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Revenge of the Luddites

Frame Breaking in 1812

Originally posted on Ideas Lab.

With the iPhone 5 in stores and a new iPad Mini on the way, we seem to be in an era when innovation blossoms on a daily basis. Yet despite these much-ballyhooed examples, America could be achieving far more innovation if not for a growing anti-innovation “neo-Luddite” movement. Named after Englishman Ned Ludd, whose followers destroyed textile machines at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, today’s neo-Luddites view innovation not as a force for progress to be encouraged, but as something to be stopped, regardless of the benefits innovation brings.

A generation ago, neo-Luddites were firmly ensconced in Europe, providing Americans with amusement and occasional frustration. Only in Europe could a government (the Swiss) restrict research into bioengineered plants because plants have “feelings” which deserve respect. Where else but in France would protesters uproot genetically modified grapevines at the National Institute for Agronomic Research while others “boss-napped” managers who had the temerity to announce layoffs when sales plunged.

If Europe embraces the “precautionary principle,” when it comes to innovation, America historically has embraced the “anticipatory principle.” Indeed, it’s hard to image Walter Ehret’s stirring 1950’s musical pageant “Our Country ‘Tis of Thee,” being written in Europe when you consider that it’s filled with optimistic proclamations such as “Progress! That was the word that made the century turn.”

Unfortunately, in the last two decades America has not just imported BMWs and French wine from Europe, but also its Ludditism. The World Values Survey asked people in more than sixty nations whether they saw technology as good or bad. In Asia, the net “good” score was strikingly high: 62 percent in Japan, 70 percent in Taiwan, 84 percent in Vietnam, and a whopping 87 percent in China. Surprised? Few Luddites there. But the United States scored just 44 percent; exactly the same score as in Western Europe.

When more Americans see technology as bad than good, Luddite activists enjoy fertile ground. Twenty years ago if someone wrote that the federal government was hatching a secret plan to forcibly implant radio frequency identification chips under the skin of all Americans, he or she would have been dismissed as a crackpot. Today, one person making this claim—Katherine Albrecht in her book Spychips—is widely quoted by the mainstream media, testifies at government hearings, and contributes to Scientific American, a journal that has (ironically) become a leading voice for neo-Luddites. Neo- Ludditism sells copy, which is why “Scientific American” gives it voice and why someone like Nick Carr can more easily sell a misguided book titled “Why Google is Making Us Dumb,” than one titled “Why Google Is Making Us Smart.”

It would be one thing if American Luddites just wrote books and articles. But they constantly press lawmakers and regulators to take action. A favorite neo-Luddite target is the Internet and information technology. In the last few years, scores of organizations (and websites, such as have emerged dedicated to stopping smart electric meters, even though such meters will save money and energy. A number of organizations, led by the privacy fundamentalist group Patient Privacy Rights, fight against efforts to use information technology to improve health care. The poster child for “stop Internet innovation” sentiment is the net neutrality movement, which if it got its way, would stop network innovations such as enabling better network management tools for latency-sensitive applications like Skype. And U.S. Luddites want to import European Internet privacy laws even though they have reduced the effectiveness of European online ads by as much as 65 percent. Even the U.S. Postal Service has gotten in the game, spending its increasingly scarce dollars on TV ads warning Americans that email is not secure and that “paper mail, unlike e-mail, can’t be hacked.”

The most recent neo-Luddite effort was California’s Proposition 37. On the November ballot, the initiative would have required food manufacturers to label foods to “inform” consumers of the presence of any “genetically modified” (GM) ingredients. Never mind that all the data and experience indicate that such foods are, if different at all, actually safer than the alternatives. Thankfully, the proposition was defeated but movements are already underway to get similar laws passed in Oregon and Washington State.

Just like the original Luddites, today’s Luddites see innovation as killing jobs. This has become a pervasive view, even among media outlets, academics, and policymakers and it has resulted in a wide fear of productivity-enhancing technologies. In Forbes, Martin Ford wrote: “The economy of 2020 may well be characterized by substantial, broad-based and ever increasing structural unemployment, as well as by stagnant or plunging consumer spending and confidence.”

In their book Race Against the Machine, MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee claim that workers are “losing the race against the machine, a fact reflected in today’s employment statistics.” But the suggestion that technology leads to job loss is simply not supported by the vast majority of economic studies which show that productivity gains create economy-wide jobs over the moderate- to long-term.

In short, neo-Luddites want a world in which a worker never loses a job; “consumer” rights trump all else, even lower prices; no personal information is ever shared, even if sharing benefits society and enables a vibrant Internet ecosystem; the environment is protected whatever the costs; and cities are designed for residents who live in apartments and travel by transit to patronize small, local merchants. In short, they want a world in which risk is close to zero, losers from innovation are few, and change is glacial and managed. What would our society look like if that’s what we all started to believe?

To be sure, in an economy and society buffeted by the winds of change and risk, such stability has a certain appeal. But in a world where innovation is consciously limited, incomes will increase more slowly and technological progress to improve health and provide new products and services will be impaired. If Americans want the country to regain its position as global innovation leader, replacing neo-Ludditism with good old fashioned American risk taking and faith in the future needs to be at the top of the agenda.

Image used is in the public domain.

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  • I sympathize with several of the points Rob makes here. Especially re the irrational “precautionary principle”.

    But reflexive technocratic fatalism is not much of an improvement over reflexive Luddism. Not all innovation is good or harmless.

    The quest for zero risk is pathological. But so is recklessness. The Ford Pinto did explode on contact. Thalidomide happened. So did Chernobyl and Fukushima. The well-meaning attempt to introduce African bees in South America unleashed an ecological disaster.

    On the other hand, alar was not a cancer threat. Nor are power lines and cell phones. Vaccines do not cause autism; but the failure to vaccinate children does lead to unnecessary sickness and deaths.

    Truly valuable innovations are born out of the yin and yang of both critical and creative thinking. Leaving out either deserves the applause of one hand clapping.