Apparently Luddism is making a comeback. Ted Chiang just wrote about it in The New Yorker (Will A.I. Become the New McKinsey), Angela Watercutter on the writer’s guild strike at Wired, and Cory Doctorow on sci-fi as a Luddite literature (and back in February). Of course, it’s been here and there discussed for years (What the Luddites were right about). Steven Jones wrote the book on the topic (Against Technology). I first heard about it from Dan McQuillan at a conference on data power and justice many years back. He’s since written a very relevant book too: Resisting AI.
In everyday conversation, we use Luddite as a pejorative, declaring the failure of a person to utilize technology in the ways we do, usually to our inconvenience. We use it to suggest an unreasonable fear of technology. Much like “communist” and “socialist”, it’s become a proxy for “you don’t subject yourself to capitalism as wholly as I do, which is making my life harder!”
I don’t need to rehash the wonderful discussions above, but I want to suggest to anyone reading that you do a little digging. Luddism might just be your ticket to a future that sucks less. The quick explainer: Luddism was a worker’s movement protesting the ways technology was allowed to benefit only the wealthy and not workers. In other words, the Luddites weren’t against technology per se; they were opposed to using it to further the wealth of the already wealthy.
We find ourselves in such a circumstance. Most of the technology we use brings some undeniable benefits to us. But it also brings tremendous harm – to our lives, community, the safety and lives of others, and the environment. Big tech companies especially peddle the propaganda of making our lives better – but it is clear that most of them our making it unequivocally worse, and this is only the beginning: the environmental destruction we are now causing is dangerous and irreparable. But the immediate effects are harmful too – as my recent post on algorithmic helping demonstrates.
The thing is: technology can, does, could be doing good for us; individual good and social good. It is used to positive effect. But, unregulated, in the hands of the most well-resourced, it simply will not be. Disabuse yourself of the notion that Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, and so on care about you. They do not. They will not. In fact, they never have (see links below, or check out this history of IBM and the Holocaust). Sure, they make things more convenient for some of us in the short term, they hook us with the sleek, shiny, and novel, but by now I think it is fairly popular knowledge that they are also fucking us over, with Silicon Valley and venture capital the worst of all (put Abolish Silicon Valley and Chokepoint Capitalism on your to-read list).
So what can you do about it? Become a Luddite.
- Seek out small technology with explicit licensing and funders that are not, or are less, compromised. It will be less polished, sleek, and novel looking than the big tech. You will have to do a little more problem solving. Do what we used to do and find a friend, family member, community group, etc. that know a little more about it than you and ask them for help. Support small tech with your money and time: this is the tech version of “buying local”.
- Look for alternate licensing (open licensing alone is still often complicit in big tech destruction) like the Peer Production License or the Anti-Capitalist Software License. Unfortunately, we need to get wiser about legal stuff like licensing, because everything else is taking advantage of us. Even open source activists are bought into licensing that, in real effect, primarily benefits big tech interests.
- Refuse big tech B.S. one bit at a time. You can’t, even shouldn’t, change everything at once. Treat it like getting healthy. Learn a bit here and a bit there, and try it out. Replace your search engine. Your browser. Your word processor. Your email. Turn on privacy settings. This is, bit by bit, how you start to move forward. Check out r/DeGoogle for tips. Buy your books from the publisher instead of Amazon, or Libro.fm instead of the other audiobook site. Yes, my next computer will be from someone like Framework and my next phone from someone like Fairphone, but I’m not rushing to replace my otherwise perfectly good, but ultimately disposable hardware. These options may indeed be more expensive or slightly less convenient in the immediate term – but they are less complicit in all the terrible stuff the big tech companies are up to.
- Join in collective and collaborative work around tech with others nearby.
- Demand technology, and software/hardware supply lines, that care about people and the environment. Your use of the Bezos site and ChatGPT are complicit, not harmless. Quit it – and find new options.
For those in the helping professions, this matters professionally as well as personally. You can be a Luddite teacher or social worker by:
- Advocating for data systems that put client / student relationships first, rather than focusing on data collection and client tracking (I wrote a paper about this).
- Advocate against using technology that sells itself on convenience or improved financial stability at the expense of client / student privacy.
- Advocate for technology that elevates student / client ideas, perspectives, and leadership (I wrote about this here and here).
- Advocate against systems that utilize data, metrics, and technology as an organizing platform for change without meaningful participation from students / clients (I wrote about this one too).
- Resist, refuse, repurpose, corrupt the data systems you can’t fix quickly. You can smash the technology in small bites by simply refusing to put the expected data in the expected places. Even these small acts of resistance can make the work of controlling and subjugating others through technology harder, more expensive, and less convenient.
This work isn’t only about class, economics, and the environment. Racism and colonialism are deeply rooted in big tech companies and the tech they create. If you want an excellent place to start reading about this, I can’t recommend Ruha Benjamin’s Race After Technology nearly enough.
I learned this week about the Japanese philosophy of Wabi Sabi, which includes seeing the beauty in the broken, repaired, asymmetrical, not quite perfect. I think we would do well to adopt this kind of approach, and perhaps like the related Japanese pottery practice of Kintsugi, we could intentionally “break” the technology we use, and build something better out of the pieces.
- Will A.I. Become the New McKinsey? – A more realistic take on the ways A.I. will destroy us all.
- Upwelling: Combining real-time collaboration with version control for writers – As someone who does a lot of collaborative writing, this tool looks exciting and I really appreciate their analysis of the writing process and other existing tools.
- Microsoft is still evil; an accounting of its crimes past and present (Mastodon post) – They only look nice in “supporting” open source. I’ve yet to meet a massive “publicly owned” corporation that’s also a good corporation. Don’t let them take you in.
- Working class sovereignty: the first communist network state is already here – A wonderful case study in worker-owned business and citizen-owned community.