“Clogs and conspiracy theories” is the first in a series examining the shift in society caused by technology by Theo Wooster starting with a look at the true Luddites
A New Frontier
The world is on the cusp of what may be one the most important developments for mankind since the creation of the internet – and perhaps beyond.
The notion of machines being able to think like humans has been pondered by many thinkers for many years – but finally we find ourselves at the dawn of it becoming reality.
“…For it seems probable that once the machine thinking method had started, it would not take long to outstrip our feeble powers.”
In an article published in Nature (May 22nd 2020), a group of researchers from the Russian HSE and the UK’s Open University were able to demonstrate that a cascade of artificial neural networks were able to be trained to infer a person’s personality more accurately from a “selfie” than humans are able to.
It seems now that, in this narrow sense at least, artificial intelligence is beginning to become more capable of understanding people than people themselves.
Advancements like these are being made increasingly frequently, with machines being able to match or even exceed human ability in more and more areas.
What will all this mean for us?
Is it okay to fear replacement by machine? How different are our lives going to look in the coming decades? Do we need to take action to protect the livelihoods and aspirations of many? Are we capable of asking such questions?
These issues have no definitive solutions yet – but perhaps, we can look towards the past for examples of economic restructuring and response to it for guidance.
A radical faction of textile workers opposed the use of machinery in their factories, which they believed was a ploy by manufacturers to get around standard labour practices.
The movement began on the 11th of March 1811, when the British Army broke up a workers protest demanding more hours and better pay. In response, disgruntled workers began to attack machinery and burn factories.
The movement began to spread nationwide over the next couple of years and led to violent clashes with the British Army in both Lancashire and Manchester. The movement eventually petered out after many Luddites were hung or shipped to Australia.
The great irony
Lord Byron, the poet and romanticist, passionately defended the Luddites against legislation such as the 1812 Frame Breaking Act (which passed regardless, making industrial sabotage a capital offence) and sympathised with the position of the industrial rebels.
Famously, his only legitimate daughter was Ada Lovelace who went on to aid Charles Babbage in the development of the “Analytical Machine” – her observations of the punch cards used in the Jacquard Loom, often the target of Luddite sabotage (see image), were essential in beginning the transition from calculation to computation by applying symbols and characters to numerical values.
It is commonly thought that the word “sabotage” comes from the action of French workers using their sabots (clogs) to destroy machinery at the start of the industrial revolution. Sadly, the etymology does not support this theory – the word instead derives from the action of “walking noisily” – in reference to the sound the wooden sabots made.
So with some irony, it’s possible to argue that it was the daughter of a defender of the Luddites that started the chain of events in technological development that brings us to our current quandary.
“History doesn’t repeat itself – but it does rhyme”
Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain
Moving to a more recent economic reform, the Byron ancestral home was at Newstead Abbey, approximately 10 miles from Nottingham city centre. Newstead Village itself was the home of a colliery from the late 19th century until the mass closure of pits under the Thatcher government in the 1980’s.
The plight of the village’s colliery and the village built specifically for the families of pit workers is another example of the structural unemployment that the Luddites feared over 150 years before – in almost exactly the same area.
The real Luddites
Before moving on, it is worth getting to the heart of the Luddites fears. The original Luddites were in fact highly skilled technicians of the mills’ mechanical looms.
Their grievances lay in the menialisation of their roles through advances in the technology leading to a reduction in the availability of work and pay.
Importantly, Luddites didn’t fear the technology itself – only the narrow way in which it was being applied.
This distinction is important as there are echoes for our future with Artificial Intelligence which may get lost in the looser modern use of “Luddite”.
The irrational fear of technology and the growth of conspiracy theories around it are quite separate from the perfectly rational concern that lives may be reduced as the economy restructures.
It’s all a conspiracy
“A prince need trouble little about conspiracies when the people are well disposed, but when they are hostile and hold him in hatred, then he must fear everything and everybody.”
More people in the UK and USA believe in conspiracy theories, than those that do not. In 2018, the University of Chicago found that 61% of Americans consistently endorse at least one conspiracy theory (a rise of 11% since 2014). While in the UK in 2018, at least 60% of the population believed in a conspiracy theory.
An example of this is the belief that a “deep state” is working against Donald Trump is supported by 29% of Americans. Such theories get widespread attention on all forms of media, such as the far-right Q-anon conspiracy theory, has had material shared by many high-profile figures – Donald Trump even invited key YouTube promoter of the theory, William Lebron, to the Oval Office for a photo-op.
Additionally, the BBC are currently running a podcast hosted by reality star Scarlett Moffatt, who proclaims herself “conspiracy-obsessed”, where she attempts to convince her boyfriend and viewers of various theories. Conspiracy theories have now become ingrained into our politics and society.
But what is a conspiracy theory, and why do people believe in them?
Ted Goertzel in his paper “Belief in Conspiracy Theories” defines them as “explanations for important events that involve secret plots by powerful and malevolent groups”. They reject falsification and are generally reinforced with logical fallacies such as circular thinking – meaning they typically develop into a question of faith.
Karen Douglas, a leading phycologist, conducted a study which placed the reason as to why people believe in such theories into three categories:
- epistemic – the desire for understanding and uncertainty
- existential – the desire for control and security
- social – the desire for a positive image of the self and group.
Technology is far from immune to such conspiracy theories. During the second quarter of 2020 at least 77 signal masts had been sabotaged along with telecoms engineers being harassed and attacked by members of the public. Sadly, the UK is currently leading the world in such attacks.
The overwhelming motivation for this? Conspiracy theory.
During the current pandemic, conspiracy theories linking coronavirus to 5G technology has been widely publicised. There are various strains of such theories – some suggest that coronavirus was directly caused by the electromagnetic fields introduced by 5G, others claim that the virus is a cover-up for 5G related illness.
This is despite the fact that many countries and areas that have been hit badly by Covid-19 do not have 5G technology yet, as well as the theory being debunked multiple times by scientists – chiefly, that the radiation in 5G is non-ionizing – and thus cannot harm human cells.
It seems then, that we have a dilemma.
The high-profile discourse about the opposition to new technology is often focussed on baseless conspiracy theories, and not the very real concerns about how increasingly smart new technologies will impact people’s lives.
In other words, the real Luddites are being outshouted by conspiracy theorists.
How can genuine questions be asked about how livelihoods will be changed, when there appears to be a basic misunderstanding, amplified by misinformation, about the way the world works?
There appears to be a growing trend of “neo-ludditism” where traditional Luddite values are blended with conspiracy theories. Neo-luddites are more of a philosophical movement than an organization of people attempting to preserve their livelihoods.
There is no central commanding body directing followers’ actions, but rather a collection of individuals and smaller groups with a belief in a shared vision – a resistance (violent or non-violent) to consumerism and new technology with a return to a “simpler” way of life. They often believe new technology to be harmful regardless of peer-reviewed scientific evidence.
It plain to see this new form of Luddite is similar in name only – they do not oppose anything specifically, they simply oppose everything new, encouraging a regression into their vision of an arbitrary past without the subsequent advances in medical science and life expectancy, rather than fight to secure and improve the lives they currently live.
A paranoia and rejection of anything new was not a belief held by the original 1811 Luddites – looms that reduced the need for technicians had been around for decades before their campaign.
The original Luddites were protesting against a tangible and personal experience arising from the very narrow targeting of innovation that left them worse off.
As we very rapidly approach another phase of economic restructuring, like that experienced by the Luddites and later by miners, we appear to be similarly unprepared.
The focus on conspiracies and neo-luddites mean that rational debate becomes challenging at best and impossible at worst. Questions such as, “what does AI mean for us”, “how will our lives look” and “should we resist” may never receive the proper attention they deserve.
Coupled with this, unlike the Luddites, few of us are sufficiently literate in the technology that will have such far-reaching implications – we have largely become consumers of technology with few understanding where to wisely ram our proverbial clogs for our combined benefit without damaging the upside.
It is not a terrible thing to question modernity, it is essential – which is why we as a society must make sure we are well informed and able.