Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom

Luddism for These Ludicrous Times

A specter is haunting our technological society – it is the specter of General Ludd.

Granted, Luddite is generally not considered to be a complementary term. Most of the time, when it is used it is either deployed as an epithet that portrays less than fawningly favorable attitudes towards technology as backwards or it is used in a dismissive way to protect a person’s critique of technology from charges of Luddism (“I’m not a Luddite, but…”). At the level of surface appearances our society is awash in wondrous technological gadgets and it is all too easy to lambast those who are not suitably tantalized as being curmudgeons. Yet as the  revelations about the NSA continue to make clear, our gadgets carry a decidedly dark side – and this is a menacing aspect many of those who had been tarred as Luddites had warned against.

In the history of resistance there are not many groups who targeted their defiance at machines. Where such resistance is found it always has an odd aspect to it, as the myth of mechanical neutrality is strong in our society. While technology is hardly a new force in our world and while it is hardly new for technology to be seen as having a negative impact on (at least some) members of a society it nevertheless seems that the last few decades have brought with them a shift.

Complex technological systems have ceased to simply be things that we interact with at work or see used by the government, rather we now carry these massively complicated and advanced technologies with us at all times. The terrifying and invasive spying apparatus of surveillance states of decades long past is almost quaint in comparison to the advanced listening and tracking devices that people knowingly carry today; while the systems of automation continue to advance at such a rate as to make many formerly “safe” jobs now seem threatened by technological encroachment. It would be absurd to suggest that modern technology has not brought with it many benefits, but over the course of the last months the space has reopened to wonder just how beneficial these things really are? After all, is the ability to shop for knick-knacks and update your status to say that you just bought a knick-knack worth sacrificing your privacy and personal information? Is living a life with technology worth the price of having all the activities in your life observable by third parties (that may use this information for repressive purposes)? Is the path to an authoritarian surveillance regime one that goes through your smart phone?

Or, to put it another way, when living in a technological society that increasingly seems like the opening exposition in a dystopian tale: is it really so ludicrous to be a Luddite?

1. A Very Brief and Overly Simple History of the followers of General Ludd

Historically (to give a gross oversimplification) the Luddites were skilled laborers in the early 1800s primarily in the North of England who took action to protect their livelihoods from the new machines that would bring ruin to their livelihoods. They reacted with hammers (and other tools); and took it upon themselves to smash the offending machinery while cloaking themselves in the mythical heroism of an avenging General, Captain, or King named Ludd (though they also made use of certain elements of the Robin Hood mythology). They were not particularly successful. Though any early victories they enjoyed were overwhelmed by the deployment of military force that saw to it that many of the Luddites were hung.

Though the Luddites had some notable supporters (Lord Byron spoke out in the House of Lords in 1812 against the bill that would make death the sentence for “frame breaking”), theirs was mainly local support. Later the Luddites battle against the encroaching machines became cast as an example of being historically backwards, against progress, idiotic, and opposed to technology “as such.” Of course, it should be obvious that those with power in society were not the Luddites, but those who were able to paint them not as workers resisting being rendered obsolete but as hopeless fools. This is largely the sense in which Luddite is used today: to represent somebody who is opposed to technology for no particular reason, a backwards fool opposed to progress. Though the question of “who gets to define progress” is seldom raised. As Neil Postman put it, in his book Technopoly:

“the term ‘Luddite’ has come to mean an almost childish and certainly naïve opposition to technology. But the historical Luddites were neither childish nor naïve. They were people trying desperately to preserve whatever rights, privileges, laws, and customs had given them justice in the older world-view.” (Postman, 43)

While Luddite as epithet is still largely linked to the notion of the resistance as foolish, the vision of the historic Luddites as laborers defending their way of life inspired many to seek to reclaim the term and its history. While a desire to establish the Luddites as labor heroes of yore was at work (thanks largely to E.P. Thompson) neo-luddism emerged in the early 1990s as a response to the rampant spread of computer technology, the rise of the global justice movement, and radicalization within certain elements of the environmentalist movement (Chellis Glendenning’s Towards a Neo_luddite Manifesto is a noteworthy establishment of neo-luddism).

If the original Luddites were a movement made up of workers those who proudly took on the name Luddite in the wake of neo-Luddism were less likely to be those directly displaced by the new machines. Though new technologies continued to threaten the livelihoods of workers (and many did raise the alarm over automation, see: David Noble’s Progress Without People) neo-Luddism tended to be as much influenced by the historical Luddites as it was by the way that the term had been taken to mean anybody who was simply opposed to technology. From Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang to Thomas Pynchon’s essay Is it Okay to be a Luddite (to say nothing of The Crying of Lot 49) environmentalism blended with labor which blended with the global justice movement to take the question that the original Luddite’s had applied locally and concretely (“what will these machines mean to our lives?”) and applied it in a more abstract and long ranging manner.

If the original Luddites saw in the machines the devaluing of their skills and the visage of a new economic order in which they had been reduced back to serf like conditions, the neo-Luddites saw in the machines a totalizing force that had reshaped (and was reshaping) all aspects of society – from redefining work and culture to polluting and fouling the environment. While the original Luddites reserved their rejection for the specific machines that threatened them, neo-Luddites saw the threat as the system of machines that was becoming ever more present in society. And if the Luddites were to be easily dismissed as hammer wielding maniacs, neo-Luddites had their own bogeyman in the figure of a bearded shack dweller who mailed bombs to his foes whilst penning an anti-technology manifesto.

Yet in appealing to the character of General Ludd both incarnations summoned up a mythical figurehead whose most serious offense may have been to dare to question the technological order.

2. Cleaning up the Technological Flood – Ludd with a Mop

It cannot be stated loudly or frequently enough that the original Luddites were not opposed to all technology but were opposed to particular technologies the negative impact of which they could predict only too clearly. True, “negative impact” is a somewhat problematic term with meanings ranging from seeing a loss of wages and unemployment to seeing the breakdown of community structures; and certainly what was a “negative impact” for those in the vanguard of General Ludd’s army was a lucrative and positive impact for those in the vanguard of industrialization and capitalism (those who owned the machines). Likewise, much the same continues to hold true for the modern day celebrants and detractors of Luddism.

The distinctions between “Luddite,” “neo-Luddite,” and “when I call myself a Luddite I mean…” are in some ways beside the point. Historical movements of resistance all go through a cycle in which their appellation at first gives them a sort of noble strength only for this name to become a historically inaccurate insult only for the heirs to this legacy of resistance to attempt to reclaim the name, thereby having to battle an opponent and the block in most people’s minds about what a given term means. Thus, “Luddite” may always be a bit of a muddled term (a mishmash of radical history and myth making by advocates and enemies alike) although perhaps its meaning in contemporary times should aim to step away from the purely historical notion while still aiming to pay homage to that tradition. In this way those seeking to reclaim the term Luddite might be well served by examining the section with which the philosopher Langdon Winner ends his book Autonomous Technology (first published in 1977) titled “Luddism as Epistemology.”

The notion of Luddism that Winner advances is one that trades in the rage of wielding a hammer for the more difficult action of hammering away at technology through careful and critical thought. As Winner puts it:

“The method of carefully and deliberately dismantling technologies, epistemological Luddism if you will, is one way of recovering the buried substance upon which our civilization rests. Once unearthed, that substance could again be scrutinized, criticized, and judged.” (Winner, 330)

He continues:

“I am not proposing that a sledge hammer be taken to anything. Neither do I advocate any act that would endanger anyone’s life or safety. The idea is that in certain instances it may be useful to dismantle or unplug a technological system in order to create the space and opportunity for learning…Luddism seen in this context would seldom refer to dismantling any piece of machinery. It would seek to examine the connections of the human parts of modern social technology.” (Winner, 331)

The “epistemological Luddism” which Winner describes is largely the Luddism of a moment in history at which the machines have already been fairly triumphant (for evidence of this, look around you). While Winner was writing before smart phones, or online social networks, he was writing in the years immediately following Senator Frank Church’s warnings about the capabilities of a technologically enabled NSA. If Winner is “not proposing that a sledge hammer be taken to anything” perhaps it is because he was writing long past the point at which a sledge hammer could do much more than symbolic damage. And though few people are likely to want to describe themselves as “epistemological luddites” (which lacks the confrontational panache of “Luddite”) it seems that much serious critique of technology and opposition to it fits within Winner’s notion. What Winner’s “epistemological Luddism” largely engages is the historic Luddites’ recognition that some technologies may be beneficial while others may be harmful and that those who will be impacted by the technologies should not be ignored.

As such what “epistemological Luddism” may seek is to make visible the distinction between what Lewis Mumford called “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics” (in his aptly titled essay Authoritarian and Democratic Technics). In Mumford’s reckoning:

“two technologies have recurrently existed side by side: one authoritarian, the other democratic, the first system-centered, immensely powerful, but inherently durable, the other man-centered, relatively weak, but resourceful and durable…we are now rapidly approaching a point at which, unless we radically alter our present course, our surviving democratic technics will be completely suppressed or supplanted, so that every residual autonomy will be wiped out, or will be permitted only as a playful device of government, like national balloting for already chosen leaders in totalitarian countries.” (Mumford, 2)

Within the scope of technologies as envisioned by Mumford, the Luddites (though Mumford does not name them in his essay) and be extension Luddism can be seen as something of a movement in defense of “democratic technics” against the onslaught of “authoritarian technics.” To Mumford the handcrafts and community based economy that would have been the life that the early Luddites were seeking to protect would have been an example of “democratic technics” while the centralized power structure of the machines against which the Luddites rebelled would be an example of early “authoritarian technics.” For “authoritarian technics” creates a state of affairs in which:

“under the pretext of saving labor, the ultimate end of this technics is to displace life, or rather, to transfer the attributes of life to the machine and the mechanical collective, allowing only so much of the organism to remain as may be controlled and manipulated.” (Mumford, 6)

The challenge that emerges in the split between “democratic and authoritarian technics” is the challenge that the original Luddites faced, except that the Luddism which now confronts it is Winner’s “epistemological ” variety instead of the 1800’s Luddism with sledgehammers. For, as Mumford seems to warn of, the technological systems that are built up by a system of “authoritarian technics” are too wide-ranging and complex to be so easily smashed. Winner’s desire to reopen the space in which the impacts of technology on society can be debated and challenged is a way of reengaging with the question of what types of technics are used and what the implications of this use are upon a society.

What is vital here is to recognize the degree to which people have been pushed out of the conversation and debate about what types of technology are used and how these will impact them. Indeed, there is not even much of a debate to begin with, and insofar as this debate takes place only a rarified group is allowed to participate. Or to put it another way: when a company redefines privacy in a way that will effect millions (if not billions) are those people consulted? When a company makes and sells amazingly efficient tracking devices and hides them within the idea of a “phone” does that company have an obligation to inform users? While some may say that people are able to “vote” for technology with “their wallets” such is based off of a farcical notion that people are truly informed of their technology’s capabilities, when people are hoodwinked, taken in by a panoptic con, or – as Mumford put it:

“Present day technics differs from that of the overtly brutal, half-baked authoritarian systems of the past in one highly favorable particular: it has accepted the basic principle of democracy, that every member should have a share in its goods. By progressively fulfilling this part of the democratic promise, our system has achieved a hold over the whole community that threatens to wipe out every other vestige of democracy. The bargain we are asked to ratify takes the form of a magnificent bribe…Once one opts for the system no further choice remains.” (Mumford, 6)

Such is the sorry state in which we find ourselves in our current technological society, where every day the news seems to trumpet more evidence of “authoritarian technics” while this news is immediately followed with an advertisement for the newest “magnificent bribe.” In a moment of such technology and trickeryit seems less that Luddism (epistemological or otherwise) is a mad opposition to technology and more that it is a noble (and perhaps doomed) attempt to stand for “democratic technics” in the face of an ever more naked “authoritarian techincs.”

3. Luddism for Ludicrous Times

While there is much that unites the historical Luddites to modern groups who use that name there are nevertheless notable differences. Yet as the spirit of General Ludd was always one that was built upon mythmaking it can be hardly surprising that the legend undergoes modernizing and reimaging from time to time. However, if there is to be a root from which modern takes on Luddism grow they would do well to couch their connection to this legacy in its history. For this purpose it may be worth turning to one of the many letters penned by none other than Ned Ludd in 1812 (collected in Devin Binfield’s Writings of the Luddites), as with most of the “Luddite letters” it contains a mixture of mythologizing with threats directed at the factory’s owner but its significance can be found in its final lines which read:

“We will never lay down our Arms. The House of Commons passes an act to put down all Machinery hurtful to Commonality, and repeal that to hang Frame Breakers. But We. We petition no more that won’t do fighting must.” (Binfield, 210)

It is in hearkening to the spirit of the words “Machinery hurtful to Commonality” in which a continuation of the Luddite spirit would seem to have its strongest contemporary potential, and it is within those words that one can see a root from which new resistance can continue to grow. “Commonality,” of course, can be a contentious term to define. Yet it would seem that “commonality” could be an easy referent to “democratic technics,” and thus the “Machinery hurtful” to democratic techincs are those characterized by “authoritarian technics.” Which is just a more circuitous way of placing the Luddite tradition (from 1800s England to contemporary struggles) as one that stands in the defense of “democratic technics” in defiance of “authoritarian technics.” There is space in which a new “democratic technics” can be built and constructed, but building it atop a structure of “authoritarian technics” will always be delicate and precarious (as Lavabit being shut down illustrates).

Increasingly, as “authoritarian technics” become ever more powerful and present, standing for this Luddite stance becomes central to any desire for a more just society and any attempt at resistance. This is not to pull people into an all or nothing “technology bad, stones and trees good” stance, but to demand that people at least think critically about their technology. To attend a protest rally (for any cause) with a smart phone in your pocket is to bring a police and corporate spy with you. We may not view technology politically, but those who make and sell technology certainly do, which is why they use it to perfectly blend the worst of Huxley and Orwell. Our technological devices will deliver the Feelies and Obstacle Golf, and if we won’t accept that, they will become a boot stomping on our face.

The desire of modern Luddism therefore emerges as Mumford wrote:

“to persuade those who are concerned with maintaining democratic institutions to see that their constructive efforts must include technology itself. There, too, we must return to the human center. We must challenge the authoritarian system that has given to an underdimensioned ideology and technology the authority that belongs to the human personality. I repeat: life cannot be delegated.” (Mumford, 7)

There is a specter haunting our technological society – the specter of General Ludd. But today it may be that the first step of resistance is not picking up the sledgehammer, but putting down the smart phone.

Works Cited

Binfield, Kevin. Writings of the Luddites. John Hopkins University Press, 2004.

Mumford, Lewis. “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics.” Technology and Culture, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Winter, 1964). pp. 1-8

Postman, Neil. Technopoly. Vintage, 1993.

Winner, Langdon. Autonomous Technology. MIT Press, 1989.

Luddite Bibliography (these books informed the “history” section)

Binfield, Kevin. Writings of the Luddites. John Hopkins University Press, 2004.

Jones, Steven. Against Technology. Routledge, 2006.

Linebaugh, Peter. Ned Ludd & Queen Mab. PM Press, 2012.

Noble, David. Progress Without People. Between the Lines, 1995.

Postman, Neil. Technopoly. Vintage, 1993.

Sale, Kirkpatrick. Rebels Against the Future. Perseus Publishing, 1996.

Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. Random House, 1966.


About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul @libshipwreck

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