The neo-Luddites: how much tech is too much?


The neo-luddites are coming for your technology – but do they have a point?

I am a Luddite and a technologist. I've felt this way for a while now. It is a strange position to be in, as I love technology but also see the damage it does. Technology can be incredible and enabling for humans, and after all, we have always created technology; since our earliest stone tool-wielding ancestors to modern-day AI systems, human beings have excelled at creating technology.

However, there's a new movement afoot. People, often technologists like myself, are saying, "Enough is enough." Why is it that the very people who create technology say that human technological endeavors have finally gone too far? These "neo-Luddites" are asking questions on behalf of humanity, and it is time that we all listen.

Has technology gone too far?

Folks say that the only sure things in life are death and taxes. Well, I believe that technological advances should be added to that. If you plotted a map of technology over the last few thousand years, even over the previous 25 years, you would see the effect of cumulative cultural evolution (CCE), where the behaviors behind technology (and ideas) accumulate over time, with modifications changing the resulting artifact. In terms of modern technology, this has brought us powerful communication mechanisms, modern healthcare technologies, and generative AI, amongst others. But has this accumulation and modification of technology reached an endpoint?

A recent article by Brian Merchant, a technology columnist at the Los Angeles Times, woke me up to the fact that I'm not weird for both loving technology and hating it in equal measure – I am, in fact, a "Neo-Luddite." The Luddites were a 19th-century English movement that protested changes in working conditions brought about by technological advances. These changes meant that machines could replace workers and drive down wages. The Luddites reacted by smashing the machines; the movement ended when 17 Luddites were executed, and others were sent to penal colonies.

Technology should ensure that we have enough food to prosper, that our home conditions are optimized, that we can be part of a productive society, and that humans can lead happy and fulfilling lives. Once technology moves outside the bounds of doing good for humanity, surely humanity should say, "Thanks, but no thanks.”

Why neo-Luddism, and why now?

The movement to reduce technology use or reject technology that harms is not new. Large Language Models and other AI systems are not the reason, although they could be catalysts. Technologists and scientists have asked if modern technology harms children and adults for years. Back in 2000, Bill Joy, Sun Microsystems co-founder, wrote: "Accustomed to living with almost routine scientific breakthroughs, we have yet to come to terms with the fact that the most compelling 21st-century technologies – robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology – pose a different threat than the technologies that have come before."

More recently, the neo-Luddism movement has consolidated around specific types of technology, including the internet and smartphones. This movement has an organic feel about it. For example, the disposable camera market, which, by all rights, should be dead because of the capabilities of smartphone camera tech, is expected to grow in the coming years. Smartphone use is also being affected by this retro tech movement, with Reddit, r/dumbphones, discussing the virtues of an internet-free phone zone. Companies such as Light have entered the market, selling "feature phones" for those ready to move to a "distraction-free future." The rise of the LLM has accompanying concerns from people across the globe. For example, OpenAI has come under scrutiny for exploiting Kenyan workers.

Neo-Luddism and tech harms

Neo-Luddism has its roots in the harm that technology can do. Like their 19th-century namesakes, this new breed of Luddites does not want technology just for the sake of having technology. Technology must be there for the greater good of humankind, not be a part of a poorer future. Over the last few years, technology has become intrinsically embedded into our everyday movements. We wake up and turn to our smartphones; we buy a coffee on the way to work with our smartphone or Apple Watch; I could go on. We all know how many connected apps and devices we use daily, generating data that describes our lives. These concerns are driving the neo-Luddite movement and include, but are not confined to:

Mental health concerns

Ironically, technology can be used to help in mental health treatment. However, the ying is not balanced with the yang, and like some analgesics that cause headaches, you need to take the painkiller to get rid of the headache. This cycle must be broken. Internet addiction is something many of us suffer from. A link between internet use and depression has been found, reinforcing each other. Smartphone use can also cause mental health disorders. A 2022 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that reducing smartphone use by an hour daily reduced mental health issues.

Job disruption

Technology has always replaced workers. Back in the 1960s, people lost their jobs to electronic equipment. People do retrain, but as technology advances, neo-Luddites are concerned that technology will have no limits. The World Economic Forum Future of Jobs 2023 predicts AI will disrupt the skills of 44% of workers in the next five years. Arthur C. Clark captured this perfectly in his book “Childhood’s End,” which centers around a dystopian future where no one needs to work anymore as tech does it all for us.

Surveillance capitalism

The idea that our data is used to create new business models was captured by Shoshana Zuboff in her book "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism." The collection, collation, and analysis of our data points across the many devices and apps we use, even the search engines and generative AI, means our privacy is shattered. This is all in the name of marketing and sales by private companies. The real scary bit is when these data can be used to modify our behavior.

Harms to children

Technology is behind some of the most extreme harm to children. Everything from access to porn, child abuse, online bullying, and manipulating young minds to encourage behaviors such as anorexia and suicide. A recent Cybernews article reported on a recent call by the US Surgeon General to ensure that Big Tech implements safeguards, such as stricter age limits and robust data controls.

The advance of AI

The advances in AI are concerning many people, technologists included. Timnit Gebru and Emily M. Bender are at the forefront of balancing using AI for good and the harms it could unleash. As Emily M. Bender said recently on LinkedIn:

“So much of the #AIhype I'm seeing these days is 2nd-hand hype, where someone has identified a legitimate need and then fallen for the technochauvanist line that "genAI" (synthetic media extruding machines) will meet that need.

In some ways it's harder to push back on because the people peddling this hype are speaking from that place of need.

But patching holes in the lack of resources for education, medical care, journalism, etc, with "genAI" is like treating morning sickness with thalidomide. Damaging, and especially damaging to another entity the person receiving the treatment cares deeply about.”

Should we be worried we will lose the good tech because of the bad?

The ultimate neo-Luddites want a society that's devoid of modern technology. I am not in that camp, as technology is an essential element of human culture and one that can make life better. It is not a future devoid of technology that many neo-Luddites want, just one where humans have agency over the type of technology released into society: a world where technology enhances, not diminishes, human life.

I foresee this movement expanding, covering technologists and tech users alike. People need to be respected by technology, and human needs are put first. As I write, I know many writers and graphic artists are worried about their ability to earn money using their chosen profession, with the generative AI tools of the world replacing their skills. It doesn't have to be this way, and many tech-for-good companies and organizations are shaping up to fill a gap when the consumers of technology choose to say no to disrespectful tech for tech's sake.


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