On Techno-“Skepticism” | Vol. 3 / No. 9.2

New Technologies Replace the Old | Photo: Chilanga Cement, CC BY-SA 2.0
New technologies replace the old | Photo: Chilanga Cement, CC BY-SA 2.0

I just finished reading this piece over at the Washington Post, and it got me thinking about the idea of anti-technology sentiment and the way it seems to pop up here and there. So-called techno-“skepticism” is a series of otherwise fairly unrelated fears brought together by a shared, flawed, solution: the idea that we can and should somehow step back from technological development. In reality there are so many issues at stake that it makes little sense to group them together. Instead, we should work on solving each new problem as it arises — even (or especially) when we can use the problems against one another, as solutions to each.

An off-the-cuff list of potential reasons to fear or dislike the growing “technologization” of our culture might include: (a) a fear that robots and/or other intelligent machines will leave us all unemployed; (b) a fear for the natural environment due to the growing waste caused by so-called “planned obsolescence”; (c) a fear of the dissolution of privacy as personal data is collected for profit or governmental control; (d) a fear that growing reliance on technology will alienate humans from one another; and even (e) fear that superintelligent AI will develop itself to the point that it won’t mind wiping us out if we’re in the way of its inscrutable goals. These are all very different (and differently flawed) reasons to be a Luddite. They each have a kernel of possibility in them that makes them seem like reasons to fear technological development, but none of them present a much of a reason to be generally anti-technology.

The fear that robots will leave us all unemployed is grounded in historical experience: new technologies always leave broken sectors of the economy in their wake. From the printing press to the mechanical loom, when new technologies enter a workforce they render old skills obsolete. There is, in my opinion, a great deal of probability that in the coming decades some jobs will simply cease to exist. Take taxi drivers: currently being knocked about the economic boxing ring by incentivized ridesharing programs like Uber and Lyft, the knockout punch will probably come when fleets of autonomous taxis offer fast, cheap and efficient subscription service to take you anywhere you want to go without feeling like you’re imposing on someone to take you there. New jobs will take their place of course — surely the new autonomous vehicles will require maintenance and programming upgrades — but the jobs will be of such a different skillset that it’ll come as cold comfort to those displaced. Unfortunately the economics of it are such that it’ll happen whether we want to or not: humans are expensive labour, and when it comes down to it, not as good at doing it, either (especially when it comes to driving). All we can do is regulate the new technologies to make sure consumers aren’t getting the short end of the stick, and work to re-educate and re-employ those whose jobs no longer make much sense.

The environmental waste, again, is a real problem, but of a totally different tack. The environmentalists worried about mountains of cellphone batteries only share the tiniest of interest with those concerned about losing their jobs to new technologies, and once again, abstinence isn’t a solution. Internet access is starting to be considered a basic right, necessary to get jobs and social assistance. Even Astra Taylor (the “soft Luddite” mentioned at the start of the WaPo article) still uses cellphones — she just tries to keep them going longer (as, perhaps, we all should). Compartmentalized cellphones like Google’s Project Ara and other upgradeable (rather than outright replaceable) consumer electronics will help, as will better recycling programs and new materials, but these styles of solutions are necessary for everything we do as consumers to help the environment. We waste too much food, we spew too much CO2 — none of this can be solved by going backward technologically (at least, not without great suffering and a whole lot of human death by starvation) so we have to work toward new solutions.

In fact what all of the reasons to fear coming technology have in common is the flawed idea that we should (or even are able to) stop developing or using new technologies. None of them, at their heart, are entirely new problems (except maybe hyperintelligent AI, fair point there Mr. Musk), and for the most part, they can be mitigated by just paying a little attention as we develop new technologies. Even Elon Musk isn’t really a Luddite (even if some are calling him one thanks to his comments on “killer AI”); he sees technology as the way forward — which is why he’s throwing money hand over fist at attempts to develop “safe” AI. New technologies produce new problems even as they also produce new solutions.

And perhaps the problems caused by one could be the solutions to the others. It takes a lot of time and effort to be less wasteful, for instance. Anyone’s who’s ever tried to eat for a week without producing any paper or plastic waste will be able to tell you that. Maybe we could use the extra people-hours freed up by robots “stealing our jobs” to spend more time living more efficiently. Maybe the extra people-hours could be used going next door to cook meals together, bringing us together physically and emotionally, sating the fears of those who view technology as alienating us from one another. This would, of course, rely on funding people without jobs, but there’s a workable solution for that as well.

When it comes down to it, the fact of the matter is that the “progress” of technological development isn’t linear, and the fears don’t all follow from one to the other. So-called “soft” Ludditism (or “technology skepticism” or “digital dissent”) isn’t one thing, and it shouldn’t be. The only thing that ties the different fears together is the mistaken assumption that stepping away from technological development would provide a solution, when, given our history, we’ll still find new problems to need new solutions for anyway. SO I suppose my thoughts, for now, on techno-“skepticism” are that if you have a problem with an aspect of technology, you should work on a solution for that one. Because even if you’re not a technological positivist like myself, backward still isn’t much of a solution; it’s just a direction that provides its own set of problems.


Richard Ford Burley is a writer and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.

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