The Age of Spiritual Machines: Part 4

Attacking Luddites, Cautious Progressivism & The Frankenstein Factor

Kurzweil tries to portray the original luddites as a small crazed movement that was inevitably destroyed. Luddites were originally a movement against textile manufactures in 19th Century England. They didn’t like how manufacturing had led to increased child labour, starvation and mass migration. These are negative, albeit short-term consequences of technology. The problem is that Kurzweil only sees the benefits of technology and believes that these luddites just needed to get other jobs, even if many British peasants ended up in the poor house. Kurzweil implies that this doesn’t matter, technology and change are great at all costs. The atom bomb’s use on Hiroshima is part of that progress. It is important to note that the luddites are a manifestation of the Human Factor. They may have been wrong to destroy the new weaving machines but they represent a broader human response to new technology; that is why the Segway is not a victim a fringe group of luddites but the wider public. Kurzweil goes so far as to demonizes those who might criticize his complete faith in the virtue of computer technology. Kurzweil blatantly demeans those who might criticize his ideas by quoting the most famous luddite of the 20th century: Ted Kaczynski (the “Unabomber”). Kaczynski is a criminal. This is a cheap attempt to associated evil with resistance or even questioning the value of change.

An example of where Kurzweil demonstrates absolute faith in the value of technological advancement despite obvious evidence that there are negative consequences in his theory of economic growth. Kurzweil makes the false claim that technology is fueling the expansion of economic well-being. He is ascribing technological advancement as the source of growth, not the people using the technology, new expansion of resources, changing international prices, changing demand etc. America’s economic growth has been below .5% for the past few years. Should we blame technology for the slow down and then claim technology is responsible when there is major growth? Kurzweil is not academic enough for my liking. Also, most economists point to the 1896 world depression as being caused by increased communication through telephone wires. Product sales increased in 1896 but products could not be delivered at the fast rate of demand causing an economic depression. Technology may trigger some depressions, technology may appears to trigger economic growth. Technology is part of the story not the whole story: something a computer scientist might have trouble believing. Kurzweil even hilariously attributes the fall of communism to technology! (172, AoSM) These claims are dubious.

A more balanced approach should be given to technology then the one that Kurzweil ascribes. This is called the cautious progressivists. They are not luddites. They are just more cautious than Kurzweil and they don’t believe in inevitability. Nothing is inevitable. They take into account the Human Factor and have learned from history that technology is not something to advance for its own sake alone. Everyone knows Frankenstein but few people understand the point of Shelley’s novel. Frankenstein is a harsh warning about the dangers of exploratory science on morality, human wellbeing…you know the people that technology should serve. Humanity is not impervious to disasters that are brought on accidentally by our own faith in technology: Chernobyl, the Titanic, Hiroshima, and yeah…even Jurassic Park. Kurzweil should re-read Frankenstein. This isn’t to say that technology is pure evil, it allows us to share ideas on a blog etc. Some great ideas may not actually benefit humanity in whole or in part, we should know that science is a powerful thing that must be handled with absolute care.

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