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.

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