Luddites

I am generally a fan of David Brooks. That doesn’t mean that I always agree with him, but I think he has a pretty good handle on what needs to be said at the right time. But his column today in the New York Times bothers me a lot. In a nutshell, he paints the possibility of technological breakthroughs as the bright light against all of today’s dark shadows.

I think he is wrong, but worse, very wrong. I am not a Luddite, given my doctorate in Chemical Engineering from MIT, standing athwart the road to the artificially intelligent, autonomous, driverless, electrically powered from cheap, clean nuclear-fusion, hotrod he predicts is coming. My great concern is that the promised changes from all this new technology will bring move human beings even further away from the very essence of our humanity.

The big win, he writes, will ben a surge in global productivity, another way of arguing for a similar surge in economic output. He does recognize that this would cause similarly large dislocations in jobs and consequent intensification of economic inequality. Not to worry, he writes, “Universal basic income would become a red-hot topic.” Given the immense inequality in the United States that technological displacement has caused today without serious consideration of such remedies, he offers no argument why it would change in the future.

Most of all, this paragraph is my point of departure.

Government investment has spurred a lot of this progress. Government would have to come up with aggressive ways to mitigate the shocks. But it is better to face the challenges of dynamism than the challenges of stasis. Life would be longer and healthier, energy would be cleaner and cheaper, there would be a greater sense of progress and wonder.

For a long-avowed conservative, this paragraph is stunning. It strikes at the roots of conservatism. But that is not my real concern. He pits dynamism against stasis, a completely wrong juxtaposition. Let me start first with dynamism. I have to take a guess at what he means since he has left few clues. Economic growth is certainly one aspect. Untold and unforeseen new ways of going about our business would seem to be another with the promise of “a greater sense of progress and wonder.” I hear echoes of Francis Bacon, a powerful proponent of the promise of the Enlightenment who wrote, “I am come in very truth leading to you Nature with all her children to bid her to your service and make her your slave.”

Bacon could not have foreseen how successful we have been in fulfilling his claim. We have exploited Nature far beyond the stage where it can support the whole Earth with anything like the wonder that Brooks pictures. We are already overusing our only source of life far beyond its ability to sustain our Planet.

As for stasis, it means death in living systems; living systems are always changing. Stasis is surely to be avoided, but I do not think that is what Brooks was alluding to. He sees stasis as the absence of some sort of growth, but we do not need to, indeed must not, grow in material terms beyond where we are right now. Cutting back would be better for the long run, inspire of the kind of innovations Brooks describes.

What we do need is change, but change that comes not with new technology, but change that comes in spite of technology in any form. We need to change our institutions that have increasingly commoditized our humanity since the days of Bacon. Alienation in America has been seeded by technology and nurtured by it. But first, we need to change the way we think and act in the world. Technology and the science that drives the innovation Brooks lauds can do spectacular things, but diminishes our humanity in the process. Technology cannot nourish or restore the humanizing power of dignity nor can it produce the care that differentiates us from other species. Every new technological wonder places new barriers between us and the world in which we dwell and call home.

Many observers have seen and still see the ominous threat that untrammeled technology poses to the world. In the process of bringing it forth, we have had to adopt a narrow way of apprehending and interpreting the world. Technology frames it for us and in that process separates us from the unique beings we are and from the world from which we draw the our meaningful existence. Without that meaning, we are no different from all the objects in the world, simply resources awaiting exploitation.

What we need more than ever is to remove the barriers that prevent us from connecting to the world and caring for it. That means we have to see technology for what it is. Not what individual pieces of technology are, but technology, itself. We need to be careful to adopt wondrous sounding innovations because the unforeseen harms they may produce may outweigh whatever benefits we had intended. But most of all, we need to stop seeing the world only through the lens of instrumentality and get reconnected to it and to one another. A hug is worth a thousand Zoom sessions.

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