The Four Quadrants Of Ludditism
The conclusive diagnosis of the 2009 Air France disaster was that the pilots had come to rely overly on the state of the art Airbus autopilot and sensor technology, meaning they were not sharp enough with their manual flying skills to save the plane when these systems iced over and failed. The wide lesson drawn from this is quite defeatist, saying pilots should learn from the meteorologists use of new technology and first fly the plane manually while only asking the automated system for a second opinion in case they’d missed something. Our smartphone generation is no stranger to the facile accusation that technology makes us stupid. When traffic signals made Dutch drivers too complacent, allowing them to pay less attention, city planners reveled in the marvelous results of their experimental unsignaled ‘chaotic’ intersections that decreased both accidents and congestion. But what about every-day driving is a value-added activity that we need to pay attention to? This isn’t a marvelous victory, it’s just a regression to a simpler time like 1850, or a simpler space like India, where chaotic intersections are certainly not praised for their mysterious invisible emergent order.
It occurs to me that the response to technology isn’t a simple dipole of people who think it’s a good idea vs bad. At minimum, there are 2 alternate versions of both the good and the bad.
- Passive Optimism: Technology removes low-rent D-grade activities bogging us down, letting us focus on value-added tasks that are more in keeping with our ridiculously overpowered PFC. Dishwashers and washing machines got rid of boring household tasks so I could get a job. Computers did away with file-keeping, file-retrieving, and file-shredding so I could actually process them. Calculators did away with all those painful sheets of rough paper that I could now use for differential calculus instead. Every technology is a solution to a task I either cannot do or do not enjoy doing. It isn’t like the Kindle reads itself to itself, Autotune doesn’t listen to its own songs or sing on my behalf during Karaoke. I am outsourcing all that is boring, monotonous, oppressive about my labor, and keeping only that sliver of labor I am actively proud of.
- Active Optimism: Technology will let us level-up, but not by accident, we will have to actively design that paradigm where we are operating on a level above the technology, by discovering, or frequently inventing, that new level. There are many foreseeable disadvantages that this technology might subtly inflict on us over a long enough term or diffuse enough method that it might go unnoticed. Before we implement it, we have the opportunity to transcend it. Plato was a Luddite. He was fatalistic about how the technology of the written word might damage humanity. People will lose the art of listening, remembering the spoken word, and repeating the remembered word with high fidelity. He also realized it was unstoppable. To combat what would be lost when face to face discourse and dialogue were replaced rapidly by the neutral, impersonal written word, he actively sought to develop, strengthen and perfect the language of logic. Math did not lose anything when transferred from the spoken word to the written, it was one layer of abstraction higher. Through Plato and Aristotle reacting to the disruptive technology of writing, we received the system of logic that allowed us to transcend the era of auditory epistemology.
- Passive Pessimism: What if we cannot transcend the technology we create. What if it’s wrong to assume that we are only biologically capable of creating technology that we could biologically transcend, that it is a subset of our own abilities, but exaggerated in certain ways that would be unsustainable for a biological entity to display in a complicated trade-offs of traits, like the physical force and stamina of a steam engine, the repetitive fidelity of a computer, and the vocal cord of Pavarotti. What if technology is created on abstract concepts that transcend our biological form in a way that separates its current performance and future potential from the constraints that our biology might place on us. If the technological concept has transcended our biology, say a hypothetical General A.I that will improve itself, then there is no space left for us to transcend that technology ourselves. But then are we capable of conceptualizing a technology that transcends our biology? Regardless of whether this paradox is resolved or not, my passive pessimism means I don’t believe it possible to do in the wake of General A.I what Plato did in the wake of writing.
- Active Pessimism: This is the classic Luddite. The technology must not exist. The cat can certainly be put back in the bag. Coffee and Milk can certainly be unmixed. All it takes is a sufficient number of pickaxes, torches and retweets. Burn the witch.
It takes a brave person to believe we’ve reached the logical end of our biological capability, as the passive pessimist believes. But it’s still preferable to active pessimism, and the general impression I have about a polarized line on any technology issue is one with the active pessimists on one side and the passive optimists on the other. What we could really use is a healthy influx of the active optimists and the passive pessimists. How many driver-hours in the Netherlands need to be saved before it’s worth having an intersection that’s slightly more congested and has the odd accident? Is it inevitable that our calculation skills atrophy with calculators? Surely not, but even if it is, how many lives need to be saved unheralded by autopilot before the disaster caused by a pilot’s atrophied skill makes the whole thing still worthwhile.
The trajectory of technology has perhaps so far been at the primitive half of the chart, where the practical battle was only between the active pessimists and the passive optimists, where the risks were low and the rewards high, where the trade-off of autopilots vs pilots was overwhelmingly in favor of technology. The active pessimist might say, however, that the inflection point is either recently past or coming soon, after which the risk-reward equations are less clear, and where the shortage of successful active optimists might be either a disaster or an inevitability or both. Could Plato have developed an epistemic language that made a post-calculator mathematician even better at calculation than before, rather than worse through atrophy? We’re likely still at a stage of technological evolution where the key constraint of the Active Optimists is willingness rather than ability. But of course I would say that, as an active optimist.