Beware the Luddite bandwagon

Engineers must communicate better to retain the people’s trust or they could find themselves in the sights of the anti-tech mob, says Max Glaskin.

It’s a long time since engineering faced such hostility as that which engulfs bioscience and genetic modification.

Engineers have enjoyed 250 years of largely unopposed progress. but danger lies ahead if the profession becomes complacent. It’s a lurking threat. The barricades of the New Luddites could be erected within days against technologies suddenly deemed ‘sinister’.

Technology advances so swiftly that it can easily outpace people’s expectations and lead to flashpoints. For example, there’s currently a project called Soft Walls at the University of California, Berkeley, that effectively puts up invisible barriers to physically stop aircraft entering sensitive airspace. It wrests control from the crew and forces the plane to turn away.

Pilots are already up in arms against the imposition of the romantically-named ‘sky marshals’ in the passenger cabin – so it will come as no surprise to learn that they are also appalled by the idea of Soft Walls. No way will they give up control. They are happy to rely on autopilots because these reduce the stress and workload, particularly on long-haul flights and, most importantly, can be switched off. But Soft Walls is intended to be as immutable as a mountain range. If implemented, the crew would relinquish ultimate authority to an external and remote system.

This remote control is the nub of the matter – the further someone is from the hub of power the less they trust it. It doesn’t matter how safe it is, they suspect that distance diminishes their influence. It’s one of the reasons so many separatist movements arise around the borders of states – they are usually the furthest from the nations’ capitals.

And this is where the risk lies for engineering – current and developing communications technologies allow all manner of machines and equipment to be controlled from a great distance.

The most vulnerable sector to any popular uprising by New Luddites will be transport. People associate movement with freedom, some even perceiving road safety cameras as unwarranted restrictions on their independence. So heaven help the manufacturer that wants to include systems in its new car to control the vehicle by using information beamed aboard from elsewhere.

Satellite navigation is a case in point. Drivers are happy to receive information based in part on signals from satellites because it increases their control over their journeys. But how will they feel if the EU-funded scheme to control headlamp beam shape via GPS comes to fruition? It is supposed to be a safety-led project, to stop the light from dazzling other drivers emerging from side roads and to illuminate pedestrians waiting at crossings. But would anyone willingly give up control of an element as vital as headlamps?

And what about entirely robotic vehicles? Will anyone dare to drive among the 20 autonomous 4x4s chosen by DARPA to race from LA to Las Vegas next month, let alone ride in one?

In case anyone thinks this is scaremongering by a retro-fanatic, they should visit the Stag O Lee Preservation Society Poker and Drinking Club in London. It does exactly what it says on the sign. It’s a relatively new establishment yet, unlike the other dens of hedonism in Soho’s sticky streets, it doesn’t include any electrical equipment built after 1969. The music comes from a record player and there are no fruit machines with hypnotic lights – only dominos and cards. Anyone who attempts to use a mobile may suddenly find themselves hands-free.

It’s also worth noting that the most influential recording studio in the rock business, unappealingly called Toerag, runs entirely on equipment made in the 1960s and 70s. The White Stripes recorded a number one album there without an LED, LCD or plasma screen in sight.

These examples of New Luddism come from fashionable communities where trends change often but they also reflect what some people want – an end to new technologies. If this backlash happens to find a target and focuses on an innovation in transport or power, engineers could find their well-resourced projects encircled by a mob screaming ‘Enough is enough’. So many can now mobilise so quickly through the internet and mobile communications that it could happen faster than the time it takes to smash a frame on a weaving machine.

So what’s to be done? The key is to retain public confidence. The profession must communicate better and demonstrate that it is making progress for the benefit of society – and in a direction determined by society.

Bankers began telling us to trust them almost 400 years ago and their ads still reinforce this. Engineering must be similarly dedicated. Without a second thought, everybody trusts traffic lights – and who came up with them? It wasn’t a banker.

Max Glaskin is a freelance technology writer.