Ray Kurzweil Was Right: The Neo-Luddite Movement is Growing

By Mitchell Blatt | Uncategorized

Dec 02

Today, Will Oremus at Slate has quoted futurist Ray Kurzweil as predicting that people will be able to live forever. Kurzweil is known for making far fetched predictions about the future, but the broader trajectory of his predictions has generally been right: Technology is advancing at an impressive rate.

Oremus did point to Forbes writer Alex Knapp’s article that claimed that the predictions Kurweil made in The Age of Spiritual Machines were mostly wrong. Knapp does point out some that were objectively wrong (Translating telephones are in development, but the translations are of poor quality, and they are far from widespread usage.) and others that were arguably wrong, but there is at least one Knapp labeled as wrong that ended up being completely accurate.

“The neo-Luddite movement is growing.”

In more detail:

There is a growing neo-Luddite movement, as the skill ladder continues to accelerate upward. As with earlier Luddite movements, its influence is limited by the level of prosperity made possible by new technology. The movement does succeed in establishing continuing education as a primary right associated with employment.

There is continuing concern with an underclass that the skill ladder has left far behind. The size of the underclass appears to be stable, however. Although not politically popular, the underclass is politically neutralized through public assistance and the generally high level of affluence.

The Age of Spiritual Machines

Let’s see, the skill ladder is moving upward, and technological advances are making it easier for people to collaborate across borders, contributing to globalization and outsourcing fears. Writers and commentators are increasingly concerned about making sure our education system prepares workers for the knowledge economy. Sounds about right.

This is dangerous at a time when there is increasingly no such thing as a high-wage, middle-skilled job — the thing that sustained the middle class in the last generation. Now there is only a high-wage, high-skilled job. Every middle-class job today is being pulled up, out or down faster than ever. That is, it either requires more skill or can be done by more people around the world or is being buried — made obsolete — faster than ever.

Thomas Friedman, “Need a Job? Invent It”, March 30, 2013

If you see it when you go to a bank you use the ATM, you don’t go to a bank teller. Or you go to the airport and you use a kiosk instead of checking in at the gate.

Barack Obama, June 2011

From these concerns, movements have risen up concerned with “inequality.” The Occupy Wall Street movement’s message of “We Are the 99%” is related to the concerns that some percent of “underclass” will be left behind by economic developments.

The neo-Luddite movement uses those concerns to strike against the very technological developments that they see as driving this shift. The neo-Luddite movement isn’t confined to computer technology. There are also neo-Luddites attacking agriculture through the same prism. According to an ABC News poll, “52 percent believe such [genetically modified] foods are unsafe.” Propositions were on the ballot in California and Washington in 2012 and 2013 to label GMO foods, although they lost in both states. Even the anti-vaccination movement has gained steam in recent years, to the point that a presidential primary candidate, Michelle Bachmann, denounced vaccinations during the 2012 Republican primaries.

Ray Kurzweil works for Google, where he is currently trying to develop the ultimate AI brain. So it’s no surprise Google factors into the neo-Luddites’ arguments. They must be the scariest company in Silicon Valley for neo-Luddites, what with Google Glasses and driverless cars and everything.

Let’s go for the jugular, shall we. Here’s Glenn Beck talking about Google Glasses and Ray Kurzweil.

“This isn’t science fiction. This is science fact,” Beck said strongly. “The London Times just ripped me apart saying, ‘Oh, Glenn Beck’s afraid of the Terminator.’ No, I’m not…Read The Singularity by Ray Kurzweil, you pieces of garbage.”

“You people in the press, open your damn eyes!” Beck implored. “See the future that is just on the horizon! Read Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near! It’s not a movie! It’s real.”

And Beck said people tell him: “Don’t worry…Everybody’s going to be able to have Google glasses. Everybody’s going to be able to upload the information and enhance their intelligence.”

Glenn Beck, October 15, 2013

He also suggested that the advanced technology will be coupled with a global government and some kind of corporate-government hybrid, if I can make sense of this passage:

“There will be some IMF global tax that will add an extra 10% on everything. The people like me will be out of business, and the people that have done favors for this government will be in business. And they will be fine, and we’ll be the little worker bees,” he continued. “And they will test your children and train them from the very beginning to work for the corporation, be that Google, Microsoft, whatever it is.”

Glenn Beck, October 15, 2013

It is worth noting that advanced computer technology has in many ways broadened creative opportunities and cut down on barriers controlled by gatekeepers, but the conspiratorial neo-Luddite seems to think technology will usher in the above-mentioned tyranny and mind-numbing conformity-based corporate education. If Google, Facebook, and Twitter were so good for authoritarian states, something tells me China and Turkey wouldn’t have banned and/or regulated all three.

The predictions were originally called for by 2009, so most of the evidence I listed was indeed a few years late, but Knapp allowed in his article, “Since we’re now in the year 2012, I’ll even give him the benefit of the doubt and consider a prediction to be met if it was achieved by the end of the year 2011.” Again, a lot of evidence I listed was after 2011, but still, the trajectory of Kurzweil’s prediction was true, and it is only a matter of degrees.

Another possible exception Knapp could take to my argument is that the neo-Luddite movement hasn’t caught a critical mass. It was never Kurzweil’s argument that this movement would be a majority movement but only that it would be there and it would have a role in shaping the culture. Again, it is only an argument of to what degree the movement exists, not whether it exists or not. At worst, you could file the prediction under “partially met” and argue over how significant it is.

Like this article? Subscribe to receive articles and updates by email!

About the Author

Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist based in China. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, The Korea Times, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, The Hill.com, City Weekend, Silkwinds and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.

Follow Mitch on SNS
Mitchell Blatt is an intrepid travel writer, and an author of two top China guidebooks, who brings his readers deep into the cultures of the places he explores. Subscribe now to get real stories of real people in real places around the world delivered right to your inbox.