Of Luddites and Techno-Utopians

This piece was originally meant to be published online in The Protest, but then finals week happened.

I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds. -J. Robert Oppenheimer

There are two fairly common attitudes towards technology, especially in progressive circles. One is: “technology is the source of all the problems of the world; if we had never invented all these gadgets everyone would be happy and the environment would be safe.” The other one is “technology is the solution to all the problems of the world; thanks to the invention of some future gadgets we will eventually all be happy and the environment will be safe.” I respectively call these two positions Luddism and Techno-Utopianism. A good example of Luddism is the anti-nuclear movement, which recently convinced Germany to phase out its nuclear plants in favor of other sources of energy. Of course, “nuclear” sounds scary due to association with bombs and accidents such as the Fukushima disaster; but there are reasonable fears and then there’s Luddism, and the people that oppose nuclear energy generally fall in the second category. On the opposite side, we have TED Talks, which almost always have a futurist Techno-Utopian slant. An example is this one, but I’ve seen dozens that have a premise along the lines of “new technology X will save the world!” Of course technology does bring us good things, but again there is a difference between reasonable hope and Techno-Utopianism, and TED Talks are generally the second. I think both are fundamentally flawed ways to understand technology, and here I will try to show what is wrong about them, and outline a better way to understand technology.

Rejecting Luddism

Let’s start with what Luddites get right. It is pretty obvious that without cars, coal plants, and factories we would not be able to pollute our air and water (or at least not as efficiently), and that without the internet, phones, and telegrams we would not be able to communicate with each other except face-to-face. I grant that pollution, the decrease of face-to-face communication, and any other ills of modern society ’caused’ by technology are real problems.

But having the technology to do all these things does not mean we have to use it. Sure, owning knifes means I can stab people, but it’s ridiculous to say that the invention of knifes is the cause of stabbings. If humans didn’t exist, we couldn’t pollute either, but that doesn’t mean that the existence of humans is a bad thing in itself.

Furthermore, there are plenty good things we can do with technology. I can talk with my family half a world away, I can meet people from any country from the comfort of my room. Without modern agricultural technology, it would be impossible to feed all seven billion of us. You might think that the fact that so many people exist is a bad thing in itself, but what are you going to do now? Kill half of humanity? Even if you think that things were better a few millennia ago, the fact is that we can’t go back to that without killing billions of humans, so for now all we can do is accept that technology is necessary, even if you think it’s a necessary evil.

Yes, technology brought us nuclear weapons, but it also brought us solar panels. It may have brought us a decrease in face-to-face communication, but it also brought us an increase in international communication. It has brought us good things and bad things. But more importantly, we cannot attribute the ill effects of the uses of technology to technology itself, but only to the way we use it. Furthermore, even if you do think technology is a bad thing, it is impossible to get rid of it, so we might as well accept it as a constant and move on; hating it will not fix anything.

Rejecting Techno-Utopianism

Techno-Utopians gleefully accept all the good things that technology has brought us, and they may even recognize that it also brought us some bad things. What they get wrong is thinking that once we reach a certain level of technological development, all problems of humanity will get magically fixed.

Of course, this has some degree of truth. After all, technology is first and foremost a way to solve problems. How do we carry all this wheat to London? Let’s build a train to carry it! How do I tell all these people in Moscow to stop giving missiles to Cuba? Let’s build a phone line to the Kremlin!

But of course, these solutions have unintended side-effects, as the Luddites have noted. Moreover, problems don’t get fixed just by having the technology to solve them, we must apply technology in the right way. I have all the technology I need to do my dishes, but my dishes don’t get done until I actually go to the kitchen and run the dishwasher. We have all the technology and resources needed to feed every person in the world, but they are inequitably distributed, and there is no political will to solve this problem.

Furthermore, we may have all the knowledge needed to create the technology to fix important problems. But funding for research is not allocated according to how pressing a problem is, but according to how profitable the solution would be. With enough funding, we probably could develop an energy source that does not rely on fossil fuels, but for now fossil fuels are cheaper and more readily available, so we will continue to use them until that’s no longer a choice.

Technology alone won’t fix global warming, or poverty, or hunger. In order for that to happen we need to fund the projects that look for solutions to those problems, not just the projects that would best line the pockets of the owners of capital. Once we find solutions, we also need to gather enough political will to actually apply them. And finally, we need to take into account any unintended side-effects of whatever technology we develop, and only make use of technology to the extent that its benefits outweigh any negative externalities.

So what’s a better attitude towards technology?

Both of the approaches I’ve rejected have something in common. They objectify technology as a foreign entity which is good or bad in itself. We need to see technology not as an entity, but as a tool. Much like any other tool, we can use it for good and bad things, and how we use it depends on us, not on the shape of the tool or any other property inherent in it. A tool’s properties only tell us how and for what purpose we may use it, not how and for what purpose we ought to use it.

It is up to us to guide technological development, to wield it in ways that bring good to humanity, and to curtail its development and application in ways that harm us. Thinking of technology as a thing outside our control only covers over its real harms and benefits, and makes it more difficult to wield. It also allows us to use it as a scapegoat for any of its unintended consequences, instead of rightfully placing the blame on ourselves.

Unlike earthquakes and hurricanes, technology is entirely under our control, and we are wholly responsible for the way we use it. It’s time we started acting like it.