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Let's talk about Luddites
The battle between techno-conservatives and techno-progressives
There’s a moment in The Social Dilemma where Tristan Harris gazes into the camera and exclaims, “people never said anything bad about the bicycle.”
Contrasting the bicycle with social media, the documentary details how negative social media has been on users’ mental health, and how, as it relates to critiquing new technology, this time is actually different — social media is uniquely problematic.
But as it turns out, people did say a lot of negative things about bicycles. They were concerned bikes would damage one’s body, that the wind would permanently stretch one’s face, or that the constant rotation of the wheels would make people insane or even homicidal. People worried that the bicycle would lead to a moral decline in America because people would attend church less frequently.
Fear mongering tends to be the default pattern with new technologies — they get scapegoated for society’s current problems.
Even chess had critics complaining about how much of an unnecessary brain drain the game was. Now, of course, we think of chess as some of the best training your brain could experience. Video games are still undergoing a similar transformation.
The same was true with novels — society was worried they’d make children violent and that people would get so emotionally invested in these stories that their bodies would literally break down.
The fact of the matter is that people have been complaining about new communication technologies since forever. Socrates thought writing was a terrible idea. He thought it would permanently change our character and alter our brains. I think we’re happy with how “writing” turned out.
Similarly, when the telegraph was introduced, an article was published saying something to the effect of, “It’s great Maine and Texas can communicate. But what if Maine and Texas have nothing to say to each other?”
Well, what if?
In this piece we’ll explore the idea of people who bet against progress. Let’s talk about Luddites.
What’s behind Luddism?
The Luddites were a 19th century group of English textile workers who opposed new technology. As a means of protesting technological progress, they’re best known for destroying the textile machines on which they worked. Today, the term can be used to describe anyone who opposes technology, new ways of working, or progress in general.
Luddism is essentially the idea that technology was a mistake, or that the “natural” state of humanity should be like the Garden of Eden. Luddites think we need to halt the spread of technology and go back to the way things were.
They share a similar ideology to the Unabomber — that humanity is bad, humans are bad, humans’ impact on the world is bad, and that you shouldn’t have children because humans are bad for the planet.
Today, this message resonates with more people than you’d think, even if only implicitly, often because they mischaracterize what type of nature we’re talking about.
Of course, we don’t live in nature as we understood it centuries ago. Nature, in its “natural” form, would have the average life-span at 30 and a high percentage of kids dying at childbirth.
Indeed: Nature is trying to kill you. You’d never be able to live in, say, New York City, for example — the NYC we all know and love is just not natural. I'm not even talking about the buildings; I'm talking about the fact that they have brutal winters. Without technology, living in places like NYC would be absolutely miserable.
People love an idealized version of nature. They like nature without lions roaming, or nature that’s somehow replete with western medicine, a fast internet connection, and a warm bed at night to sleep in.
Of course, it wouldn’t matter much if luddites just wanted to go and live in the jungle by themselves and destroy all their technology. But that's not what they want. They want to take away your technology too.
What luddites fail to realize is that humans are, in their very nature, a technological species. We build tools to make our lives easier and better.
We can trace back the roots of transhumanism to the invention of writing, the original mental prosthetic. Suffice it to say, we’ve been enhancing ourselves for a very long time.
Transhumanism vs Anarcho Primitivism
Balaji Srinivasan frames this as techno-progressives vs. techno-conservatives.
The techno-progressive looks at the world and asks: how do we improve faster? How do we push forward on creating more affordable nuclear power, or brain machine interfaces, genetic modification, space travel, the internet, crypto, life extension, limb regeneration--how do we accelerate the future? Immutable Money. Infinite Frontier. Eternal Life.
The techno-conservatives don’t like this progress. They ask themselves: how do we make all this new tech go away? How can we delay progress such that life can remain how it is today? Or, even more extreme, how do we reverse the direction of technology growth and live how we used to live?
The simple fact is that how we used to live may have fit a world of 10 million people but won’t fit a world of 8 billion.
Between the two poles there’s a broader question of why we can’t just find common ground somewhere in the middle? Why can't we have washer dryers, cars, and lights, but not these crazy ideas like limb regeneration, bionic eyes, and the brain machine interface type stuff the transhumanists want?
The answer here is that once you get technology growth going, it's pretty hard to stop it from eating the world. It’s hard to tell billions of people who want access to food and clean water and warm beds that there's no more room.
One pernicious example of Luddism is our thinking around climate change. We’ve been told time and time again that the core solution to our climate change problem is that we need a new form of energy generation. We need zero emissions, and we already have an untapped resource we’ve yet to really use — nuclear power. We've had it for 70 years, it has a track record on its safety, and it works astonishingly well.
People always want to say we shouldn’t use it because of Chernobyl, or the threat of nuclear war. But these are anomalies that resulted in basically no loss of life. Even so, this anti-nuclear narrative doesn’t explain why we're not obsessed with natural gas, which is better for the environment than oil and certainly better than coal. You’d think we’d be gung-ho about it, especially since America’s greenhouse gas problem is still horrific, and yet the shift hasn’t fully taken hold.
Another example of luddism is around job-loss. Sure, every tech revolution has destroyed old jobs (farmers have gone from 70% to 2% of our economy, for example), but every revolution has created more jobs than they destroyed. Looking at the past three centuries, we’ve consistently replaced half of our jobs on repeatable 90 year cycles.
The Lump of Labor Fallacy implies that the amount of work to be done in society is fixed. But it isn’t. Human needs are infinite.
People try to frame this as humans competing with robots in a static economy for a fixed number of jobs, but, historically, that hasn’t been the case.
Take the car industry, for example. People thought that the rise of the auto would result in job loss for people who took care of the horses for a living. Cars created so many jobs we had to bail out the car companies! This resulted in positive second order effects too: restaurants, apartment complexes, suburbs, etc.
Not only does technology create more jobs, but better ones too. We automate the boring and painful parts of the job so we get to do more meaningful work (e.g. coaching). Also, we don’t consider that lots of jobs are either mentally or physically back-breaking, literally (e.g. farming). New jobs created by technology are fundamentally better and more interesting. As Balaji says, in the old days you were pushing the same button for 20 years. Now you’re typing a different key everyday.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t make it easier for people to re-skill, relocate if needed, and recover via a strong safety net. We should. It’s also not to say Facebook is above criticism. It isn’t. But we shouldn’t wish to go back to a world before cars to protect the horse and buggy industry, and we should be humble in our critiques of social media, knowing we would have also been the people critiquing the novel, the telephone, and other communication technologies.
Moving beyond nostalgia
For most of human existence we’ve engaged in ancestor worship. We believed everything that needed to be known was known and understood by our ancestors. To live in the world was to study what our ancestors did, said, and taught, which, of course, included religious teachings — all answers to all questions were found in the past; and if that was the case, why would you ever need to build something new? The very idea of progress just simply didn't exist.
It was the culture shift — the openness to new technologies — that helped spark The Enlightenment. And from that came a radically new way of thinking about the world, the idea that our ancestors laid the foundation we could build on top of, based on the premise that we could build better things than our ancestors in the first place. This mentality created the world we have today, but the tension between the techno-progressive & techno-conservative still remains.
It’s this tension that underpins Tristan Harris's argument, a nostalgia narrative — that there was a time before us that was better. A time when life was simpler, when we were more connected to one another. People on both sides of the isle are very drawn to nostalgia narratives. I mean, what is Make America Great Again, if not an astrology narrative that things were better before, or that the people who came before us had answers we forgot.
One way to move past nostalgia and embrace the future is to realize that everything about us, from the clothing we wear and the music we listen to, to the technology we use — every single thing we are and do is something that a previous generation thought was bad.
But we don't think we’re bad — actually, quite the opposite. We think we’re so great, in fact, that when change comes for us, we’ll resist it too. We're gonna say, “No, no, no, no, no — these things we have, these are the good things. Those next things? Those are the bad ones.” And we’ll keep perpetuating the cycle.
I’ll end with this Douglas Adams quote to describe our reactions to technology:
“1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that's invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things”
Until next week,