Primal Numbers – The New Luddites

You probably wouldn’t trade your smart phone for a mechanical loom, but they’ve got a lot more in common than you think. From smashing cotton looms to attacking Google Glass users, the fight against technology is nothing new. But are today’s tech haters really the new Luddites?or the voice of reason in a fight to protect your privacy?

It’s easy to dismiss the original Luddites as short-sighted opponents of progress. After all, the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution brought us most of the modern benefits we have today?everything from cars to dishwashers to computers. But those machine-smashing workers of the 1800s had a point. They were fighting against new technology that was, in many ways, making life worse.

Gig mills, for example, were cutting-edge technology that sped up production and reduced the need for workers. Instead of requiring 100 hours worked by one adult, the gig mill could accomplish the same job in a fraction of the time, and only needed an adult and two child labourers (at lower wages, of course). Still more workers were displaced by shearing frames, which cut the time needed for shearing cloth down by three quarters.

And that was just the tip of the industrial iceberg. New technology allowed for unskilled labour working for lower pay, soul-crushing days in factories filled with the clang of machines, and families being forced to leave the relative freshness of the countryside for the squalor of tenements in their search for employment.

Fast forward to 2014 and the attacks on Google Glass users.

In case you don’t know, Google Glass is one of the latest pieces of wearable tech. It’s a tiny computer mounted on a pair of glasses and, as this Telegraph article explains, it allows users “to film what they see, or to discreetly browse the internet, using voice commands to summon information on a small screen in their peripheral vision.”

This is very cool?unless you don’t want to be filmed without your permission. And That’s where several Glass users have run into trouble, facing everything from personal assaults to having their expensive new pieces of tech destroyed. The hub of the protests, so far, has been in San Francisco, where some bars have actually banned the devices in response to attacks.

Of course, smart phones and camcorders can record you too, but It’s fairly obvious when someone’s pointing a camera or phone at you. The problem with Google Glass seems to be its discreetness. Who can tell whether the Glass wearer across the restaurant or subway car is simply staring out the window or filming your every move?

And That’s where Glass and the gig mill become historical cousins. There’s nothing wrong with the inventions themselves, but they’re both part of the power struggle That’s inevitably created by new technology?a struggle that, in the 21st century, is about privacy instead of steam power.

And the war over digital privacy is about much more than Google Glass. It’s about how we’re being tracked on the Internet. How much of our data the social media sites are selling. How ebooks track our reading habits, and the way loyalty cards feed corporations every last detail of what we bought and when we bought it. Those slightly geeky-looking spectacles are just an outward symptom on which to vent our anger.

The question is should we be fighting it? Those 17th-century workers would no doubt be pleased to see how society eventually adapted to the Industrial Revolution. It took time and struggle, but governments brought in laws to abolish child labour. Workdays were shortened. Unions bargained for fair wages. A rising middle class enjoyed greater leisure time and access to consumer goods. And That’s not even counting improvements in things like sanitation and health care.

Still, privacy is a far different matter than wages or the length of a workday. The digital revolution we’re part of has incredible benefits, but it also has the potential to create a surveillance society. You only have to read Brave New World or Fahrenheit 451 to understand the dangers in that, and scan the latest headlines to realize It’s not a far-fetched scenario.

As Edward Snowden revealed, governments in supposedly free countries conduct mass spying on their own citizens. In Canada, for example, the CBC reports that CSEC “used information from the free internet service at a major Canadian airport to track the wireless devices of thousands of ordinary airline passengers for days after they left the terminal.”

And as the Guardian reports, Snowden recently testified that in the US “the National Security Agency?for which he worked as a contractor?had deliberately snooped on bodies like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.” If knowledge truly is power, the last thing we need is governments spying on reputable organizations that protect basic human rights. Especially if we ever decide to challenge the government.

So, are the Glass breakers right? Or are they simply the new Luddites, too short-sighted to see the incredible benefits we’ll enjoy thanks to the digital revolution?

The key is that It’s not about the technology. It’s about how we adapt to it. The rules we make to ensure that It’s used fairly and to benefit the masses, not just the few in control. Fundamentally, cotton mills and the Internet are nothing more than tools. It’s how we use them that makes the difference.

Will this digital revolution end as well as the industrial one? Not without its own struggles for power. And how those will turn out is anyone’s guess, because not even Google Glass can see into the future.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.

While a couple Primal Numbers columns were nominated this one struck me as the type of Primal Numbers I like to have, one that looks both at the here and now of the technology, as well as the wider implications of it for future.