You can’t put a genie back in its bottle, and you can’t put new technology back where it came from. The original Luddites learned this the hard way when they gathered in mobs to smash mechanized textile machines in the early 1800s, hoping to slow their progress. Of course, the new machines (and progress) won.
Yet, to this day, luddites remain. Many of us have our own luddish tendencies, or know people who do. And it’s not even an “old person’s problem.” On the contrary, it seems almost as common among young people as among their grandparents.
For example, when I was in college in the early 1980s, I bought my first answering machine. It looked like this:
I got it because I was trying to study, maintain an active college life, and keep a consulting client happy, all in a time before email, before texting, and before cell phones. I wanted my client to be able to leave me a message while I was out, um, “studying.”
When my friends saw it, they were incredulous. Some were offended.
“Maybe that’s okay for your work, but I’ll NEVER leave a message on a machine,” one of my friends said to me. Others echoed the sentiment. These were 19-year-olds.
Of course, the convenience of being able to coordinate things asynchronously won out. A few years later, everyone had an answering machine. Similarly, around the same time, colleges began to accept word-processed essays from students. I was there to see this happen at Berkeley: the first time I submitted a paper, my professor asked me, “How did you do this?”
“I word-processed it,” I said.
“I’m going to accept this for this first assignment,” said my professor, “but the Academic Senate will be deciding next month whether this word processing is cheating or not. Apparently several other students at the university have also submitted such things already this quarter.”
And indeed, the Academic Senate ruled in my favor, and I didn’t have to hand-write my papers. Some time later I learned, to my amusement, that one of the “other students” who had word-processed his homework was Steve Wozniak. He was already famous at the time and had enrolled to finish his degree under a pseudonym.
Fast forward a few years to the ’90s, when cell phones came along. Same story. I got one early on, and when my friends saw it, they said, “Why do you have that thing?!”
They couldn’t imagine ever wanting to be reachable when not at home. In response, I’d make some excuse about needing it for work, but really, it was because I loved the freedom. I would never be stuck at home waiting for a phone call again.
Eventually, progress won. Cell phones took longer than answering machines because they were more expensive, but once it got started, it rolled over the planet.
When luddism is harmful
The stories I just told are benign and a bit silly. Today as much as back then, I think it’s okay if some of my friends aren’t quite as excited about new technology as I am. However, not all luddism is harmless. In many cases, fear of technology is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of both the technology and the surrounding circumstances. This can have serious and tragic consequences.
One painful example is the fear of GMO crops. People are so freaked out about GMO crops that in Europe, you can’t get them. You can’t import them into Japan. And millions of people look for “non GMO” labels every time they buy food.
If you know nothing about GMOs besides people’s reaction to them, you’d think they were frankenstein monsters that would jump out of your pantry and attack you in the middle of the night. At a minimum they might make you sick.
The problem is that might be true. Well, the part about making your sick that is. Nearly all the GMO food now in production has one specific modification that makes crops withstand the herbicide glyphosate, a.k.a Roundup™. Farmers that plant “Roundup Ready” crops by Monsanto can douse their fields in weedkiller, killing weeds but not their crops. This is great at reducing labor and increasing yields. Over the years, weeds have started to evolve resistance, but nothing that more weedkiller from Monsanto can’t solve.
The problem is that these crops have measurable, albeit small, amounts of residual weedkiller on them when you eat them. Many people are reasonably concerned about the long term health consequences of ingesting these toxins, and the science is not yet clear. Lawyers have jumped in to help, of course, and the controversy has extended to make GMO crops off limits.
Note that the genetic modification itself has nothing whatsoever to do with the healthfulness of those crops. It’s a total misunderstanding. If you are worried about glyphosate, let’s ban glyphosate. To ban GMOs makes no sense at all.
This is disturbing because GMOs can save lives. Golden rice, for instance, is modified to produce more beta-carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A. In regions where people don’t get enough Vitamin A from their food, Vitamin A deficiency causes more than 1,000,000 children to either die or go blind before the age of 5. Eating golden rice can prevent millions of these tragedies. But anti-GMO luddism has slowed adoption.
All of the foods we eat come from long lines of heavily modified plants (and animals), mainly through old-school “genetic modification” (i.e. hybridization). No one challenges the messy process of hybridization, which causes all kinds of unintended genetic changes, but inserting a specific gene to make something more nutritious? That’s taboo, that’s GMO!
In the software world, there’s a similar trend of luddism stemming from a misunderstanding of the situation. The clearest example is the fear of AI. People are terrified of AI developing conscious intent: one day, machines will “wake up,” take over the world, and exterminate humans because we’re annoying.
As interesting as this may be to contemplate, and as endearing as that Alexa commercial is, it’s all pure sci-fi. There’s nothing in our science for AI that’s even remotely on this path. We’re not “almost there.” There’s nothing that allows us to believe in any way that any AI is going to become self-aware, to develop intent that we didn’t program into it. It can schedule a haircut for you, it can sort through photos, and it can even be trained to introduce a bit of chaos. But it’s not going to wake up and start acting of its own accord.
Just as the fear of GMOs prevents the adoption of crops that could have higher nutrition, this unfounded fear of AI is a distraction from the real concern, which is that AI can be misused. Just like any tool, it can be dangerous in the wrong hands. When it comes to AI, we should be discussing the more boring, more realistic abuses of non-conscious AI (e.g. by overreaching governments and corporations), and keep the fantasies of machine consciousness inside the realm of entertainment.
Luddism yielded to Covid
Only one short year ago, the preoccupation of much of the industrialized world was “screen time.” There were “digital detox” destination resorts (ah, when we could travel) and one could sign up—online, of course—for sessions on how to stop using screens and achieve true happiness. Then, Covid remade our world. Many of us were thrust into an endless series of Zoom meetings, interrupted only by providing IT support for our kids “attending school” on the kitchen table next to us. Screens won. Not ideal, and certainly not how I envisioned the 21st century playing out—but resistance seems futile and isolating.
I can’t wait for the post-covid vaccinated world. I for one will be fully engaged in extreme revenge travel, moving from city to city, attending in-person conferences, hugging people I barely know, and visiting people I probably wouldn’t have visited but now can’t wait to make the trip to see. However, we won’t be “getting our lives back.” We’ll be moving into a new way of life that will be different in ways we don’t fully understand yet. I can imagine hybrid conferences, with attendees and presenters beaming in somehow, or parties with transparent walls connecting multiple host locations. Or not—who knows? But it won’t be what we had before. We can’t go back; we need to move forward.
All this brings me back to the original Luddites. In reality, the Luddites weren’t resisting new labor-saving technology; they were protesting the mill owners’ new labor practices, which impoverished them and left them as serfs to the factory owners. Under the hood, people’s seeming fear of technology is often the tip of the iceberg, and the iceberg is a thicket of social practices that are overdue for an update.
To recover from our covid-scarred world and meet the challenges of climate change, inequality, and resource limitations, we’re going to have to embrace lots of new science, new technology, new foods, and different ways of living and working. It is going to take everything and everyone we’ve got. We can’t be squeamish about adopting new technologies. Instead, we need to adopt technology with clear heads, and ensure this next revolution doesn’t leave a segment of the population as serfs in modern-day textile mills.