February 7, 2016

SCHULMAN | Early Adopters vs. Luddites: Who’s Right in Hindsight?

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There is a word for people who oppose new technology: “Luddite.” Isn’t English amazing? There’s an even better story behind the word. Luddites were originally industrial workers who burned factories and assassinated factory owners to stop — or at least slow — industrialization in Northern England.

Obviously, the odds were stacked against them, but I can’t help but imagine how different things would be if they’d succeeded Northern England’s textile mills arguably laid the groundwork for modern manufacturing. Manufacturing is pretty nice. Things would be way worse — and certainly more expensive — for a lot of people if the Luddites won the day.

For this reason, “Luddite” has a connotation of shortsightedness — being more concerned with personal well being than technological progress. However, I think that connotation is unfair. Industrialization in Northern England was costly — and could have been much less painful for labor. Factory working conditions were sub-human before machines started replacing workers. Imagine if people listened to the Luddites — not about destroying expensive property and assassinating — but about instituting reforms earlier.

All this to say, although industrial machinery indisputably changed history, the benefits and costs aren’t clear cut — even with 200 years of hindsight. I bring this up because once again, machines are automating humans jobs. Advances in robotics and computing are replacing low-skilled labor. Technology makes it possible to send jobs overseas to places where the cost of living is cheaper.  If the past is any indication of the future, evaluating the consequences of this technology will be incredibly difficult.

Of course, that doesn’t stop us from having an opinion. We are incentivized to have an opinion. If I had gone my whole life working a job, only to have it automated or sent overseas, I would hate technology. Imagine losing your job, then being told you lost your job because a machine could do it better than you. How could a machine be more important than my own well being? I wouldn’t accept that.

As a student studying computer science, I know I have personal reasons to be optimistic about technology. If computing is as important as I think, I’m set. On the other hand, I’m out of a job if it turns out this was just a fad. Think about the money people have made from technology. For a long time the richest man in the world owned a software empire. Initial public offerings of software companies can total billions of dollars — a phenomenon that used to be rare. I can imagine how people benefiting from technology feel about it.

For this reason, we need to be careful. Evaluating the costs and benefits of new technologies is difficult. Think of all the technologies we didn’t expect to catch on. Forty years ago, most people who owned a personal computer saw computing as a hobby. Look how things have changed.

On the other hand, think of all the technology with unexpected consequences; leaded gasoline was revolutionary until we discovered burning it was poisoning the air supply. The internal combustion engine revolutionized transportation until we realized the greenhouse gasses it generates are suffocating the planet. And, don’t get me started on technologies that have been applied to military purposes; that’s another can of worms.

Of course, that’s not to say I don’t think technology can be incredibly impactful — that would be the opposite of how I feel. We just need to be careful about how we judge the impact of technology.  Even when technology’s overall impact is unclear, we often focus too much on the way it affects us.

Technology is polarizing. But strong opinions aren’t helpful in answering the question about what it means for the world at large. Think about the technological advances that seemed amazing but turned out sour, or all the obscure technologies that changed the world. If there’s a pattern regarding technology, we haven’t found it. That’s my schtick and I’m sticking to it. Stay tuned alternating Mondays for more!

Eric Schulman is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at eschulman@cornellsun.com. Schulman’s Schtick appears alternate Mondays this semester.

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