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Martin Luther King, Technology Critic

This year, protesters around the nation sought to #ReclaimMLK. In the process, they brought his ideas on technology, science, and the future to the fore.
January 21, 2015, 12:35am
​Image: ​Wikimedia

Thousands of demonstrators gathered in the middle of Philadelphia's Broad Street on Monday to #ReclaimMLK as the bobbing signs, social media feeds, and, later, the numerousheadlines, announced. As the crowd invoked viral slogans and waved their iPhones, one of the day's speakers, a student leader, stood up and paraphrased Dr. Martin Luther King's most famous condemnation of technology.

"There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance," went the opening of King's 1964 Nobel Peace Prize speech. "The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers."

The point still stands. In 2015, we have  ​particle accelerators capable of simulating the birth of the universe, we can land a ​probe on a comet as it swims through space, we are contemplating artificial, ​planet-wide climate control. Yet by many counts, we're still failing at the most fundamental engineering project of peaceful human cohabitation, even in our most prosperous nations.

Last year brought grim proof: The deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown (and many others), unarmed black men killed by white police officers, inspired long-simmering race relations to erupt in Ferguson, IL, New York City, and elsewhere. After grand juries failed to indict the officers responsible, despite, in Garner's case, video evidence captured with a smartphone showing the use of an illegal, ultimately fatal chokehold, it was difficult not to feel the limits of social and technological progress.

​#ReclaimMLK, which saw events in numerous cities, was organized to remind the public of King's radical activism: That he'd led confrontational marches against violent, racist authorities, been arrested multiple times for protesting, and had levied a fierce indictment of capitalism itself.

King was also a vocal critic of the shortcomings and byproducts of the march of technological advancement—he warned of the dangers of exalting technology, of its morally depletive properties, and of its power to exacerbate inequalities. In the age of  ​Silicon Valley's exuberant techno-optimism, it's worth reclaiming some of those ideas, too.

"We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society," King said in his 'Beyond Vietnam' speech. "When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered." Much of King's critique of technology is rooted in its relationship to capitalism and the military industrial complex.

"Capitalism fails to realize that life is social," King wrote in his book Where Do We Go From Here, and I wonder if he would have found our modern, highly-capitalized online social lives downright paradoxical. (King's strident opposition to capitalism has been well-documented.) The fact that the biggest social networks cave to embrace censorship under government pressure probably wouldn't have impressed him, either.

But King's fullest, most eloquent critique comes in the opening lines of that aforementioned Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Like so much of his oratory, it's gripping and still plenty resonant:

"Modern man has brought this whole world to an awe-inspiring threshold of the future. He has reached new and astonishing peaks of scientific success. He has produced machines that think and instruments that peer into the unfathomable ranges of interstellar space. He has built gigantic bridges to span the seas and gargantuan buildings to kiss the skies. His airplanes and spaceships have dwarfed distance, placed time in chains, and carved highways through the stratosphere. This is a dazzling picture of modern man's scientific and technological progress.

"Yet, in spite of these spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come, something basic is missing. There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers."

Those words were spoken four decades ago, but they could describe the present without much tinkering. Our artificial intelligence and medical science are more powerful than ever, our chief technologists richer than ever, yet the income gap between whites and African Americans is nearing record levels. And the incarceration gap is worse.

So here are thousands, in the streets, organizing, protesting, singing, marching, and fighting to close them. The hashtags are a nice, modern-looking implement, but #BlackLivesMatter, and, yesterday, #ReclaimMLK were so successful because they got boots on the ground to send an old-fashioned message. In an age marked by rampant do-no-eviling and overwhelming techno-utopianism, here was a day dominated by King's philosophy of nonviolent direct action.

Technology can be harnessed to help, in small ways; maybe police body cams will reduce brutality. Maybe social media will end up a net boon to protestors, not a detractor. But establishing a more just society is, King says, ultimately a moral and spiritual project. There's a reason his most famous prediction about the future eschews science and technology altogether. "The arc of the moral universe is long," King said, "but it bends towards justice."