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IT Leadership // CIO Insights & Innovation
04:25 PM
Robert Atkinson
Robert Atkinson

Tech Fear-Mongering Must Stop

It's time for Americans to worry more about the Luddites quashing tech innovation and progress, and worry less about job-stealing robots and privacy-invading smart meters.

The West has long had an ambivalent relationship with progress. As Freud famously wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents, "the price of progress in civilization is paid in forfeiting happiness." But for every Freud who questioned the value of progress, ten others embraced it. Just listen to Walter Ehret's 1950s ode "My Country Tis of Thee," which includes the stanzas, "There was no stopping a nation of tinkerers and whittlers, long accustomed to making, repairing, improving and changing," and "Progress! That was the word that made the century turn."

Unfortunately, over the last several decades America has become more like Freud and less like Ehret, in the sense that there's now widespread opposition to progress. Today, the dominant response to new technologies -- from nanotechnology to biotech and the Internet -- is opposition and fear rather than support and confidence.

Since the first Industrial Revolution, technological change has brought disruption and progress, with the disrupted often rejecting that change. Most famously, in the early 1800s a group of Englishmen called Luddites destroyed textile machines that were replacing hand-operated looms. But if progress has sometimes been a dubious, if not rejected, value in nations, America was always different. Founded by risk-takers and optimists, Americans have long thought that newer is better and that you can't stand in the way of progress. Other nations, constrained by the shackles of the past and the resisters of the present, have viewed that American spirit as simply extraordinary. Even Joseph Stalin proclaimed: "American efficiency is that indomitable spirit which neither knows nor will be deterred by any obstacle... that simply must go through with a job once it has been tackled."

[Innovation is disruptive. Deal with it. Read Creative Destruction Of Internet Age: Unstoppable.]

Today, however, increasingly vocal neo-Luddites in this country argue that progress is a force to be stopped, not encouraged. They want a world in which a worker never loses a job, even when the new technology behind it leads to higher employment; a world in which consumer rights trump all other considerations, even lower prices; a world in which no personal information is shared, even if sharing benefits individuals and companies alike. In short, they want to slow advancement at all costs, even when those costs ultimately hurt the public they're trying to protect.

We can forgive the average American for believing this narrative, given the many influential advocacy groups, media outlets, and academics that promote this view of the world. "60 Minutes" and the Associated Press have featured stories on the perils of automation, and prominent academics, including MIT's Andrew McAfee and Eric Brynjolfsson, are telling us that machines kill jobs, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Numerous media outlets have also taken up the false argument that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are dangerous and should be curbed or banned. One example is the "balanced" PBS documentary "Seeds of Death." And almost all coverage of new information technology comes with the obligatory "this is the end of privacy as we know it" warning.

What has changed? At least three things:

First, we're seeing the spread of foundation-funded advocacy groups -- the likes of the Sierra Club, Free Press, and the ridiculously misnamed Center for Food Safety -- whose mission is to challenge technological progress on behalf of those purportedly hurt by it. These groups rely on fear-mongering to retain their foundation funding and drum up their grassroots donations. Even technologies as straightforward and benign as smart electric meters now mobilize neo-Luddite opposition from groups such as the cleverly named, in the name of protecting consumers' privacy.

Second, academics realize that the key to making a name for themselves is to write the "dog bites man" article or book that tells us why Google is making us stupid, why we are losing the war against machines, how we are now a "captive audience" to broadband providers, and why we need to fear what the Internet is doing to our brains.

I risk sounding old-fashioned, but when I received my PhD in the 1980s, academics were expected to leave bias and advocacy to the amateurs. Their job was to strive for objectivity. But objectivity no longer sells or gets you that coveted TED Talk.

Third, the media face the same market pressures as civil society groups and academics. They maximize the number of eyeballs on their content when they portray technology as fearsome and imposed by powerful, impersonal governments and corporations.

As the neo-Luddites drown out the voices of progress, the ability of true progressives (i.e., those individuals and organizations advancing progress) to drive development is diminished. It is unlikely, for example, that America will ever again lead the world in funding science and technology. We now rank 24th out of 39 nations in government-funded university research, behind the likes of South Korea, France, and Estonia. It is also unlikely that we will be able to enact sophisticated national innovation policies, such as those created by Denmark and Germany. There's too much mistrust of government in the US for that. Where we could still trump other nations is in our unalloyed embrace of progress, but we're at risk of losing our American exceptionalism as we become cautious and fearful. Ned Ludd would be proud.

It's time for true progressives of all political stripes to unite to reject neo-Ludditism in all its forms, to promote innovation and technology as a source of societal good, and to unabashedly embrace progress as a central tenet of success in the 21st century.

Note: If you want to assess your own view on progress, comparing yourself to others, take ITIF's progress test at

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Robert Atkinson is president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and co-author of the report "Are Robots Taking Our Jobs, or Making Them?" View Full Bio

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User Rank: Apprentice
4/2/2014 | 2:09:12 PM
Re: Legal Contstraints of Progress
I had a great deal of difficulty getting past all the fearmongering about the dangers of fearmongers. 
User Rank: Apprentice
3/31/2014 | 1:19:35 PM
Legal Contstraints of Progress
The oversupply of lawyers in the US is also an obstacle to progress.   The fear of lawsuits squelches all kinds of ideas in this country.  The costs to implement anything, extra testing, legal reviews, liability insurance, and even that extra time to market, puts a lot of good ideas out to pasture.
User Rank: Ninja
3/28/2014 | 2:28:00 PM
I think there is a lost element here.  Just because we can do something, doesn't mean we should.
I give
I give,
User Rank: Moderator
3/28/2014 | 11:32:41 AM
Re: earm my trust, and consider unintended consequences
That's about the size of it

But it's not easy either way

Trans fats (shortening and margarine) had benefits, made money, "fed" people and killed millions of them. Now it is declared non-food.  Could not have known the consequences at the time.  Natural or un-natural?  Not enough.  Jobs?  Not enough? Progress? Often confused with new, or with mere "change."

Only time will tell.  And you can rewrite history, but you can't undo the consequences of the past.
User Rank: Ninja
3/28/2014 | 9:29:33 AM
New tech is either made to money or abused right away
The problem is that with any new tech the two things that happen first is squeezing as much money out of it as possible or thinkg of ways on how to abuse it. That applies to corporations and administrations alike. Just look at the digital media revolution. New tech such as MP3 was released and the first things that happened was some abused it for sharing copyrighted content and others massively fought it because they could not figure out how to squeeze money from it. Then came Apple with the iPod and iTunes and made a successful business out of it. They figured out how to satisfy the need for quick access to music, but they demanded an excessive premium for it. By now many more sell the 99 cent song to everyone who is naive enough to subscribe to that one ecosystem. Distribution costs are less than a penny per song, much cheaper than CDs (which were always much cheaper to make and distribute than vinyl). And don't think even for a moment that artists get more money from all that. They remain at the short end of the stick although the ease of manufacture and distribution allows them new avenues. There are plenty of artists who ditch labels and distributors and sell their art directly to consumers.....something record labels fear the most.

Or a more recent example: the Internet of Things is starting to ramp up, but companies like Cisco are not looking for how they can use the new tech to fill the need of customers, the sole intention is to "monetize IoT". It also does not help that it isn't any longer considered a joke that the NSA collects all data from the Internet connected fridges or other IoT home automation just because they can.

Look at the invention of the Internat and the often noted "Mother of all Demos". That presentation of new technology was solely based on using new tech for making thuings better, creating more collaboration and information exchange for science and the greater good. It was not about new means of making as much cash as possible or tricking others into a trap. If new tech is to be broadly accepted then it needs to be made broadly available without restrictions and making just a few entities richer than they already are.
IW Pick
User Rank: Apprentice
3/27/2014 | 3:01:38 PM
earm my trust, and consider unintended consequences
I agree with the premise of your column, however, you're overlooking a significant barrier for those in the Luddite crowd. Specifically, that is Trust. Modern capitalism does not work without it. It took the Sherman AntiTrust Act of 1890 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 to stop monopolies and market collusion in order for investors to put their trust in the markets. Today's information technology does wonderful things, but we are fast approaching an inflection point where security and privacy issues (lack of trust) will have a negative effect on the whole system. Why should I bother registering my Starbucks Card online to reload it from my checking account and then pay for my latte with a barcode app on my phone, and risk my identity and finances to hackers, when a simple $5 bill will suffice. That's the question I put to you. Technology has made huge advances in the last decade, but the corporations have not truly put the customer's interests first. Perhaps they do, but look at Target's breach. Even the best laid plans are subject to unintended consequences or human mistakes. As for GMO crops, I think people look at the factory food industry and think, gee, in the beginning we all thought TV dinners were terrific but now that we look at the ingredients, maybe you shouldn't eat a lot of them. Likewise, maybe GMO is genius. Only the next 50 years will tell us what the unintended consequences are. Finally, we are in a time period where the government has a trust and credibility gap as well. So on behalf of us Luddites out there, don't tell me you care, show me.
Lorna Garey
Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
3/27/2014 | 12:33:24 PM
Hope from next generation
How much of this is due to an aging society? I have a daughter studying genetics now who gets amazingly irate at the GMO scare mongerers and essentially has the attitude: If we can do it, we should and see what happens. She's not alone -- I think that we just need to get the boomers out of they way!
User Rank: Ninja
3/26/2014 | 10:04:30 PM
Research Spending
Pretty scarry stuff. Do your figures include Military spending on pure and applied research?
User Rank: Ninja
3/26/2014 | 6:33:38 PM
Luddite Fan Club members incl industry giants
Except that the Luddites are Big Biz (like the RIAA/MPAA) that want to keep a chokehold on their respective gravy trains via litigation & laws passed by pet politicians and otherwise quash any tech that threatens its outdated/outmoded business model(s).
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