What if technical progress makes people’s lives worse? Stop feeding the beast

“In the nineteenth century, English textile workers reacted to the introduction of new technologies in the factory by shattering the looms that caused people to lose jobs, starve and die. This movement has been ridiculed by scholars as an archaic and ineffective attempt to stop the course of history. But it embodies the antagonistic relationship between all working people (including us today), and the so-called progressive advances in new technologies. The Luddites were not archaic and they are still showing themselves in the 21st century, “- from the annotation to Gavin Mueller’s book” The Luddites Were Right About Why You Hate Your Job. “

Today this problem is urgent again. Tech giants Facebook, Google and Amazon are symbols of technological progress and the computer revolution. Transnational corporations with a capitalization of trillions of dollars, the banner of the Internet economy, the pride of Silicon Valley.

But the voices of “modern Luddites” are heard louder and louder, who doubt that the interests of techno-corporations coincide with the interests of society. Is technological progress able to worsen people’s lives? Is this possible in principle?

l1.pngWait, some luddite wants to talk to me face to face

“Harmful” progress

First, this is really possible. Throughout the development of human civilization, we have repeatedly seen how technological progress objectively worsened the conditions of human life. Although at the same time it contributed to the growth of population and the spread of human DNA, which is the main “task” of evolution, and not at all the well-being or happiness of individual individuals (temporary carriers of DNA).

One of the striking examples is the agrarian revolution about 10,000 years ago. For about three million years, hunters and gatherers led a healthy lifestyle, did not work particularly hard, found more varied and enjoyable occupations, and did not suffer from hunger especially. Thanks to the agrarian revolution, a population explosion took place on Earth and an elite arose – but an ordinary farmer worked harder and ate worse than a hunter or gatherer.

Our sapiens bodies are not designed for such tasks. Studies of ancient skeletons have shown that with the emergence of agriculture, many diseases appeared: displacement of discs, arthritis, hernia. The work took so long that people literally had to live close to their fields and work from morning till night and eat mainly grains, which are poorly digested, teeth and gums suffer from them. This dependence on several natural cultures gave rise to epidemics: people in thousands and millions died of hunger during periods of poor harvest.

l2.pngReconstruction of Chatal Huyuk, one of the largest settlements on Earth in 7000 BC. Source: Sapiens. A Brief History of Humanity, Yuval Noah Harari

Until now, in the third world countries, millions of people live in slave conditions in rural areas, from morning till night they are engaged in heavy physical labor in the field, they are poorly fed and sick. The life of office “slaves” is not much better. An ancient hunter would never have agreed to work on the “owner” for 8-10 hours a day. These are remnants of the agrarian revolution.

Peasant life brought people as a society protection from wild animals, rain and cold. But for each person individually, the disadvantages outweighed the advantages. We in our modern prosperous societies can hardly imagine this. Since we live in security and abundance, and our security and abundance flow from the foundations laid by the agrarian revolution, we naturally perceive this revolution as the greatest progress. However, it is fundamentally wrong to assess millennia from the point of view of the present day. Try to imagine a three-year-old girl in 1st century China. Would she say, dying of malnutrition: “Yes, I am sorry to die, but after two thousand years people will have plenty of food, and they will live in large houses with air conditioning, so I am not dying in vain”? – Sapiens. A Brief History of Humanity, Yuval Noah Harari.

In The Selfish Gene, British biologist Richard Dawkins presents a gene-centric view of evolution. This theory explains why individuals and humanity as a whole sometimes choose “disadvantageous” strategies and suffer in this way. For example, they sacrifice their lives for the sake of loved ones or sacrifice an entire generation for the future of humanity. In a sense, this is natural behavior, if you follow the geno-centric logic. The main goal of DNA replicators is to make as many copies of themselves as possible, and the fate of the temporary “shell” (human or animal bodies) is not so important compared to genes, which will live for millions or billions of years.

l3.pngPattern: New Statesman

Now we are faced with this problem again. Sacrifice the current generation in a 21st century technological meat grinder for the future of humanity?


In 1995, Wired magazine editor-in-chief and techno-optimist Kevin Kelly interviewed the strange character Kirkpatrick Sale. He called himself a neoluddite and had just written a book called Rebels Against the Future.


At that time, it was difficult to discern the future. Amazon had just opened, Apple was depressed, Microsoft had yet to launch Windows 95, and almost no one had a mobile phone. But Sale already felt that computer technology would make people’s lives much worse. Sale even rallied the Luddites for a January event in New York, where he attacked an IBM computer with a 5kg sledgehammer. It took him two blows to destroy the object, then he bowed and sat down, deeply satisfied.

Christopher Sale said 25 years ago that society is on the brink of collapse. He hoped that the few surviving people would unite in small groups, similar to tribes. They will not only be offline, the Internet will cease to exist altogether, which, according to Sale, will be just wonderful. On the ruins of the old civilization, a new one will rise.

On the other hand, the chief editor of Wired saw technology as an enriching force, believed in the opposite – that society would prosper.

In the last pages of his Luddite book, Sale predicted that society would collapse “in no more than a few decades.”

Kelly lured the interlocutor into a trap and asked when exactly this could happen. Sale was puzzled – he never gave a date. Finally, he blurted out: 2020. That seemed like a nice round number.

Then the editor asked how it was possible to determine if he was right in a quarter of a century. Sale improvisedly named three factors: an economic crisis that would devalue the dollar and cause a global depression even worse than in 1930; the rebellion of the poor against the rich; and a significant number of environmental disasters.

– Are you ready to bet on your point of view? Kelly asked.

“Of course,” said Sale.

And then Kelly slammed the trap. He came to Sale’s apartment with a check for $ 1,000 drawn into his joint account with his wife. And he handed it to the amazed interlocutor:

“I bet $ 1,000 that in 2020 we won’t even come close to the disaster you are describing,” he said.

Sale’s bank account could hardly have collected a thousand dollars. But he figured that if he lost, then in 2020 a thousand dollars would still be worth much less – and agreed. Kelly suggested that they both send their checks for safekeeping to William Patrick, the editor who had worked on both Sale’s Luddite book and Kelly’s recent essay on robots and artificial life.

And now twenty-five years later, the deadline has come. 2020 year. People are locked in self-isolation. The income gap between rich and poor has never been greater since the Great Depression. California and Australia are on fire. It’s time to calculate. Much more than money was at stake: the bet was a showdown between two fiercely opposing views of the nature of progress. In times of climate crisis, pandemic and predatory capitalism, is optimism about the future of humanity still justified? Kelly and Sale represent two extreme radical views. This bet must be a personal confirmation – or denial – of their entire journey in life.

l5.pngThose checks, photo: Wired

After 25 years, it became obvious that Sale put himself at a disadvantage and chose the most negative scenario, which did not formally materialize. But in essence the world is moving in the direction he pointed out.

Of course, this is not the end of civilization, but we see a threat to the dollar (cryptocurrency), environmental stability (global climate change) and social stability (for example, in the United States, Trumpists walk the streets with automatic weapons).

What to do?

If we take the specific problem of the dominance of tech corporations on the Internet, then we can beat the enemy with his weapon. Use technology to defend yourself.

Stop feeding the beast

From the neoluddite perspective, modern tech giants like Google and Facebook are like a giant beast that sucks information out of people – and uses it for profit. This is called surveillance capitalism, a system based on surveillance.

“Stop feeding the beast,” says German programmer Kaspar von Wrede to all web developers, urging them to abandon Google services, primarily Google Analytics.


There was a time when Google was a small agile company with a single product so amazing it blew away the competition. This time is long gone.

Google is a giant multinational mega-corporation these days. This is even an understatement. The author represents Google as a kind of Godzilla, which, on the one hand, absorbs data about its users, and on the other hand, issues gold bars. Google is doing the same on a massive scale.

The success of Google, the amazing efficiency of the platform and the genius of its engineers are terrible for us and for society, writes Kaspar. You need to understand that Google is not a search engine, but an advertising platform. All of its products are focused on selling advertising. Most are free, many are useful, and some are great. But they all exist to absorb more data so that Google can sell ads even better.

The bottom line is visible in the search results, where it is more and more difficult to highlight ads.

l7.pngHow Google’s ad design has changed

This isn’t the kind of evolution you’d expect from a company that loves its users. This is the evolution of a mega-corporation that wants even more profit.

Many Google products have an absolutely staggering market share. Google has nine products with over a billion users. Chrome is the most popular browser. Android is the most popular OS on mobile devices.

Given the near-monopoly on the online advertising market (a duopoly with Facebook), Google’s revenue is huge: about $ 180 billion in 2020, roughly the same as New Zealand’s GDP.

Google Analytics is the most popular website statistics tool. More than 53% of all sites on the Internet track their visitors using Google Analytics. It is the most popular third-party request on the Internet, accounting for 0.64% of all network requests on the Internet.

This is actually not such a good script: it is overblown, slowing down your site’s loading speed. Most webmasters don’t need all of these features. It disturbs users. Plus, it is blocked by many browsers, so it returns inaccurate results.

Google does not disclose exactly how the corporation uses the data internally. But there is no need for special imagination to guess. It seems pretty obvious that they are using this information to absorb more data and produce more gold bars.

So are there any alternatives? Of course, there are many alternatives, including free ones and on their own hosting.

If you want to make the world a better place, stop feeding the beast.

And remember that Google is just one manifestation of the scientific and technological revolution that requires a revision of many of the legal, social and moral norms by which society functions. Technology is dramatically changing people’s lives. Our task is to act as carefully as possible so that the current generation of temporary sapiens does not suffer too much in this meat grinder, like our ancestors during the agrarian and industrial revolutions. In the future, everything will work out – and DNA will most likely continue its replication in more adapted membranes.

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