Philosophy  •  July 15, 2010

The Luddite Fallacy

The Luddites held that the changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution would lead to a moral degradation of society. Many modern Luddites often argue the same thing—that technological progress opens up the door for deeper and deeper immoralities and creates a darker and darker world.

This is not an incorrect assessment. Nuclear technology has given mankind the capacity to blow itself into oblivion, multiple times over. The internet has facilitated a whole new genre of ways to screw people over, from identity theft to bank fraud and internet-distributed child pornography. The printing press has been used to teach people closemindedness, destructiveness, and hate. But that’s not all that any of these technologies have done.

Nuclear technology has also given us nuclear power, a clean and efficient energy source that could effectively power the world. The internet has given us nearly infinite founts of data and has facilitated the spread of messages of peace and goodness and charity like no technology before it. The printing press has been used to teach people to think and to provide basic literacy throughout most of the world.

The Luddites, see, saw a half-empty glass. But progressivists who see only the good of technology are like bright-eyed optimists. Oftentimes more fun to be around, yes, but also oftentimes blatantly ignoring the risks associated with various ventures. See, technology progress is neither a great evil nor a great good. It, like most everything else, simply is.

Every new technological advancement brings with it a potential for good and for evil. Recently, biologists have figured out how to manufacture brand new species using entirely fabricated DNA. The potential use of such technology for good is extraordinary: we could theoretically build a bacteria that fought along the immune system to ward off unwanted infections; we could create colonies that could break down oil into non-harmful components and then, when their job was done, simply deactivate and die off; we could use this technology to scrub the atmosphere and help fix much of the damage we’ve done. At the same time, the entropic, destructive uses of such technology are equally rife: an infection could be engineered to only target people showing certain genetic characteristics unique to a particular race; rampantly reproduced cancer-like colonies could be designed to choke out entire ecosystems; species could be built to produce toxic gases to render certain vast stretches of the planet inhospitable.

This technology, then, is neither good nor evil. It simply is. It increases the potential action pool of the human species. Gives us more room within which to operate. Yes, the potential power is terrifying. But yes, also, the potential power is glorious.

This is not just true of technology. Ideas on the whole often exhibit this characteristic of an amorality, of a simple being. Religion is often touted by secularists to be a great evil, the cause of much of the world’s great terror and suffering and strife. But religion has also caused great good. Religion has led many who were suffering into a place of peace. Religious groups activate and mobilize for disaster relief faster than many governments, and often in greater numbers and with greater aid. Yes, religion has been used to preach hate, intolerance, exclusion, and dogmatic narrow-mindedness. But religion has also been used to preach love, tolerance, acceptance, and inquiry. Religion simply is.

It is up to us, as individuals, to wield these weapons properly and for good. The problem, of course, is that we have so many different ideas of that which is “right” and that which is “just.” But we must conquer this in ourselves before we can conquer it in others. We can only begin to use our vast power rightly when we understand, personally, what that idea means. I have my notion, yes, and perhaps you have yours.

But I have faith in the species. I have faith that we’ll do rightly. I have faith in your ability to choose correctly. And even if you or anyone else chooses incorrectly, I have faith in the power of the species to fight back and fix the errors committed by its brethren.