it equal. Ability to extend life? Shouldn’t that be equal too?
As a thought experiment: If we came to this conclusion a decade ago, what could we have predicted? Some examples:
rise in fertility tech
Continuing that thought experiment, what can we predict in 2032?
Thanks to Molly Mielke for edits and feedback