"More than machinery, we need humanity."
The bestowing of awards often has a rather self-congratulatory aspect. After all, the giving of such honors is an opportunity for an industry to praise itself by touting the fine work its members have done. And though, giving awards can turn out to be a highly political and controversial affair (as recent events testify) – at the core of an award is still a sentiment on the part of the award giver that they have the authority to declare something the best…or the worst.
For, not all awards are meant as praise.
And lest there be the slightest confusion about it, the Information Technology and Innovation Fund (ITIF) does not intend for its Luddite Awards to be construed as compliments. Alas, it seems that the ITIF’s inaugural awards did not do enough to protect the world of technological innovation from the scourge of Neo-Luddism and thus the ITIF has returned once more to shame those who have not pledged complete and total fealty to the belief that technological innovation is synonymous with the highest human good. In the estimation of the ITIF, or at least its founder and president (who is also the author of the Luddite Award document) Robert D. Atkinson, neo-Luddism represents a profound threat to the present and by extension to the future. Neo-Luddites “seek a world that is largely free of risk, innovation, or uncontrolled change” (Atkinson, 1) and thus they engage in fear-mongering tactics to frighten the public and elected officials into assuming positions that are hostile to technological innovation.
The ITIF defines a Luddite as “someone who seeks to hold back the introduction of new technologies” (Atkinson, 2) and finds that such individuals generally crop up out of deluded self-interest (“this new technology will cost me my job!”) or deluded public-interest (“this new technology will cost other people their jobs!”). Yet what unites these versions of Neo-Luddism “is a general longing for the simpler life of yore—a life with fewer electronics, chemicals, machines and the like” (Atkinson, 2). And though it may be tempting to look at people walking down a busy city street in the US today and conclude from the omnipresence of smart phones that technological innovation is doing just fine, the ITIF warns that the forces of Neo-Luddism are lurking behind every corner, their numbers are growing, and they are hell-bent on destroying all support for technological innovation and making you live in a cave where you will have to eat bugs for sustenance.
Without any further ado, the ten nominees for 2015’s Luddite Award were:
And the award goes to…Drum roll please…Keep in mind it’s an honor just to be nominated…
Alarmists touting an artificial intelligence apocalypse! With Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates getting specifically mentioned for their work in this area. Bravo!
Of course, individuals like Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates being presented with Luddite Awards is ridiculous. And the ITIF even seems to admit as much; in the press release wherein the winner was unveiled Atkinson admitted that he was not suggesting that any of these “luminaries” are actually Luddites. Granted, the Luddite Awards are themselves ridiculous – a sort of absurd temper tantrum that treats any criticism of technology as an all out assault on the very concept of technological innovation. That individuals like Musk, Hawking and Gates should be tarred with the epithet Luddite by the ITIF (which clearly means the term as an insult) reveals that the ITIF awards are largely an attempt to shame any individual who dares to contradict the catechism that technological innovation is always a good thing.
It is important to look beyond the prominent individuals named by the ITIF, in order to recognize that many of the other groups on the list of nominees include state governments (Wyoming, California, Ohio), governmental organizations (FCC), and even national governments (Europe, China). Though not openly stated, the meaning is rather clear: when governments (including democratic ones) do anything that could be even faintly construed as resistant to technological change they are engaging in Neo-Luddism. It seems that the ITIF would prefer such governmental bodies to flout the desires of their citizens, as well as their own laws, and simply accept a position of “technology knows best.” And as for the cases of Europe and China failing to let companies like Uber operate with carte-blanche, it seems that the ITIF cannot fathom why governments in other countries would want to make a company based out of California comply with the laws of the nation in which it wants to operate. Reading the ITIF report one gets the impression that the organization would prefer for every law to have a asterisk affixed to it that indicates that such laws are to be tossed out the window if they are deemed inconvenient by advocates of technological innovation.
The deeper one goes into the ITIF awards, the sillier they become. One really needs to have a bizarre imagination to paint the numerous individuals who petitioned the FCC regarding its proposed changes around net neutrality as seeking “to hold back the introduction of new technologies.” Furthermore, some of the nominees seem to hardly even fit within the ITIF’s own, exceptionally broad, definition of Luddism – the case of Wyoming that earns the state a nomination has to do with wealthy ranchers trying to protect themselves from legal responsibility, it really has nothing to do with opposition to technological innovation (to say nothing of the fact that some of the heroic “citizen scientists” in that case may well be amongst the foul environmentalists the ITIF disparages in other cases). Similarly, even though privacy advocates may not be singled out for a nomination of their own they are clearly the Neo-Luddite straw men lurking in the background of “States Limit Automatic License Plate Readers” and “Ohio and Others Limit Red Light Cameras.” Yet, many of the very privacy groups that raise concerns about such automated surveillance systems are also prominent advocates for technological innovations in privacy protecting technologies and encryption software. One needs not believe that encryption will solve every surveillance woe to recognize that groups like PrivacySOS (which is named in the ITIF report) are hardly engaging in Neo-Luddism. With all of the silliness present in the ITIF’s list of nominees, it’s a shame that they overlooked the men’s fashion company that tried to market a segment of its collection as beding for Ludites.
It would be tempting (indeed it is tempting) to go through each and every nominee for the Luddite Awards and discuss how patently ludicrous each nomination is, there is an easier way to get to the ITIF’s ideological core. One simply needs to know that the ITIF is a think tank set up by and funded by major technology companies (including Google, Cisco, Dell, Microsoft, IBM and others). Engaging in hysterics that attempt to portray technological innovation as under attack is ultimately just an excuse to advance the ideological agenda of major technology companies. Granted, the “These People Dare to Stand in the Way of Major Technology Company’s Profits Awards” doesn’t have quite the same ring as “Luddite Awards.” Rather than simply concede its own ideological agenda the ITIF constructs a straw man with which to do battle – and the ITIF can be confident that it will be victorious seeing as, despite the ITIF’s delusions to the contrary, there aren’t actually Neo-Luddites lurking in every shadow. In the end it is rather sad, if not particularly surprising, that an organization calling itself a “think tank” should have such a willfully distorted view of history (broadly) and the history of technology (more specifically). The ITIF’s stance that technological innovation is always a good thing reeks of the type of technological determinism that would earn a freshman in a class on the history of technology a less than stellar grade. Though the ITIF’s particular brand of technological determinism has more to do with the ITIF’s (and its funders’) determination to ensure that there are no barriers to the development of technologies.
And yet, what may be the most shocking thing about 2015’s Luddite Awards is that the individual most deserving of a nomination was not even mentioned by the ITIF. That deserving nominee is responsible for the following quotations (and many more like them):
“our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience. Each age tends to have only a meager awareness of its own limitations. It is possible that we do not grasp the gravity of the challenges now before us.” (65)
“We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups. Decisions which may seem purely instrumental are in reality decisions about the kind of society we want to build.” (67)
The source of those lines? None other than Pope Francis.
In 2015 Pope Francis released his Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality, Laudato Si’, a document that argues at length and with impassioned ethical fervor for people to take seriously the dangers facing the planet. Though one might have expected that something written by the Pope would mainly focus on theological matters, Lauddato Si’ spent much more time considering social, economic and political topics. And one of the subjects that Pope Francis considered at length was the role of technology. Indeed, there is much about Laudato Si’ that seems to echo thoughts and positions that have long been part of the tradition of the critique of technology.
It is important to note that the suggestion, being made here, that Pope Francis should have been considered for a Luddite Award is not meant in any way as a sign of disrespect. It is the unabashed stance of the writer of this post that there is nothing insulting about being called a Luddite, especially when the one’s trying to wield that term like an epithet are simply a front group for advancing the interests of major technology companies. It is necessary, therefore, to step away from the straw man depiction of Luddism constructed by the ITIF and consider who the Luddites were and what they actually stood for, and for this perspective one is better served looking at those actually interested in history. After emphasizing that Ned Ludd is less of a genuine individual and more of an avenging mythical specter (like Robin Hood), Adrian Randall writes (in the foreword to Writings of the Luddites):
“Ned Ludd epitomized the right of the poor to earn their own livelihood and to defend the customs of their trade against dishonorable capitalist depredators…Ned Ludd evidenced the sturdy self-reliance of a community prepared to resist for itself the notion that market forces rather than moral values should shape the fate of labor. Ned Ludd was not only a symbol of a plebian resistance; he was an ideological figure as well, one who reflected the deep sense of history that underpinned the customary values of working communities in the manufacturing districts.” (Randall, xiv)
There is a key contrast to pull out between Randall’s explanation and that offered by the ITIF, for what Randall’s comments reveal is an important falsehood at the heart of the ITIF’s definition of Luddism. While the ITIF claims that Luddites are opposed to “uncontrolled change” the truth is quite different. The problem with much technological innovation is not that it is “uncontrolled” the problem is that it is extremely controlled – and those on the receiving end of these innovations often recognize that those controlling this change will enrich and empower themselves while impoverishing and immiserating those who will be accused of being Luddites should they dare speak out. It is not that such people seek a world that is free of risk, or innovation, but that such people recognize that the benefits of innovation do not accrue evenly and the risks are rarely apportioned equally. For example: those who enjoy such innovative technologies as smart phones and tablets are seldom the same individuals who live next to the toxic e-waste dumps where such devices eventually wind up. The ITIF’s description of a Luddite as someone who seeks to “hold back the introduction of new technologies” is equally silly insofar as it conflates opposition to certain technologies in certain contexts as opposition to “new technologies” writ large. The nominees that fill up ITIF’s list of candidates for the Luddite Awards are not groups that oppose “new technology” (as such) rather they have specific concerns about specific technologies being used in specific ways. One should be able to recognize that “hold[ing] back the introduction of new technologies” does not mean blanket opposition to new technologies, it may simply mean that sometimes new technologies warrant some careful consideration before they are unleashed upon the public. Goodness knows that Google could have benefited from taking a more patient approach when they released Google Glass – which ended up being something of an embarrassment for the company.
Yet, to return to Pope Francis, Laudato Si’ offers a vision of new technology unencumbered by an ideological allegiance to technology. Indeed, reading Laudato Si’ one can recognize the ways in which a religious conception can often protect an individual from starting to worship technology. Frankly, there is much about Laudato Si’ that resonates with Randall’s comments about the Luddites, for Laudato Si’ is a text that emphasizes that the interests of the poor do not always align with the profit margins of major corporations, and it dares to stand up for “moral values” in the face of “market forces.” Pope Francis does not offer a tirade against technology, as such, nor does he engage in a prolonged pining for “the simpler life of yore” what he offers is a vision that is genuinely dangerous: a view of a different world in which technological innovation serves the needs of people instead of just the bank accounts of corporate executives. As he puts it:
“Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.” (Franics, 72)
If one wants to seriously consider history than Pope Francis’s view meshes nicely with that of the original Luddites and even those who actually deigned to call themselves Neo-Luddites – technological innovation should serve the people, those people deserve a say in the matter, and not every instance of technological innovation is necessarily a good one (remember: mustard gas and nuclear weapons are both examples of technological innovation). This is not about opposing progress or innovation, but about recognizing that discussions of progress that do not actually consider who is benefiting and who is being hurt are rather farcical. Technological innovations may instill a feeling of great power in an individual, but as Pope Francis notes, such feelings can often be “delusions of grandeur.” Throughout Laudato Si’ Pope Francis frequently praises technological innovations that have improved millions (if not billions) of lives, but he never falls victim to the logical fallacy that would lead him to conflate the idea that “some technological innovations are beneficial” with the idea that “all technological innovations are beneficial.” What Pope Francis’s encyclical reminds its readers is that one can be excited about technological innovation such as solar panels while still being wary of those who would use advances in artificial intelligence as a way to fatten their own pockets – and it does not make one a hypocrite to hold those views.
Thus, once more, Pope Francis reveals himself to be nicely aligned with those who are willing to look critically at technology; however, it would be pretty easy to argue that Pope Francis is far more critical of technology than any of the groups who were actually nominated for Luddite Awards. One can only hypothesize as to why Pope Francis was ignored by the ITIF. Perhaps the ITIF wanted to bully Elon Musk and Bill Gates for daring to go off script? Perhaps the ITIF did not want to look foolish by trying to insult the Pope? Or, perhaps the ITIF was afraid of having to wrestle with the ideas put forth by somebody who actually seems like a Luddite? Though it may just be that the ITIF did not want to encourage people to read lines like these:
“We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology; we can put it at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral. Liberation from the dominant technocratic paradigm does in fact happen sometimes, for example, when cooperatives of small producers adopt less polluting means of production, and opt for a non-consumerist model of life, recreation and community. Or when technology is directed primarily to resolving people’s concrete problems, truly helping them live with more dignity and less suffering. Or indeed when the desire to create and contemplate beauty manages to overcome reductionism through a kind of salvation which occurs in beauty and in those who behold it. An authentic humanity, calling for a new synthesis, seems to dwell in the midst of our technological culture, almost unnoticed, like a mist seeping gently beneath a closed door.” (Francis, 70/71)
The ITIF’s Luddite Awards are a desperate attempt to keep that mist from seeping in, a frantic effort to keep people from daring to think that there is a “type of progress” other than the one advanced by major corporations. A popular slogan amongst the original Luddites was “no general but Ludd means the poor any good,” and organizations like the ITIF that religiously serve the interests of wealthy tech executives, inadvertently do an excellent job of showing why that slogan is still fairly correct.
And yet, it may well be that there are better lines to draw inspiration from than slogans from the eighteenth century. Indeed, it would be much wiser to focus on lines like Pope Francis’s reminder that “we have the freedom to limit and direct technology; we can put it at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral.”
It is a sentiment that must terrify the ITIF and its corporate backers.
Atkinson, Robert D. “The 2015 ITIF Luddite Award Nominees: The Worst of the Year’s Worst Innovation Killers.” Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. December 2015.
Randall, Adrian. “Foreward” in Writings of the Luddites. Ed. Kevin Binfield. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
Pope Francis. Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality: On Care for Our Common Home. Brooklyn: Melville House, 2015.
Not cited but worth reading: “95 Theses on Innovation” by Lee Vinsel.