Against Ludditism

I came across this article on my friend’s Facebook feed and was fascinated by it, or at least by the attitude it represented. Here’s how it begins:

I was backing my wife’s car out of our driveway when I realized I wasn’t watching the backup camera, nor was I looking out of the rear window. I was only listening for those “audible proximity alerts” — the high-pitched beeps that my car emits as I approach an object while in reverse. The problem was that my wife’s car, an older model, doesn’t offer such beeps.

I had become so reliant on this technology that I had stopped paying attention, a problem with potentially dangerous consequences.

Backup cameras, mandatory on all new cars as of last year, are intended to prevent accidents. Between 2008 and 2011, the percentage of new cars sold with backup cameras doubled, but the backup fatality rate declined by less than a third while backup injuries dropped only 8 percent.

This speaks to a real problem: technology does force a certain atrophy of some of our senses or brain functions. I can remember most of my childhood best friends’ phone numbers – numbers I haven’t called in two decades, but other than my wife’s cell, I couldn’t recall from memory one phone number I’ve acquired since I started using cell phones. As for backup cameras, if I drive the large family minivan (which has a backup camera) for any extended period of time, I get a little discombobulated when I get into my Mazda (no camera).

And yet, what are the tradeoffs? While losing a cell phone used to mean all your contacts were gone forever, usually the files are recoverable thanks to modern software, apps, and other technologies. Now you have those contacts until the end of time, and you don’t have to rely on a faulty memory to call a friend you haven’t spoken to in years.

Look at those backup number stats. While the author seems to argue that the injuries and accidents haven’t gone down at the same rate as backup camera installations, they have gone down, and pretty significantly in terms of fatalities. In other words, it would seem that the use of backup cameras has been a net benefit.

The author cites other technological fails – the Boeing 737 Max 8 for one – as cause for concern over our reliance on technology. Nevermind that the mass commercial aircraft is itself a major technological change from, say, sailing across the water or relying on a horse and buggy to carry you across the country. While these air crashes and the deaths caused by automated vehicles create headlines and cause concern, left unaddressed is the important question: do these technologies create a net benefit? Often the answer is yes.

Let’s look at automated vehicles. While there’s still some work that needs to be done I’m sure, consider the alternatives. I recently sat through a presentation where someone mentioned he was an EMT, and was stunned when he sat around on a Friday night and there were no crashes on the Beltway. A colleague said to him that’s because younger people take Uber or Lyft when they leave the bars rather than get behind the wheel. Now, those Ubers and Lyfts are currently operated by humans, but nonetheless they’re examples of smart technological process. And as those vehicles become automated they will become cheaper, and their use more ubiquitous. The end result is likely to be even fewer roadside fatalities.

Automation doesn’t come without concerns. Those Uber and Lyft drivers will be out of jobs. Electrified vehicles also tend to come with less maintenance issues, so mechanics will also see a decline in work. Then there’s the fact that people do actually just like to drive. And yet, there will be obvious benefits: a decrease in fatalities and injuries, which will lead to fewer medical and repair costs. If we’re not spending money on mechanical repairs, we’ll be spending the money elsewhere in the economy. And while we might like the freedom of driving, the ability to get other stuff done while HAL 2000 takes you to work has a certain appeal as well. Thus, the benefits of automation will very likely outweigh the costs, and probably by a long shot.

Now, as a conservative I ought to be concerned about the unforeseen consequences of automation. I alluded to one above. There is a car culture, especially in America, and there is a psychological component to driving your car around. And yet, the car itself, like the plane, is new technology. The car is barely over a century old, and mass availability of cars is even newer. I’m sure people enjoyed riding on horses or in buggies, but they adapted. We love our cars because they’re what we’re used to. But I’m not sure it will be a huge societal loss if we personally drive them less, or even not at all.

I could spend another couple of thousand words speaking about the pros and cons of the internet, and what social media hath wrought, but I won’t (at least at this time). I will just leave with this: while a healthy suspicion of technology is a good and necessary thing, we ought to carefully weigh the benefits of these changes along with the costs. Are our lives made better through these changes, and if the answer is yes, then maybe we ought to be grateful for those changes instead of advocating a return to stick shift.