A Luddite Might Lead the Way

Maybe it was the confluence of Passover and Easter, or perhaps it was the continuing news saga of Taliban atrocities, young African-Americans shot in the back, fleeing refuges, hate crimes all over the world juxtaposed to stories about what exactly is Alexa listening to and what is really happening with all that data being collected by the likes of Facebook.

Finally, it could have been the two full days I was shut off from social media, email, messaging, and phones of any kind. Forced to read a printed newspaper, sit at meals with nothing but conversation and food (I ate a lot), and lots of synagogue time, as I celebrated Passover with family and friends.

Whatever it was, I became very introspective, and soon introspection turned from mere navel-gazing to extrospection as I began searching for a historical parallel that might help shed some light, and suggest some action for our current world adrift.

I read David Remnick’s Comment Column: Cambridge Analytica and a Moral Reckoning in Silicon Valley in the April 2, 2018 edition of the New Yorker. Remnick writes:

“The era of sanctimony has, in the past few years, given way to a dawning skepticism. Even as Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook continue to reap immense riches, they have faced questions that could not be answered with flippant declarations of rectitude: Is Google the Standard Oil of search engines, a monopoly best broken up? Does Apple, which has a valuation nearly three times greater than ExxonMobil’s, exploit factory workers in China? Why is Facebook—“the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind,” in the memorable phrase of the critic and novelist John Lanchester—allowed to exploit the work of “content creators” while doing so little to reward them financially? Does the company care that its algorithms have helped create an informational ecosystem that, with its feeds and filter bubbles, has done much to intensify raw partisanship? What does Silicon Valley intend to do about the disparities of race and gender in its ranks? What is the cost of our obsession with the digital devices in our palms—the cost in attention, civility, and moment-to-moment consciousness? The triumphs and wonders of the Internet age have been obvious; the answers to such questions less so.”

As I slowly read Remnick’s piece, (I had lots of time) I was struck by the familiarity of his arguments to the grievances of the Luddites in 19th Century England.

(By the way, he conflated President Trump with the issue…I will leave that for you to reflect on on your own.)

But wait—Luddites? Remnick doesn’t seem to be disparaging Technology itself, but rather exploitation of all kinds… and the sad truth that what we seem to be losing in humanity seems greater than what we are gaining in convenience.

Full confession: I am guilty of using the term Luddite in its modern kidnaped usage as technophobe…not in its historically accurate usage protesting the use of machinery in a “fraudulent and deceitful manner” to get around standard labor practices. It’s worth reading about them! Many good histories have been written, and the Remnick parallel will become clear to you.

You see, the Luddites were not opposed to the machinery of their time, but to the way it was being used. The mythology that grew up around them and their equally mythical leader has biased our understanding and our application of the label. The label now has many meanings, but when the group protested 200 years ago, technology wasn’t really the enemy.

In What the Luddites Really Fought Against, an article in Smithsonian Magazine from March 2011, Richard Conniff writes:

“The original Luddites would answer that we are human. Getting past the myth and seeing their protest more clearly is a reminder that it’s possible to live well with technology—but only if we continually question the ways it shapes our lives. It’s about small things, like now and then cutting the cord, shutting down the smartphone and going out for a walk. But it needs to be about big things, too, like standing up against technologies that put money or convenience above other human values. If we don’t want to become, as Carlyle warned, “mechanical in head and in heart,” it may help, every now and then, to ask which of our modern machines General and Eliza Ludd would choose to break. And which they would use to break them”

See the parallel for yourself, as Remnick writes:

“From the early days of Silicon Valley’s Internet-era revolution, as engineers, designers, and financiers began to recognize the potential of their inventions, sanctimony was a distinct feature of the revolutionists. The young innovators of Silicon Valley were not like the largely amoral barons of industry and finance. They were visionaries of virtue. Google adopted the slogan “Don’t Be Evil” (which morphed into “Do the Right Thing”). These young innovators were creating a seamlessly “connected” world; they were empowering the dispossessed with their tools and platforms. If you expressed any doubts about the inherent goodness of technology, you didn’t “get it.” And to fail to get it was to be gloomy, a Luddite, and three-quarters dead.”

Try the introspection, followed by extrospection. See what happens if you do actually “cut the cord” for an hour or two by leaving your hands free to gesture and your mind free to listen.

Being a Luddite is not being against technology. On the one hand, it is foolish to think so as the progress of technology is inexorable…and on the other, the promise for the world is so great.

Rather it is as Remnick posits:

“What we’ve learned from the scandals that have beset Silicon Valley of late is what we learned from the scandals that beset the Catholic Church: a self-protective assumption of righteousness can make it harder to acknowledge and confront patterns of abuse.”

Technology comes with a huge price tag and many strings. Perhaps it was Voltaire, or possibly Spiderman who said it best (your choice) and as quoted by Remnick without attribution.


“With great power comes great responsibility”

Time to take accountability for our creations and how we use them.

In 1867, Karl Marx wrote that it would be some time before workers were able to distinguish between the machines, “the form of society which utilizes these instruments,” and their ideas. “The instrument of labour, when it takes the form of a machine, immediately becomes a competitor of the workman himself.”

Sound familiar?

What do you think?

I’m going back to watch The Ten Commandments. Who knew they had actual film footage?

Related posts: