In the early 19th century, Luddites violently protested advances in textiles technology, such as wide-framed looms that could be operated by cheap, relatively unskilled labor. The Luddites complained that the improved technology would result in the loss of jobs for skilled textile workers. Interestingly, they didn’t argue that the machines were wicked or cursed by God; theirs was an argument from economic self-preservation (as they saw it).
Today, there are few, if any, people in the world whose wardrobes don’t include machine-made fabrics. The Luddites lost their battle, and the result was genuine progress. While some skilled weavers and knitters did indeed have to find alternative ways of making a living, for the vast majority of individuals, the invention of wide-frame looms, cotton gins, and similar technology resulted in a higher standard of living. There is no need to argue the relative merits of machine-made versus hand-woven fabric to conclude that the odds are slim of suppressing a technology that will improve the lives of almost everyone.
Today, it’s impossible to read through a newspaper or news website without seeing at least one or two discussions of the evils of one technology or another. The modern version of the Luddites have far ranging choices of technologies about which to complain, in almost every field of human endeavor. Job loss is still one focal point, even as it becomes evident that new technologies are creating at least as many productive roles as they eliminate (at least for now). Hitting more at the emotional gut level than at the practicality of job loss are arguments that such new technologies are inherently frightening or even evil. But in the end, when there’s a medical procedure that will save his child’s life, or allow his child to live a normal, healthy life rather than a life of suffering, almost every father–even one who has loudly argued that genetic engineering is evil–will choose to let his child be healed.
Most individuals will choose life rather than death, radiant health rather than illness, a good night’s sleep rather than unrelenting pain. People will buy the nano-particle sunblock that goes on clear and non-greasy rather than white and gooey. Tomorrow, they will buy a molecularly manufactured toaster for $2 rather than a $25 “traditionally” manufactured model.
For as long as we have any freedom of choice in how to live our lives, our choice regarding technological advancement is not whether or not to allow it to happen but, rather, how to deal with it. And there are ethical concerns and practical quandaries in tomorrow’s imminent technologies that we need to address now.
To be continued