Hail, Luddites!

… you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this: everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal; anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it; anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Douglas Adams, How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet, The Sunday Times, 29/08/99

Earlier this week, I received an email from an administrator colleague asking if I would like to attend training on new voice recognition software. Currently, if I am sending a letter about a patient, I will dictate the letter which will then be typed by my admin support and sent back for checking. If I need to add notes to the patient records directly, I type them.

I have been told the new software is not designed to replace admin support regarding letters. Rather, it is designed to dictate entries for the case notes, thereby in theory saving me time. Given the need to recheck for typos before uploading to the case notes, I’m not convinced it will actually be time saving. Coupled with my niggling concern this is just an attempt to cut staffing numbers and see people out of work, and it’s fair to say I have not responded to the email with enthusiasm.

At the same time, there has been not inconsiderable hype around the release of ChatGPT in November last year. For those who have been nice and comfortable under their rock for the last couple of months, ChatGPT is a chatbot using artificial intelligence to answer questions posed to it by users. The results have been fairly impressive, and have caused more than a little concern across a range of industries.

I had been discussing ChatGPT with one of my more tech savvy colleagues at work. He had tried the software out, and had managed to get it to create a referral for an autism assessment which I could barely tell apart from a genuine referral.* My colleague had been rather impressed by the things he could do with ChatGPT. Like the dictation software at work, I just found myself wondering why?!

Am I out of touch? No, it’s the children who are wrong

The title of this section is a quote from my all time favourite programme The Simpsons. In the episode The Boy Who Knew Too Much, Principal Skinner finds himself asking whether he is out of touch with popular culture and decides no, it is the children embracing pop culture who are mistaken. If you have not seen the episode itself but spent any time online, you will have almost certainly seen the two panel meme created from the scene.

When I think about ChatGPT or my invite to use new dictation software, I find myself asking a similar question. Should I be embracing new technology and running with it or is new technology going too far and needs reining in?

Without thinking too deeply about it, my initial thought is no to the first part and yes to the second. Technology is supposed to be there to make life easier, but it seems instead to be simply a way to create more work for us rather than less.

At the same time, given I am the wrong side of thirty, am I subject to the rules set out by Douglas Adams which I have referenced at the start of this post? Do I find technology invented (or at least introduced to me) after my thirtieth birthday too close to world ending that it needs to be banned? Am I becoming a Luddite?

Arise Jamie Ludd

I would assume most of you reading this have an idea in mind as to what a Luddite is. For me, they were workers in the early 19th Century who organised a machine breaking protest to stop their jobs being taken by those very machines. Like most things in history, this is not the whole picture, but for our purposes I think it will do as a potted history (although I would of course encourage you to read more about the Luddite movement in your own time, homework if you will…).

It seems then there are two important facets to being a Luddite; the destruction of new technology and doing this for the purposes of protecting their jobs.

If we consider those two elements of the Luddite cause, then it would appear I am not even close to being able to wear the badge Luddite. Far from actively destroying technology, most of the time I am simply choosing not to use that which I find unnecessary. At my most strenuous I am complaining to colleagues and writing a strongly worded email. It is hardly a march to the server room with sledge hammer in hand.

I’m also not particularly concerned with my job being lost, at least not from the dictation software I am to be trained on (though as I have said above I am worried about someone else seeing their job disappear. Maybe that makes me a semi-Luddite…). Interestingly, a couple of years ago I wrote about the idea of my job as a psychiatrist being replaced by machines, where I considered what my job entailed and how to automate it. At the time I did not come down definitively one way or the other regarding my opinion of new technology, but did conclude large parts of my role are open to automation. Worryingly, something like ChatGPT is exactly what I felt would be needed to start replacing me as a psychiatrist. Maybe my days are numbered…

Neo-Luddism, or everything sounds better with a bit of Greek tacked on

I am far from the first person to think about the possibility technology is advancing too quickly/in the wrong direction and to consider the use of the term Luddite for technologies detractors. Most of the time Luddite is used as a pejorative. I have used it myself, usually in jest when some family member or friend is moaning about some piece of technology or other. It does not have to necessarily be a pejorative though, with some embracing the term Neo-Luddism to encompass a philosophy opposed to modern tech, in part or even as a whole.

Neo-Luddism can be a rather broad, catch all term. It seems to cover everything from opposing workers losing their jobs to environmental concerns, a desire to return to a more simple agricultural existence, through to violence and sadly murder, the latter two elements I can never advocate or support.

Take Ted Kaczynski as an extreme example of a Neo-Luddite. Better known as The Unabomber, Kaczynski terrorised the US in the 80s and early 90s by mailing bombs to a variety of institutions across the country all while living in a cabin in the woods of rural Montana. Three people died and twenty-three were injured when those bombs detonated.

Kaczynski was acting, in his mind at least, in opposition to modern technology and what he saw as the collapse of society. He authored a manifesto Industrial Society and Its Future in which he advocated for a more primitive lifestyle, and as I said lived off grid in a cabin in the woods. Had he stuck to the writing and living by example, he could be a poster boy for the Neo-Luddites, though of course without the bombings it is likely most people would never have heard of him.

Violence was always a feature of the Luddites. Typically this was the breaking of machinery, but could also extend to people getting in their way. The authorities in response were equally as violent, with the death penalty imposed on anyone convicted of breaking machines. Some might argue then that the use of violence now would simply be in the tradition of the first Luddites. I would wholeheartedly disagree. Violence might have seemed like the workers only option at start of the 19th Century, I would like to think we have more options available to us.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the idea of slowing life down, a Luddite position if ever there was one. In that post I wrote about the simple act of using the checkout queue at the supermarket with an operator over the self-service queue. This is a small act of defiance to the charge of modern technology, and in a small way opposes the idea of replacing employees with computers. Expanding this to other aspects of life seems like a worthy endeavour for the wannabe Luddite. Typically this will involve some degree of inconvenience to us in skipping the technological option, but in the longer run this may well end us saving more trouble from ever advancing technology.

Down with technology (written on a smartphone)

As far as I know, Luddites we’re not opposed to every piece of new technology. Their grievances were much more personal, their very livelihoods in fact. Some in the Neo-Luddite movement take the idea of technological opposite far beyond just that which causes clear harm to people to oppose modern tech in most forms.

As I said at the beginning of this post, technology is supposed to make life easier for us, and lots of technology does just that. Opposing modern technology entirely feels like an unnecessary hardship we would be imposing upon ourselves. After all, one defining feature of humans as a species is tool use. But finding a balance where tools, technology, benefits us without harming people, society or the environment seems like a lofty goal. This balance will depend very much upon each piece of technology and the needs of the individual user. Simply opposing all new tech or embracing it unquestioningly feel like two equally silly positions to take. Like most things in life, moderation is key.

I suspect I will continue to have a love-hate relationship with modern tech moving forwards. I will attend the dictation software training while grumbling about the newfangled thingamajig. I will most likely avoid the use of ChatGPT unless I am made to use it for work after some bizarre train of events sees it useful. For now the pitchfork and the sledgehammer will remain firmly locked away, and I cannot see a time when they will need to be released**. Finding the balance will be a lifelong challenge, one I suspect all of us will battle with no matter how much of a technophobe we are to begin with.

* OK in reality it was very good, but far too vague with no specifics for the issues raised. My understanding is this is a common result for ChatGPT, where the answers are superficially very good, but lack any kind of depth. After all, it is still an experimental programme.
** Of course, if the AI apocalypse does happen and robots run amuck, then all bets are off…

2 thoughts on “Hail, Luddites!

  1. I just posted about ChatGPT myself, and am very impressed by the peripheral features instead of simply asking it to write stuff. Particularly in bouncing ideas off of for my fiction. Am super interested to see how it develops, even though it could probably take over my job through its next iteration, lol.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can’t deny it is interesting, but as you can probably guess from my post I’ve not really explored what it can do in any great detail. A muse does sound like a useful tool, perhaps I could be persuaded…


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