Rage Against the Machines

“Okay Google, hand me that lug nut.”

I hope none of my readers have been impacted by the “cyberattack” on the Colonial Pipeline. Aside from gas prices nearing $3 per gallon, we’ve more or less been spared here in New England. The whole situation is infuriating—not least of all because it was entirely avoidable.

No doubt that many of you thought that pipelines are just metal tubes. You probably didn’t know they could be hacked. Neither did I. And yet a bunch of guys sitting at computers in Russia were able to halt the flow of oil as it traveled down the largest pipeline in the United States, cutting off 45% of the East Coat’s supply.

The Chinese began using petroleum as fuel about four hundred years before the birth of Christ. Automobiles running on gas-powered engines have been commonly used in this country since the early 1900s In those twenty-three centuries, no computer was ever required to move the fuel from point A to point B. And yet Colonial’s pipeline is so tech-heavy that it could be disabled by hackers at a distance of about 10,000 miles—literally halfway around the world.

Do we ever stop to think, Maybe we don’t need a computer to do this job? Maybe the engineers and white lab coats or the big dudes with hardhats were doing fine by themselves? That we need not—indeed, that we cannot—replace every worker in America with an iPad? That human beings, despite our manifold flaws, aren’t inferior to computers in every way?

If this sounds nuts to you, go ahead and shoot me an email. I know nothing about the petroleum industry, except that it predates the computer by about two millennia and seemed to be doing just fine before it shacked up with Silicon Valley. But it’s entirely possible that I’m wrong.

Yet everywhere I look, I see examples of new tech-heavy machines that are both more expensive and demonstrably less efficient than their older, analog versions.

For example, consumers on the market for a washing machine usually opt for the flashy digital front-loader. Yet these are proven to break more often than the cheap, old-school top-loader.

Many families will buy an electric over a gas stove, believing that it’s more environmentally efficient. Wrong again. Over at Treehugger, Lloyd Alter notes: “The idea of using electricity seemed silly; burning coal or natural gas to make heat to boil water to spin a turbine to generate electricity to push down a wire to… make heat? This has got to be a losing proposition.” And so it is. The carbon footprint of an electric stove is about four times that of a gas model.

Ditto with cars. New, highly digitized cars are far more likely to break. They’re also harder to fix, meaning you’re going to spend a lot more money on repairs to your stupid space-age SUV. And if they break on the side of the road, they’re far more likely to require a tow to the garage. This is great for auto manufacturers, mechanics, and tow truck drivers. But not so much for consumers.

Even tractors aren’t safe. Did you know that you can’t actually own a John Deere tractor? It’s true. Most of their new models are run on circuit boards, and John Deere won’t sell you the code. So, once you’ve forked over $600,000 for your Scraper Special, what you get is “an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.” Lucky you.

And then, even if you bravely defy Big John and try to fix it yourself… well, you probably can’t. While the average farmer may know his way around a crankshaft, he probably doesn’t know much about electrical engineering. So he has to fork over even more money to an authorized agent to make the repairs. What a deal. Even if this intrepid farmer succeeds in fixing the tractor himself, John Deere could slap him with a copyright suit.

Folks are also finding that their “smart” cat boxes are being sabotaged by the corporation’s digital rights management (DRM) software. A microchip will actually prevent you from cleaning your CatGenie™ with water instead of its patented solution—which, in addition to being way more expensive, is also less efficient than good ol’ H20. Fancy that.

The Colonial Pipeline failure—while obviously much larger and far more serious—is of a piece with all of this insane over-digitization. I’m sure Colonial saves a few hundred thousand bucks a year by laying off their wrench-monkeys and giving their jobs to a computer. But it’s proven a disaster for the American consumer. More than that, it’s a serious national security risk.

I’m a Luddite, and damn proud to be one. As good King Ludd knew, machines are by and large a way for corporations to increase their profits by screwing over their workers and short-changing their customers. They’re not more “efficient” in terms of creating a superior product: they’re only better at creating an inferior product more quickly and less reliably, but at a lower cost to the owner—the mill baron, the oil tycoon, etc.

I doubt we’ll ever go back to hand-weaving our textiles. Alas. But surely, as long as America is dependent on fossil-fuels, and as long as our supply of those fuels can be turned off by cyberterrorists in far-flung empires, surely we can agree to ditch the iPads and go back to good old-fashioned manpower. Can’t we?

Or are we such committed techno-supremacists that we actually feel like computers are entitled to do our jobs for us—even if they do the job much worse, and at a greater cost to the American people, and with a far greater risk to our national security?

I wouldn’t be surprised if it were the latter. Still, I have to believe that, at some point, we’ll stop being mesmerized by all the glowing LEDs and beep-boop-beeps.

Because, at bottom, that’s all our fetish for technology is. It’s a fascination with bright lights and loud noises. We’re like a baby who giggles and sucks o her toes when she finally discovers that she has feet. We’re like a dog that chases his tail because he thinks it’s some kind of flying weasel. And once that dog finally sinks his teeth into the weasel, he’ll wish he hadn’t.

Eventually, we have to realize that something isn’t inherently superior just because it comes with a touchscreen. In fact, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it’s demonstrably worse. Then—and only then—will we understand what the Luddites we’re all about.

We’ll realize that just because a new technology exists doesn’t mean we have to adopt it. We’ll realize that just because we adopt a new technology doesn’t mean we have to become totally, utterly dependent upon it.

If we can shake our techno-fetishism and develop even a modicum of self-control when it comes to our gadgets, it will be the first real example of moral progress since the British outlawed widow-burning in their Indian colonies colonies. Hey, it’s a start.

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