What if the future is not one where machines take our jobs, but rather one where a small segment of society hoards most of the wealth while the rest of us struggle to find meaning and purpose? What if it’s not a future that eliminates blue-collar jobs, but one where only those with access to capital can afford to participate in the digital economy? In today’s hyperconnected world, technology is ubiquitous and ever-present. We spend an average of nine hours a day interacting with digital devices. Technology has infiltrated almost every aspect of our lives—from the cars we drive to the groceries we buy. Everywhere you look, someone is talking about artificial intelligence, autonomous cars, or another new innovation that will transform our lives. The consensus appears to be that these innovations will make our lives better and more convenient. In response to this apparent techno-utopianism, a growing number of people have taken a position they call “neo-Luddism” or “anti-technology.” These individuals are convinced that modern technology is making our lives worse rather than better and should therefore be abandoned as quickly as possible. They believe that the negative effects of technology outweigh any benefits it might provide and that we would be better off if we reduced its influence in our everyday lives as much as possible.
When we examine the problems caused by technology, it becomes clear that technology is destructive in two ways: it causes direct harm and prevents us from engaging in beneficial activities. In terms of direct harm, technology is responsible for an array of social and ecological ills. Increased automation reduces the amount of human labor needed to produce commodities, which is especially troubling for workers in fields like manufacturing. Technological innovations such as genetically modified crops and synthetic fertilizer have caused extensive environmental damage. And technological innovations such as nuclear power plants have the potential to cause catastrophic damage. Technological innovations often prevent us from engaging in beneficial activities. To take one example, computer-mediated communication has reduced the amount of time we spend engaging in face-to-face interactions. This is problematic since face-to-face interactions are essential for building strong interpersonal relationships and a vibrant community. It enriches the owners of capital at the expense of everyone else, it replaces essential tasks with mundane ones, and it creates false necessities. First, technology enriches the owners of capital at the expense of everyone else. Capitalists use technology to increase their profits by reducing their labor costs and increasing the amount of commodities their workers produce. The owners of capital benefit from technology while everyone else is largely left out. This is because the benefits of technology are usually privatized while the costs are socialized. As a result, technology creates a widening chasm between the owners of capital and everyone else. Second, technology replaces essential tasks with mundane ones. In many cases, technology transforms tasks that are essential to our well-being into mundane, repetitive activities that are unfulfilling and, in some cases, actually harmful. An example of this would be the automation of childcare. Caring for children is an essential task that helps develop a child’s social skills and prepares them to be effective members of society. Automating this task converts it into a mundane, repetitive chore that is often unfulfilling and, in many cases, harmful to the child. Third, technology creates false necessities. Technological innovations often create false necessities and encourage people to engage in harmful activities. To take one example, advertising creates the false necessity of purchasing goods that we don’t actually need.
Anarchism is a political philosophy committed to the abolition of capitalism and the creation of a post-capitalist society based on voluntary cooperation and radical democracy. Anarchists believe that capitalism is a destructive force that leads to social inequality, poverty, and ecological destruction. In their view, we can construct a better world without capitalism by organizing democratically as autonomous groups committed to egalitarianism and solidarity. There are two important aspects of anarchism that are relevant to neo-Luddites. First, anarchism is not anti-technology. Rather, anarchism is anti-capitalist. Second, anarchism envisions a future where technology is democratically managed by autonomous groups and is used to reduce socially unnecessary labor and create a more equitable society. In other words, anarchism promotes the use of technology to reduce socially unnecessary labor and democratize the means of production. Neo-Luddites often make the claim that hunter-gatherer societies are ideal and that we should strive to emulate them. In reality, hunter-gatherer societies were often oppressive and hierarchical. They often had rigid gender norms, a lack of respect for LGBTQ+ people, and a tendency to engage in wars and conflicts. Neo-Luddites tend to overlook the fact that these societies were heavily dependent on technology, not the kind of technology that exists today but rather the technology of their time. As a result, attempts to emulate hunter-gatherer societies are futile since they are based on a false understanding of what these societies actually looked like. In order to move toward a more egalitarian society, neo-Luddites should focus their efforts on opposing the privatization of technology. In other words, neo-Luddites should focus their efforts on creating and maintaining spaces where technology is used for collective benefit rather than profit. They should also demand that existing technologies be used for collective benefit rather than for private profit. One useful strategy for opposing the privatization of technology is to create open-source, decentralized technologies. Open-source products are designed to be owned and controlled by their users rather than by their manufacturers. Decentralized technologies are controlled by a network of autonomous groups rather than a centralized organization. Neo-Luddites are often accused of being unrealistic in their vision for the future. Critics claim that they are blind to the benefits technology can provide and that they don’t have a realistic solution for how to end capitalism. While these criticisms are partially valid, neo-Luddites have an important insight into the future: the rise of neo-Luddism is a symptom of the increasing automation of labor. Automation is likely to lead to a reduction in the amount of socially necessary labor that people engage in. In other words, automation is likely to result in a reduction of the amount of work people are able to earn money from. Without work, people can’t consume commodities, which is necessary for capitalism to function. The rise of neo-Luddites is a sign of the automation of labor and the decline of socially necessary labor. With this in mind, we can envision a near-future where technology is used to reduce the amount of socially unnecessary labor. In this future, technology is used to automate as many tasks as possible. It is also used to reduce the amount of work necessary for basic survival by distributing the work necessary to maintain technology as widely as possible. This would allow more people to benefit from technology while simultaneously reducing the amount of socially unnecessary labor.
The future may not be one where machines take our jobs, but rather one where a small segment of society hoards most of the wealth while the rest of us struggle to find meaning and purpose. It may not be a future that eliminates blue-collar jobs, but one where only those with access to capital can afford to participate in the digital economy. And, increasingly, only those with access to technology will be able to participate in the digital economy. As a result, technology will have the effect of separating a small segment of society from the rest of us. It will create a world where the rich own all of the technology and the rest of us are reduced to consumers that are beholden to the whims of their owners. In this future, technology will be used to strip us of our autonomy and reduce our lives to endless toil and drudgery.