Dan Lyons: Are Luddites Confused? (1979, Inquiry)



2.      Lyon’s definition of Luddism

         a.      General opposition to tech “progress”

         b.      General presumption that tech ‘progress’ is bad for us, so tech innovation not a true achievement

         c.      Luddism is not just opposition to this or that tech

3.      Lyons attempts to provide a systematic justification for a general dislike of tech progress

4.      Definition of technology

         a.      Any set of techniques that make possible dramatic new ways of changing world suddenly in pursuit of a definite goal

         b.      If poetical technique could outdo engineers in changing world by spreading new religion, he’d be more concerned with it

5.      Lyons’ tries to show that Luddism is deserving of serious consideration and is not ridiculous position many paint it to be



7.      Tech powers misused will cause more harm than good

8.      Such harmful misuse is likely

9.      Tech powers likely to be misused because

         a.      Superhuman powers go sour with merely human wisdom

         b.      Know-how tends to inherently pull ahead of know-whether

                   i.       Know-how without know-whether is dangerous incompetence

10.    Dangerous to further empower a fallible humanity

11.    Dramatic, half blind changes resulting from tech will damage world’s (human and natural) systems swamping their adjustment mechanisms



13.    Opponents of Luddism (technophiles=lovers of tech) claim tech is neutral

         a.      No new development is either peaceful or warlike (good or bad); anything can be used in a variety of ways

14.    Should blame people--not tech--for the bad things done with tech

         a.      Even if bad things have happened that would not have happened in pre-technical society, foolish to blame these troubles on tech

                   i.       Blame people who use tech for evil, not tech

         b.      “Blaming the tech is like blaming the crucifixion on existence of hammers and nails”

15.    Worries about the tech is neutral idea

         a.      This is like saying that if guns get in the hands of children we shouldn’t blame guns, but rather blame the children

                   i.       What about blaming the adults who allow this?

         b.      Do we want to say that nuclear bombs or poison on the one hand, and guitars and bikes on the other are equally neutral?



17.    Technology is the major contemporary form of power

         a.      Agrees with Kingsnorth

18.    Rejects idea that power is valueless until used for good or ill

19.    **Power should be positively or negatively valued in a context, depending on how it is LIKELY to be used (and not how it could--or should--be used)

         a.      So tech/power is not neutral, but has a value given a context

         b.      That power might be used for good doesn’t make it valuable (nor does fact it might be used for bad make it disvaluable)

         c.      How power is likely to be used is what counts

         d.      Example: 8 year old with a car might take a sick person to hospital, but since bad results are much more likely, his having this power in this context is bad


20.    Power not itself to be admired, only power/tech used well

         a.      Power/skill not a good in all circumstances

         b.      We pity, not admire, someone who can achieve her short range goals (has power), but this very success blocks her long range goals

                   i.       Unlucky/bad to posses the power that destroys you

21.    Karate expert example

         a.      Person learns karate, grows overconfident, picks fight with a man w/gun and dies

         b.      He knew how to fight with armed man in safest way possible

         c.      Forgot that safe wasn’t safe enough

         d.      Didn’t know enough not to fight at all

         e.      Blame his fighting skill for this bad end

                   i.       Overconfidence from karate skill caused his death by tempting him into a fight he could not survive.

         f.       Such a skill was bad for this person

22.    Powers are multipliers: Increases value of wisdom and disvalue of folly

         a.      Example: Speed a defect in a blind horse even before he uses it; better if blind horse is slow

         b.      To a fool, power adds disvalue to his folly; Fool better off weak

23.    Question: Is it true we should not admire power/tech in itself?

         a.      Examples: 8 year old with car keys, overconfident person with karate skills, speed of the blind horse

         b.      The power/tech to go into outer space that humans have developed is not to be admired for its own sake, but only if it is used well (or likely to be?)



25.    Know-how = cleverness

         a.      Skill of achieving narrow well defined objectives; effectively gets you what you want at any given moment

         b.      Know-how advances quickly and easily

         c.      Specialized tunnel vision advances knowledge quickly

26.    Know-whether = wisdom

         a.      Broader, more difficult kind of knowledge, predicting and evaluation all relevant consequences

         b.      Know-whether includes getting right values/virtues (caring about future’s and other’s interests) and predicting all consequences of our actions/tech

27.    Humans show no noticeable progress in getting these virtues of wisdom

28.    Know-how tends to inherently pull ahead of know-whether

         a.      Knowledge of the consequences of using our technologies always lags behind knowledge of how to build them

                   i.       Very difficult knowledge to achieve

         b.      No reason to expect know-whether to catch up with know-how

                   i.       And without it, know-how will go bad

29.    Know-how is dangerous incompetence without know-whether

30.    We now have staggering powers, only a small defect in know-whether (prudence, beneficence, wisdom) will produce a catastrophe

31.    Too bad we got so clever

         a.      If not yet too clever to survive w/o wisdom, we are close

         b.      We should be in no hurry for more cleverness (i.e., technology)

         c.      Humans too clever/powerful given our lack of wisdom


32.    Examples suggesting we don’t have enough wisdom

         a.      Better if not developed factory fishing vessels given “strip mining the seas”

         b.      Imported ferocious African bee example                           

                   i.       Scientist used 50 times more care ever used before

                   ii.      But not enough (need 100 times the care)

                            (1)    Bees escaped killing livestock and people

                   iii.     Scientist not blamed for not taking enough care

                            (1)    He was promoted

         c.      Human standards of due care rise slowly

33.    Unlikely enough care will be used with new materials/tech requiring huge new increases in care/safe handling

         a.      We should not deal with materials that require quantum jump in caution to handle safely

         b.      Can’t expect requisite caution to be exercised



35.    Random changes are enemy of system (organization)

         a.      There are more ways for a system to change for worse than for better

                   i.       Kid asking father why his things are so often out of place

                   ii.      More places for things to be out of place than in place

         b.      Random/blind changes more likely to make matters worse (in organized systems)

         c.      E.g.: Blind man thrusting screwdriver into a watch to fix it more likely to wreck it than do it any good



         a.      **I would like you to know this argument**

37.    Our acts (tech innovations) have two types of results: Blind (unforseen) and sighted (foreseen)

38.    (If we are rational) foreseeable consequences are likely to be good (Why?)

39.    Unforseen consequences of dramatic innovations will be both good and bad, but they are more likely to be bad

         a.      Because such innovation is blindly impinging on human and natural systems and blind change tends to bring disorder to systems (see above)

40.    So when unforseen consequences far outweigh the foreseeable ones, net result will be bad (do more harm than good)

41.    Unforseen consequences of recent tech far outweigh foreseeable ones (a crucial difference between modern and traditional techs)

         a.      Reason: Because they are so powerful

42.    Therefore, it is likely that future tech developments will cause more harm than good; thus Luddism is rational



         a.      (Do they outweigh foreseeable ones?)

44.    Cars: People saw that car would give us new mobility, no one predicted startling effect on family, city, atmosphere, and world-crises in Middle East

45.    Climate change

46.    Lyons’ argument justifies(?) fear of global climate change:

         a.      We should be worried about global warming as most of the consequences are unforeseeable

         b.      We should be worried about climate change because we are making blind changes in a complicated system

         c.      Thus we should expect changes on balance to be overall bad (though some good will come about too).

                   i.       Could be that human-caused changes to atmosphere will do more good than harm, but why expect blind lunges into natural systems to be beneficial?

         d.      Also, natural and human systems adapted to current climate.



         a.      Reply: Not clear given increase in total misery

48.    Who is better off: Middle class Westerners? Most people? Average person? Worst off people?

49.    Even if greater numbers or greater % today better off, absolute numbers of people are worse off

         a.      More people live without electricity today due to increased population than before this technology

         b.      Before sci revolution, ½ billion lived w/o electricity; today billion or more do

50.    In absolute terms, human misery increased since sci/tech revolution

51.    Deformed child analogy:

         a.      Which is better?

         b.      Family with two deformed children whose lives are miserable, one healthy, happy child (2/3 miserable)

         c.      Or family with four deformed miserable children and eight healthy happy ones? (Only 1/3 miserable)

         d.      Is this an improvement? (Lyons thinks not)

         e.      Idea that we are better off today is supported by one’s chances of being born well off today are better in this example

52.    If in 2013, 1/3 of 7 billion are miserable due to famine, poverty etc, this would be 4-5 times the misery of before the advent of modern science (½ a billion)

53.    Also we now have threat of nuclear war (or terrorism); even if doesn’t happen this is a possibility

         a.      We are in a predicament not encountered by earlier people

         b.      Tech now left us to face possibility of annihilating ourselves

54.    Not ridiculous to say humans are worse off collectively in scientific age


55.    Luddism is reasonable attitude toward technology because

         a.      Reasonable for one who thinks tech likely to be misused to feel disenchanted with whole sci-technological world

         b.      If modern tech is likely to do more harm than good, rational to think it is bad for us and should oppose our acquiring this ability

Study questions for Lyon’s “Are Luddites Confused?”


1.         What is Lyons’ definition of Luddism?

2.         Explain Lyon’s defense of Luddism in his terms and then in your own plain language. What do you think of this argument?

3.         Explain the idea that technology is neutral and then explain Lyon’s response to it in his discussion of the supposed neutrality of “power.”

4.         What is the difference between “know-how” and “know-whether?” What does Lyons say about the relation of these two?

5.         Explain: “Blind change helps entropy.”

6.         State in detail Lyons abstract argument for why future technology likely to bring more harm than good. Assess this argument from your own perspective.

7.         On Lyon’s view, why should we expect the overall consequences of global warming to be bad?

8.         What is Lyon’s response to the argument that we are better off today than we were before the scientific revolution and the invention of modern technologies? Use his “deformed child analogy” to make his point. Assess this argument from your own perspective.