Musk & Hawking: The modern Luddite

Luddite – (wiki) noun

  • a member of any of the bands of English workers who destroyed machinery, especially in cotton and woolen mills, that they believed was threatening their jobs (1811–16).
    a person opposed to increased industrialization or new technology.
    “a small-minded Luddite resisting progress”

Words come to mean different things over time. Etymology is the study of this verbal genetics.

The original Luddite, a disgruntled english worker raging against industrialization; and the modern Luddite, a colloquialism for abstainers or laggards in adopting a technological culture; are separated by over 200 years of verbal evolution. How we came from this to that is a complex story to be sure.

My definition of Luddite varies from both the strict and colloquial definition but is (I believe) etymologically acceptable. Hawking and Musk are giants in the fields of new technology and science. They stand (and roll) at the frontier of future innovation. And both seek to increased awareness about the inherent danger of a over utilization and/or dependence on technology.

Luddite – (Literary Graffiti) n.

  • a person who recognizes and raises awareness concerning new technology and their overall sociological effects

I think this definition is necessary. This conversation is necessary. In order to have a fully understood and effectively utilize technology. A wave of which , according to Moore’s Law, has yet to crest.

Many great scientists were Luddite in this view.

Alfred Nobel, whom the prize is named after, invented dynamite and was eventually horrified by the  explosive (pun very much intended) use. He hoped to rally support against the use of dynamite and raise education about it’s inherent dangers. To no avail. Similarly with Einstein, who’s atomic theory gave birth to the atomic bomb, (and Oppenheimer for that matter) was a devout Luddite. After the success ? (kinda) of the Manhattan project he semi-retired (both to New Jersey) a devout Zionist and pacifist.

Nobel, Einstein, and Oppenheimer’s moral quandary were lost and overshadowed by industrial (War and Mining) application of their inventions. Seeing the danger only after they had relinquished control. Out of step with younger physicist and industrialists about the value of their moral science vs. application of science. Bohr and Rutherford  eventually pushing deeper into the ultimate physical cause of natural phenomena. The atomic and subsequent sub-atomic explanation of reality. A materialism that fit nicely into the Capitalistic frame work of the 20th and 21st century.

These ironies are not really ironies. They are causal, possibly causal, relationships of our scientific though rendered sociologically inert. This is to mean detached. What all of these guys were and are warning against is their own plight. The realization, for Nobel and the like, came to late for them. They were equally blinded by the power of their invention.

In my last post on Data I wrote this wonderful sentence.

“The reason that I have hope for the world is because of the internet.” – Literary Graffiti

Which is a stupid thing to write. Because it is untrue. It reeks of sensationalism, is overly simplistic and grammatically bland, basically ignorant.

Because “the world” or at least a good percentage of it (over 59%) does’t have reliable internet access. Also what percentage that does is no more or less hopeful. They are however in control of a very powerful tool. The internet is, or at the very least represents, open communication between unrelated populations. That gives me great hope. Because it will eventually give rise to a global consciences. A humanistic awareness which could prove more effective than digital counterpart.

The point of my regression here is dual:

Self-criticism is important and I am still working on not sucking at this.

Also it is very easy to impress a belief structure unto technology as a solution. The ultimate goal of humanity and civilization.  The end rather than a means. Blind progress forgetting the ultimate goal of innovation. Perhaps no clear goal was ever defined.

Both Hawking and Musk have been clear about the legitimacy of their fear of humanity destroying itself with technology. Shouldn’t we take notice of this?

Musk is a business man as much as he in a genius and billionaire. A charitable businesses man at that. The article sites a 10 million dollar donation that will fund scientific research that focuses on human sustainability and technological integration. Which is just a drop in the bucket as far as his overall contribution.

Hawking is a unique case in many ways. His genius being paramount, his stature a close second with the respect and admiration of his contemporaries and life story in general still small footnotes to substantial list of accomplishments. His dependance on a mechanical means to support his life cannot and should not be over looked. I joke earlier but the reality of Hawking’s ALS and the technologies developed not only to keep him alive but also mobile and productive is staggering.

Musk (PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX) and Hawking (Quantum Mechanics, A Brief History of Time, Cyborg) represent the minds at the furthest reach of current scientific technology and thought.

Leading innovations in telekinetic digital interfacing, space travel, digital economics, and global energy solutions all within the realm of just two men. Quantum mechanics and global sustainability, the whole of modern science swimming in the wake they create. Yet they preach caution. Why?

Because they realize better than most the power of new technology. How it shapes culture and civilization. Where would we be without penicillin or the cotton gin, without democracy and fire? Worse off for sure.

Where without pollution and gas chambers, without laser guided missiles and sewage?

One day without biological birth parents and natural organs. Living off of genetically manufactured nutrient composite IV drip and UV radiation fueled solar oxygen farms on Mars.

This is the future Musk and Hawking see.

As we lose awareness of the dangers of technology our world simultaneously becomes more dependent. The days of isolated factions of factory workers smashing the ebb of industrialization has transformed into an era of technocrats ridiculing people out of step with the digital revolution. The reverse of Luddite thinking. There is no need to educate about technology, the tech is education enough.

In truth an overall distaste for intellectual thought prevails in the pop-tech-culture realm. From Mark Zuckerberg and Hillary Clinton to Steve Jobs and Oprah. Their common goal is primarily to push their product. Build their brand. In a way the extent of their wealth is concomitant to their overall value. As if wealth has ever substantiated truth. We see the end product and call it relatable, simple, intuitive, inspiring, and transformative. What Ferris and Oprah and all the rest actually achieve is understanding something terribly complex like society, business, technology, and empowerment, then making them instantaneously consumable.

This is also exactly what Musk and Hawking do. I am not criticizing any of these people or products. In fact I admire all of them. It is in their innovation and distribution methods which makes them so special. The very essence of their genius, the message being the medium.

But where Musk and Hawking differ, what makes them Luddite, is that their product isn’t a means, it is an end. The transformative nature of their technology represents a door which will close and lock once behind us.

This principal is well represented in the major innovations of all modern technology and resonates most brutally in cultures unwilling to accept or even acknowledge their legitimacy. From crop rotation to digital communication, the subsequent acceptance of or domination by a culture most able to utilize these tools.

It is my belief that young Americas of today are unique in this sense. Our freedom and economic stability, wide territory and lack of cultural rival. A good three or four year head start over the rest of the developing world. More freedom than the Chinese and more unity than European countries, more diverse than our Russian and Canadian contemporaries. We are in possession of the ultimate tool for our style growth. There is a reason Americans invented the railroad and airplanes. We are always seeking outwards, to the next edge of some endless continent.

It is unfortunate we are irresponsible as a culture, perhaps as a species, where technology is concerned. The Sophist camp has existed to one extent or another since the beginning of society. It’s main principle based on the limitless variation of tastes and practice, often contradictory, between cultures. Seemingly proving the axiom that culture shapes right and wrong. Which is in opposition to the Platonic (deterministic?) viewpoint that prior concepts of good and evil exist which shape reality.

Regardless of philosophical “truths” it seems reasonable to say it is practical for those most knowledgable in the realm of high tech to guide its progress. But, at what extent of integration does the progress of technology leave the hands of those at the forefront and become a emergent property in relation to overall human consciences?

That is the question I try to tackle in Data. The digital revolution is real, it is taking palace and unless we all want to go back to analog it is here to stay. There is no denying this. What I failed to approach is how we should handle that fact. Because honestly I have no idea.


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