Over the past year I’ve been accused of being a “luddite” because I have been trying to use this blog to expose and publicize the problem of technological unemployment. Nothing could be further from the truth, what I’m really trying to do is warn people that the luddites are coming!!
The dictionary definition of a luddite is: “a person opposed to increased industrialization or new technology.” I most definitely do not fit that description.
I am a strong supporter of new technologies; such as app-based payment systems, fusion, self-driving cars, the Hyperloop, blockchain and cryptocurrencies, as readers of the blog will attest. I think technological progress improves people’s lives and advances our civilization.
Why the Luddites are coming
What I am trying to do is warn people that recent developments in technology are leading to a situation that will create a dangerous new generation of luddites. That situation is characterized by the problems of technological unemployment and income inequality.
- Technological Unemployment occurs when workers replaced or displaced by new technologies cannot find new jobs, or employment that is as financially rewarding or emotionally satisfying as the positions eliminated.
- Income Inequality occurs when the money generated by a new technology or process goes only to certain members of society. Technology drives this process by making it easier for a few individuals or large companies to monopolize all the revenue from business or production. They become fantastically wealthy while everybody else receives little or nothing.
This is what is happening in our society as technological progress; in the form of robotization and digitalization, skews the economy in the favor of the wealthy. Those who own or control the robots and digital processes make fantastic amounts of money. Everybody else finds themselves standing in line at the food bank or flipping burgers.
Luddism; the philosophy behind Luddites, is popular because it has a simple and emotionally satisfying solution to the world’s problems: get rid of technology (or certain technologies) and we’ll solve all the problems. Human beings prefer simple solutions to complex realities which gives Luddism; like racism, Marxism and other knee jerk philosophies, its appeal.
Who the Luddites will be
Such a situation will make an organized Luddite movement of some sort very appealing. The original Luddites were English textile workers that smashed machines during the early 19th Century. The Luddites were not poor they were skilled workers; members of what we would call the lower middle class, who feared being pushed down the social ladder by new technology.
Most of the original Luddites were independent contractors to the textile industry. They were small businesspeople that performed tasks like weaving cloth in their homes. They turned violent when factory owners began installing machines that did those tasks far more efficiently and cheaply.
The Luddites were afraid of being deprived of social status and pushed into the working class by new technology. That is happening in our society today, Walmart (NYSE: WMT) is eliminating 7,000 accounting positions in its stores through digitalization. The people in those positions are being terminated or offered more menial work in the stores such as stocking shelves.
Trump and the Luddites
Those people will form the basis of a new Luddite movement. Who will lead that movement and what its demands will be are unclear.
Although Luddism is already creeping into politics; Donald Trump made attacks on Silicon Valley companies like Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) and Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) part of his successful presidential campaign. Trump’s major appeal was to the working class and uneducated whites – the groups most hurt by technological progress.
Technology’s threat to the social status of certain groups will be the major motivation of the new Luddite movement. These groups will include factory workers, miners, clerical workers, and others whose status is already on shaky ground. Trump who is not a Luddite; he carries two smartphones and has a far better grasp of social media and big data and their implications than most politicians, understands this and capitalizes upon it.
The Trump victory should serve as a warning of the dangers of Luddism in today’s world. Now that Donald has captured the White House, many other politicians, demagogues and celebrities will jump on the Luddite bandwagon.
The Flavors of Luddism
Disturbingly there will be many different varieties of Luddite coming our way in the years ahead. The new luddites will emerge from all corners of the political spectrum and every crack and crevice of intellectual thought.
Some of the most common varieties of Luddite will include:
- Romantic Luddites – These people want to return to some simpler golden age of the past before modern technology. This can include the Trump followers who want to return to the 1950s, intellectuals like American Conservative editor Robert Verbruggen; who thinks that the right amount of technology was invented between 1835 and 1850, and all worshipers of the romantic past – whether it be the Old West, Soviet Russia or World War II era America.
- Religious Luddites – So far they have not shown up or kept quiet. The main argument here will be that the soulless machines separate us from God. Another argument will be that technology corrupts us; an old complaint that has been leveled at every media from movies to comic books to video games to smartphones at one time or another. One claim that we should fear is the thesis that technology is the work or tool of the devil something that is probably coming in today’s world. Religious luddites will be dangerous because; unlike their romantic or intellectual brethren, they have the potential to attract a mass following and stir up fanatical adherents capable of violence.
- Emotional Luddites – These are people who lack any coherent ideology or belief system. They simply believe technology is bad, and that things were better in the “good old days.”
- Intellectual or Philosophical Luddites – Such individuals think technology is inherently evil or soulless or less valuable than what they consider real. A good example of such thought is all the writers and commentators trumpeting the superiority of paper books (or film) and documents over digital media.
- Economic Luddites – These are people who fear that new technologies will threaten their jobs or paydays. Many of them will wrap their arguments in emotional or philosophical terms. A prime example is movie director Quenten Tarantino who champions the superiority of film over digital moviemaking. Taranto’s argument is that film is real and digital is “phony.” What he is really doing is attacking a technology that threatens his livelihood. Another is author James Patterson, who champions the cause of books and attacks Amazon, ignoring the fact that traditional publishing made him a millionaire.
- Political or Ideological Luddites – These are people who will oppose technology because it threatens the status quo or their ideal political system. An example of this would be conservatives who fear technology as a threat to traditional values or family life, environmentalists that see technology as a threat to “nature” or socialists out to protect the working man.
- Opportunistic or Entrepreneurial Luddites – These are people who will jump on the Luddite bandwagon because it is popular. This will include politicians seeking votes (such as our friend Trump) and celebrities seeking fame and fortune. There will be lots of these people in the years ahead including authors peddling books, preachers seeking to fill the collection plate and bloggers looking for hits on their webpages.
- Cultural Luddites – Such people fear technology because it threatens what they see as “culture.” Many of them are practitioners in older art forms that see their livelihoods threatened by new media (Such as Tarantino and Patterson). Others simply have a paper fetish or an inability to understand new technologies.
We must learn to understand Luddism and deal with it because the Luddites are coming. Many of them are already here but many more are on the way. If technologists do not find ways of dealing with Luddites and their arguments there will be violence and people will get hurt.