Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Friday, January 30, 2009

Luddite

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot:

"Anonymous Inquirer" wants to know: Dale, how do you distinguish yourself from what's known as a Luddite? ... [W]ouldn't you be the sort who would cheer on a march against the corporatist profiteers putting honest people out of work with their cost-cutting technology?

Strictly speaking, I advocate the provision of a basic guaranteed income and universal healthcare (and in the meantime ever more healthcare coverage, ever more welfare entitlements until we arrive at a social world truly beyond duress at last) so that being put out of work -- or, say, going on strike -- for any reason at all threatens nobody with disaster.

Definitely, you are right, I do disapprove of the ongoing concentration of wealth facilitated by outsourcing (especially via certain information and communication techniques), crowdsourcing (especially via p2p formations), and automation (the usual suspects).

I don't think we can generalize from the specific deployments of technique in the service of these inequities to a case against "technology," though, any more than one can champion "technology in general" because a surgery saves your life or you found true love via the Internet.

Nor do I think it makes any sense in such cases to focus on the flashy devices and techniques present on the occasion of this injustice rather than on the decisions to deploy them to inequitable ends that might have been otherwise. In other words, I don't think it is clarifying to think of your example as a matter of "technology" rather than immoral, unethical, elitist politics.

In popular parlance, a "luddite" is a person who despises or fears things that are designated technology. You are right that I consider a blanket aversion to (or celebration of) technique strictly speaking unintelligible and very much beside the point. But as a matter of everyday speech, I know to what the label refers and it doesn't name my own attitude very well.

As for the historical Luddites who were angry that certain rich people were deploying novel devices in a class war against certain customary lifeways -- they were exactly right to fear the disruption and abjection of their lives and exactly right to fight back, and I have said so on more than one occasion.

Again, strictly speaking, it actually confuses things to focus on devices rather than on the elitist politics that deployed the devices in the service of injustice or to imagine that the historical Luddites, because they smashed looms introduced to render them dispensable by people who palpably wanted them dispensed with (and succeeded, remember) would smash any other useful device that came their way under other circumstances.

"Inquirer" continues: [Y]ou think technology is good for us only to the extent that it enables some progressive political goal. So, to speed things along, let's take the converse. Imagine a technology that actually works against progressive political goals.

The point is that "progress," including technoscientific progress is not primarily a matter of the accumulation of a toypile, but a matter of politics.

I don't think it makes much sense or is ever much to any purpose to try to "imagine a technology that actually works against progressive political goals" because I think that would actually be a matter of conservatives or authoritarians deploying technique in the service of non-progressive ends.

I don't think there are "inherently" democratizing as against authoritarian technologies as a general sort of matter.

I think the focus on things passing for "technology" in the churn of technodevelopmental social struggle is usually a distraction.

What is wanted is to ensure that the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific change are distributed equitably among the diverse stakeholders to that change on their own terms, that whatever the devices and techniques on hand that all people have a say in the public decisions that affect them, and that all people consent in a legible, informed, nonduressed way to the terms of their personal (cultural, prosthetic) lifeways to the extent that this is possible.

4 comments:

Go Democrats said...

Strictly speaking, what the Luddites smashed were not looms, since power looms did not exist in 1811-12, but "cropping frames," which were machines that did the work of trimming the nap on woolen garments. Previously, that work had been done by skilled croppers, who had served a 7-year apprenticeship and learned to deploy 40-lb shears. A good cropping could significantly change the value of woolen cloth.

The croppers knew that their replacement by machinery would make that training obsolete (and there was no modality for retraining in this time period). Furthermore, any attempt to negotiate peacefully with employers would be met with cries of "combination!" since unionization was illegal and union oaths, or "being twisted-in," were punishable by death.

The croppers appealed to the employers to put a small tax on the production of each yard of cloth, in order to create a common fund to relieve those croppers who would be put out of work by the new technology, but the masters refused, preferring to "free ride" on the existing system of outdoor poor relief. IMO, this makes the Luddites attempted pioneers of social policy, rather than the backward-ass morons they are often portrayed as.

This has been your moment of 19th-century history for the day.

Dale Carrico said...

Excellent -- thanks!

Antonin said...

" Nor do I think it makes any sense in such cases to focus on the flashy devices and techniques present on the occasion of this injustice rather than on the decisions to deploy them to inequitable ends that might have been otherwise...

Again, strictly speaking, it actually confuses things to focus on devices rather than on the elitist politics that deployed the devices in the service of injustice...

The point is that "progress," including technoscientific progress is not primarily a matter of the accumulation of a toypile, but a matter of politics...

I don't think there are "inherently" democratizing as against authoritarian technologies as a general sort of matter.

I think the focus on things passing for "technology" in the churn of technodevelopmental social struggle is usually a distraction. "

The same basic points, again and again, which they will most certainly fail to get, again and again.

To the self-denying ideologues out there: maybe, just maybe, human matters aren't as simple as being for, or against, "technology" or "progress" or other reified nomenclatures. Maybe, just maybe, some discussions and some taking into account of a variety of human interests should play a part too.
Just saying.

jimf said...

Ran Prieur on "The Singularity" (with an aside about
"luddites").

Don't Fear The Singularity
by Ran Prieur
December 3, 2005
http://ranprieur.com/essays/singularity.html

-------------------------------------------
[This is a version of The Age of Batshit Crazy Machines, edited
to half length and partially rewritten for publication in
_Green Anarchy_ magazine. In many ways I like it better.]

. . .

The acceleration of computers does not manifest in the larger
world as an acceleration. It manifests as distraction, as
anti-harmonious clutter, as tightening of control, as elaboration
of soulless false worlds, and even as slowdown. Today's best
PC's take longer to start up than the old Commodore 64. I was
once on a flight that sat half an hour at the gate while they
waited for a fax. I said, "It's a good thing they invented fax
machines or we'd have to wait three days for them to mail it."
Nobody got the joke. Without fax machines we would have fucking
taken off! New technologies create new conditions that use up,
and then more than use up, the advantage of the technology.
Refrigeration enables us to eat food that's less fresh, and
creates demand for hauling food long distances. Antidepressants
enable environmental factors that make even more people depressed.
"Labor saving" cleaning technologies increase the social demand
for cleanliness, saving no labor in cleaning and creating labor
everywhere else. As vehicles get faster, commuting time increases.
That's the way it's always been, and the burden is on the techies
to prove it won't be that way in the future. They haven't even tried.

I don't think they even understand. They dismiss their opponents
as "luddites," but not one of them seems to understand the actual
luddite movement: It was not an emotional reaction against scary
new tools, nor was it about demanding better working conditions --
because before the industrial revolution they controlled their own
working conditions and had no need to make "demands." We can't
imagine the autonomy and competence of pre-industrial people who
knew how to produce everything they needed with their own hands.
We think we have political power because we can cast a vote that
fails to decide a sham election between candidates who don't
represent us. We think "freedom" means complaining on the internet
and driving cars -- surely the most regulated and circumscribed
popular activity in history. We are the weakest humans who ever
lived, dependent for our every need on giant insane blocks of power
in which we have no participation, which is why we're so stressed
out, fearful, and depressed. And it was all made possible by
industrial technologies that moved the satisfaction of human needs
from living bottom-up human systems to dead top-down mechanical
systems. That's the point the luddites were trying to make.
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