"More than machinery, we need humanity."
“If the Luddites had never existed, their critics would have to invent them.” – Theodor Roszak
One way of telling that controversies about technology are intensifying is to watch for an increase in comments evoking the Luddites. Whether it takes the form of more people furiously hurling the term as an epithet, others adopting a stance of “Well, I guess I’m a Luddite,” or people patiently trying to explain who the actual Luddites were—when the specter of General Ludd gets conjured up, you can tell that something is afoot.
At the time of this writing, much of the renewed attention to the Luddites seems bound up with a variety of high-profile AI related projects and programs: AI art generators (including, but not limited to, DALL-E), and AI text generators (notably ChatGTP). In both cases the deluge of output from these has left some people excitedly awestruck while others have been left thoroughly unsettled. As with most moments of newness surrounding technology, there is a great deal of hype and hope about the long-term implications of these technologies that may or may not prove true. And yet one notable wrinkle here is how loud the opposition has been from many people arguing that what these AI generators produce may glitter but it is ultimately fool’s gold. Of course, as always happens in these situations, those who speak out against the new technology find themselves mocked as Luddites by those most excited by the new technology—and some of those who find themselves thusly mocked wind-up drawing inspiration instead of condemnation from the comparison. After all, those who look at these new AI generators and argue that they just churn out mass-produced low-quality rubbish while imperiling the livelihoods of those whose skills these technologies mimic, are actually striking a stance not altogether different from that taken up by the historic Luddites.
For those who are interested in learning more about the Luddites, there are plenty of quick online articles that provide a foundational introduction. But what to read next for a more robust understanding? This list aims to answer that question by providing a “Luddite Library” of sorts for those interested in deepening their understanding of the Luddites and Luddism.
Before going forward with the actual list, it is worth quickly noting what this list is and what this list is not. This list is intended as a list of sources for those who are interested in Luddism, but who want more than just an online article or two (not that there’s anything wrong with such introductory articles). Furthermore, this list aims to provide a variety of works that will hopefully cater to some of the sorts of questions people may have about Luddites and Luddism. This list is not intended to be seen as a comprehensive list of every work out there about the Luddites and Luddism—there are many books and articles that could have been placed on this list that were not. This is also not meant as an introductory reading guide on critiques of technology, the focus here has been kept on the Luddites and Luddism. Lastly, more than anything else the hope is that this list will help inform current and future discussions around Luddism, which (as the assembled works makes clear) remains a contentious term even amongst those who would embrace it.
Without further ado…
“We will never lay down our Arms. The House of Commons passes an Act to put down Machinery hurtful to Commonality, and repeal that to hang Frame Breakers. But We. We petition no more that won’t do fighting must.”
In trying to make sense of Luddism, and the actual Luddites, one of the biggest challenges is that the historic Luddites did not leave behind a detailed manifesto in which they carefully outlined the exact details of their ideology. This does not really come as much of a surprise when one considers that the Luddites were a clandestine group of workers organizing to commit acts that were illegal (and punishable by death). Nevertheless, for those trying to put forth a coherent ideology or doctrine to place beneath the heading of “Luddism,” this absence presents both peril and promise. Peril, because it makes it easy to project ideas onto the original Luddites that they did not actually hold. Promise, because it means that Luddism carries a level of flexibility that can be bent in various directions. Granted, the first group to treat Luddism as a sort of mask that could be donned by a variety of people as they sought to redress their specific grievances—was the historic Luddites themselves.
For those hoping to get a sense of what the original Luddites really said and thought, there is no better work to look to than Writings of the Luddites edited by Kevin Binfield. As the title of this extraordinary volume suggests, this book collects the writings of the actual Luddites, allowing those hammer-wielding workers to speak for themselves. The volume is primarily composed of the threatening letters that were sent to mill and factory owners during the period of the Luddite risings, with many of the letters being signed by someone identifying themselves as Ludd—or claiming that they were writing at the behest of General Ludd. The letters are broken down by geographical region (Midlands, Northwestern, and Yorkshire), with each section organized chronologically, thereby providing a compelling sense of the regional distinctions between Luddite groups as well as a sense of how the movement’s identity evolved over the course of the risings. While many of the letters collected in the book do not provide a quick and easy distillation of what exactly accounts for real Luddism, the book makes it clear that the Luddites were not a thoughtless band of technophobes but a gathering of people trying to protect themselves, their communities, and their livelihoods from machinery that they deemed “hurtful to Commonality.” The book can be difficult reading at times, and those in search of a straightforward narrative will not find it here—but this book presents an opportunity to read the actual Luddites. Alongside the letters, there are other useful historical snippets including poems and songs, and throughout the book Binfield provides useful contextual comments to help make sense of the documents (there’s also a very good, and quite lengthy, introduction).
If you want to know who the Luddites were in their own words, start here.
“I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.”
Most of the time, when used in popular parlance, the term Luddite either tars one as a technophobic fool blithely standing in the way of technological progress, or it is used with a sort of self-deprecating wink by which one makes an excuse for finding a new gadget confusing. And those seeking to rehabilitate the idea of Luddism have always had to struggle against the way in which Luddite is generally hurled as an epithet. In the effort to rehabilitate the idea of Luddism and to rescue the reputation of the original Luddites one of the most important steps has been to consider who it was the Luddites really were, explain the historic moment in which they were living, and thereby seek to elucidate why it was that they picked up the hammers and engaged in the tactic for which they would become famous. And when it comes to rehabilitating the history of the original Luddites, perhaps no single person deserves more credit than the historian E.P. Thompson.
To be clear, The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson’s classic tome is not exclusively a history of the Luddites. Rather, the book traces the development of (as the title suggests) the English working class in a period from between 1780 to 1832—a tumultuous period that saw a variety of social movements, class conflicts, and confrontations exacerbated by the changes being wrought during what is commonly called “the industrial revolution.” Thus, one of the most significant aspects of Thompson’s work is that it is not exclusively a history of the Luddites but instead situates the Luddites within a continuum of workers’ struggles over a roughly fifty-year period—indeed, the reader doesn’t really reach the Luddites until the book’s fourteenth chapter (at which point a reader is some 472 pages into a 848 page book). Thompson’s account of the Luddites engages with the tactic for which they are best known—while making it clear that “machine breaking” is a tactic that predated the Luddites, and that survived long after them—but perhaps most significantly, Thompson places the Luddites into a larger exploration of the history of English politics and the English economy. As Thompson makes clear, the decision to engage in what Eric Hobsbawm so evocatively described as “collective bargaining by riot” was not the result of a hatred of machinery, but a tactical decision made after it became clear that parliament would not protect the skilled craftworkers whose livelihoods were imperiled by the new machinery. Here the Luddites appear less as a strange aberration in history, but instead as one of the many groups that emerged in a tumultuous period in English (and world) history. Furthermore, Thompson captures the ways in which Luddism was a genuinely popular movement, that ended not because of some “inevitable triumph” of the machines but because militarized force was deployed. Despite their gathering beneath the moniker of a myth-clad leader, Thompson demythologizes the Luddites to show them as movement of real people motivated by real concerns.
If you want to really understand who the Luddites were as historic actors within a historic context, read this.
“Neo-Luddites are 20th century citizens—activists, workers, neighbors, social critics, and scholars—who question the predominant worldview, which preaches that unbridled technology represents progress.”
Amongst those who have found themselves mocked as Luddites there has been a tendency to react by choosing to embrace that term. In some cases, this has involved touting the historic legacy of the actual Luddites, while in still other cases it has taken the form of an attempt not just to praise the past, but to resurrect General Ludd in the present. And while there are certainly many cases of individuals happily embracing the title of Luddite on a personal level, it was in the early 1990s that there was truly a concerted effort to galvanize a new Luddite movement, to articulate an updated vision of Luddism, and to loudly (and proudly) identify as Luddites—though instead of calling themselves Luddites, they preferred to call themselves Neo-Luddites. Ultimately, the Neo-Luddites did not truly succeed in galvanizing a mass movement to push back against the particular “destructive technologies” they inveighed against. And it may well be that the Neo-Luddites main legacy is in the form of the range of books that can be tied to a greater or lesser extent to the Neo-Luddite moment. Nevertheless, the Neo-Luddites thought to do one thing that their historic namesakes neglected: the Neo-Luddites had a manifesto. Or, at the very least, they had notes pointing in the direction of a manifesto.
Originally published in the pages of The Utne Reader, Chellis Glendinning’s Notes Towards a Neo-Luddite Manifesto clearly lays out a vision for a politics based in a critique of technology. The manifesto embraces the mantle of Luddism, even as it briefly defends the legacy of the historic Luddites, and emphasizes that the Neo-Luddites are not technophobes simply because they refuse to buy into the dominant spirit of technophilia. The manifesto is organized around three simple principles (“Neo-Luddites are not anti-technology,” “All technologies are political,” and “The personal view of technology is dangerously limited”), and built towards outlining a “program for the future” that simultaneously called for “the dismantling” of certain technologies (including “computer technologies”) while also calling for the development of “new technological forms” especially ones that would be more in keeping with environmental and democratic goals. Glendinning’s manifesto is short and to the point, and is clearly written as a provocation and a call to action. This is not a dense scholarly treatise, but an earnest attempt to galvanize more people into becoming Neo-Luddites. Of course, different readers will react in their own way to this Manifesto, especially as regards the program for the future section (some people might not be so eager to see all of the things Glendinning called to be dismantled actually dismantled). And yet, for those interested in formulating a Luddite politics or a philosophy of Luddism today, the three principles that Glendinning set forth still provide a solid foundation upon which to build. At the very least, Glendinning’s manifesto serves as a testament to an attempt to turn Luddism into an actually articulated philosophy for a more contemporary political movement.
If you want to see an attempt to resurrect Luddism when the Internet was still in its infancy, read this.
“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. They smashed machines.”
Consider for a moment the various sorts of tactics that are employed by labor movements and activist campaigns: strikes, marches, picketing, boycotts, etc. Now for a moment consider whether it would be odd if one of those tactics ceased being referred to as the tactic itself, and instead came to be referred to by the name of a specific movement that had famously practiced that tactic with decidedly mixed results. Of course, you don’t really need to imagine this, because the Luddites (and Luddism) is a perfect example of precisely this. The Luddites remain best known today for the particular tactic they practiced: machine breaking. However, the Luddites were not the first group in history to deliberately break machines/tools, nor for that matter would they be the last. Yet as the term “Luddite” becomes synonymous with “machine breaking” a form of direct action with a long complex history (of which the Luddites are a part but not the totality) tends to get buried. And as the group itself becomes elevated over the tactic that they practiced one of the results is to make the particular group seem like the lone practitioners of a confrontational strategy as opposed to one amongst many groups of workers who saw sabotage as a way of securing their demands.
In Progress Without People: New Technology, Unemployment, and the Message of Resistance, Noble writes in “defense of Luddism,” but his work is clearly interested in dispelling the aura of historical uniqueness that has been allowed to gather around the Luddites. Instead, Noble devotes much of this short book to an explanation not so much of who the Luddites were, but to instead draw more attention to some of the many other groups that have engaged in the tactic of machine breaking. While historians like E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm have argued that the Luddites are best viewed within the context of the development of the labor movement (with the Luddites appearing as a sort of proto-union), Noble considers how the tactic of machine breaking has continued to be deployed from within the labor movement more than a hundred and fifty years later. Hobsbawm had described machine breaking as a sort of “collective bargaining by riot,” but Noble makes clear that even once actual unions come along that can engage in legally sanctioned “collective bargaining” the tactic of machine breaking is still practiced. Noble’s book provides an account of various acts of machine breaking conducted by workers throughout the twentieth century in response to various technologies of mechanization and automation—capturing how consistently workers have identified the machine not as itself the enemy, but the machine as the tool being used by the enemy (the bosses) against them. Here technology emerges as a clear site of political struggle. Beyond providing a very useful reminder that machine breaking is a tactic that pre and postdates the Luddites, Noble’s book also provides a very useful contribution to the attempt to make Luddism into something resembling a real philosophy. For, Noble’s treatment of Luddism as the effort “to perceive technology in the present tense and to act upon that perception” remains a provocative and fruitful definition of Luddism.
If you are looking for proof that the Luddites weren’t the only ones to ever break their machines—and you’re looking to make sense of technology in your present tense, read this.
“And so it was that the Luddites lost their fight against the machines. And so it was that everyone who has challenged the machines has lost. And yet they have not lost, for they represent a solid body of thinking that deserves to be reconsidered and appreciated as an alternative to the present domination of technology: an option, a value system that continues to throb beneath the shroud prematurely placed over it.”
The historic Luddites were skilled craftworkers laboring in England in the early part of the nineteenth century, and beyond the obvious difference in time period most people who find themselves called (or who call themselves) Luddites today are also distinct in that relatively few of them would describe themselves as skilled craftworkers. Indeed, even amongst the most ardent self-styled Luddites it’s rare to find many that identify as stockingers or croppers or hand-loom weavers. This is not for a moment to deny that most self-styled Luddites are still workers (people who must sell their labor) who find their work and life disrupted by obnoxious machinery, but many of them engage in quite different kinds of labor to those practiced by the historic Luddites. What’s more, even though there are some contemporary Luddites who come to their critique of technology as a result of a labor related confrontation to technology, even more seem to come to their Luddism through a sort of philosophical hostility towards not only specific machines but towards the broader ideology that surrounds technology today. And those who find themselves feeling some sort of inner distrust for the machine (and its worshippers) are in good company.
With Against the Machine, Nicols Fox provides a rich overview of groups and individuals whose actions and worldviews can be seen as expressing a sort of philosophical Luddism. While grounding the book in a fascination with the historic Luddites, and framing the book as having been somewhat inspired by the activities of the Neo-Luddites, Fox’s book constructs a Luddism that is about much more than just the Luddites. Against the commonly issued charge that the Luddites were just a gaggle of uncultured fools (a charge which historians have countered), Fox’s book provides plenty of evidence that a hostility or at least deep ambivalence towards technology has often been found amongst many prominent thinkers and writers. Ranging across a cast of individuals including (but not limited to) Mary Shelley, Henry David Thoreau, William Morris, and Rachel Carson—Fox identifies, as her title suggests, a “hidden Luddite tradition” that courses through the work of many widely renowned individuals. Some may respond to Fox’s narrative by noting that it is well known that certain past figures had critical views towards technology, and others may bristle at the romanticism of many of the figures Fox discusses, but what her book does so well is build an argument for Luddism not simply as a reference to a long-ago uprising, but Luddism as a vibrant intellectual tradition (even if it has not always operated under the name of Luddism). The great strength of Fox’s book is that it shows the Luddites within a history of questioning technology, a history in which people today can clearly take part.
If you want to see how Luddism can be as much about picking up the pen or paintbrush as about picking up a sledgehammer, read this.
“Luddism is not the destruction of all machines. And neither is it the hatred of machines as such. Like cyberculture, it is another word for dismantling. Luddism is the performative breaking of machines that limit species expression and impede planetary survival.”
While evoking the historic Luddites often functions to start a bit of a debate, there is at least one thing about the historic Luddites that their most dismissive mockers and most ardent defenders will have to agree on: the historic Luddites never used computers. This is a silly observation, obvious to the point of banality, and yet it cannot be completely overlooked considering how many of the contemporary discussions about Luddism in one way or another wind up touching on a reaction to computer technologies. Indeed, the computer (and by extension the Internet) has helped set the public stage for how difficult it can be to speak critically about technology today: for the computer has become synonymous with “technology” (or at least with “tech”), making it all too easy (and all too common) to see any opposition towards a particular computer technology treated as though it represents a rejection of technology (as such). Granted, two decades into the twenty-first century it is becoming harder and harder to completely dismiss of all the discontents that computing conjures up, but what of the computer’s early days?
In Dismantlings: Words Against Machines in the American Long Seventies, Matt Tierney places his focus on the United States in the years from 1965 to 1980 to provide a fascinating look at shifting attitudes towards technology in that period. This period is often remembered, and commonly mythologized, as a time of technological exuberance and the ascendancy of the computer—yet Tierney’s work captures the way that many groups and individuals approached the computer with serious hesitancy from the outset. While considering the way that concepts like Marshall McLuhan’s “global village,” Buckminster Fuller’s “Spaceship Earth,” and Norbert Wiener’s “Cybernetics” influenced the technological discussions of the era, Tierney also draws on the work and thought of figures including Audre Lorde, Ursula Le Guin, Samuel Delaney, Alice Mary Hilton, and others to provide an alternative set of attitudes towards technology that were also circulating during the long seventies. In contrast to technologically deterministic narratives that attempt to draw a straight line from ENIAC to whatever gadget it is you’re reading this on, Tierney’s book stands as a reminder that it is people not technology driving history, and that different people were attempting to drive history in a different direction. Dismantlings does not frame itself as a Luddite manifesto, nor is it an attempt to say what the Luddite manifesto of the long seventies was, rather Tierney frames his book as a sort of “counterlexicon” that provides the essential intellectual tools needed to make sense of computer dominated society. The Luddism that Tierney discusses is one that is not based on an indiscriminate smashing of machines, but instead an informed and careful democratic dismantling of particular machines, as he puts it: “not everything should be dismantled, but many things should be and some things must be, even if we don’t know where to begin.” And Dismantlings is a great place “to begin.”
If you already have a hammer and a screwdriver but are now looking for the intellectual tools for how to use them, read this.
“The radio activists resisted what they perceived to be unbridled and uncritical enthusiasm for what digital utopianists claimed to be the inherently emancipatory properties of computers and the Internet.”
Beyond the initial work of needing to salvage the Luddite’s legacy from ignominy, the next challenge that those seeking to rehabilitate the idea of Luddism often find themselves facing is trying to clearly articulate an alternative techno-politics. To say “this is bad and should be dismantled” is one thing, and quite often people will even be willing to agree to a certain extent, but the question that this inevitably leads to is the thornier one of “but what is good and should be built?” Too often the responses to this question wind up taking the form of a problematic nostalgia for “simpler times” or a sort of solarpunk futurism that winds up replicating the very technophilia that Luddism seems to reject. Granted, some of the problem here is based in the need to find something that can be pointed to and held up as an example, something that truly feels like a useful alternative—but too often we can find ourselves knowing what we don’t like, but unable to gesture towards something that we do like.
To be clear, Christina Dunbar-Hester’s phenomenal book Low Power to the People: Pirates, Protest, and Politics in FM Radio Activism is not a book about the Luddites or about Luddism. The FM radio activists who are at the center of the story do not seem to self-identify as Luddites, and the technical expertise that is such an important part of the book’s narrative may strike some as anathema to the idea of Luddism. Nevertheless, there are few better accounts of what it means to see “technology in the present tense and to act upon that perception” than what is on display in this book. The book is an account of the actions and activities of a group of activists engaged in setting up and maintaining low power FM radio stations, these are technological activists with technical expertise who see technology in expressly political terms. With their focus on low power FM radio as being informed by a belief that this is a technology that is more in keeping with these activists search for egalitarian and democratic forms of technology. While the activists are in possession of particular technical expertise, they are also actively engaged in disseminating that expertise to others, demystifying the particular machines by empowering others to see how these technologies really work. Dunbar-Hester provides an insightful and critical engagement with the activities of these activists, noting the various areas in which the group falls short of its lofty goals and identifying that in the rejection of some sorts of technologies there can be a tendency to fetishize a different set—and yet the book is consistently grounded in a nuanced portrait of what it actually looks like to try to build alternative technological forms that are driven by an ethos other than profit. Particularly noteworthy, especially given the dominance of the computer and Internet amidst current discussions of technology, is the ways in which the radio activists in the book maintain a critical distrust of the emancipatory potential of computer technologies. This essential book wrestles with what it means to really control technology, what is involved in attempting to actually build democratic technology, and the ways in which dismantling and building are interwoven. This is not a book about Luddism, but this is one of the best books ever written about Luddism.
If you are looking for an idea of what Luddism in action might look like, read this.
If you are interested, here is a full review of Low Power to the People.
“For the Luddites specifically, new machines were an immediate threat, and so Luddism contains a critical perspective on technology that pays particular attention to technology’s relationship to the labor process and working conditions. In other words, it views technology not as neutral but as a site of struggle.”
A central theme in analysis of the historic Luddites and in the effort to claim Luddism today is the recognition that technologies are not neutral. For technologies are imbued with the politics and values of their creators, created to meet particular (often political and economic) goals, deployed in ways that generally reify the existing status quo, and even if they have a variety of affordances these action possibilities are not infinite. Granted, something that the Luddite perspective further adds is that it sees technology as an essential site of political struggle—the conflict over what technologies get created, how they get created, how and where they get implemented, and who stands to benefit, are all important political questions. Politically speaking, the effort to rehabilitate the historic Luddites has largely been a project of the political left; whether this has meant seeing the Luddites as forebears of the labor movement (as has been seen by Marxist thinkers like Thompson) or has seen the Luddites as proto-environmentalists resisting despoiling machinery (a part of the Neo-Luddite view). But for those trying to make sense of Luddism today, what kind of politics should it involve?
With Breaking Things at Work: The Luddites Were Right About Why You Hate Your Job, Gavin Mueller pushes the idea of Luddism directly into current debates within the political left. Near the book’s start Mueller makes his goal quite clear: “to make Marxists into Luddites” and “to turn people critical of technology into Marxists,” and the book represents an impassioned argument to achieve those ends. Mueller’s book ranges across a discussion of the historic Luddites, a recognition of the legacy of machine breaking as a tactic, an engagement with a range of Marxist thinkers whose work on technology features certain Luddish qualities, and involves a nuanced wrestling with contemporary sites of technological resistance. While Mueller’s book is clearly about the Luddites and certainly about technology, one of the significant steps that his book makes is in its relentless focus on capitalism—as a force that has played a major role in the history of technology, and therefore as a key factor that must be wrestled with in trying to make sense of why our technological order looks like it does. In Mueller’s account it becomes clear that the attempt to define Luddism represents a real debate on the left, with Mueller simultaneously seeking to push back against the tendencies to romanticize the Luddites (and develop a romanticized critique of technology) and challenging the technophilia that is common among many on the political left. Part history, part manifesto, part intervention in the debate about how the left should engage with technology—Mueller’s book not only seeks to look at technology in the present tense, but to look at politics in the present tense as well.
If you’re looking for a clear attempt to see Luddism as a political movement for this moment, read this.