In Praise of Luddites: Towards Humanistic Technology

As headlines in recent weeks blare about nuclear contamination in Japan, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of cruise missiles raining down on Libya, and a recent New York Times Science section piece reports on a study by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley warning that global warming may indeed be pushing life towards its sixth great extinction (there have been five major extinctions since life began on Earth between 2 and 3 billion years ago), one can be forgiven for cringing about the darkish side of modern technology. After all, if technological expansion is to be credited with improving human life, it must be said that it has been inventive in also finding ways to destroy life.

On that note, it shouldn’t be overlooked that this year marks the 200th anniversary of a movement whose name is synonymous with technophobia and/or incompetence. The Luddites burst on the scene in northern England in 1811. It was quite a harsh time to be a stockinger (textile worker) or a worker in general: no minimum wage, the only rare ability of stockingers to own their own frames (machines), common child labor, Napoleon’s boycott of English trade, the criminalization of unions (through the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800), the War of 1812 with the U.S., poor harvests in Britain between 1809-1812, wages less than rising food prices, it all painted a grim picture.

In March 1811, in Nottingham (also home to the Sherwood Forest that staged the Robin Hood tales), British troops busted up a workers’ protest demanding more jobs and higher wages. Later that night angry workers took sledgehammers to textile machinery in a nearby village. It wasn’t long after waves of attacks were occurring over a 70 mile span as Luddites around Northern England rallied around the fictitious figure of ‘King Ludd’ whom legend had it smashed two stocking frames in 1749 after being whipped for idleness. They wrote ballads, occasionally cross-dressed, sent threatening letters to factory owners, continued their attacks on machines which spread to include more skilled cloth finishers, and appeared to have a good deal of local support. The British government responded by making machine-breaking a capital offense and positioned soldiers to protect factories. As result many Luddites were sent to the gallows or to exile in Australia. Between repression by the state and eventual economic recovery, the movement subsided. Given the secrecy involved a great deal of information died with it (the most famous legend in this regard involves young Luddite John Booth, who while being interrogated on his death bed after an attack on Rawfolds Mill in Yorkshire, allegedly by Rev. Hammond Roberson, is said to asked his interrogator if he, the interrogator, could keep a secret. When impatiently told yes, Booth muttered his final words “Aye, so could I”).

Despite lingering conservative rhetoric, shabby marketing about authenticity, and prideful boasting by technophobes, the mythology surrounding the Luddites is inaccurate. The original Luddites should not be understood as an anti-technology but as a social protest rooted in early 19th century England. The stocking frame was not a new piece of technology by the time the Luddites came around; it had existed for more than two centuries. In fact they can’t even claim originality as machine breaking had a long history in English protests, and was used by others after them. Their problem was not with technology per se, but with how it was applied. The way it was used to cheapen jobs, impoverish skilled workers, increase production with improving wages, all the class warfare that Marx and Engels would describe in their manifesto a few decades later.

In A People’s History of Science, Clifford Conner makes the very important argument that, contrary to the dominant narrative about great men of genius (Einstein, Newton, Galileo, etc), for most of human history technological improvements predated scientific theory. In other words for a long time it wasn’t great men of learning creating abstract, mathematical scientific theories that led to greater technology, but practical (i.e. experimental) innovations and improvements in technology that led to the growth of science, and credit for that technological innovation should be given to many whom history left unnamed. That includes the preliterate ancient peoples who domesticated virtually every plant and animal species we still consume, the natives who pioneered geography, navigation, and cartography, the miners, mechanics and artisans who laid the foundations of metallurgy and chemistry. As Conner puts it for example:

The experimental method that characterizes modern
science originated not in the minds of a few
elite scholars in universities but in the daily practice of
thousands of anonymous craftsmen who were continuously
utilizing trail-and-error procedures with materials and tools
in their quest to perfect their crafts.

Thus, in a sense, the Luddites were protecting what was theirs: skills, a livelihood, a technological heritage. The important thing to emphasize is that, for all the importance of grants and patents, science and technology are collective entities. Therefore responsibility and accountability are likewise collective. The importance of this cannot be overstated as technology continues to exponentially expand in our epoch, an epoch already named the

Anthropocene by many geologists due to humanity’s dominance of the planet (the idea is that in this age humanity essentially creates its own environment). More and more technology’s advancement will bring along issues that go to the basic heart of ethics: Genetics will challenge and redefine what it means to be human, nanotechnology and robotics (including the creation of Artificial Intelligence so powerful that it will be capable of creating its own greater Artificial Intelligence) will need constant regulation and democratic oversight. The enticing temptation for many who care about humanity and the environment is to have a hostile outlook to technology itself due to its relentless essence. Whatever the merits of such an attitude the fact remains is that it is a pointless one given technology’s inevitable advance. The key is harnessing technology’s great life expanding tendencies while minimizing its destructive potential, of which there are plenty now with more to come in the future (further corporate control, Orwellian totalitarianism, bio-engineered viruses). It’s the battle the Luddites fought two centuries ago. Let us keep up the struggle in their name.

Joseph Grosso is a writer and librarian in New York City and is the author of Emerald City: How Capital Transformed New York Read other articles by Joseph.