Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom

Trading Sledgehammers for Pillows: the curious case of Reform Luddism

Though they may have been destroyed by force, turned into clownish specters, or nearly forgotten – social movements of sow their seeds deeply in the resistant imagination. Thus it is only natural that periodically new stems should shoot up, but the bloom is often one that passes only a somewhat passing resemblance to the original blossom. As a result the question of authentic heirs to the title of a given movement can be rather perilous.  This is often particularly pronounced as it is through casting oneself (and one’s group) directly in the legacy of an earlier uprising that newer groups become infused with a powerful history. Granted, when looking for a legacy to bask in it can be useful if the original history is cloaked in a certain degree of confusion.

The Luddites are one such group.

The history of the original Luddites has become something of a mixture of mythologies that all too often blends a simplistic reading of the historic movement with the contemporary derivate meaning wherein a “Luddite” is somebody either opposed to technology (as such) or a bit of a curmudgeonly fool. The original Luddites; however, were not opposed to technology in total and they likewise were not a gaggle of nincompoops. Rather the historic Luddites were skilled laborers working in the textile trade (clustered in the North of England) in the early 1800s (mainly 1811 to 1813). When the factory owners of the day began to introduce new machinery that would mean the loss of their livelihoods the laborers banded together under the banner of a quasi-mythical leader “Ned Ludd” and engaged in, what the historian Eric Hobsbawm described as:

“collective bargaining by riot.” (Hobsbawm, 59)

The image that has had the longest lasting impact in the popular imagination is the image of the Luddites wielding sledgehammers to smash the new machines into smithereens. While there certainly were cases of genuine machine breaking (sometimes involving hammers) the Luddites represented not an isolated gang of miscreants but a social movement with broad popular support. Nevertheless, an important piece of the history, that often goes unmentioned, is that the taking up of hammers was not the Luddites first act. Initially those that would become the Luddites had attempted to petition the government to halt the employer’s automation onslaught, it was after the attempt at government redress had failed that the workers realized they would need to become an “army of redressers” themselves. While the total truth of some of the Luddites actions can be difficult to untangle, it is clear that the Luddites engaged in acts of sabotage, organized assaults upon factories (as in the case of Rawfolds Mill [which was fictionalized by Charlotte Bronte in Shirley]), and built up enough public support that the movement required suppression through force.

Of late there have been many groups and individuals that have sought, to varying degrees, to give the Luddites their proper place in labor/radical history. This has posed a bit of a challenge as “Luddite” remains primarily an insult in contemporary discussion. Yet for any group to legitimately cast itself as the scions of the Luddites it seems necessary for the group to recognize three key elements:

Firstly, the Luddites were not opposed to technology as such, but were opposed to the deployment of technologies that centralized control (and therefore the benefits) in a minority’s hands. This is another way of saying the Luddites opposed particular sets of technologies in particular sets of circumstances, with an emphasis upon the rights of workers and communities instead of just the benefits for factory owner (one could give this a Lewis Mumford-esque twist and say the Luddites favored “democratic technics” and saw the new machines as “authoritarian technics”).

Secondly, though related to the first point, the Luddites saw that the machines were stand ins for larger social processes. The machines the Luddites smashed were deemed “obnoxious” and “offensive” but the original Luddites saw (as the surviving Luddite letters demonstrate [see Kevin Binfield’s collected volume]) that they recognized that the machines were simply the physical manifestation of larger forces of enclosure and control. The point being that the Luddites knew the problem was not simply the machines but the new system that would give these machines (and their owners) more power and control over the Luddites’ lives.

Thirdly, the Luddites were a social movement organizing against a technological onslaught that required a group response. While it is difficult to form a genuine picture of exactly how many people called themselves Luddites or how many people supported those that did accept such an appellation, it is clear that the Luddites were an organized group seeking broad public support. In other words, the Luddites knew that change would not come by simply making minor alterations in their personal lives.

Which brings us back to the questions with which we began: what is the authentic Luddite legacy? It’s a question, and an answer, of particular interest for the increasingly technological times in which we now live (this is being written in 2014). Is it the call to critique as well as to  “carefully and deliberately dismantle” of Langdon Winner’s “Epistemological Luddism?” Is it the environmentally infused technological refusal of “Neo-Luddism” (as envisioned by Chellis Glendinning and further developed by Kirkpatrick Sale)?  Is it some as yet prefix-lacking form of future Luddism? Or might it be the “not nearly as radical or knee jerk” stance typified by Blake Snow’s “Reform Luddism?”

Most of these movements (excepting Winner) were mentioned (alongside the original Luddites and the Amish) in a recent “Field Guide to Anti-Technology Movements” on the Huffington Post, which was mainly notable for having a title that foretold why the article that followed it would be laughable. After all, it was a “field guide” that evinced a disheartening ignorance towards movements critical of technology, as made clear by the use of “anti-technology” as a catch all for groups that are only deemed “anti-technology” by those who know little about them (lumping together the Luddites [activists organizing for mutual defense] with the Amish [a religious group] is another topic altogether). Yet, what was interesting was the mention of Reform Luddism – particularly as the “field guide” seems to deliberately cast it as the sanest brand of Luddism (it’s also the newest). Though this serves to only raise the question: does Reform Luddism bear a relationship to Luddism beyond a shared name?

Alas, not particularly.

If there was a manifesto or call to arms for Reform Luddism it would be Blake Snow’s article “Become a Luddite and ditch your smartphone.” In that article Snow (who seems to have coined the term “Reform Luddism”) begins with a personal anecdote about overcoming technological inundation and eventually arrives at his call for a less “radical or knee-jerk” form of Luddism than that practiced by the original Luddites. Instead, Snow writes:

“to be a reform Luddite, all you have to do is recognize the many benefits of personal technology, but do so with an untrusting eye. Then only accept the ones that are relevant to your life and manageable…They’re slow to adopt and resist the latest software and hardware until proven useful. They’re acutely aware of the unanticipated consequences of new media.”

In our current technologically saturated times any call for people to more carefully consider the impacts of technology is worthwhile. Therefore, if reading about Reform Luddism convinces an individual to rethink their personal relationship with technology than it would certainly be a feather in the cap for Mr. Snow. Indeed, whereas some activists speak of a “diversity of tactics” it may also be the case that a “diversity of critiques” proves useful in breaking through to those who have been overly mystified by the uncanny sleight of hand practiced by modern technology (you see the device, but not the toxic landfill it winds up in).

Furthermore to single out Reform Luddism for a withering stare without turning an equally critical gaze to Neo-Luddism (Epistemological Luddism was actually part of the intellectual underpinning for Neo-Luddism) seems a might unfair. Particularly as the staunch defenders of the historic Luddites’ legacy are not inaccurate in pointing out that the radical environmental ethos of Neo-Luddism is not exactly based on the original Luddites (it is true that the Luddites may have seen themselves as defending their land, but this does not necessarily mean they understood this in a proto-environmentalist manner). Yet, even if the Neo-Luddites played a bit loosely with some of the history, they remain in the spirit of the original Luddites insofar as Neo-Luddism was in keeping with the three core elements of Luddism outlined above: not opposed to technology as such, seeing specific technologies as stand-ins for larger social processes, and understanding that a mass movement is necessary to counter the negative impacts of dangerous technologies.

It is in regards to these three aspects that Reform Luddism flounders. While Reform Luddism does not oppose technology as such (despite Snow’s column being titled “The Anti-Technologist”), it trades a potentially “radical” or “knee-jerk” attitude with a call for people to simply be slow adopters. True, individuals do need to take responsibility for the devices they use (as the NSA revelations make abundantly clear), and important changes can begin on a personal level, yet it is important to recognize in such moments that the technology represents a part of a social system in which an individual is bound up. To see the technology itself as the problem is to fall into a determinist bog, when the need is to see technology not as something which wills itself but something which reflects the will of other forces in society. In order to truly challenge the system that creates the types of technologies that lead one to wish to call oneself a modern Luddite (be it “Reform” “Neo” or what have you) one must recognize that “don’t have a data plan” is a paltry solution. Indeed, it is not a solution. By putting all of the emphasis on the devices as the source of the problem the larger issue (the social system) gets something of a pass. As a result the “reform” in “Reform Luddism” is not a systematic critique that calls for real change, it’s just basic advice for those feeling inundated (Douglas Rushkoff made a similar argument for personal change much more convincingly [and without trying to claim the legacy of Ludd] in his book Present Shock)

The trouble with Reform Luddism is that even as it disavows radicalism it claims a radical identity (Luddism) but proceeds to strip it of its radical teeth (or sledgehammers). The emphasis on late adoption of new technologies, and waiting to use a device until it has been “proven useful” is ultimately a sort of ethical contortion by which one can accept any technology by eventually claiming that it has proven useful. The logic of most technological devices that are marketed for mass consumption is precisely that they are useful. Indeed, one of the things that the Neo-Luddites were able to recognize is that “proven useful” is a very dodgy ethical category, after all the smart phone that proves “useful” to a citizen in the first world today proves dangerous once it enters the hidden eco-system of e-waste (most of which is undertaken in unsafe conditions in impoverished nations). Part of the force of the moral decision behind rejecting certain technologies (that would be Epistemological Luddism) is bound up in the recognition that “useful” is not sufficient as an argument.

To be “acutely aware” of the risks presented by new media requires recognizing that casting the problem onto the new media (technology) is a distraction serving to mask the real source of trouble. After all, it is not that a smart phone stops working after eighteen months (not yet anyways) it is that there is a larger system at work that encourages people to replace those devices with ever greater frequency – planned obsolescence is a result of a social system (industrial capitalism) not a feature inherent in technology. Lastly, while individual acts of refusal are certainly worthwhile, when such acts are taken as the ends in and of themselves it serves to turn the critique inwards. Personal reflection is worthwhile and important, but if technology is an issue in contemporary society than it requires a societal response – such a response can have its roots in individual acts of critique and refusal but it must be recognized that reform requires more than isolated individual acts. While it is certainly the case that an individual can choose to not have a data plan for their smart phone (or not have a smart phone), such individual choices without the context of a larger movement are rather insignificant. Especially if those same individuals still wind up tied up in questions of “has it proven useful” instead of “what are the ethical implications of this device.”

The Luddites were a mass movement, the Neo-Luddites certainly endeavored to be a mass movement (one could argue they had a subtle influence on some elements of the environmental movement [and a more distinct influence on anarcho-primitivism {but that’s another topic}]), but in scrubbing Luddism of its radicalism Reform Luddism endeavors to be little more than a pop ideology – Luddism that requires no real changes as anybody can justify their actions by an appeal to utility. The name sounds pretty good, but behind the name is not the specter of General Ludd or a radical reminder that “no general but Ludd means the poor any good,” behind it is just a mild suggestion to take it easy.

Is that still worthwhile? Sure.

Is it worthy of the name Luddism? No.

If you’re going to hit technological society with a critique use a sledgehammer, not a pillow.

More on Luddism:

Luddism for these Ludicrous Times

From Ned to Ted to Red – The Luddites on “The Blacklist”

Picking the Right Target…Missing the Mythological Mark

The Specter of General Ludd at SXSW

“More Than Machinery, We Need Humanity”


Binfield, Kevin (Editor). Writings of the Luddites. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.

Glendinning, Chellis. “Notes toward a Neo-Luddite Manifesto.” Philosophy of  Technology: The Technological Condition – An Anthology. Ed. Scharff, Robert C. and Dusek, Val. Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Hobsbawm, E.J. “The Machine Breakers.” Past & Present, no. 1 (Feb, 1952) 57-70.

Linebaugh, Peter. Ned Ludd & Queen Mab: Machine-Breaking, Romanticism, and the  Several Commons of 1811-12. Retort Pamphlet Series (PM Press) 2012.

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

Noble, David F. Progress Without People: New Technology, Unemployment, and the Message of Resistance. Between the Lines, 1995.

Sale, Kirkpatrick. Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the  Industrial Revolution – Lessons for the Computer Age. Perseus Publishing, 1996.

Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. Vintage Books, 1966.

Winner, Langdon. Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought. The MIT Press, 1989.

Image Notes:

the red pillow: by MailerDiablo from Wikipedia.

The white pillow: by Liz Lawley from Wikipedia.


About TheLuddbrarian

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

6 comments on “Trading Sledgehammers for Pillows: the curious case of Reform Luddism

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  6. TellynTubby
    January 25, 2016

    I am breaking free, and have been on the process since the day my father told me I couldn’t have a phone til I was 12.. This was a bum to me born in 1995to the early 2000’s phones were around… I got various phones, spending money on them like toys..i really enjoyed the cameras.. and video.. But as I mature through age, and found a physical thing I enjoyed doing, it begin to create a split i now did not care of phones I did not care and deteriorated in quality, I preferred the look of brick nokias and took steps back.. then 18 my first contract and iPhone… oh dear.. lets just say I don’t have an iPhone and I wont again nor contract, I lost it at a skatepark and I couldn’t give a f*** I was free..from a lot of crap.. I now have gone back to a htc, which holds WhatsApp, and for me current location studying in madrid, people all over here use WhatsApp, they were so surprised when I started telling them I don’t have and never did. But for now it’s temp procedure and I have already found cons to this app already..people mis perceiving, drunken people messaging me…like I want to sleep. but I remember binary and a simple button takes you away from the nonsense.. Also I would like to mention during my studies last year in Digital media, currently 2nd year I have one more year to complete back in September, if I make it there…the vast amount of technology that is being processed into I and other brains is ridiculous.. Flipped classroom is a type of study now.. and focuses on using we go home and do research, present it on the screen.. explain from many recourses online… true and false..not the best in getting the right results for me personally..and then we study from modern back in time, I refuse to sit soo long on the screen, I feel my eyes fuzz to an unfocused view of my laptop, which my Nan ever so kindly bought me, I refused but no she insisted, I was in the back of my head not as grateful had any other adult teenager would have been but I was thankful and I am taking the best I can from this. I would also like to mention in my first year, I rejected phones, social media…. everything for months of my study, and documented each day for a month until I fell comfortably out of the digital clouds onto a plain, that I will revisit again after my studies.. But I want to help encourage this movement, and I will do…and have been.. If I fail my last year of uni..well .. I will destroy every computer with a hammer, and all will be good as I would have left the grid.. (kidding maybe)

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This entry was posted on February 4, 2014 by in Activism, Capitalism, Environment, Ethics, History, Luddism, Technology and tagged , , .

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