Spike those “Luddite” Awards: Not all innovation is good

Frame-breakers, or Luddites, smashing a loom. Machine-breaking was criminalized by the Parliament of the United Kingdom as early as 1721, the penalty being penal transportation, but as a result of continued opposition to mechanisation the Frame-Breaking Act 1812 made the death penalty available.
Luddites attacking powered looms, 1812 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) published its annual “Luddite Awards” for 2014 and 2015. These would-be rogues galleries target organizations or individuals who, in ITIF’s judgment, “did the most to smash the engines of innovation.”

The principal “winner” of ITIF’s derogatory honor in 2014 was the collection of state governments that prohibited Tesla from selling its electric cars directly to consumers, bypassing dealerships. For the past year, ITIF allocated its chief Luddite dishonor to “a loose coalition of scientists and luminaries who stirred fear and hysteria in 2015 by raising alarms that artificial intelligence (AI) could spell doom for humanity,” including Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking.

This was dumb when it started, is dumb now, and will be dumb while it persists.

The use of such public insult badges has been a common ploy of Washington operatives, going back at least to the “Golden Fleece Awards” bestowed monthly by Senator William Proxmire (D, WI) from 1975 to 1988. The Washington Post once called Proxmire’s Order of the Golden Fleece “the most successful public relations device in politics today.”

Proxmire’s shaming trope was nominally aimed at the often-execrated Washington triumvirate of “waste, fraud, and abuse.” But from the first award onward the booby prize often aimed at government-supported research.

Ironically, ITIF has adopted a practice that was often criticized for being subversive of science and innovation.

In his book Creativity, Inc., Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull argues that the Golden Fleece Awards had a serious chilling effect: “…failure was being used as a weapon, rather than as an agent of learning.” Catmull observes that the awards provoked a fear of public humiliation that in turn discouraged the risk-taking that discovery, innovation, and learning thrive on.

Perhaps ITIF’s use of this crass tactic was intended to curry favor with the handful of tech companies who provide most of ITIF’s funding, by roasting their political adversaries. Yet it is just the sort of snarky insider behavior that has made “Washington” and “inside the Beltway” popular terms of derision.

On top of that, for ITIF’s patrons the tactic, however cathartic, is more likely to be counterproductive than useful. In “tit-for-tat” politics, actions tend to produce contrary reactions. Political insults commonly aggravate resentment and resistance; they do more to provoke opposition than to temper it.

The premise of ITIF’s awards is also false.

ITIF’s presumption is that all innovation is good and anyone who questions it is a “Luddite” to be disdained and ignored. But this one-dimensional view of innovation is both unrealistic and perverse.

In a paper for a Commerce Department workshop on “Innovation’s Vital Signs” several years ago, I argued that it’s important to consider what innovation is for, and to recognize that innovation may be bad as well as good:

Mere boosterism may be satisfied with an agnostic notion of innovation—indifferent to innovation’s actual consequences as long as they stimulate economic activity. But if value-free innovation is the benchmark…, it follows that “clusters” of global terror and criminal networks…are among the world’s leading models of “best practices.”

The original Luddites (followers of an insurgent laborer named Ned Ludd) did not seek to stop all innovation in the textile industry. They went around smashing machines that threatened—quite realistically—to put them out of work. I don’t often find economist Paul Krugman’s arguments agreeable, but I think he made a fair point in his sympathetic comment on the Luddites:

“How are those men, thus thrown out of employ to provide for their families?” asked the petitioners. “And what are they to put their children apprentice to?”

Those weren’t foolish questions. Mechanization eventually … led to a broad rise in British living standards. But it’s far from clear whether typical workers reaped any benefits during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution; many workers were clearly hurt. And often the workers hurt most were those who had, with effort, acquired valuable skills—only to find those skills suddenly devalued.

ITIF’s ad hominem labeling is a dishonest—but sadly common—way of curtailing debate about problems innovation raises.

It’s not that I’m unsympathetic to ITIF’s consternation with exaggerated risk aversion. Some of the alarums critics raise—such as the supposed hazards of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), electromagnetic field (EMF) radiation, or vaccination—are unsubstantiated or contradicted by scientific evidence, or are just bogus.

But the intellectually honest way to respond to distorted worries is to point out their errors, not to just smear all skeptics or critics with a derogatory label like “denier” or “Luddite.”

Are the proponents of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (to curtail the spread of nuclear weapons) or the Montreal Protocol (to remove ozone-destroying chemicals from commercial use) all mere Luddites?

ITIF President Rob Atkinson, who to my knowledge has made no substantive contributions to science and technology, presumes to denigrate Elon Musk, Stephen Hawling, Steve Wozniak, George Church, and dozens of other accomplished scientists and engineers as Luddites—for daring to raise concerns about the potential hazards of AI and killer robots. But there is at least a plausible hazard of artificial intelligence spiraling out of human control, or even being unintentionally harmful. And robotic warriors, whose central purpose is to kill people, violate by design Isaac Asimov’s basic laws of robots, the first of which was:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Was Asimov also a Luddite?

ITIF’s dubious awards so far have garnered little attention. So at best they have been ineffective. But if they ever did “go viral,” it surely would follow that an adversary organization would start to issue something like “Frankenstein Awards” for techno-enthusiasts who are blindly indifferent to the monsters their tinkering might spawn. The end result will only be more political heat and less civic light.


Originally published in Medium. February 25, 2016.