Historical Examples of Opposition to Technological Progress

by chw7 min read5th Apr 20212 comments

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World OptimizationWorld Modeling
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This is a brief overview of historical examples of public opposition to technological progress. 

SOCIAL MOVEMENTS

Luddites

  • Luddism was an English movement active between 1811-1816.
  • “The Luddite movement emerged during the harsh economic climate of the Napoleonic Wars, which saw a rise of difficult working conditions in the new textile factories. Luddites objected primarily to the rising popularity of automated textile equipment, threatening the jobs and livelihoods of skilled workers as this technology allowed them to be replaced by cheaper and less skilled workers.” (Wikipedia)
  • Modern-day people misconceive Luddites as anti-technologists. However, economic concerns motivated their actions, not opposition to the machines themselves.
  • The Luddite movement primarily consisted of skilled artisans who couldn’t compete with the lower-paid, less-skilled workers in factories and textile mills.
  • The movement mostly destroyed mills, pieces of machinery, and industrial equipment in textile mills, but an agricultural variant of the movement also destroyed threshing machines in the 1930s.
  • Luddites wanted manufacturing jobs to go to skilled, well-paid workers rather than less-skilled, low-paid workers. They attacked machines as a way of putting pressure on their employer to increase their wages and working conditions.

Neo-Luddites

  • Neo-Luddism is a philosophy opposing forms of modern technology.
  • It’s not a clear, coalesced movement, but refers to groups of people who oppose modern technologies for various reasons. While some people abstain from using technology and advocate for simpler ways of life, others actively try to stop progress and sabotage technological development.
  • Neo-Luddism is also gaining credibility as an alternative to climate change, environmental degradation, social-media addictions, and “smart-tech utopianism”.

Anarcho-primitivism

  • “Anarcho-primitivism is a political ideology that advocates a return to non-"civilized" ways of life through deindustrialization, abolition of the division of labor or specialization and abandonment of large-scale organization technologies. Anarcho-primitivists critique the origins and progress of the Industrial Revolution and industrial society. According to anarcho-primitivism, the shift from hunter-gatherer to agricultural subsistence during the Neolithic Revolution gave rise to coercion, social alienation and social stratification.” (Wikipedia)
  • Many people view Henry David Thoreau and his support for simple-living and self-sufficiency as a precursor to ecologism and anarcho-primitivism.
  • Modern day anarcho-primitivists want to return to a pre-agricultural revolution era when people lived in small, nomadic communities. They see civilization as a form of oppression and control over both people and the environment.

Degrowth movement

  • According to the Degrowth movement’s website, “Degrowth is an idea that critiques the global capitalist system which pursues growth at all costs, causing human exploitation and environmental destruction. The degrowth movement of activists and researchers advocates for societies that prioritize social and ecological well-being instead of corporate profits, over-production and excess consumption. This requires radical redistribution, reduction in the material size of the global economy, and a shift in common values towards care, solidarity and autonomy. Degrowth means transforming societies to ensure environmental justice and a good life for all within planetary boundaries.”
  • With specific regards to technology, they find the following essential to degrowth: “Social changes and an orientation towards sufficiency instead of purely technological changes and improvements in efficiency in order to solve ecological problems. We believe that it has historically been proven that decoupling economic growth from resource use is not possible.”
  • The Degrowth movement makes the distinction between two types of technologies, counterproductive and convivial technologies. They only support the latter.
    • Counterproductive technologies: Technologies which “beyond a certain threshold of increase in technological productivity, overall productivity in society will start to decrease again”
    • Convivial technologies: “Conviviality on the other hand is in opposition to industrial productivity. It is a form of technology that is autonomous from large-scale infrastructures and is, directly or indirectly, reconnecting people with each other and their natural and social environments. In Illich’s own words, conviviality is considered »to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value.« While business-as-usual-technology becomes counterproductive and diminishes its own value and the value of peoples’ lives, convivial technology fights back counterproductivity and enhances community and well-being.”
  • Some members of the Degrowth movement directly oppose technological development and don’t believe in the possibility of decoupling—they view technology as inseparable from capitalism/growth and ecological damage. They mostly disagree with eco-modernism/green economies/green growth, which believe the creation of green technologies is vital to combating climate change. They’re also skeptical of our ability to create circular economies.

FOOD & AGRICULTURE

Coffee (16th and 17th century)

  • In the early 16th century, the governor of Mecca banned coffee. He feared that coffee houses would create spaces for people to come together and criticize him.
  • For similar reasons, Cairo similarly banned coffee houses in 1532 and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church banned coffee sometime prior to the 18th century.

GMOs

  • While humans have selected for certain genes in plants and animals dating back to 7800 BC, modern genetic selection only began in 1973 when two scientists created the first genetically modified organism.
  • “Although this new technology opened up countless avenues of research possibilities, immediately after its development, the media, government officials, and scientists began to worry about the potential ramifications on human health and Earth’s ecosystems [7]. By the middle of 1974, a moratorium on GE projects was universally observed, allowing time for experts to come together and consider the next steps during what has come to be known as the Asilomar Conference of 1975 [8]. At the conference, scientists, lawyers, and government officials debated the safety of GE experiments for three days. The attendees eventually concluded that the GE projects should be allowed to continue with certain guidelines in place.” (From Corgis to Corn: A Brief Look at the Long History of GMO Technology)
  • In 1992, FLVR SAVR tomatoes became the first genetically engineered crop approved by the USDA. In 1995, the EPA approved the first insecticide producing crop.
  • By the 1990s, public opposition to GMOs grew. Most of the opposition was driven by misinformation about the risks GMOs pose to human health and the environment.
  • In a 2015 study, about 39% of US adults say foods with GM ingredients are generally worse for health than foods with no GM ingredients and 16% of US adults care a great deal about the issue. However, only 14% of Americans believe that almost all scientists agree on the safety of GMOs. (“88% of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and 92% of working Ph.D. biomedical scientists said it is safe to eat genetically modified foods.”) Meanwhile, leading anti-GMO organizations like the Non-GMO Project claim that there is no scientific consensus on GMOs.
  • Opposition to transgenic technologies: ideology, interests and collective action frames

Farm mechanization / tractors

  • Although tractors were one of the most transformative technologies in agriculture, many people opposed their adoption during the early 1900s.
  • (Olmstead and Rhode 1994) show that the Horse Association of America was the primary resistance force to the tractor’s adoption.
    • It formed in 1919 and by 1920 had raised $100,000 and received pledges for another $210,000.
    • Between 1922-1924, the HAA distributed one million copies of its publications every year and reached between 50-60 million readers with news about horses. They even sent out 250,000 personally addressed letters each year to influential individuals.
    • They heavily lobbied state and local officials, and then relentlessly targeted local bankers and farmers to persuade them about the economic efficiency of horses.
    • “Anti-tractor forces such as the Horse Association of America argued that the tractor-induced loss of self-sufficiency caused many of the farm bankruptcies of the early 1920s.” (Olmstead and Rhode 2009)
    • Omstead and Rhode, however, point out that “the diffusion of the tractor compared with the other spread of technologies was slow; but the major reason for the delay undoubtedly was the onset of the Great Depression.” Therefore, while the HAA may have delayed farmers’ transition to the tractor, they were delaying the inevitable.
  • Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies similarly touches on this topic: “Resistance to tractors in the early 1900s took a slightly different form. Producers and traders of draft animals feared mechanization, which threatened their way of life. But they knew that they could not improve their product faster than engineers could improve theirs, and thus that blocking the spread of tractors would be impossible. Instead, they sought to prevent the displacement of farm animals, by pursuing a campaign touting their virtues. The Horse Association of America issued leaflets declaring that, “A mule is the only fool-proof tractor ever built.” The group also pointed out that horses could reproduce themselves, whereas tractors depreciated.”

MEDICINE

Vaccines

  • Anti-vaccination movements date back to the 1800s, when smallpox vaccinations began in England.
  • Anti-vaccination movements have persisted since, however, the modern anti-vaxxer movement largely began in 1998 when Andrew Wakefield published a study linking the MMR vaccine to autism. After the publication of this study, parents refused to vaccinate their children and started pockets of the anti-vaxxer movement.
  • Contemporary and historic rhetoric against vaccines hasn’t really changed over the past 200 years. Arguments continue to minimize the threat of the disease, spread misinformation about vaccine’s side effects (i.e. autism), appeal to one’s individual liberties, and use pseudoscience/undermine legitimate science.
  • The spread of misinformation remains the primary driver of the anti-vaccination movement. The rise of the internet and decentralization of information has played a major role in allowing misinformation to spread. While patients used to rely on their doctors for medical advice and knowledge, they can now self-diagnosis and play a larger role in the doctor-patient relationship.

Healthcare 

  • Healthcare is particularly slow to adopt new technologies. The google results for “adoption of technology in healthcare” yield multiple articles about why the medical field is so slow to adopt new technologies. These are some of the reasons why:
    • People prefer to be treated by other people
    • Data privacy concerns
    • Risk aversion (it’s easier to have a person to blame rather than an automated system)
    • Costs of new technologies
  • A study of the adoption of technology in healthcare found that, “Some medical professionals believed that technology would interfere with their ability to make independent diagnoses and their relationships with patients. Doctors also feared that technology was a means of management control. In contrast, other medical staff welcomed technology because it provided them with more opportunities to interact with patients and their carers. Generally, patients were more enthusiastic about technology than medical professionals and health care managers because it allowed them to have greater autonomy in selecting health care options. The need for all groups to be involved in the development of the new health care approach was an important outcome, otherwise resistance to it was likely to be greater. In other words, the strategy for change management was the indicator of success or failure. Therefore, following our analysis, a number of practical precepts emerged that could facilitate user acceptance of digital solutions and innovative medical technologies.

ENERGY

Nuclear energy

  • The anti-nuclear movement began in the late 1960s and reached a peak during the 1970s and 1980s.
  • Opposition to nuclear energy coincided with the environmental movement, following Rachel Carlson’s publication of Silent Spring in 1962.
  • Many prominent organizations such as the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, Natural Resources Defense Council, Union of Concerned Scientists, and Critical Mass took a stance against nuclear power in the 1970s.
  • After the Three Mile Island accident—the partial meltdown of a reactor in Pennsylvania—in 1979, anti-nuclear demonstrations peaked. The public became very concerned about the environmental and health effects of nuclear power
  • “On June 12, 1982, one million people demonstrated in New York City's Central Park against nuclear weapons and for an end to the cold war arms race. It was the largest anti-nuclear protest and the largest political demonstration in American history.” [Wikipedia]
  • (Gupta 2019) measured public opinion on nuclear energy from 1973-2015, finding that the Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986) accidents had large negative effects on opinion. Fukushima (2011) had a less noticeable effect.
  • Although nuclear energy is one of the safest sources of energy, its supply is falling domestically and globally.
  • Opposition to nuclear energy continues to be driven by public misperceptions regarding its safety, negative environmental effects, and health effects.  However, the high cost of nuclear energy is another reason public support for nuclear energy has declined. (And it’s the primary reason nuclear doesn’t account for a larger percentage of our energy supply. While other countries (e.g. South Korea) were able to stabilize or lower the cost of nuclear energy, changing and complex regulations drove costs up in the US and made it incredibly difficult to build new plants.)
Public support for nuclear energy 

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The term Neo-Luddites seems to me more likely to mislead then help in the current state. As far as I know nobody self labels that way and Elon Musk seems to be seen enough of as a Luddite by some people to have been given the ITIF's 2015 Luddite Award.

And it’s the primary reason nuclear doesn’t account for a larger percentage of our energy supply. While other countries (e.g. South Korea) were able to stabilize or lower the cost of nuclear energy, changing and complex regulations drove costs up in the US and made it incredibly difficult to build new plants.)

It's worth noting here that South Korea primarily got lower costs by paying bribes to get around the costs of new complex regulations. Given that the previous corruption is now public knowledge it's a lot harder for them to build new nuclear as well.