Techno-scepticism is not Neo-Luddism

A continual hazard, when one writes about technology, is that being out of step with prevailing opinion leaves you open to charges of being a Neo-Luddite. The received wisdom is that technology=progress, and that progress is a Good Thing. From this it follows, according to the vulgar logic, that not going along with this generally agreed-upon approval is a Bad Thing. You do not even have to criticize; simply questioning and suggesting that perhaps we need to think things through a bit more carefully is sufficient. I attempted to draw out some of the implications of the Luddite’s views in a previous post (“The Luddites Were Right”), and by saying they were right I intended that this was so according to their socio-economic status and level of political enfranchisement. This shows that Luddites were not simply reactionaries. We should be wary of using it as an epithet of dismissal, and even more wary of those who throw it around as a term of contempt. I wish to come at things from a different perspective now.

I wish to defend writing from a perspective that is not wholly enthusiastic about technology in all its permutations, combinations, and implications. Writing and thinking critically about technology is not Neo-Luddism, but a form of techno-scepticism, and a questioning attitude is crucial in any interrogation of ideas and their implications for society. Techno-sceptics accordingly do not buy into (often literally) the techno-ideology which I define as “harder, better, faster, stronger.” This does not imply unthinking opposition, and so I believe that we need establish something at the outset. First, it is vital that we realise that we have always been a mixture of technology and human being. The ability to wield and manipulate tools – most significantly, language – is what has brought us to our present level of evolutionary development.

The difference with our present situation, I wish to suggest, is that the human being as a nexus of biological homo sapiens and technological tool and techniques is undergoing a shift. This shift is quantitative in nature, given that there are more tools in our environment at our disposal. The point to bear in mind is a lesson we can learn either from Hegel or from network theory, namely that a quantitative difference can become a qualitative difference. I believe we are at a point of transition from one to the other. This is why questions need to be asked, more than ever.

The Luddites reacted against – or less negatively, “engaged with” – the advanced technologies of their day because (though this ‘because’ was implicit rather than articulated…) these technologies and the forms of organization necessary to maintain and sustain them were irrevocably changing society. More significantly, this change was one-way, and there was little dialogue on the matter. Romantic writers, artists, and poets never critically engaged, and rather seemed to call for a return to Arcadia – one which never existed. In the twentieth century, hippies and environmentalists in turn passively and then actively sought to engage with how technology and Big Science was changing our politics, in terms of how (as a specific example) atomic power and nuclear weapons even further changed our society. These new technologies did so by making it necessary – given the danger they represented – to take even more power out of the hands of citizens, for the sake of administering these advanced and potentially lethal mass technologies.

Now, however we are at the end of this narrative that I am suggesting runs all the way back to the industrial revolution. What is that narrative? It is the tale of the long project of political and personal disenfranchisement, as the extent of the rights of us as citizens are squeezed in favour of technology and tools which are supposed to be at our disposal. Society and politics is not simply arranged for this complex that Kevin Kelly calls the Technium, the entire network and nexus of all our technologies and techniques.

Technology is not just a part of us. We are becoming a part of it, and so even attempting to ask the questions I wish to raise is becoming ever more difficult. It is the problem of trying to describe something from the inside out. The fact that we are so implicated in technology is  why we often meet with bemusement or disdain when one asks questions that interrupt the flow of approval of all that technology can do. Note: I emphasize again, this is not a matter of a repudiation of technology, or a call to go “off-grid”, this is the impossibility of even the possibility of stopping for one minute, to think. When even asking questions is met with condescending looks, laughter, or even contempt, then one can be sure that you are in the presence of ideology.

Caught in tunnel vision, possibilities of long-term and far-ranging destructive effects are masked out, and the masking is masked out. Occluded are intricate balances and delicate interrelationships worked out over millions of years of evolution that constitute the very identity of things.

Bruce Wilshire, “Nature or Nuture”, Fashionable Nihilism, p. 102

This techno-ideology is blind. I want to be allowed to try see a little more clearly, to lift the fog of more technology. There is now so much more technology at our disposal and also in our environment that to ‘opt-out’ (the quaint implication that one has a choice anymore is touching) is an impossibility if one lives in the ‘developed world’. We must work in this techno-ecology, and play in it too. Even when we sleep, we and our homes are all watched over by machines of loving grace, as Richard Brautigan’s poem has it. Except, it doesn’t have it. These machines don’t love. They just maintain themselves, with out complicity. This is reality. What I ask is whether our relationship with technology, our implication in this ecology of human and technology, is enough.

Do we have any ethical or political ideals which might take precedence? Or is the survival of this techno-ecology, and its entire economic and political apparatus – its respitory, nervous, and circulatory systems – is this this the sole concern that exists in society? I do not say “down with the techno-ecology” (catchy though that might sound). What I am saying is that what we have is actually a piss-poor excuse for a techno-ecology, if ecology is supposed to involve exchange, symbiosis, and emergent features that are not runaway feedback loops of destruction. It is not an ecology if we are but a parasite on the technium. What we have is a situation where only the most base and idiotic of impulses is our planet’s social and political goal, beeping “continue at all costs”. This is not a human ideal, this is the brainless fundamentalism of the on-switch.

A philosophical engagement, a hermeneutics of technology is called for. We have had enough of other types of philosophical engagement, from the right-on left-leaning righteousness of the Critical Theory school, to the reactionary crypto-fascism of Heidegger‘s hatred of anything that isn’t to be found in his beloved, dull, Bavarian Alps. There are alternative attempts being made in the analytic side of the philosophy of technology, such as in the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford University, headed by Nick Bostrom. Even this, however, takes place (as the website has it) on the terms of ‘stakeholders’, that horrible bit of MBA jargon that tells us in an instant that the discussion here will still be taking place rather more on the terms of the technological side of the techno-human condition.

By contrast, I would suggest that hermeneutics as a philosophical approach is a robust and wide-ranging approach available to us, for it allows the reintroduction of social, ethical, and political elements as questions, rather than arriving with preconceptions in the trunk, all ready to be unpacked. This ability to ask questions would nuance the technium, the techno-ecology, or whatever you want to call it. It might also be in line with Samuel Butler’s epigram at the start of Erewhon (one of the first, if not the first, works of literature to seriously engage with the coming crossing of technology and human): “There is no action save upon a balance of considerations.” Balance is not static, and doesn’t come from deciding what is a Good or a Bad Thing, but from an ongoing process of dialogue and engagement. Hermeneutics can help to facilitate this at at time when we are in serious need of such critical, intelligent engagement with what may be the key to our future.

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8 thoughts on “Techno-scepticism is not Neo-Luddism

  1. Great post Andrew, and I am in total agreement with what you are trying to articulate/do here. There’s a big difference between a hatred of technology and innovation, and the attempt to assert some control over technology (something that after all is OUR tool) for humanistic ends.

    You mention Kevin Kelly: (I did a review of his “What Technology Wants” a while back on Utopia or Dystopia- if you or your readers want to check it out here’s the link: http://utopiaordystopia.com/2011/12/29/what-humanity-wants/ )

    The problem I had with his book was that his Technium is just another name for technological determinism. He offers up the Amish as an example of how we might assert some control over technology, but his advise on how us non-Amish are supposed to do this is something like consumer choice e.g. I can limit the impact of technology on my life by not having a smart phone.

    That is, he can imagine no way in which we could assert democratic sovereignty over our own tools and creations: no answer at all to issues such as genetic engineering, privacy concerns with social technology, economic concerns over algo trading, the effects of automation on employment and war etc. etc. etc….

  2. A.

    Of course, feel free to delete this after you’ve read it. After I posted my comment I noticed something it appears you are doing with your tags that is likely reducing your blog traffic. I used to do the same, which is why I know: If you put more than a handful (4) tags on a post word press’ search engine does not list it. So that, when I searched today at word press for “Bruce Wilshire” the latest post was from 2009 not yours. If you list under common topics i.e. philosophy, science you will be seen by a much larger number of people.

    The issues you discuss on your blog are too important to miss.

  3. In your post there I think you are right to highlight the absence of politics from the discussion of technology in Kevin Kelly. I read his “What Technology Wants” with considerable interest, as his previous “Out of Control” was a tour de force in expressing something of the hope in new technologies. That second, earlier book is interesting in that it is decidedly a product of its time. Published in 1994, it has all the hope that went along with that period, with the fall of the Berlin wall, the collapse of Soviet Communism, and the rise of the tech industry. It is a book that doesn’t question Fukuyama’s article of faith that history ended in the victorious supremacy of western neo-liberalism.

    Sixteen years has elapsed since then, however, and though Kelly’s enthusiasm may have muted somewhat in this new book (he’s no longer at the coal/silicon-face of technology writing since he stepped down as editor of Wired), I find it remarkable, as you do, that he doesn’t interrogate many of his presuppositions. Now, this is to be expected in some respects, as he’s not an ethicist, or political scientist, or philosopher. His role is that of the cheerleader, the supporter of the industry. This does not encourage a critical or sceptical attitude; at best, scepticism will be restricted to a role in the discussion of market viability, and not much beyond that.

    You’re also dead right in saying he is a technological determinist. It’s as though he lifted this trajectory of progress towards our materially perfected future from Teilhard de Chardin (or more likely, via Ray Kurzweil), and left out all the (often admittedly wishy-washy) immaterial or spiritual aspects. Now, I’m not suggesting a return to Teilhard de Chardin, yet I think there is something interesting about the fact that I said ‘wishy-washy’ there, because even talking about non-economic, non-material aspects of technology means that in some respects one excludes oneself from the vocabulary shared by Serious People. Perhaps this is part of the work of interrogating this nexus of issues and problems and ideas, making it such that we can once again find a common set of words and concepts which will allow for open and robust discussion.

    And thank you for the tag advice, I took it!

  4. Pingback: The Silicon Vatican and the root of technology disputes « Wetwiring

  5. I’ve felt like the only one too my friend. I’ve been calling myself anti-singularity but I know there are deeper roots than this. I’ve found some books techno-fix, too much magic by too different authors. Morozov exposes the internet delusion. John Villasenor at Brookings Institute has a keen eye to the ramifications of singularity… Can’t speak highly of most other thinkers

    We can no longer despute technological progress, it’s here for external reasons not human decision reasons ( http://sinceritynow.wordpress.com/2012/08/03/223/ ) . we must learn to authentically integrate our passions and emotions into this social media space… learn to predict what this new world will look like and what it will do to our brains. Our brains are plastique, obeying habit and repitation… and computers certainly reprogram our brain (nicolas carrs book ‘googlization of everything’ or david eaglemans new book coming out ‘livewired;how the digital age is restructuring our brain)

    Slowly we must band together to form a comprehensive anti-singularity position, one that offers hope. Not that we can stop the world from philip k dick or demolition man from happening, but that we can fight for the right to make this space authentic and the enhance right of unplugged zones and facial recognition free zones.

  6. Reblogged this on sinceritynow and commented:
    Great thoughts on techno-optimism, kevin kellys book on the future excitement of technology… and why its hard to form a comprehensive anti-singularity (anti-control aspects of it anyway) movement, without seeming like a luddite.

  7. The problem with positions such as “anti-singularity” and “techno-scepticism” is that you can be pre-sorted into a Lumpenopposition, and it appears as though the criticism you make must take place on your opponents’ ground. I don’t think this is necessarily so, but it is important to articulate the ideas we are for, because that way one can say “this is what we stand for, and what interferes with or sets itself above this, we oppose”.

  8. V. Good – as you observe – not only are techno-sceptics not luddites – Luddites were not ‘luddites’. Unreflexive technophilia is an obstacle to both empirical and philosophical discussions of quality of life.

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