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Wednesday, 11 February 2015 18:52

The case for being a Luddite Featured

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The case for being a Luddite Ludditelink.org.uk

We live in strange times where meanings of words have been altered from their original to suit special interest group agendas.  Gay now means homosexual not happy; Conspiracy Theorist means nut case not someone who questions official spin; and Luddite means technology ignoramus not workers’ rights advocate.

In his recent iTWire article “It could only happen in America – the Luddite Awards”, Ray Shaw details the top ten nominees for the ITIF 2014 Luddite Awards. Some of the nominees, and the reasons for their nomination, defy logic. However, it all makes sense when you understand who and what ITIF is.

ITIF (Information Technology and Innovation Foundation) is a powerful non-profit Washington D.C. based think tank funded by a combination of big technology businesses (Cisco, IBM, Google, eBay) plus a variety of foundations and US Government agencies.

ITIF claims to be non-partisan, having members of the US Congress from both major parties as board members. However, like most think tanks of this sort, its leanings are decidedly ultra-conservative. As a case in point, the organisation supported the contentious SOPA and PIPA bills in 2011, which have yet to pass legislation because of widespread public opposition. ITIF has also come out strongly against mandated net neutrality.

In light of this, it is hardly surprising that a nominee for the ITIF 2014 Luddite award is the US State of Vermont for requiring the mandatory labelling of GMO food! Really? Yes, that’s right people, demanding to know where your food comes from, what’s in it or whether it has been genetically modified makes you a Luddite. Another Luddite on the ITIF list is Internet activist group EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) for fighting for stricter controls over the privacy of patients’ digitised health records.  Yet another Luddite are all those organisations fighting to maintain net neutrality – especially Free Press (an advocacy group founded by Robert McChesney, a socialist committed to, in his own words, overthrowing the capitalist system itself, according to ITIF).

I could go on about further nonsensical slurs that ITIF levels against various organisations and individuals that dare to protest against the advancement of technology at all costs, but I’ll just mention one more.

According to ITIF, if you voice concerns that robots are killing jobs, then you are a Luddite. And here I must agree. Yes, by the classical meaning of the term – if you are opposed to being made redundant by unfettered mechanisation – you are a Luddite. However, you would be absolutely right to believe that robots are killing jobs. Equally, you would be right to be highly skeptical of the claim by ITIF that there’s nothing to be concerned about as new jobs to replace those destroyed by robots will be created, because this is simply not born out by the facts.

If we were to take a trip back in time about 20 years or so, your ticket to a good income, was to become a qualified IT professional. Then a few bright sparks in some publicly funded think tank decided that globalisation of resources and outsourcing IT jobs to low cost markets was a good idea. Then these bright sparks decided that manufacturing operations and jobs should also be shifted to low cost markets and – well, you know the rest. The result is that most Western nations have little to no manufacturing capabilities and are now service-based economies. What does this mean? In short, we don’t make anything anymore. Except for those working at senior levels, most jobs are low paying and our standard of living has dropped considerably.

By now those of you with an entrepreneurial bent or working at a senior level will be jumping up and down screaming at me. It’s all about staying competitive and maximising efficiency, they would say. Well yes, but let’s take that argument to its logical conclusion.

Would you agree that the most efficient way to produce eggs is to keep thousands of chickens confined in cages inside huge factories? Without argument it is. The farming of free-range eggs is far less efficient and much more costly.

Likewise, is it more efficient to have a factory farm of grain fed beef cattle, crowded into small pens standing around in their own manure all day or to have cattle grazing freely in paddocks feeding off the grass? Obviously factory farming is cheaper and far more efficient.

Now let’s get to the case of GMO farming. Is it more efficient for a manufacturer of a highly toxic weed killer to genetically modify a seed by introducing a totally foreign gene so that the plant it produces is immune to the weed killer rather than for farmers to do manual weeding? Absolutely. Is it even better for the manufacturer to patent that seed so that farmers cannot save seeds from the crops they harvest but instead have to pay that manufacturer for new seeds each year at whatever price that manufacturer determines the market will bear? Certainly. A few farmers may lose their family business or even commit suicide by the hundreds in India but so what?

Still on the subject of efficiency and technological progress, would you agree that a massive supermarket is a much more efficient way to sell produce than a bunch of specialty shops like butchers, bakers, green grocers, delicatessens and dairies? No question about it. The supermarket can do the same or better job with a fraction of the staff and overheads. In fact, now that they have introduced automated self-checkout stations, they need even fewer staff.

We could go on with numerous more examples but the point is clear. The efficiencies that result from big capital plus technology benefit just one class of society, big business owners. We could argue that the efficiencies and resulting conveniences of a few big corporations running everything also benefits consumers but that’s a moot point if the consumers no longer have jobs.

Meanwhile, the technology at all costs proponents attempt to reassure us by chanting the mantra: “Don’t worry, technology will create new jobs.” And in the age of automation, robotics and service based economies what jobs are we thinking of?

We have now reached a point where almost all of our daily tasks can be automated. Soon we won’t need waiters, baristas or bartenders because all those jobs can be automated. With Google car technology, we won’t need drivers of any vehicles, whether for personal transport, public transport, garbage collection or freight deliveries.

So what, you say? We will still need technicians to service the robots and automated systems. Well, actually in our brave new automated world we probably won’t. Robots can be programmed to be self-maintaining and to maintain other automated systems. We will still need the innovators and inventors that dream up new ways of making us all redundant of course and that takes care of what infinitesimally small percentage of the population? And let’s not forget the artists, musicians, entertainers, writers, philosophers, and spiritual advisers – most won’t get paid much but at least they’re not likely to be made redundant in the foreseeable future.

So what are we to conclude from all of this? Technology is neither good nor bad but the way we use it is the critical factor. Using technology to make life better for all is good. Using technology to make a few people fabulously wealthy at the expense of all others is bad. The way I see it, at least since the turn of this century we have been accelerating down the latter path to the detriment of all. If thinking this way makes me a Luddite then so be it.

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Stan Beer

 

Stan Beer co-founded iTWire in 2005. With 30 plus years of experience working in IT and Australian technology media, Beer has published articles in most of the IT publications that have mattered, including the AFR, The Australian, SMH, The Age, as well as a multitude of trade publications.

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