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The Luddite Response

Would it be fair to call those who advocate for online privacy Luddites? It seems a rather absurd question.

After all, those who encourage people to use TOR, encryption, or even to install basic tracking blockers seem – if anything – to be rather techno-savvy. Right? And yet are such advocates not pushing back, likely in vain, against technological trends of increased corporate and government surveillance? Are they not wistfully pining for a more private online past that has receded into the distance? Are they not being obdurate barriers, standing in the way of a future of drones, Google Glass, and the Internet of things? Are they really just anti-technology?

To almost all of the above questions the standard – and non-controversial – response would be a fairly resounding “no.” Though the people who take online privacy seriously may be bucking certain technical trends, their simultaneous immersion in technology seems to insulate them from certain charges. While few would call a privacy advocate anti-technology, the simple fact is that there might be a germ of truth to such an accusation. After all, in championing privacy software and encryption those celebrating tools for online anonymity are staking out an opposing position to certain other technologies. If one is a booster for privacy technology one is almost by default an opponent (or “anti”) certain surveillance technologies. Granted, “technology” is a huge category, and though it is often discussed in simplistic terms it actually entails quite a complex and diverse set of tools. Yet in promoting certain tools and opposing others what privacy advocates demonstrate is that being against certain technologies in particular contexts does not make one anti-technology (as such), it just means that one opposes certain technologies in particular contexts. Thus, though it may seem a somewhat comical claim to make, one could certainly argue that the pro-privacy response is actually a fine example of the Luddite response.

When most people think of “the Luddite response” they mentally conjure up a caricature that involves workers with sledgehammers smashing machines. It is an image that is not without a link to historical truth but is nevertheless a fairly laughable over simplification – it has more to do with a response of “Luddite” than with the Luddite response. For it is a reduction that conveniently leaves out several important factors: firstly, that the taking up of hammers was an activity of last resort (it occurred after other attempts at redress failed); secondly, that the Luddites were not troglodyte cave dwellers but skilled workers well accustomed to using technical tools in their work and lives; and thirdly, that the Luddites did not indiscriminately smash all machines (or individuals) but targeted particular mills where the machines were simply the reification of repressive capitalist relations.

Thus, though the popular imagination may define “the Luddite response” as “smashing machines” a more historically accurate reading would be that the Luddite response consists of opposing certain technologies in certain contexts. It is not anti-technology (as such) but anti particular technologies in particular situations. The attempt to turn the Luddites into anti-technology bogeymen has less to do with the Luddites than with those who called in the soldiery to see to it that the Luddites were violently suppressed and their memory repressed.

Granted, much of the trouble around the Luddite response is linked to definitions that remain rather murky. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary, by way of example, defines Luddite as:

“noun: one of a group of early 19th century English workmen destroying laborsaving machinery as a protest; broadly: one who is opposed to especially technological change.”

When one encounters the term Luddite these days it is generally in the context of the latter “broadly” part of the definition without linking it back to the first part of the definition. Thus “opposed to…technological change” acts as a sort of free-floating opposition to technology when it becomes un-tethered from its link to a particular historical setting and from its identification with an act of “protest.”

Yet, even the first part of the Webster definition is fraught with peril as it contains an easily overlooked term that packs quite a lot of ideological meaning. Namely: “laborsaving,” a term that may sound rather positive if quickly scanned over, but which should prompt one to ponder over what this term really represents. After all, “laborsaving” rarely means that those doing the labor will enjoy a shorter work week – what it generally means is that those who own the “laborsaving” devices will be able to save on their labor costs and thus be well positioned to accumulate more wealth. It is a rather one-sided form of improvement wherein the gains accrue upwards as the losses bury the less fortunate. Nevertheless, to return to the matter of “the Luddite response” what such definitions do is to stand up an anti-technology straw man in the place of a protest movement that had a far more nuanced understanding of technology than what encounters in many a dictionary (granted – dictionaries are also ideological tools). Or, as the historian of technology David Noble described them:

“The Luddites were not themselves confused by this ideological invention. They did not believe in technological progress, nor could they have; the alien idea was invented after them, to try to prevent their recurrence. In light of this invention, the Luddites were cast as irrational, provincial, futile, and primitive. In reality, the Luddites were perhaps the last people in the West to perceive technology in the present tense and to act upon that perception…the Luddites who resisted the introduction of new technologies were not against technology per se but rather against the social changes that the new technology reflected and reinforced.” (Noble, 7)

The reason that this matter of the Luddites still matters is that the term Luddite seems to be popping up with ever more frequency of late – and not simply amongst those discussing the history of technology. Indeed, in these swiftly changing technological times the term Luddite has become a massive tent under which all critical and oppositional comments are shoved. Taxi drivers who are angered by Uber are Luddites, hotels that are angered by AirBnb are run by Luddites, people who dislike Google Glass or drones are Luddites, and so forth and so on. Granted – many of these situations are better considered (as in the case of hotels vs. Airbnb) as simple cases of big capitalist companies battling it out, whilst others (an individual taking out a drone) are isolated incidents that are sensationally exaggerated in the name of advancing ideological onslaughts against any who dare to question the good news of technological evangelism.

What is largely on display is not so much the Luddite response as a response of “Luddite” – the usage of the definite article “the” is a key difference. To define this more clearly, the Luddite response (based on the historical Luddites) consists of a targeted opposition to particular technologies in particular contexts wherein that which is problematic is not so much a particular tool as it the ideological/societal/political/economic ends that a given tool advances. While, in the contrary case, a response of “Luddite” is simply the hurling of the term “Luddite” as an epithet and as a way of cutting short any real engagement with the troubling topic of technology. The irony is that when the term Luddite is tossed out as an insult it is meant as an accusation that the target is backwards minded whilst the very people hurling the term so thoughtlessly wind up revealing their own historical ignorance. In an attempt to accuse others of thinking too simply, those who respond to all technological critique with a retort of “Luddite” wind up bogged down in a simplistic reading of history, technology, and ideology.

The Luddite response is not about breaking machines but about breaking through the ideological mists that surround machines. It is not about using a sledgehammer (itself a technological tool) to smash machines but about trying to build a movement in opposition to the societal forces that wield technologically bolstered economic power as a sledgehammer. Though the historic Luddites are all dead and buried the legacy of the Luddite response lives on in spirit in efforts that recognize that being opposed to certain technologies in certain settings does not make one opposed to all technology (as such). Thus, opposition to surveillance technology and arguing in favor of encryption does bear a certain resemblance to the Luddite response – for it sees that one can oppose some technology without being anti-technology. It is likely that many whose actions fall within the continuum of the Luddite response would be skeptical of describing their own actions in such a way – but the point here is simply to demonstrate that there is much more to the Luddite response than to the caricature to which it is often reduced.

That a response of “Luddite” generally comes from the business press, the unabashedly pro-technology press (which is nearly synonymous with the business press), wealthy investors, and the heads of tech firms should come as no surprise. After all, Luddism – and thus the Luddite response – is a form of activist tinged ideological critique that dares to put people before profits and to question the powerful forces of a society. The goal of a response of “Luddite” is to preemptively de-fang the Luddite response – it howls about hammer wielding anti-technology miscreants whilst using technology as an ideological weapon with which to hammer all opposition into smithereens. In many ways a response of “Luddite” acts as an easy testament for the continued need for the Luddite response, as it makes clear that while the technologies have changed those in power have not.

The Luddite response does not result in a landscape blighted by mountains of broken screens, discarded devices, and toxic e-waste bogs. Indeed, such mindless destruction and ecological devastation are the results of the very techno-capitalist ideology that the Luddite response critiques.

The Luddites may be remembered for using sledgehammers – but this does not mean that they were wielding a blunt ideology.

Works Cited

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

Related Content on the Luddites

Who’s Afraid of General Ludd?

Luddism for these Ludicrous Times

The Curious Case of Reform Luddism

Ned, Ted and Red – General Ludd gets Blacklisted

The Specter of General Ludd at SXSW

[Looking for more on the history of the Luddites? E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class may be the classic work on the topic; though if you’re looking for something shorter you might consider Peter Linebaugh’s Ned Ludd & Queen Mab (which has recently been re-printed in Linebaugh’s collection Stop, Thief! The Commons, Enclosure, and Resistance); you can also read Eric Hobsbawm’s essential essay “The Machine Breakers” online]


About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

7 comments on “The Luddite Response

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