Luddites and Technology: Escaping the Double-Edged Sword


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By Umar Ahmad


The 21st century has earned golden-age status with the unbridled growth in the number of social media networks, smart devices, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and other advanced consumer technological innovations.

Education and marketing, in both of which communication is crucial, have never been easier and more interesting. It is a given that technological evolution has made life easier. Despite that, some interlocutors opine that the advantages smart devices provide are actually supplanted by the disadvantages.

It is quite interesting that a group of people think the worst of what is widely regarded as progress – but is not the ‘widely approved’ what some observers strongly view as the bane of liberalism?

With the exemption of violence, this seemingly pre- ‘enlightenment’ view is reminiscent of the Luddites movement during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. This movement, who took its name from its leading figure Ned Ludd, was averse to machination and considered it a dehumanization of the labor market.

Fast-forward to the latest era of tech evolution, modern Luddites decry the harm and distraction technology allegedly causes. Can this centuries-old movement actually be considered extinct? An anti-tech political activist begs to differ.

Kirkpatrick Sale – Ned Ludd Incarnate?

The online tech news site The WIRED recently featured an article about Kevin Kelly’s encounter with Kirkpatrick Sale in 1995. Sale was, and still is a gumptious supporter of the Luddite movement and even wrote a book about them called Rebels Against the Future. Kelly, who even then was a member of The Wired magazine team, read the book and, being a tech enthusiast, was naturally aghast by the overall theme – that technology bodes ill for civilization entirely. So he arranged an interview, which was practically journalistic ambush.

A heated debate ensued that culminated in the two agreeing to each bet $1000 against the future. Kelly challenged Sale to give a likely date for the crumbling of civilization according to his theory. Sale chose 2021 – you read that right. Fast-forward through the decade to 2021, we are grappling with a pandemic that we should have been prepared for, World Order is on the brink of collapse – some would argue for good –, global inequality is at its highest and constantly widening, and Trump even became President of the US – how much more bizarre can it get? By deploying dialectical theories, Karl Marx concluded that Capitalism is self-destructive and will eventually lead to its doom by the evolution of the tools of production.
Kirkpatrick Sale believed these tools of production simply threaten the human species. One would be tempted to accede to Sale’s predictions considering the fact that Capitalism is evidently turning out to be self-destructive with its inability to withstand shocks.

Although, the Luddites were hanged and presumed extinct, Sale’s reformulation of the ‘ideology’ to fit the modern era is proving to be a resurrection. His belief that innovations could lead to Apocalypse is fomented by mixed feelings about the contributions of technology that are effectively chaotic.

The globe is witnessing one of the most disparaging moments in the history of industrial Capitalism. This poses the obvious question: does these mixed feelings substantiate the point Luddites sought to make three centuries ago?

Technological Innovation – Blessing or Curse?

Accessing latest gadgets and faster internet connections in developed societies is relatively easy, which has supposedly made life merrier. Despite this, parents and guardians lament that the present and upcoming generations (Millennials and Gen Z) suffer from communication hazard and lack focus relative to education and life in general.

These two groups are both soaked in the technological pool and are willingly unable to get out, hence, leading many to ruin their lives playing video games and living virtual ‘lies’ (lives).

The story is not so different in developing societies. If any, it is in the faster internet connections and ‘relative’ ease of life – is it, though? This is because globalization has made it easier to acquire products.

In his book Deep Work – an invaluable read, mind you – Cal Newport drew attention to the toll distractions take on a person’s productivity, no matter how slight. To put it into perspective, Deep Work is the ability to work long hours without breaking off the train of thought, in return boosting productivity. The book does an incredible job by providing techniques and helpful tips on how to have a ‘deep life’ (…is a healthy life) – this review of the book is an excellent summary and will probably persuade you to read it.

The most important part of any study is its diagnosis, where if there is failure its solutions are automatically declared flawed or spurious. The accuracy of the diagnosis gives a higher possibility of providing plausible solutions.

Cal’s accurate detection of the forces and causes of distraction makes his judgment quite reliable, one of them being the technologies we celebrate as progress that are actually threats to development. This is true considering the fact that humans are not idealistically static and commitment is essential to productivity. By nature, every human is committed to one or more things.
This has not prevented what even a quick observation shows, proving what deep research indicates; that most people are committed to trivial trends despite being in close proximity to life changing activities. The most asked questions among most peers are (or in the same league with): who has the most followers on Instagram and Twitter? What is the latest viral Tiktok or Likee video? And oh, any new face-altering filter on snapchat? What is the latest album on Spotify? Who is the latest pop star and how many followers does he/she have?

In a nutshell and on a heavy note, when abused, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram are the greatest distractors of all time.

Social media buffs could argue that they’ve met amazing new friends and made connections to important people via these services. Whilst this could arguably amount to something, the aggregate of productivity is Indubitably surmounted by the aggregate of time-wastage. It is actually the obvious conflation of these that has led multiple (unaware) people to almost unanimously conclude that technology is more harmful than it is useful to the world – Kirkpatrick Sale’s train has gotten traction.

Scaling the Views – Advantage and Disadvantage?

The correctness of a judgment, in this regard, is measured in direct proportion to the subject under study. But does technology have the power to force people into using it irresponsibly? If yes, why not responsibly?

Furthermore, is it actually true that its disadvantages outweigh its advantages? In fact, must everything be measured on the dichotomy of an advantage and a disadvantage?

Humans judge things and actions according to the harms and benefits they come with. What determines the ‘harmful’ and ‘beneficial’ are beliefs or lack thereof. In any event, to fit in the point here, we must be clear about the fact that devices and services are merely tools and, contrary to popular assumption, have always been part of human nature to invent new instruments according to the advancement of discovery.

The mechanization and digitization of these instruments has set them as modern technologies. But as a rule, every era has its ‘modern tech’.

I said ‘merely tools’ to bring forth close to mind other tools that are generally considered non-complex – like knives, cutlass, scythes etc, which are ancient tech.

Keeping this in mind, we acknowledge that a knife is a sharp object that, if properly maintained, has the ability to cut and slice. Having that feature/characteristic does not mean it has a universal force that compels wielders into cutting or slicing things and people.

Hence, you cut onions by your own very choice. You could have chosen a cutlass or scalpel in the first place, but decided not.

In the same vein, a knife attacker is not coerced into attacking pedestrians by the sharpness or glitter of the knife edge. It is simply a choice whose causal elements should be separately examined. Clearly, we make our own decisions when it comes to object utilization. We either use fire to cook or burn places and things. Go figure.

Likewise, technology can be used for good or bad, depends on a person’s mindset. This actually debunks the ‘advantage-disadvantage’ narrative.

There is unnecessary focus on the advantages and disadvantages of things that usually misleads onlookers. The dilemma here is not about the purported dichotomy, but the purpose of utilization and possible benefits or harm extracted from it – the nature of which is determined by adopted perspectives of life.

Explicating the Benefit and Harm Conundrum.

Here lies the conundrum of the 21st century analyst; how does one get people to solely benefit from technology instead of fooling around with it? The answer is quite simple, actually, but stopping at listing or just stating it effectively does no good, as witnessed on numerous occasions and places – otherwise, I would not have to write this.

For instance, almost everyone knows about online courses (free and paid) and possesses the device(s) to access them without hassle. Yet, people tend to lean towards unproductive past-time activities such as Fortnite and producing funky videos on Likee and Tiktok. It is, therefore, essential to briefly examine the reason why productivity is easily shunned, though it is a finger-tap away. To accomplish that, we first assess the factors that influence it.

A cursory glance at the matter reveals that more than people’s choice, the environment has everything to do with it. Next, we find out whether the socio-political milieu, with the intimate interaction of institutional variables pave the way or not for technological misuse.

Who or What is to Blame, then?

Ever wonder what the daily routines of popular CEOs look like? Is it anything like their majestic services users’ routine? Mark Zuckerberg definitely did not spend half the day surfing through mySpace or Friendster when he dropped out of college to take up Facebook – and he still does not do so on ‘modern’ social media. Nor does Zhang Yiming, the creator of Tiktok pose like a Barbie Doll in videos.

Did you know that even sporadic email check is considered a distraction when it is not objectively arranged? The downside of the so called modern services we seemingly enjoy is their high tendency to distract us from our commitments, more often than we think. But as established in the aforementioned paragraphs, these services are only tools we can use positively or negatively. Hence, it is not entirely fair to blame the devices and services since they do not ‘operate’ themselves. It then appears that the blame, if any, should undeniably be redirected to the users. Wait, not the creators?

The Effect of ‘Cultural Prevalence’ and Consumerism.

Human behavior is usually influenced by the forces of what I call ‘Cultural Prevalence’. This means the widespread actions adopted by most members of a given society that are usually underpinned by a peculiar viewpoint of life.

Although, actions are strictly undertaken by choice, trend elements can easily furnish or stain them. In a liberal capitalist society, consumption is the key component, which has led to the economization of almost everything.

Materialism dominates decision making, except among the few that still hold on to conservative cultures – with good reason. Hence, there is this duality of producers and consumers in every aspect of life.

Naturally, the latter make up the majority of the people in the society since the former requires physical or mental aptitude and sheer luck.

The attempt at monetizing activities that include non-material values has been the most daunting venture of Capitalism. The market ostensibly provides sources of income, but intentionally erodes the moral and religious dimensions that guarantee a balanced society.

Therefore, whatever ensures profit is regarded as positive regardless of the extensive damage it incurs.

With the adequate supply of ‘entertainment’ and ever rising demand for escape from a sad-filled capitalist world, producers and service providers are always in line to cash in. Even more interesting and equally exasperating is that cunning users of the products and services utilize them in a way that makes them lots of money. For instance, footballers make millions for each posts they make on social media platforms – just imagine how much Cristiano Ronaldo makes when he posts an image to his 250 million Instagram followers.

Due to such ‘achievements’, there is intensive competition in the pursuit of fame and glory, inevitably misdirecting youthful energy. In such an atmosphere, one is either a predator or prey in the market. The former enjoys the bounties of the jungle (the market) while the latter perishes as an exploit – survival of the fittest, essentially.

We have established that technology is but a tool and, hence, like a knife does not actually coerce human actions. We have also established that, though humans have free choice, the forces of society have the tendency to influence their actions. Since that is the case, then the effect we ascribe to technology is actually misplaced and must be regarded as a systematic problem.

The market-driven global system of liberal capitalism capitulates morality and enforces the aggressive pursuance of profit and propagates fierce consumption.

With this debilitating concept prevalent in the society, it is more plausible to blame the system – liberal capitalism, to be precise – that creates the enabling atmosphere for technology, mainly the social media to be widely served as a major source of distraction than a tool of progression. Just like racism is blamed for a cop shooting a black man in the US.

Having perceived that technological usage is swayed by the system of society, what are the positive steps that can be deployed to curb misuse and restore, at least a semblance of sanity?

The obvious solution is altering the perspective of life that dictates our social views. While that seems farfetched, it is entirely possible – liberalism came into being after a long struggle against feudalism. Doing this will ensure a society that promotes less materialistic agendas and institutes modesty. This will then have the ripple effect of changing the focus of the modalities of consumption to looking beyond the materialistic world.

As for living through the current paradigm, individuals can only be urged to realize that their gadgets can be used for more than snapping frisky pictures and celebrity cult-following on Instagram and Twitter. Hoping to effect change by setting the stage within the blamed ‘ambience’ falsely narrows down the problem, which is practically futile.

Umar Ahmad is a writer that enjoys making posts on his blogsite Megapinions and a regular contributor on theGeopolity, an international independent political think-tank. He is also a software developer at Syrol Technologies and an avid reader that somewhat maniacally salves in collecting books – laugh away.


2 thoughts on “Luddites and Technology: Escaping the Double-Edged Sword

  1. This is a timely essay for all. The way you weaved your words into points that can stand the test of time amazes me. I wish the youth of the 21st century especially that of the African continent will read this. God bless your quill dear Umar Ahmad.

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