Why I’m a Luddite – and You Should Be Too

Your dad is a Luddite, perhaps, or maybe your mum; your gran, almost certainly. Like the sweet old Italian Nonna bewildered and amazed by Google’s home assistant, older generations often show less facility and more reluctance when adopting technology into their lives. And why shouldn’t they? They’re not “digital natives”, suckled on the teat of Facebook likes and Twitter follows, thumbing the infinite scroll for comfort. And when she’s not just bewildered or amazed by it, Nonna is likely thinking, “Do I need this shit in my life? Is it going to help me cook zabaglione any better?” Well, it could do – setting timers and reminders, checking recipes – but often the effort is more than the reward, and Granny would rather rely on her wristwatch and her grease-stained copy of il Cucchiaio d’Argento. At heart, she is, and will always be, just a Luddite.

But this is really a misuse of the word. The Luddites – if you Goo-goo it – were a nineteenth century movement that opposed the introduction of machinery and automation into manufacturing. They saw machines taking their jobs and ruining the traditional crafts and professions, and so burnt mills and wrecked knitting frames in a forlorn attempt to arrest progress. But progress can’t be stopped. The future is inevitable. And so the Luddites (like the troglodytes) went the way of the dodo.

But this too is a misunderstanding – or, given that the victors write history, a deliberate misrepresentation. For the Luddites weren’t “anti-progress” or “anti-technology”, any more than unions are, or environmentalists. They were concerned with the potential abuses of technology – its use to increase the factory owner’s profits at the expense of working people’s livelihoods, for the advancement of the interests of the rich irrespective of the effects on the poor. It’s no surprise then that those who, with similar qualms, now threaten to stall the inevitable march of progress – whether worrying about the safety of genetically modified crops, wi-fi or mobile masts, or self-driving cars – are often similarly branded “alarmist” or “backward-thinking” – that is, in other words, “luddite”.

It’s time, then, that we reclaim this term. Others have made an attempt to do so (e.g. Theodore Roszak’s concept of the Neo-Luddite), but for many it still calls to mind living in a shack in the woods, snaring rabbits and washing in streams, while plotting the downfall of Western society. The main issue here is how you can criticise technology whilst at the same time continuing to use and rely on it. Doesn’t that make you a hypocrite? But why? A literary critic doesn’t hate books, any more than a film critic despises films, or a restaurant reviewer hates food. They might hate a particular book, film or meal, or even whole genres, styles, or types of cooking, but are generally in favour of writing, film-making and eating out. So why can’t we adopt the same attitude to technology? We don’t have to live in a cave in order, with a good conscience, to criticise certain modern building practices. You can be on Twitter whilst bemoaning the effects of social media on copyright, norms of politeness, or democracy. You can be a Luddite without being a troglodyte.

An interesting illustration of all of this is the effect that the Internet and associated technologies has had on the arts, crafts, and creativity in general. As an illustrator, I no longer have to lug my portfolio around to prospective clients, or post out physical originals of completed artworks; I can advertise my skills via websites and deliver commissions via email. On the downside, making my stuff available online has enabled piracy, and also contributed (I think) to the seemingly widespread assumption that it’s “OK” to use any images you find online for whatever you want. Some think this is a good thing, but the person who argues for the death of copyright, and that information wants to be free, has obviously never tried to earn a living from creative self-employment.

You might take this to illustrate that technology is a double-edged sword, and you’re not wrong: every technological development provides opportunities and threats. However, as I’ve written about previously, I think this misses the point, for there is a deeper change at work here. As Marshall McLuhan pointed out in Understanding Media, the foot that presses the car accelerator doesn’t walk: “The wheel extends the foot in an automobile. In this way the wheel amplifies the power and speed of the foot, but at the same time it amputates.” On one level, then, it’s swings and roundabouts: cars mean that we get there quicker, but at the expense (“amputation”) of getting less exercise. But this exchange is more than an issue of physical fitness; it’s far more fundamental than we realise. For instance, the ability to get somewhere quicker changes our relationship to time and space. Suddenly, a car journey that takes longer than it should “drags”, even though we are still arriving somewhere in under an hour that previously would have taken us a whole day to get to on foot. We barely notice the landscape we drive through, and certainly don’t engage with anyone on the way – unless via our phones, perhaps. And so, as we gain (speed, convenience), we also lose (social connection, healthy activity). Sometimes this is an exchange worth making – do we really miss out from not having to walk miles to get water from a well? – but sometimes it’s not. Online textual interaction degrades social skills and increases mental isolation, arguably. For what is that a price worth paying? The only way to decide this question, however, is case by case; not by unthinking “early adoption”, nor by retreating and disconnecting, but through conscious and careful engagement.

And this, I think, is why I’m a Luddite, for we should always be sceptical of change for change’s sake, whether this is technological or social – and anyway, the former will usually lead to the latter, whether we’re aware of it or not. The future is not fixed – for which idea we may blame Hegel (or at least, a misreading of Hegel); the future is up for grabs. It was humans that killed the dodo, not “evolution”. Being a Luddite, then, is to critically engage with technological change, to question the future that we are told is “inevitable”, and to consciously weigh up what the costs of this “progress” might be; and where necessary, to resist, and argue for a different path.

Gareth Southwell is a philosopher, writer and illustrator from the UK. He is the author of the near-future sci-fi novel MUNKi, which concerns robots, the hunt for the Technological Singularity, and people swearing in Welsh.

Note: due to spam, comments have been disabled on this post, but you are welcome to contact the author to discuss further.

Image credit: Engraving of Ned Ludd, Leader of the Luddites, 1812