Sunday, 28 May 2023

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What neo-Luddites get right — and wrong — about Big Tech

What neo-Luddites get right — and wrong — about Big Tech

Say what you like about Lord Byron, he knew how to turn a phrase. Here he is, speaking in the House of Lords in 1812. His topic is the foolishness of the factory-storming, machine-breaking Luddites: “The rejected workmen, in the blindness of their ignorance, instead of rejoicing at these improvements in arts so beneficial to mankind, conceived themselves to be sacrificed to improvements in mechanism.”

The term “Luddite” is an insult today, a label you’d slap on a boomer who hasn’t figured out how podcasts work. But it would have been obvious to Byron’s contemporaries that his words dripped with sarcasm. Byron supported the Luddites. They had indeed been sacrificed on the altar of productivity improvements. There was nothing ignorant about their violent resistance.

Alongside the “Luddite” label is “the Luddite fallacy”, which refers to the belief that technological progress causes mass unemployment. We call it a fallacy because two centuries of experience have contradicted it; there have always been new jobs, and over time and on average those new jobs have been more productive and better paid than the old ones.

But Luddism, it seems, is back. A forthcoming book, Blood in the Machine, argues that “the origins of the rebellion against Big Tech” are in the Luddite uprising. And for at least a decade, pundits have been fretting about the prospect of mass unemployment.

First there was the notorious “The Future of Employment” study from Oxford academics Carl Frey and Michael Osborne in 2013, with the headline finding that 47 per cent of jobs were susceptible to automation. Then it was all the taxi and truck drivers whose jobs would be gobbled up by self-driving vehicles. Now it’s “generative” artificial intelligence, which has struck fear into the hearts of creatives everywhere: Dall-E and Midjourney will destroy the jobs of illustrators, ChatGPT and Bard will come for the journalists and technical writers.

Will our jobs really be destroyed this time? Or should we relax and look forward to another couple of centuries of productivity-driven prosperity? I think neither view is satisfactory.

Instead, what about the view that technology does not create mass unemployment, but is nevertheless quite capable of destroying livelihoods, creating unintended consequences and concentrating power in the hands of a few? (I once suggested “neo-Luddite” as a label for this view, but alas, true technophobes made that label their own long…

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