Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
‘Tis the season of the mailbox stuffed with catalogs. Regardless of whether or not one participates in the traditions that result in stockings stuffed with tchotchkes or trees bedecked in ornaments – all get to share in the thrill of a mailbox overflowing with materials bound straight for the recycling bin. All of which is another way of saying that this is the time of year when many people find themselves purchasing gifts for others, and in which numerous companies conspire to ensure that the aforementioned gifts are purchased from them.
And yet, buying gifts can be stressful! It can be quite the ordeal to figure out the proper gift for the right person. But luckily, many of these purveyors of products are happy to help; they compose useful guides that reduce your friends and loved ones into caricatures and then make suggestions based on these oversimplifications. Granted, it is much easier to get gifts for the “foodie” on your guest list than it is to confront the challenge of thinking of the correct gift for the “Mark” on your list. Yes, companies are more than happy to supply you with recommendations for what to get the proverbial man, woman, cinephile, foodie, gamer, fashionista, knitter, beer drinker, boss, co-worker, Trekkie, kid, vegan, technophile, athlete or Luddite in your life.
We have the menswear company Bonobos to thank for that last addition to the list.
Finally, a business bold enough to offer gift suggestions for the intrepid followers of General Ludd! In its holiday catalog (and the online marketing campaign that goes along with it) Bonobos has provided gift suggestions for several types of chaps, including: the Polymath, the Bon Vivant, the Good Sport, the Globetrotter, and the Luddite. As should come as no surprise to anybody, seeing as Bonobos is a menswear company, Bonobos is recommending clothing as the ideal gift for these different types of fellows. Indeed, to take a quick glance at the recommendations is to conclude that the main thing that differentiates these types of gents is color preference: navy for the Polymath, khaki and white for the Bon Vivant, greens and grays the Good Sport, blacks and grays for the Globetrotter, while the Luddite gets burgundy and blue.
It is rather curious to see Luddite appear as a category alongside the Bon Vivant and the Globetrotter – and it is worth noting that the company does not seem to be using the term Luddite in a negative way. Those who pay attention to the use of the term Luddite are well accustomed to the way in which the contemporary use of the term could more accurately be described as the misuse of the term. For in much current discourse the term Luddite is mainly trotted out as an epithet to be hurled as a sort of accusation of technophobia. Or, to put it slightly differently, today it is rare for one to find the term Luddite being used in a way that is actually related to its historic meaning. So, has Bonobos finally done it? Will they be the bold retailer that takes a proud stance in defining that term in a historically accurate way?
Of course not.
For Bonobos, according to their website, the Luddite gift list is intended:
“For the spoon-whittling, axe-throwing outdoorsman in your life.”
It’s enough to almost make one pine to hear Luddite used as an insult. At least the insults carry within them some vague notion of the Luddites as a group of workers who organized themselves to fight back against the encroachment of new machinery that threatened their way of life. To scoff that somebody is a Luddite at least recognizes that there is some kind of link between the term and a position towards technology other than fawning adoration. When Luddite is used as a put-down at least it carries some memory of those who picked up sledge hammers. But a “spoon-whittling, axe-throwing outdoors man”? Yeesh. It seems that the folks at Bonobos have confused the Luddites with lumberjacks. After all, couldn’t they have at least gone so far as to say “hammer-throwing”? Though, to give credit where it is due, at least in the image of the person packing up the gifts for the Luddite set there is a picture of a hammer; albeit a hammer alongside a distinctly non-digital camera and various other rustic accouterments.
In fairness, as the below image demonstrates, the entry in the catalog is moderately better.
At least the above text makes a reference to a smashed laptop. Though the references to “five hand-carved walking sticks, three birdhouses, and one luxurious beard” are every bit as annoying in their absurd banality as the reference to “spoon-whittling.”And once more this fellow is described as being an “aspiring mountain man.” Thus, though a reference is made to a smashed laptop it is done in such a way as to link it to some bucolic fantasy – not in a way that raises any ethical questions regarding the laptop itself. If such a chap indeed smashed a laptop it seems not totally unfair to imagine that it was done as a sort of performance as opposed to being a political act.
To see the term Luddite reduced to an insult or a catch all term for being “anti-technology” is always disappointing. It often seems as if the term is nastily brandished as a response by those who are so insecure in their own technophilia that they must tar any criticism of technology (no matter how light) as evidence that one is opposed to all technology (as such). And yet, it is always worth remembering, the Luddites were not opposed to “all” technology – rather they were opposed to particular machines, being deployed in a particular context, wherein they concluded that the imposition of these machines was an attack on their livelihoods. Or, as Neil Postman wrote:
“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)
The Luddites were many things, but they certainly were not urban hipsters donning expensive flannel shirts and designer blue jeans before doing something insufferably quaint in the woods. And thus, Bonobos use of the term inaugurates a fascinating new strand in the misuse of the term, the transformation of the term away from being an epithet and into being a quaint identifier meant to capture some vague sense of dissatisfaction with the trappings of the modern world. In Bonobos hands the term Luddite ceases to have a political or rebellious aspect and becomes little more than a vague affectation. Granted, this is a dissatisfaction with the modern world that is still expressed through the purchasing of products.
To be fair it might be that Bonobos simply lacks a very sophisticated understanding of what words actually mean. After all, on their website, they describe the gifts for the Polymath as being:
“For the drone-flying, screen-obsessed techie in your life.”
But that is not what it means to be a polymath. A polymath is an individual with a sophisticated and wide ranging expertise. The proverbial “Renaissance” person, they may be quite technologically competent but are equally fluent in the arts. Or to put it slightly differently not a “screen-obsessed techie.” One can be a polymath and a Luddite. Now, it seem that all of this is only so much nitpicking, but the core of the critique being offered here is a serious one: words matter. It makes a difference whether or not people hear a word and think of a historical group, a modern caricature, or the latest fashion trend being hawked by a purveyor of expensive apparel. At the hands of their adversaries the Luddites have seen their proud name repeatedly dragged through the mud – but to be turned into a fashion trend is to add the proverbial “insult” to all of the other injury.
Nevertheless, the greatest sin of the Bonobos catalog may be that it is providing horrible suggestions for individuals who were sincerely searching for potential gifts for the actual Luddite in their lives. And thus, what follows are some good gift suggestions if you have a genuine Luddite on your list.
First published in 1963, Thompson’s book is not only a classic work of social history but also one of the finest historical accounts of the Luddites. As its title suggests, this is not a book solely about the Luddites but about the broader history of the working class in England (of which the Luddites were a part) – and thus, this book helps to locate the Luddites within a historical and social context. This is a truly excellent text and a core book for understanding the Luddites – it may appear to be on the lengthy side but it is wonderfully written and a pleasure to read. If you want to get a book for the Luddite on your list (assuming they have not already read it) than this is the book to give them.
The Luddites were fairly prolific writers. True, much of what they wrote took the form of letters, poems, petitions, proclamations – but what more were you expecting from a clandestine organization that was being actively put down by the government? Binfield’s book assembles these Luddite texts and provides helpful historical commentary as well as a lengthy (and solid) introduction. The collection captures Luddite texts from several years (1811-1816) and is helpfully divided based on the three regions in which the Luddites were mainly active. Included in the book are many of the best known Luddite letters (such as the one wherein the Luddites declare “we will never lay down our Arms. The House of Commons passes an Act to put down all Machinery hurtful to Commonality” [this appears on page 210 of the book]), and many more. If the Luddite in your life is longing to read the Luddite’s in their own words – than this is the gift for them!
As a historian of technology David Noble has written many books that would be of interest to those on your list who direct a critical gaze towards technology (America By Design and The Religion of Technology are both superb). In Progress Without People Noble discusses the Luddites in their original context but also considers the broader history of technology’s impact on labor (and resistance to it). This is a quick and engaging book that provides a crash course on the Luddites while making it clear why their lesson is worth remembering at a moment when business owners are chortling about automating everything. This book also includes some excellent supplementary material such as the letter Lord Byron penned in support of the Luddites. A great book to give the Luddite on your list who lacks the time to dig into a dense history book, and who wants a clear argument as to the continuing importance of the Luddites.
What to do if the Luddite on your list has no space on their bookshelf and actually prefers humming along to music than reading? Do not worry! This is a compilation of classic English Rebel Songs from 1381-1984 (as the title suggests) as performed by the punk/folk/pop group Chumbawamba. 13 tracks of a cappella hell-raising – including a rendition of the song “The Triumph of General Ludd” alongside numerous other fantastic tunes. Yes, this is the same Chumbawamba best known for the song “Tubthumping” but this album will remind you that the band grew out of the anarcho-punk scene and remained politically active on the far-left before, during and after the flirtation with fame that song brought them (also worth remembering – when Tubthumping was a hit the band encouraged people to steal the album the song was on from chain record stores).
The fine folks behind Luddites200 organized a series of events to celebrate the bicentenary of the Luddite uprisings. Available on their website are still some mugs and t-shirts from the Huddersfield Luddites festival as well as some truly fantastic badges (or pin-back buttons as you may know them). The buttons include slogans such as “Down With Machinery Hurtful to Commonality,” “Off Your Computers and Onto the Streets,” and “Down With All Kings But King Ludd.” Let the Luddite in your life wear their Luddite pride on their lapel.
It’s always good to have a hammer. You never know when you’re going to need it…
Postman, Neil. Technopoly. Vintage, 1993.
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