Notes on Luddism

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Harper Reed, CTO on Obama For America, as Big Brother

I’ve spent the last two days attending Technology Frontiers, a summit hosted by The Economist. It’s an annual event, looking at what’s new in technology and the change that is happening as a result. This year the theme was ‘Humans and Machines’.

I’ve always felt a little cool about the revolution in social media – as something relevant but making its noise a distance away, and in a language foreign to my own – while enjoying its mainstream benefits and, recently and plainly, dabbling. I’m finding the revolution increasingly difficult to ignore, because it looks set to have such an impact on human society (one of the themes of the conference was the relationship between innovations in communications and data science and human behaviour), because my children are digital natives, and I believe that 21st century parents need to understand the world their children will inhabit, because as I get older I find myself becoming more excited about change, and less inclined to cynicism. There’s less time to get stuff done, I guess.

So I immersed myself for two days. The shiny cult and entitlement of Google etc. I find strange, and the potential to waste time on social media is scary, more so the long term consequences of substituting real community and retained knowledge with virtual alternatives. The revolutionaries can all smell lots of money, which is why it is happening so quickly, and its speed and change can be disarming. On the morning of Day 2, Will Self, while denying his luddism, warned that “‘ex-intelligence”, the outsourcing of memory to wiki etc. means we can no longer declaim poetry and quotations like our parents and grandparents and we lack the internal index of information and analysis that makes us sovereign and capable decision makers. Bravo, I thought, my own mind empty of poetry, but a London Business School professor accused him of sounding like an aristocrat and an elitist for de facto opposing the provision of free information to slum children. Self parried by asking for guarantees that the revolution would equalise, instead of making rich people richer. Here lie the barricades, and there is much fighting to come but it is too late to stop the revolution.

But it is hard not like the sorts of people drawn to a technology conference (entrepreneurs, investors, big business, clever journalists, business school academics). They think big, and they itch to solve massive problems and whenever someone says “anything is possible” everyone else nods. This can have a downside. Great intelligence + passion + impatience + money might just as easily some up with something terrible, as something beautiful and life-saving. Sometimes all of these vital ingredients feel like they are being poured into a cake mix that no one really wants to bake … so, Google’s glasses will enable you and me to walk down a street and read our email and without asking first discover that a cashmere v-neck is on offer in boutique X, or that the KFC is giving away a diet Pepsi with its chicken wings. Salvation if you’re a retailer or provide consumer credit, or own shares in either. What the benefit is for the rest of us I am not so sure. I  dislike the idea of living in a landscape that has been mapped and labelled by remote and unseeing eyes. While I dislike superstition, I like mystery, and the unresolved, and the murky – it reassures me that some things don’t work, and some places are dangerous or hard to reach. I don’t want everything laid out on a screen. But these are just my idiosyncrasies. Why should I condemn those that live in dangerous places to uncertainty and fear? And this science will have plenty of non-commercial applications. Human beings will discriminate in what they use. And what a pleasure to find oneself in the cockpit of “why the hell not”? Our problems are big enough and only getting bigger and technology innovation – not God nor oil – is essential to creating a planet of 10 billion people who can eat, drink and prosper in peace and safety. The whole world is trapped in technology’s mesh and the more integrated and inter-dependent we are the better.

Here’s what I learned from the conference:

  • Like all revolutionaries, the tech community is impatient, and does not respect established norms and conventions. They see orthodoxy as something to trample underfoot. As a California-based entrepreneur whose mind is set on mining the moon for valuable minerals and shipping them back to earth said, “the day you become an expert in your field, you become useless in your field”. 
  • On the barricades wild ambition is encouraged. The script reads like this: if people don’t think you’re crazy, you’re not being ambitious enough. 
  • The revolutionaries have heroes. The men behind Google, Amazon, Apple etc are referred to constantly, and often just by their first name. These names hold true power to the community.
  • The revolutionaries are male. There was one female speaker on the agenda. The audience was largely male, middle aged and white.
  • The revolutionaries studied physics and math. They are obsessed by process and evidence. Werner Vogels, CTO at Amazon, had a great slide that captured how to be successful in three steps: Experiment / Measure / Iterate or Pivot. These guys have nailed how to move across the minefield quickly and efficiently. The bigger firms try as hard as the smaller firms to be responsive and keep adapting. Revolutionaries as athletes.
  • It’s all about data. These guys are are disciplined enough to gather in data, analyse it, and let it drive their decision-making. Increasingly firms have massive amounts of data on their customers (Big Data). Comparisons are being made (“look, mine is bigger than yours”), and the data is being diced and picked over ever more closely. The ambition is to turn dormant data into value-generating information that will strengthen your connection with your  customers.
  • Everyone loves talking about algorithms. The revolutionaries studied physics and math. If you don’t known about algorithms you can kind of fuck off.
  • The zeal to find solutions to the world’s problems feels sincere. The rhetoric is altruistic. But everything smells of money. Whatever the rhetoric, the preferred model (Google, Amazon etc) seems to be to make lots of money, then to start using your wealth and influence to tackle problems. But by now the business is so big it gets difficult to untangle the business model from the altruism. Did you hear about Google’s plan to create a universal library? Can these emerging GEs and Rolls Royces keep their brands bolted to the idea of progress and fun?
  • According to Harper Reed (pictured live from Chicago), the game-changing CTO on the Obama For America campaign, social networks are changing politics quickly. Engaging voters online will get harder as they become more discriminating and their use of social networks ever more diversified. Meanwhile traditional GOTV activities (door knocking, town hall meetings, leafleting) won’t reach the under thirties. As politics goes more online, cyber attacks will play a bigger role in election campaigns.  

3 thoughts on “Notes on Luddism

  1. incamedia

    I think the distinction between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ community will become increasingly blurred as time goes on, especially for those born digitally native.

    The title of the conference, Humans and Machines, is interesting because we are steadily becoming part-human, part-machine. Already, large parts of our accessible knowledge lie outside of our bodies, albeit at the moment accessed by clunky keyboards and screens. I am convinced that, within our lifetimes, implants will become available that will connect us directly to our out-of-body selves. Last week scientists demonstrated sending brain signals from one rat to another via the Internet.

    Perhaps there will be a backlash to all this? People are bored with FaceBook. I am starting to switch my phone off for periods to rid myself of the constant dribble of stuff. Or perhaps it is an age thing? I always think the first time we reject a new technology as being too much effort or not necessary, it is a significant milestone in our mental ageing process.


      Yes, but will a virtual community ever be real? I don’t think so. Doesn’t a community need to be haptic to be human? How can you truly be my friend if I have never physically met you? If we give a virtual community the same status as a ‘real’ one don’t we risk killing off what makes us human – empathy, solidarity, earned respect, the comfort of physical contact?

      I don’t want an implant. I want to be as good as I, – born 1971, educated in Kent, volunteer in Zimbabwe, university in Scotland, miscellaneous ever since … can be. I want to be allowed to fail, and to reserve the right to succeed unassisted. I don’t want to count on machines. I want to be vulnerable and to risk and have to do my best. Isn’t this human spirit? Is this on its way out? How do you write poetry with an implant? Etc.



    On reflection, I don’t think its accurate to say that ‘the revolution is white’. The audience at the The Economist conference was white, middle class etc. It’s not the same thing. These were business types plugging in to what is going on, not entrepreneurs or engineers who are making things happen. But still, there was only one woman speaker. Computers feel like a male thing still. Is that fair?

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