Here’s a really curious post by Kevin Kelly that makes a curious argument:
A classic Hollywood trope is the evil genius madman who is using new technology he just invented to murder (or blackmail with the threat to murder) a large chunk of humanity. Always the lone evil genius works in a high tech haven, hidden from others, all by himself. At this point, the scenario is total fiction because no one can run all that technology by themselves. It is hard to keep 3 computers and a network going all by yourself. The madman’s electronic door hatch probably crashes once a month, particularly if the madman just invented it. So can you invent and keep operational the death ray? No. Way. No solo genius can destroy mankind. That kind of power takes cooperation.
In fact, I offer a new theorem: The power of an individual to kill others has not increased over time.
To restate that: An individual — a person working alone today — can’t kill more people than say someone living 200 or 2,000 years ago.
At first this seems to fly against all the other trends in technology, but I think this law is true, and it is true for the same reasons that overall violence is diminishing over time, as Steven Pinker points out.
Read the whole post to see how he develops the argument. He concludes,
The myth of the lone evil genius is that you can make complex technology all by yourself without the infrastructure of a society. You can’t, at least in the beginning. Because more powerful technologies require more social support, this increased social pressure keeps the technology in check. Crazy rogue geniuses with caves full of death technology ticking down to blow up the world make great villains on the big screen, but there is no evidence at all in the real world that anything like that has ever happened.
Is he right?