Technology critics have always been with us, and they have sometimes helped temper society’s occasional irrational exuberance about certain innovations. Since the time when Plato cautioned of how the written word could undermine our ability to memorize and recite stories, tech critics have been warning us about the need to strike a sensible balance with the tools we create and use.
But just as Plato failed to appreciate the full benefits of the written word, today’s technology critics sometimes go much too far and overlook the importance of finding new and better ways of satisfying both basic and complex human needs and wants. In fact, today’s tech critics are fueled by a “technopanic” mentality and are growing increasingly more radical. They peddle a revisionist history of Ludditism and push for an innovation-limiting “techlash” that would shackle entrepreneurs with layers of red tape before any progress is permitted.
If not countered, this swelling anti-tech movement could curtail the creation and diffusion of technologies that could boost economic growth, raise our standard of living, improve our health, and extend our lives.
Are Innovation’s Benefits Just an Illusion?
In a recent white paper, my Mercatus Center colleague James Broughel and I cataloged the voluminous literature that documents the symbiotic connection between technological innovation, economic growth, and human flourishing. Decades of research by historians, political scientists, and economists reveals that technological innovation is a fundamental driver of long-term improvements in well-being.
However, today’s tech critics would have us believe those empirical findings are largely hogwash. Scanning lists of top-selling tech policy books and the most assigned texts on innovation in college classrooms, one is struck by the lugubrious lamentations of the critics. Increasingly, academics are calling into question technology’s very worth to civilization.
Anti-tech complaints used to be focused primarily on how innovation creates a supposed “cult of convenience” or a supposed “paradox of choice” because of the cornucopia of options it offered to us. Today’s critics build on these critiques but have also upped the ante. Borrowing the old neo-Marxist clichés about how industrialization is “de-humanizing” and “alienates” the masses while force-feeding us stuff we do not need, modern tech critics go further and claim that innovators are “reengineering humanity.” These critics suggest that innovation’s benefits are dubious at best and that technology is not a helpful servant to humanity but instead a “dangerous master” that is “slipping beyond our control.” Consequently, “it’s OK to be a Luddite,” writes David Auerback in Slate, because modern tech “will eliminate what it means to be human.”
The book titles or subtitles from leading tech critics include frightening phrases like “Techno Creep,” “Future Crimes,” “Against the Machine,” “Digital Barbarism,” and, “Click Here to Kill Everybody.” In this dour worldview, technology is destroying both our culture and economy. Critics warn of a coming digital dystopia, where truth and authority vanish, high culture crumbles, and political polarization breeds closed-mindedness and even the very death of democracy.
Meanwhile, robotics, machine-learning, and automation pose an “existential threat” to the very future of civilization not only because they will lead to a “jobless future,” but because they will brainwash us into becoming a “world without mind,” in which we cannot think for ourselves.
Blueprint for Reconstructing Civilization
Is there any hope of surviving the impending techno-apocalypse? Perhaps, the critics say, but only with a heavy dose of precautionary principle-based policymaking and a return to a “simpler time” or some wiser form of living.
Best-selling tech critic Evgeny Morozov advocates a “radical project of social transformation,” “data distributism,” and a full-blown “degrowth movement” to halt the pace of innovation. Morozov’s distaste for private digital platforms like Facebook and Google runs so deep that he recently applauded China for “reasserted sovereignty in the digital domain” with its “social credit system,” which is a centralized method of online reputation scoring of citizens. (Apparently, he is not too worried about how China already uses its massive digital surveillance infrastructure to oppress dissenting views.)
Morozov and other critics like Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger regularly play up the benefits of “adding friction” to the technological design and diffusion process. They are not always clear about what that entails, but they rail against the idea of efficiency as a societal benefit. They instead suggest we should slow things down and gum up the works a bit to be more thoughtful about the tools we are creating. Although they will never admit it, “adding friction” likely means fewer choice, higher prices, and longer delays in the technological improvements most of us desire.
Luddites Living in an Amish Paradise?
Critics like Frischmann often argue that “there’s nothing wrong with being a Luddite,” because if nothing else it, “enables critical reflection and evaluation of the technological world we’re building.” In their revisionist accounts, the Luddites have been recast as the original “humanists” and defenders of Amish-esque values, who understood how to temper the role of modern technology in our lives.
But the Luddites were not Amish. The Amish lifestyle is completely voluntary and, in many ways, there is much we can learn from it. But we are also free to reject it and the Amish will not impose their anti-modernist values upon us through threats of force.
That is the fundamental difference between appreciating the Amish versus calls for a reassessment of the Luddites as a model for reorganizing modern society. Today’s neo-Luddites seek to preserve whatever technological status quo they desire, and would impose that choice upon us whether we like it or not. Thus, when the critics wax nostalgic about the Luddites, it suggests that more forcible resistance to change is required, likely through sweeping bureaucratic controls on every facet of technological development.
If, therefore, modern tech critics wish to align themselves with the Luddites, they should at least own up to the fact that what they desire is something quite radical. A reembrace of Ludditism and the creation of a “degrowth movement” would necessitate highly repressive and destructive steps to end technological progress as we know it and, in the process, deny society choices that most of us believe better our lives in countless ways.
The Unabomber Bounces Back
We already see the potential dangers of these ideas with the growing anti-technological militancy of some environmental activists. New York magazine recently documented how many of them are experiencing their “Kaczynski Moment,” when they discover the extremist teachings of Ted Kaczynski (aka, “the Unabomber”) and come to “understand progress as industrial slavery.”
Ironically, several versions of Kaczynski’s Unabomber Manifesto as well as his Anti-Tech Revolution are available on Amazon and sell for $10-$20. The average review for the books are around four out of five stars and include customer reviews about how he is a “misguided genius” whose books are “brilliant, riveting and useful” and are full of “well-articulated thoughts” and “fascinating ideas.”
Kaczynski’s critique of industrial society apparently doesn’t extend to his own ability to sell books on the world’s biggest online retailing site. And it appears buyers aren’t too concerned about spending money in support of a man who killed and maimed over two dozen people during a twenty-year nationwide mail-bomb reign of terror.
Regardless, ideas have consequences, and we shouldn’t be surprised to see more people casually embracing such dangerous, anti-human thinking with academics blithely claiming that “there’s nothing wrong with being a Luddite” and encouraging them to embrace a “degrowth movement.”
Tool-Making is in Our Nature & the Key to Human Flourishing
Properly understood, “technology” simply represents the practical application of knowledge to a task or need at hand. As Benjamin Franklin once noted, “man is a tool-making animal” because, by our very nature, tool-building it is the key to our survival and prosperity as a species. Through ongoing trial-and-error tool building, we discover new and better ways of satisfying human needs and wants to better our lives and the lives of those around us. Human flourishing is dependent upon our collective willingness to embrace and defend the creativity, risk-taking, and experimentation that produces the wisdom and growth that propel us forward.
By contrast, today’s neo-Luddite tech critics suggest that we should just be content with the tools of the past and slow down the pace of technological innovation to supposedly save us from any number of dystopian futures they predict. If they succeed, it will leave us in a true dystopia that will foreclose the entrepreneurialism and innovation opportunities that are paramount to raising the standard of living for billions of people across the world.