Luddites of the World Unite! 199 Years of Future-Phobia

by on March 21, 2010 · 5 comments

NPR notes that we’re approaching a major milestone in the history of man’s relationship with machines:

Nearly 200 years ago, workers in England took up arms against technology. Weavers protested the advent of mechanized looms with violence. Named for weaver Ned Lud, the Luddites feared machines would make hand weaving extinct. The people of Huddersfield are rising up again, but this time to commemorate the city’s 19th century weavers.

According to this history of the Luddite movement, the 199th anniversary of the movement’s beginnings passed just last week:

The first incident during the years of the most intense Luddite activity, 1811-13, was the 11 March 1811 attack upon wide knitting frames in a shop in the Nottinghamshire village of Arnold, following a peaceful gathering of framework knitters near the Exchange Hall at Nottingham. In the preceding month, framework knitters, also called stockingers, had broken into shops and removed jack wires from wide knitting frames, rendering them useless without inflicting great violence upon the owners or incurring risk to the stockingers themselves; the 11 March attack was the first in which frames were actually smashed and the name “Ludd” was used. The grievances consisted, first, of the use of wide stocking frames to produce large amounts of cheap, shoddy stocking material that was cut and sewn into stockings rather than completely fashioned (knit in one piece without seams) and, second, of the employment of “colts,” workers who had not completed the seven-year apprenticeship required by law.

In other words, a bunch of hooligans—the ancestors of today’s stereotypically rude, drunk and violent English soccer fans, no doubt—started smashing machines because—horror of horrors!—the machines were producing less expensive textiles and could be operated by cheaper, less-skilled workers outside the hooligans’ guild. That, in essence, is the history of technology and its discontents: Innovation produces gains in productivity that raise the overall standard of living by bringing down prices for consumers, but workers in outmoded industries try to obstruct progress because it renders their unproductive jobs obsolete. Tim Lee noted this back in 2006 regarding the supposed need for tech workers to unionize.

Frederic Bastiat, the great French economist, put it best in his satirical 1845 “PETITION From the Manufacturers of Candles, Tapers, Lanterns, sticks, Street Lamps, Snuffers, and Extinguishers, and from Producers of Tallow, Oil, Resin, Alcohol, and Generally of Everything Connected with Lighting.” Bastiat anticipated the arguments against “Free!” by proposing that the legislature ban unfair competition from that pioneer of unfair competition, which “dumps” its product on the market for nothing, ruining hard-working producers of lighting products… yup, you guessed it: the Sun!

A new front in the fight between techno-optimists and Luddites has opened in the debate over the Internet. Check out Adam’s great essay: Are You An Internet Optimist or Pessimist? The Great Debate over Technology’s Impact on Society.

  • Jim S.

    Ok, so the original luddites were threatened by loss of income but that hardly seems the case of internet “pessimists” such as Sunstein. Seems silly for you to compare them that way. The luddites may have been taking a narrow minded reactionary view of technology, but the bulk of the 20th century in its macro convulsions makes them seem rather prescient, if not fully conscious of what they were reacting against. For a lot of humans modernism really sucked. As we enter this third(?) industrial revolution it's worth continuing to ask questions about which outcomes become likelier when different technologies become dominant.

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    I certainly didn't mean to suggest that we shouldn't ask questions about the impact of technology. And I should have stressed, as Adam has done in his work, that not all Internet pessimists are simply Luddites (though many are, to varying degrees).

    In fact, the whole point of pragmatic Internet optimism is that blind, unadulterated optimism can be just as misguided as pessimism.

  • http://twitter.com/jabolins Jonathan Abolins

    Mr. Szoka, thanks for the interesting essay. Overall, you've made some good points. The one aspect of the essay which I am not quite in agreement is the description of the first Luddites and their motives. From what I am aware of British history, there was quite a bit more to it which makes it hard for me make the jump and compare the modern Luddites to them.

    It wasn't just that the 19th Century Luddites were upset about their income and general status being lowered. It was, in effect, their world being destroyed around them as they went from skilled “professionals” to many of them finding themselves and their families labouring in the factories or, as Blake expressed, the “Satanic mills”. Their world, in part, was a continuation of medieval guilds and skilled artisan crafts where it was assumed that if you had the skills and basic tools you had a good income, a good life, a place in the community, and security. (A warning for those present era techies was get complacent and assume that they can cruise on and on without constant relearning and adapting.) That era had other shake-ups such as the Inclosure Acts, products of the agricultural efficiencies provided by the Industrial Revolution, that eliminated the commons and displace many agrarian workers. The options for other types of work were quite constrained. To me it seems that the best choice made by some people of that era was to leave England and go to the Americas, Australia, or other places. It wasn't until later in the 19th Century, that opportunities expanded in England with new niches such as the railways.

    The modern Luddites live in a world with far more options for finding new niches than most of their 19th Century counterparts could have had. We live in ear where career changes are increasingly common and, actually, expected. Our world does not have the type of class restrictions that existed in England of the early 1800s. We have more options for mobility. Resources for education and information are far more widely available, helping people to adapt to whatever comes.

    Oh, these options are available because the first Luddites did not get their way.

    Moving onto another part of the essay, I appreciated the pointer to Adam Thierer's essay. It is quite helpful and I like that he did not limit the approaches to just optimism or pessimism and suggested pragmatic Internet optimism as a good approach.

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    somehow I agree to you that we cant question about the impact of technology and it's only technology that we dare to reach globally in very less cost.

  • http://www.advanceddatarecovery.co.uk data recovery

    somehow I agree to you that we cant question about the impact of technology and it's only technology that we dare to reach globally in very less cost.

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