Liberty for All

Racism is, let us not forget, a means to reconcile contradictions. Only a society that extolled “liberty for all” while holding millions of people in bondage requires such a powerful ideology in order to build a nation amid such a startling contradiction. How else could one declare “[w]e hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” and at the same time deny these rights to a large portion of the population71 – namely by claiming that its members, by virtue of their presumed lack of humanity, were never even eligible for those rights? 72 Openly despotic societies, by contrast, are in no need of the elaborate ideological apparatus that props up “free” societies. Freedom, as the saying goes, ain’t free. But not everyone is required to pay its steep price in equal measure. The same is true of the social costs of technological progress.

Consider that the most iconic revolt “against machines,” as it is commonly remembered, was staged by English textile workers, the Luddites, in nineteenth-century England. Often remembered as people who were out of touch and hated technology, the Luddites were actually protesting the social costs of technological “progress” that the working class was being forced to accept. “To break the machine was in a sense to break the conversion of oneself into a machine for the accumulating wealth of another,” according to cultural theorist Imani Perry.73 At a recent conference titled “AI & Ethics,” the communications director of a nonprofit AI research company, Jack Clark, pointed out that, although the term “Luddite” is often used today as a term of disparagement for anyone who is presumed to oppose (or even question!) automation, the Luddite response was actually directed at the manner in which machinery was rolled out, without consideration for its negative impact on workers and society overall. Perhaps the current era of technological transformation, Clark suggested, warrants a similar sensibility – demanding a more careful and democratic approach to technology.

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