"More than machinery, we need humanity."
General Ludd has recently been sighted in France. At least that is what one might be led to believe based on stories about French taxi drivers protesting against Uber. After all, whenever a confrontation pits a technology company against another group of people (who do not happen to be a rival technology company) it is a pretty safe assumption that those opposing the tech firm will be dubbed Luddites.
Often this is simply the result of a mixture of mockery and laziness. The Luddites, particularly in the tech adoring media, have come to function as a convenient cultural short hand for any opposition to technology. It is a label that is used to suggest that a group of people is blithely opposing the vast category of “technology” (as such) whilst simultaneously casting this opposition as backwards looking, pointless, and foolish. It does not take particularly much these days to earn the title Luddite. Despite the clear historical allusion embedded in the term, when it used as an epithet, it is rarely meant as an invitation to genuinely consider the similarities between the historic Luddites and the group being accused of carrying Ludd’s banner in the present day.
However, it is a worthwhile exercise to seriously ponder the existence of such parallels. Though dwelling upon this history may have the result of making one realize that to be called a Luddite is not necessarily an insult. Indeed, to be called a Luddite by those who worship technology companies may actually be quite a compliment.
Taxi drivers in France recently engaged in several days of protests against the company Uber – though it is important to note that the French government has ruled that the UberPOP app is actually illegal. As tends to happen whenever there are protests, the aspects that draw the most media attention are those in which activity grows particularly militant. The narratives that the US media is particularly comfortable telling are those in which protestors are depicted as out of control menaces, and this was the story line that was happily disseminated about the spate of anti-Uber protests. And yet at base these protests were about practitioners of a particular trade, defending their livelihoods. In places other than just France, Uber has come into tension with local taxi drivers who have bristled at the way that Uber (and its drivers) are able to flout the rules and regulations that taxi drivers are expected to abide by. The situation in France takes on a particularly odd dynamic insofar as Uber is able to paint itself as the rebellious underdog standing in defiance of the French government by letting people order a car with an app – but it is worth remembering that behind Uber’s bad-boy stance there is nothing particularly rebellious about a rich corporation seeking profits by attacking workers.
Though Uber’s willful disruption of the livelihoods of taxi drivers tends to only get attention when those drivers dare disrupt back. This is becoming something of a generalizable trend when it comes to technology and disruption – those doing the disruption hate it when the disruption is disrupted.
In fairness, there may be some genuine similarities between the French taxi drivers and the historic Luddites. And lest there be the slightest confusion, the term Luddite is in no way being deployed here as an insult. The Luddites were not random people who one day decided it would be fun to smash some machines – rather they were skilled laborers in the textile industry (in the north of England, mainly between 1811 and 1813) who saw the imposition of new machines as a threat to their craft, and to their livelihoods. The Luddites were not opposed to the new machines, as such, but to the economic system that such machines were ushering in, whereby the time saved in production would not result in the betterment of the workers lives but only contribute to the fattening of the machine owners’ coffers. Initially the Luddites had appealed to parliament for protection but when they realized this would not work they took defense of their craft into their own hands – and sometimes those hands were holding sledgehammers. The bit with the hammers is what the Luddites are largely remembered for these days, but what is often forgotten is that the Luddites did not lose because they were struggling in vain against some farcical notion of the inevitability of technological progress. The Luddites eventually lost because they were violently suppressed – with many of them being hanged or transported – the army was necessary for quelling the popular support that the Luddites enjoyed.
It cannot be repeated enough times that the Luddites were not opposed to technology, as such. They were opposed to particular machines in particular contexts being deployed by particular people in particular ways. And the Luddites had the audacity to believe that they deserved a say in the technological decisions that would impact them. Similar things can be said of the French taxi drivers. Do the French taxi drivers oppose cars? Doubtful. Do they oppose the Internet? Also doubtful. Do they despise people who own smart phones? It’s probably a safe assumption that most of those protesting taxi drivers own smart phones. It is ridiculous to assert that the French taxi drivers oppose “technology” – what they oppose is a company based out of California that thinks it can trample on them. It takes a serious feat of ideological gymnastics to transform opposition to a particular company into an all out attack on technology. Granted, it takes a similar act of historical revision to turn the Luddites into a mob that indiscriminately smashed every machine they came across. Thus, at a basic level, the historic Luddites and the French taxi drivers do have an important thing in common: both groups consist of workers demanding that they be given a voice in the discussions around technology that will adversely effect them.
In attempting to insult the French taxi drivers by calling them Luddites, what actually occurs is that these drivers are connected to the history of labor struggles.
And this is precisely the danger of Luddism – and why it is that those who dare push back against “technological inevitability” must be cast as backwards – for what greater threat is there to the advocates of technological inevitability than to show that there is nothing inevitable about technology? The technologies one encounters are the results of an uncountable numbers of choices, compromises, and sometimes outright struggles. Increasingly, all of these decisions are cast as taking place behind the closed doors of a tech company campus – but one of the ways in which people can re-inject themselves into these choices, compromises and struggles is by re-injecting themselves into these debates. Some may argue that there are more productive (read: less militant) ways for people to re-enter these conversations than mass protests, but as the historic Luddites and the French taxi drivers show it sometimes takes dramatic action to make oneself heard over the sound of tech companies unceasingly applauding themselves. As Joseph Weizenbaum once wrote:
“The myth of technological and political and social inevitability is a powerful tranquilizer of the conscience. Its service is to remove responsibility from the shoulders of everyone who truly believes in it. But, in fact, there are actors!” (241 – italics in original text)
There is nothing inevitable about Uber.
Granted, there is also nothing inevitable about people coming to realize that “there are actors” behind every technology and realizing that they need not sit as a passive audience but can be actors themselves.
If the myth of technological inevitability is a tranquilizer than a dose of Luddism may be a shot of adrenaline.
Weizenbaum, Joseph. Computer Power and Human Reason. W. H. Freeman and Company, 1976.
Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. Vintage Books, 1966. (this book is not cited; however, the paragraph on the history of the Luddites is based largely on Thompson’s work)