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Anti-Technology Backlash: What’s Real? What’s Myth?

First, the Luddites, who started it all, were smarter than many people think

Is the public turning against robots? Are employees who fear for their jobs vandalizing them? Some anti-robot incidents have been reported in recent years: Take hitchBOT, a “hitchhiking robot”:

It was fun but it was vandalized in 2015:

As you probably know by now, HitchBot—a device made of pool noodles, rubber gloves, a bucket, and the computer power needed to talk, smile, and tweet—was deliberately decapitated and dismembered this week, only 300 miles into its hitchhiking journey across the United States. HitchBot had successfully made similar journeys across the Netherlands, Germany, and Canada, relying on bemused strangers for transportation. The geek-o-sphere is up in arms, claiming that this violence reveals something special and awful about America, or at least Philadelphia.

Matt Beane, “Robo-Sabotage Is Surprisingly Common” at MIT Technology Review (August 4, 2015)

One British study, led by Jonathan Payne, blamed robot vandalism in Britain in recent years on the failure of British employers to explain the benefits to robotics to employees. But in reality, rather than being a trend, robot destruction seems to consist at present mainly of incidents and anecdotes, with motives often unclear.

Yet we still keep hearing the term “Luddite,” recalling early 19th-century labor unrest in which workers smashed industrial equipment, applied to those who worry about the consequences of advancing high tech:

Are you worried that children are using the internet too much? You are a Luddite, according to the Telegraph. Do you oppose fracking? Then you’re a Luddite; so proclaims a Nevada newspaper. Don’t want a smartphone to replace your wallet? You too are a Luddite, Forbes says.

Of all the terms marshaled out to describe our relationship to technology, ‘Luddite’ is maybe the most incorrectly and over-used. In modern parlance, it is a broad catchall for anyone who either fears, dislikes, opposes, or refuses to understand technology. It’s a synonym for ‘technophobe’—which is a travesty to the fearsome, machine-wrecking movement from which the term arose.

Brian Merchant, “You’ve Got Luddites All Wrong” at VICE

Few groups have been more easily misrepresented than
the Luddites:

The original Luddites were British weavers and textile workers who objected to the increased use of mechanized looms and knitting frames. Most were trained artisans who had spent years learning their craft, and they feared that unskilled machine operators were robbing them of their livelihood. When the economic pressures of the Napoleonic Wars made the cheap competition of early textile factories particularly threatening to the artisans, a few desperate weavers began breaking into factories and smashing textile machines. They called themselves “Luddites” after Ned Ludd, a young apprentice who was rumored to have wrecked a textile apparatus in 1779.

Evan Andrews, “Who were the Luddites?” at History.com

By 1813, the Luddite movement had been put down, with many Luddites hanged, imprisoned, or transported to Australia. Then, like Ned Ludd (who may never have existed), the Luddites became a myth, representing simple-minded opposition to technology.

On the contrary, the Luddites understood quite well that the way advancing industrialization was structured in their day benefited mainly the well-to-do. It reduced the skilled trades to low-paid minders of machines, with almost no workplace rights—destroying their centuries-old institutions in the process.

Brian Merchant calls the Luddites “labor strategists,” though they lived long before the labor movement really got started. Smashing the machines was not, for them, merely an expression of rage. It meant that industrialists could not just hire more newly destitute people for meager wages to work them. First, they had to spend more of their capital to replace the machines:

Luddites should remind us that we need good policies to smooth the road ahead, so we don’t strand our skilled workforce when robots and algorithms usurp their employment. Nearly half the world’s jobs are poised to fall to automation, remember, and only the rich currently stand to benefit.

Brian Merchant, “You’ve Got Luddites All Wrong” at VICE

Today, the issues are all different but the impulse that drove the Luddites lives on in a different form. Many people are acting to reduce the influence of big social media, controlled by powerful interests, in our lives. Sometimes it’s just personal:

The caricature of machine-wrecking mobs doesn’t capture our new approach to tech. A better phrase is what the writer Blake Snow has called “reformed luddism”: a society that views tech with a sceptical eye, noting the benefits while recognising that it causes problems, too. And more importantly, thinks that something can be done about it.

One expression of reformed luddism is already causing a headache for the tech titans. Facebook and Google are essentially huge advertising firms. Ad-blocking software is their kryptonite. Yet millions of people downloaded these plug-ins to stop ads chasing them across the web last year, and their use has been growing (on desktops at least) close to 20% each year, indiscriminately hitting smaller publishers, too.

Jamie Bartlett, “Will 2018 be the year of the neo-luddite?” at The Guardian

Sometimes, the decisions are more public. In a growing number of jurisdictions, educators are repelling the invasion of classrooms by big social media that simply disrupt learning. Software engineers and data analysts are starting to talk about Big Tech’s efforts to sway elections. And Hongkongers are using high-tech methods to escape high-tech surveillance.

What all these trends have in common with the Luddites is the insight that new technologies can benefit a ruling elite without benefiting anyone else and that a strategy is needed to prevent the worst abuses.

One thing that may make the transition to higher levels of automation easier today is that current automation doesn’t result in a net loss of jobs so much as a shift in jobs. As business prof Jay Richards advises,

Don’t imagine a career spread out over adulthood as either a single full-time job or even a series of such jobs. Don’t assume that you can finish your education at age eighteen or twenty-one, and depend on that for the next forty-five years. Instead, expect to do several things during your career. What you don’t prepare for in your formal education, you’ll have to learn later, on the job or on your own time.

Like a good app that stays forever in the development stage, you should keep your mind in “perpetual beta.” Every job should be a springboard to the next. Every year until you die, learn a new skill or a new subject, or at least keep yourself up-to-date. Take command of your continuous education.

Jay Richards, “Students, don’t let smart machines disrupt your future” at Mind Matters News

He even defends the much-maligned gig economy:

In reality, many people working in the gig economy do it because of the flexibility and low barriers to entry. Many Uber drivers, for instance, treat it as a “side gig” or temporary work will attending college. Some people do it because they’ve lost one job and are in transition. Others do it after they’ve retired.

In any job, weekly salary is only one of the measures of value. Flexibility and low barriers to entry are also values.

Jay Richards, “It’s misunderstood! Weekly salary is only one measure of value today” at Mind Matters News

That’s especially true in a rapidly changing economy where years spent acquiring a single certification may not guarantee a lifetime position anyway.

If Richards is correct, there is not much point in being a traditional Luddite today. You don’t want to smash the robot; you want to bring the price down to where you can own a piece of it.

See also: Remember the Luddites! (Winston Ewert) The Luddites became famous for breaking machinery during the Industrial Revolution. Were they entirely wrong?


Students, don’t let smart machines disrupt your future (Jay Richards)

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Anti-Technology Backlash: What’s Real? What’s Myth?