The Hubris of Neo-Luddism

One of the most common tropes one finds recurring throughout anti-Transhumanist writings is our supposedly rampant hubris. Hubris is an ancient Greek concept meaning excess of pride that carries connotations of reckless vanity and heedless self-absorbtion, often to the point of carelessly endangering the welfare of others in the process. It paints us in a selfish and dangerous light, as though we were striving for the technological betterment of ourselves alone and the improvement of the human condition solely as it pertains to ourselves, so as to be enhanced relative to the majority of humanity.

In no way is this correct. I, and the majority of Transhumanists, Techno-Progressives and emerging-tech-enthusiasts work toward promoting beneficial outcomes and deliberating the repercussions and most desirable embodiments of radically-transformative technologies for the betterment of all mankind first and foremost.

The irony of this situation is that the very group who most often hurls the charge of hubris against the Transhumanist community is, according to their own logic,  even more hubristic than those they rail against. Bio-Luddites, and more generally Neo-Luddites, can be clearly seen to be more self-absorbed and recklessly-selfish than the Transhumanists.

The logic of this conclusion is simple: Transhumanists seek merely to better determine the controlling circumstances and determining conditions of our own selves, whereas Neo-Luddites seek to determine such circumstances and conditions (even if using a negative definition, i.e., the absence of something) not only for everyone besides themselves alive at the moment, but even for the unquantable multitudes of minds and lives still in the future.

Transhumanists do not seek to radically transform Humanity against their will; indeed, this is so off the mark as to be antithetical to the true Transhumanist impetus – for we seek to liberate their wills, not leash or lash them. We seek to offer every human alive the possibility of transforming themselves more effectively according to their own subjective projected objectives; of actualizing and realizing themselves; ultimately of determining themselves for themselves. We seek to offer every member of Humanity the choice and offer more optimal options: the self not as final-subject but as project-at-last.

Neo-Luddites, on the other hand, wish to deny the whole of humanity that choice. They actively seek the determent, relinquishment or prohibition of technological self-transformation, and believe in the heat of their certainty that they have either the intelligence or the right to force their own preference upon everyone else, present and future. Such lumbering paternalism patronizes the very essence of Man, whose only right is to write his own and whose only will is to will his own – or at least to vow that he will will his own one fateful yet fate-free day.

We seek solely to choose ourselves, and to give everyone alive and yet-to-live the same opportunity: of choice. Neo-Luddites seek not only to choose for themselves but to force this choice upon everyone else as well.

If any of the original Luddites were alive today, they might very well denounce the contemporary caricature of their own movement and direct their rage against the modern Neo-Luddites that use Ludd’s name in so reckless a fashion. At the heart of it they were trying to free their working-class fellowship. There would not have been any predominant connotations of extending the distinguishing features of the Luddite revolt into the entire future, no hint of the possibility that they would set a precedent which would effectively forestall or encumber the continuing advancement of technology at the cost of the continuing betterment of humanity.

 

Who were they to intimate that continuing technological and methodological growth and progress would continually liberate humanity in fits and bounds of expanding freedom to open up the parameters of their possible actions – would free choice from chance and make the general conditions of being continually better and better? If this sentiment were predominant during the period 1811-1817, perhaps they would have lain their hammers down. They was seeking the liberation of their people after all; if they knew that their own actions might spawn a future movement seeking to dampen and deter the continual technological liberation of Mankind, perhaps they would have remarked that such future Neo-Luddites missed their point completely.

Perhaps they might have realized that the heart of their efforts was not the relinquishment of technology but rather the liberation of their fellow man. They might have remarked that while in this particular case technological relinquishment coincided with the liberation of their fellow man, that this shouldn’t be heralded as a hard rule. They might even have been ashamed of the way in which their name was to be used as a banner in fight against liberty and Man’s autonomy. Perhaps Ludd is spinning (like a loom) in his grave right now.

Does the original Luddites’ enthusiasm for choice and the liberation of his fellow man supersede his revolt against technology? I think it does. The historical continuum of which Transhumanism is but the contemporary leading-tip encompasses not only the technological betterment of self and society but the non-technological as well. Historical Utopian ventures and visions are valid antecedents of the Transhumanist impetus just as Techno-Utopian historical antecedents are. While the emphasis on technology predominant in Transhumanist rhetoric isn’t exactly misplaced (simply because technology is our best means of affecting and changing self and society, whorl and world, and thus our best means of improving it according to subjective projected objectives as well) it isn’t a necessary precondition, and its predominance does not preclude the inclusion of non-technological attempts to improve the human condition as well.

The dichotomy between knowledge and device, between technology and methodology, really doesn’t have a stable ontological ground in the first place. What is technology but embodied methodology, and methodology but internalized technology? Language is just as unnatural as quantum computers. To make technology a necessary prerequisite is to miss the end for the means and the mark for a lark. The point is that we are trying to consciously improve the state of self, society and world; technology has simply superseded methodology as the most optimal means of accomplishing that, and now constitutes our best means of effecting our affectation.

The original Luddite movement was less against advancing technology and more about the particular repercussions that specific advancements in technology (i.e. semi-automated looms) had on their lives and circumstances. To claim that Neo-Luddism has any real continuity-of-impetus with the original Luddite movement that occurred throughout 1811-1817 is antithetical to the deeper motivation underlying the original Luddite movement – namely the liberation of the working class. The Neo-Luddite movement both is seeking to impose their ideological beliefs upon others (i.e. prohibition is necessarily exclusive, whereas availability of the option to use a given technology is non-exclusive and forces a decision on no one) and they are trying to prohibit the best mediator of Man’s ever-increasing self-liberation – namely technological growth.

Support for these claims can be found in the secondary literature. For instance, in Luddites and Luddism Kevin Binfield sees the Luddite movement as an expression of worker-class discontent during the Napoleonic Wars than having rather than as an expression of antipathy toward technology in general or toward advancing technology as general trend (Binfield, 2004).

And in terms of base-premises, it is not as though Luddites are categorically against technology in general; rather they are simply against either a specific technology, a specific embodiment of a general class of technology, or a specific degree of technological sophistication. After all, most every Luddite alive wears clothes, takes antibiotics, and uses telephones. Legendary Ludd himself still wanted the return of his manual looms, a technology, when he struck his first blow. I know many Transhumanists and Technoprogressives who still label themselves as such despite being weary of the increasing trend of automation.

This was the Luddites’ own concern: that automation would displace manual work in their industry and thereby severely limit their possible choices and freedoms, such as having enough discretionary income to purchase necessities. If their government were handing out guaranteed basic income garnered from taxes to corporations based on the degree with which they replace previously-manual labor with automated labor, I’m sure they would have happily lain their hammers down and laughed all the way home. Even the Amish only prohibit specific levels of technological sophistication, rather than all of technology in general.

In other words no one is against technology in general, only particular technological embodiments, particular classes of technology or particular gradations of technological sophistication. If you’d like to contest me on this, try communicating your rebuttal without using the advanced technology of cerebral semiotics (i.e. language).

References.

Binfield, K. (2004). Luddites and Luddism. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

7 Responses

  1. James Dixon says:

    Hubris?

    What a load of wordy crap…

    Listen, I’m technically a Neo-Luddite. My tech “cutoff point” is around circa 2000, and I can write a whole frigging Book about this but I’ll just try and keep this nice and sweet and civil…

    This electronic Obsession is turning people into idiots who can’t think for themselves, can’t function without being constantly “connected” and pride Themselves on showing off the latest and greatest Tech gizmos on the market as a Status Symbol… Oh, yeah, they Judge one another by the latest i-whatever or fancy tech brand name… And it’s reached the point where they’re Slaves to this technology… Kill their battery, cutoff their signal, steal their phone or whatever–and they are LOST! They panic! They can’t Think for themselves. Their LIVES are wrapped up in these plastic boxes which they’re always yapping into or tapping on… VERY selfish and Selfcentered as you know. These are presumably the kids who had to be scolded by their parents when they carried their Nintendo toys everywhere–except they’re “grown up” now and Don’t have parents to scold them.. It is now the Norm in American society to be a self-centered twit…

    That’s only one aspect as to why I don’t have portable tech or even a cell phone. I like to communicate with people In Person. Or at the very least on a good old fashioned wired phone where I can clearly hear the other person talking and do so in the privacy of my own home or somewhere quiet where I won’t intrude on others’ lives.

    Plus how many more people, animals, whatever have to do through Carelessness because of the need for Instant Gratification?
    Car crashes and any number of fatalities are tied to this Need To Be Yapping… It’s not like these jerks are working on a cure for cancer but just to small talk about total BS! Constantly.

    The other aspect is the electro-pollution factor which people like George Carlo made quiet evident: these things receive and project Microwaves which are cumulatively harmful, probably promoting low IQ, ADD, short temper, and all those lovely physical manifestations like brain cancer through the slow shredding of DNA and the eroding of the blood-brain barrier. It wasn’t that bad or serious at first but now we’ve got these cell phone masts EVERYWHERE and heavier and heavier usage… Cell phone companies love it of course and it’s the old story of profit over people… Some of us have electromagnetic hypersensitivity (better look that term up). Bottom line: this stuff is Real and it’s Deadly.

    What’s it about? Greed. Capitalism at its worst.
    Wanna know why the Middle Class is dying in America? They’ve brains up their asses and everything they see on TV they Want one of.
    Every new piece of tech they run out to buy.
    Because they’re Programmed by the media to want it and “need” it. They’re being played for fools big-time and their money is being pissed down the toilet faster than they can earn it.
    Nothing is Ever good enough, fast enough, new enough, or flashy enough. Nothing.

    I grew up wth VCRs. Still got them. Still use them. Then DVDs came out. I was hesitant but eventually got one when the price was right. Now they want us to buy Blu-Ray toys. Not me. I’ve learned from my lesson. I don’t even see any or many Blu-Ray recorders much less Blank Blu-Ray discs out there… I’ve happy with what I’ve got. I’ve got a desktop computer over a decade old. It connects to the internet via Dial-up. Wow. But it gets the job done and suits me just fine.

  2. Good “ad hominem” argument.

    Even though for many of us, like eg Marchesini, “hybris” has a positive connotation, or is even an ethical imperative.

  3. Just to be clear, I don’t endorse friendly AI al a Yudkowsky’s CEV – I have moral problems with it, as well as doubts to its feasibility. A mosquito is a riotously beautiful thing, a marvel of meaty machinery, a true feat of the universe – yet we smack it nonetheless when it lands on our arm. I lean more towards Mark Waser’s thoughts on ethical AI.

    I don’t think friendly AI should be thought of as a staple of the H+ community. I personally think that as close as we can get to a maximally-distributed intelligence explosion – where we determine the rate of self-modification that is safe (i.e. doesn’t cause subjective discontinuity), make that the standard, and prevent anyone from rocketing past anyone else in intelligence until everyone else can come along as well. The existential risk incurred by the creation of any recursively self-modifying AI that can amplify its own intelligence faster than biological humans are able to supersedes the potential benefits of creating such an AI (i.e. “solving all of humanity’s problems”). Its too great a risk to put so much power (i.e. capability to effect change in the world) in the (hands?) of one mind. On another avenue, delegating all our problems to an AI is antithetical to man. God is dead, let’s please not make another one, who’s really omnipotent this time. This is most definitely not all I have to say in this regard, and a more formalized embodiment of the argumentation underlying these claims is forthcoming. I’m only saying this now because I just hate to see CEV and Friendly AI (or the creation of AIs that are every superintelligent relative to us, meaning if we amplified our intelligence at an approximately equal [i.e. comparable] then it wouldn’t ever be superintelligent relative to us) become inextricably grafted to H+.

    You make a fine point about blindness to potential consequences being an important element of the notion of hubris. But notice that all the theoreticians writing and thinking about Existential Risk and Global Catastrophic Risk come from H+ roots or have H+ inclinations or ideals. The most active and salient people working to mitigate the potential dangers and downsides of NBIC, emerging, converging, disruptive and transformative technology are from H+ communities. Technological relinquishment fails at the objective of mitigating the dangers of technology, because if a given country, community, etc. decides not to develop something, someone else somewhere else will, and we will have done nothing by relinquishing such technology other than lessened the extent with which we could have shaped it and affected its ultimate embodiment. If we relinquish technology, someone else will make it and we will have lost our chance to try and shape its ultimate embodiment into a good, desirable and beneficial one.

    So even according to the metric of blindness to unforeseen consequences, Neo-Luddites can be seen in this way to rank higher on that scale than Transhumanists. Both because (1) the biggest and most pertinent contributors to the dialogue of technological consequences in general and mitigating potentially negative technological consequences in particular (i.e. X-Risk & Global Catastrophic Risk) are Transhumanists, and (2) because technological relinquishment is ipso facto or by its very defining attributes more blind to the consequences of technology, because relinquishment can never be global relinquishment.

    Thanks for your comments Anna and Mark, both of you.

  4. Anna Gulaev says:

    The charge of hubris has more to do with

    “often to the point of carelessly endangering the welfare of others”

    than with

    “as though we were striving for the technological betterment of ourselves alone and the improvement of the human condition solely as it pertains to ourselves, so as to be enhanced relative to the majority of humanity”

    You’ve focused on selfishness, but selfishness is only one facet of a personality that can fail to anticipate the consequence of change. You can certainly fail because you are more focused on personal benefit than on harm to others, but there is also naiveté. You may simply not be as smart, as capable, or have as much knowledge as you think you do.

    One example is the belief that a super-human AI will be concerned for human welfare, or can be programmed to have concern for human welfare. Given that some of the same people who believe this also celebrate hacker culture, you might understand the concerns of the “neo-luddites”, if not for the blinding hubris. If you think hacking is breaking the rules for ultimate good, how can you have faith that an AI won’t break the rules you give it? How can you have faith that everyone who builds one will follow the “concern for humans” rule? How can you even know what an intelligence greater than yours will want, or what it will conclude is “ultimate good”?

    The hubris of pursuing super-human AI is in thinking it will be on your side. The hubris is in overestimating your own intelligence in thinking a super intelligence will want what you want, or will be incapable of doing what you forbid.

    • Mark Wilson says:

      The point of the Transhumanist way of thinking is to better ourselves and in turn the world through the practical use of advancing technologies.

      You take as an example that a theoretical ‘super AI’ could destroy us but transhumanists would already have advanced themselves to be almost equal to any AI if the technology for a synthetic brain like system existed.

      Humanity shouldn’t be left with a world of poverty and death because those in power watched The Terminator one to many times.

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