Wednesday, August 13, 2014

There Will Always Be Luddites Among Us

Together with seven cousins, I spent last Saturday morning using a $1.2 million surgical robot to unwrap Hershey’s Kisses for my 92-year-old aunt.

Lest you think that the adventure involved breaking and entering, I can reassure you.  The eldest cousin works for the company that makes the surgical robot.  He arranged for us to use the robot in the lobby of his office building in the hours before a family gathering.

The technology was remarkable.  Seated at a console facing away from the operating table and equipped with a high-definition screen, two handholds with Velcro loops for thumb and forefinger, and several foot petals, it quickly became intuitive to manipulate minute objects 15 feet away, including unwrapping the thin foil from a piece of candy and delivering it, intact, to my aunt.

But the topic that will remain with me was something my cousin said about the approval process for the robot.

The robot is the next step in the evolution of surgical tools, with the potential to replace laparoscopy.  Both rely on thin tools inserted through portals into the human body.  In laparoscopy the tools are operated manually by a surgeon standing at the operating table.  With a surgical robot, the surgeon works at the console, with his commands executed through electrical and mechanical connections.

The surgical robots offer clear advantages, including reduced reliance on the physical dexterity and stamina of the surgeon.  But new technology also offers opportunities for mishaps.  And that’s the point that some laparoscopists are trying to make, claiming that patients are at greater risk with surgical robots.  Of course, it’s also possible that the laparoscopists, having created successful practices in laparoscopy and lacking the resources to invest in $1.2 million robots, are viewing the world through guild-protecting lenses.

(On the off chance that a laparoscopist stumbles across this blog post and wishes to engage in a debate about laparoscopy versus surgical robots, let me quickly note that I’m unqualified to participate in the debate.

Because of a belief that the world is generally getting better, and with a tinge of family loyalty, I suspect that the surgical robots are the superior solution, but I’ll also acknowledge that objections to new technology sometimes prove valid.  On the specifics of surgical robot versus laparoscopy however, I haven’t examined the arguments and have no intention of doing so.)

The key point to me and the other cousins was that there are always those who will decry progress on the grounds that the new technology is flawed, while failing to acknowledge the likely motivation of protecting a current employment or lifestyle.

The examples we noted included the anti-industrialization 19th century English farm laborers who gave us the word Luddite, the masonry unions in pre-1906 San Francisco who argued that brick was a better material for seismic resistance than reinforced concrete (an argument that quickly tumbled down), and even the 15th century Dutch peasants who threw their wooden shoes, or sabot, into the gears of early looms, stopping the looms and giving us the word sabotage.

As Upton Sinclair said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

As I later reflected on the conversation, it occurred to me that those who pushback against urbanism have much in common with Luddites.

It’s true that most Luddite movements are in opposition to technological advances that threaten employment while anti-urbanists who are rebelling against environmental and fiscal realities that threaten lifestyles, but the underlying mindset seems much the same.  Both rely on increasingly implausible arguments to defend an argument that is steadily losing against the flow of history.

Among the anti-urbanists, those implausible arguments include the contention that the fiscal problems at city halls are the result solely of ineptitude, not a flawed land-use paradigm, a denial of the induced traffic phenomenon, and a rejection of climate change coupled with the far-fetched suggestion that thousands of reputable scientists are working in a secret cabal to hide the truth.

There may also be an element of ego in the anti-urbanists.  Mick LaSalle, the movie critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, recently argued that there is an inherent bias against giving awards to comedies.  He contended that a good comedy, by showing us a new way to view reality, makes us feel a little less intellectually superior for not having anticipated the alternative perspective.  And the need to reassert our egos causes us to dismiss a comedy, even one that we greatly enjoyed, as unworthy of award consideration.

The same may be true of urbanism.  By arguing that drivable suburbia is indefensible in the long run, it challenges our life-long commitment to suburbia.   Some accept that new information and change their worldview.  Others feel a need to muster every argument, no matter how unlikely, in a futile attempt to maintain their old worldview.

Luckily, the better answers are almost always victorious in the long run.  I have a pile of unwrapped Hershey’s Kisses to buttress the case for surgical robots.

Unluckily, the longer we take to accept the arguments for urbanism, the greater the environmental and fiscal holes we’ll leave for the next generation.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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