The Anti-Technology Movement: Putting Their Concerns to Rest

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Enlightenment Now" by Steven Pinker. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why are some people opposed to technology? Are fears about artificial intelligence and bioterrorism valid?

Steven Pinker addresses some of the concerns of the anti-technology movement in his book Enlightenment Now. He says that it’s important to allay their fears because, not only are their fears unfounded, they stand in the way of progress.

Keep reading to learn Pinker’s views on anti-technology.

The Anti-Technology Movement

In the context of societal well-being, Pinker turns to an enemy of Enlightenment that he discusses elsewhere in his book: the anti-technology movement. He says there are fears that technology will destroy us, but most of the major threats humanity has faced could actually have been avoided or solved with technology. And that’s still the case with the problems we face today. Some of those fears include artificial intelligence, bioterrorism and cyberterrorism, and nuclear technology. 

Pinker argues that fears about artificial intelligence are simply irrational, because computers have to be programmed and operated by humans, so they cannot possibly evolve the way things in nature do. Because of this, he says, they’ll never have human-like motivations. So, this fear, in Pinker’s view, is simply based on irrationality: People need to use reason to counter these kinds of fears.

(Shortform note: Although scientists generally agree that computers likely can’t become sentient in the way humans are, there are other very real concerns. AI technology can certainly be used to manipulate people, and it can make dangerous mistakes—for example, self-driving cars or automated weapons can malfunction. There are also concerns about humans being susceptible to using AI technology to replace human interaction, which could have devastating effects on our relationships and identities.) 

There are also widespread fears of attacks by biological weapons or cybersecurity attacks that could cause the collapse of civilization. Pinker argues that these fears are far overblown compared to the likelihood of them happening. Biological organisms like viruses, he says, are widely recognized as poor weapons, because once released they can’t be controlled, so the user can’t avoid becoming a victim of them. Cyberterrorist threats could cause a breakdown of technologies, but that certainly wouldn’t need to entail the collapse of civilization or anything so dramatic as people imagine. 

(Shortform note: On the topic of the potential for biological warfare, a biophysicist notes that while it’s true that using biological weapons might be irrational because of the potential for backfire, there are plenty of people who don’t think rationally in the world. As far as the dangers of cyber-terrorist attacks, experts agree that fears are probably overblown, but they caution that younger generations will continue to be more tech-savvy, which means the threat may increase with time.)

Pinker says that, although nuclear technology itself can be used in positive ways, one technological threat is real: nuclear war. But fear-mongering is counterproductive, he says. It immobilizes people. People are more likely to try to solve problems if they think they’re solvable, so we need an approach somewhere between panic and apathy. Therefore, like all other challenges we face, we must address the nuclear threat with reason

How Can We Minimize the Nuclear Threat?

Economist and philosopher Max Roser analyzes data on nuclear risk, and he suggests some strategies for combating that risk. He says that we’ve made steady progress in nuclear disarmament over the past 30 years or so and argues that we should continue toward a goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons from the world. Some other strategies he suggests we employ in the meantime are:

Promote cultural value shifts toward peacefulness, including transitioning to more democratic governments.

Monitor current nuclear risks more closely. This monitoring is done by the International Atomic Energy Agency. We need to ensure this agency has the resources necessary to do the best job possible.

Sign treaties between nations to stop the proliferation of more nuclear weapons.

Educate the public to be more aware of the dangers and risks and to actively work against this threat. He points out that this subject was once at the forefront of social dialogue and awareness but has slipped out of our focus, even though we still have weapons that can kill billions of people.    
The Anti-Technology Movement: Putting Their Concerns to Rest

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

One thought on “The Anti-Technology Movement: Putting Their Concerns to Rest

  • January 5, 2023 at 8:22 pm

    This argument allaying fears of encroaching technology is barking up the wrong tree. For it is not that technology via AI will run free like a Frankenstein machine, which is the fear being addressed here, but rather that technology is always used ultimately as a means of control, no matter how much it is dressed up as beneficial.

    Techies don’t seem to have a mindset that incorporates leeway, poetry or abstraction. It’s all code designed to serve a purpose, which is control. We are being driven by cold hearts with singular focus. This mindset will spawn a bleak outcome in many many years to come.


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