Beating Up the Future

A couple of months ago, I saw an extraordinary headline in the New York Times. It read, Wielding Rocks and Knives, Arizonans Attack Self-Driving Cars. I initially thought I’d misread it. It sounded like an Onion story. However, the story was legit.

Police reports obtained by local media suggest that the Chrysler Pacifica cars run by Google sister company Waymo have become a target for some disgruntled locals, with 21 incidents recorded in the past two years.

One car had its tires slashed while parked and Waymos have had rocks thrown at them on five occasions, the Arizona Republic reported.

One man aimed a gun at the backup driver of another Waymo car as it passed his driveway. He was arrested and charged with aggravated assault and disorderly conduct. His wife told police that he suffered from dementia.

A dark Jeep appears to have targeted the cars on six occasions, swerving abruptly towards them or braking sharply in front of them.

On another occasion, a “heavily intoxicated” man deliberately blocked the path of one of the cars by standing in front of it.

“He stated he was sick and tired of the Waymo vehicles driving in his neighborhood, and apparently thought the best idea to resolve this was to stand in front of one of these vehicles,” an officer wrote in a police report.

This phenomenon conjured an image I’d once seen many years ago. It shows people taking sledgehammers and iron bars to textile machinery. They’re angry, and they’re afraid. They believe that there is something evil afoot, and it’s to be found in the mechanisms of a new machine.

These were the Luddites, British workers in the late 1700s and early 1800s who, in a futile attempt to turn back the tide of mechanization, set about destroying machines — and in some cases killing the people who owned them. It led Britain to pass a law making machine-wrecking punishable by death.

The Luddites had many concerns about machines and how they would ruin their lives by taking away their jobs. But they also worried, as Thomas Carlyle wrote in 1829, that technology was causing a “mighty change” in their “modes of thought and feeling. Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand.”  “It’s about being afraid of machines and an abstract force called technology, rather than economic and political oppression,” says Steve Jones, a professor at Loyola University, Chicago. “People … have the sense that there is a disembodied, non-human force called ‘Technology’ that’s a threat.”

“People tend to express the highest level of fear for things they’re dependent on but that they don’t have any control over, and that’s almost a perfect definition of technology,” said Christopher Bader, a professor of sociology at Chapman College. “You can no longer make it in society without using technology you don’t understand to buy things at a store, to talk to other people, to conduct business. People are increasingly dependent, but they don’t have any idea how these things actually work.”

I try to empathize with this fear of technology, this sense that we are not in control of our world. It can be frightening to imagine how so much is happening around us all of the time that we cannot see or hear. We may wonder about our vulnerability to malevolent forces, how freely people can snoop around our lives, and so on.

The thing is, we can’t destroy technology. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle, nor can we uninvent the iPod or the desktop computer. Change can be extraordinarily disruptive – it usually is. As much as we may complain about our kids and screen time, there is no question that technology is enabling our kids and grandkids to access so much more knowledge than ever before.

Technology is not always good nor always bad; it is simply a reflection of the best and the worst of the human imagination. But we need to be on the edge of the change, and not trying to beat it up with a rake. Running a driverless car off the road may stop that car at that moment, but the future will not be deterred.

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