What is Luddism?
The challenges of modern technology
16 minutes read - 3199 words
Luddism as a social and political movement begins with the introduction of mechanised looms and other machinery during the British industrial revolution. Luddism, at its core, is the thesis that technology must serve human life, rather than the other way round, and that often the use of technologies does not make for better or happier societies.
Luddism as a social and political movement begins with the introduction of mechanised looms and other machinery during the British industrial revolution.
With the use of machines, factories could produce clothes cheaper than artisan workers could do by hand. So when these workers saw that they were losing their jobs, they protested, and some of these protests turned violent, with the now unemployed workers attacking and destroying the machines.
The movement was named after a man who probably had been a real person, Ned Ludd, but who was transformed into a half-mythical figure by the “Luddites,” who claimed to be his followers.
Today’s Luddism is a different fight, of course. We are, nowadays, not only used to the industrial society, we have also hugely profited from it – at least in the affluent West. Still, there have also always existed critics of technology. As today artificial intelligence is disrupting the world of work, with millions of people already certain to lose their jobs to a new generation of machines, Luddism is once again a proposition that we need to take seriously.
Luddism, at its core, is the thesis that technology must serve human life, rather than the other way round. If we look at all the technologies that we use in our societies, clearly some fulfil this criterion better than others. Rather than trying to re-frame those harmful technologies, or wait for them to prove beneficial, Luddites would rather get rid of them in the name of human flourishing.
Luddism, at its core, is the thesis that technology must serve human life, rather than the other way round.
Unfortunately, it can be quite difficult to see clearly which technologies benefit human life and which don’t. Cheap energy is a good thing, it would seem, until one realises that the availability of cheap oil over the 20th century has brought about the collapse of the Earth’s climate systems, global heating, floods, deadly pollution, the destruction of forests and other natural environments through the construction of roads, the extinction of countless species, traffic injuries and deaths, sprawling urbanisation, the death of inner cities, and a whole host of other destructive consequences.
And the same is true of every other technology. The Internet has provided us with revolutionary new means of informing and educating ourselves, but it has also created new dangers for democracy, killed the free press, become a major source of anxiety for young people, contributed to misinformation on a never-seen-before scale, created a new proletariat of low-paid freelancers on insecure jobs, killed off cinemas and the music industry and impoverished musicians, film-makers, book authors and other professional creators.
Seeing the effects of technology in this light, we are justified to ask whether technology really is such a good thing, or whether we might not live better lives with less of it around.
According to a manifesto drawn up by the Second Luddite Congress (April 1996 in Barnesville, Ohio), Neo-Luddism is “a leaderless movement of passive resistance to consumerism and the increasingly bizarre and frightening technologies of the Computer Age” (Wikipedia).
This actually sells the movement short. It is not only the computer age that is increasingly bizarre and frightening. Even more it is the extinction of species, the microplastics in our drinking water, the nuclear power plants at our doorsteps, the rising CO2 levels in the air we breathe.
All kinds of Luddism are practised today. From peaceful and selective rejection of dangerous technologies (Stephanie Mills) to violent terrorism (Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, who sent bombs by mail to airlines and university research facilities).
In her book “Epicurean Simplicity,” author and activist Stephanie Mills analyses what is wrong with our modern way of life.
What is technology?
To begin with, it is very difficult to define technology in a general way.
Sure, computers and pens are technology, but what about pencils? What about a piece of coal that I can use to write and draw? What about a tree branch, dipped into an animal’s blood and used as a pen to write on animal skins?
Sometimes technological artefacts are seen as “tools”. In this view, one would say that every tool is a kind of technology, and all technologies are tools in some sense.
But this seems to tell only half the story. Seeing technologies as tools underestimates their effects on society. Look again at the examples above. If I see the car or the Internet as mere tools, I will miss all the world-changing effects of their use. These technologies are cultural practices that are integral to the way our world works, and they tend to make us into their tools just as much as we use them.
“Technology is not culturally or morally neutral, as it is surrounded by the web of humanity and can have profound effects on this web. Further, technology is an essential aspect of humanity, since technology is found in all human cultures, irrespective of geographic locale or historical period.” (Petch, Luddites )
Holistic and prescriptive technologies
Petch, following Ursula Franklin (“The Real World of Technology”), distinguishes between “holistic” and “prescriptive” technologies.
He calls “holistic” those technologies that allow their user to control the whole process of the creation of a product from beginning to end. Think of a craftsman in a small village, who is alone responsible for the creation of the product that he sells to his customers. For example, a baker, who envisions a range of products that he’d like to offer in his bakery. From the planning of the various breads, through the research and the creation of the recipes, to finally baking and delivering the bread, the whole process stays in his hand, under his control.
“Holistic” technologies allow their user to control the whole process of the creation of a product from beginning to end.
This has a very important consequence for the baker as a person: he feels responsible for his bread. Since he is in charge of the whole process, he has to answer (to respond, hence: be “responsible”) for it. When the bread is bad, the baker’s image will suffer; but when it is good, he can derive pride and satisfaction from it. This is quite the opposite of how things work in our society. Most of the time, a single employee in a company is neither responsible for the final product nor can they derive any satisfaction from having created it (because they haven’t).
One of his best known concepts of Marxism is the idea of “alienation” that describes how human beings get estranged from their work.
Holistically working craftsmen constantly develop their skills in order to produce better work. Employees in what Petch calls a “prescriptive environment” are devoid of unique skills and doing their work does not contribute to any feeling of self-worth. Which is why so many people today are so focused on their free time, on that slim chance to find meaning for their lives outside of the meaningless and alienated drudgery of work.
… create divisions of labor based on identifiable steps of production. Each different step is carried out by a worker, or group of workers, specialized in that particular step. Also essential in a prescriptive model is a manager who is in control of the whole process.” (Petch, p.2)
In a prescriptive work environment, no single employee has any control over the final product. The employees are just contributors to the final product, whose features have been decided by others (or, even worse, have been determined by market analysis, which means that not even the managers in the company that produces that thing have any say over its features).
In a prescriptive work environment, no single employee has any control over the final product.
This is not due to some inherent sadistic tendencies in capitalism, but simply a result of a production process that has become too complex to be executed by one person. As soon as you have a product like, say, a car, many companies must contribute very different pieces of hard- and software to the final product, and all these pieces have to seamlessly fit and operate together. This can only be achieved if the producers of the individual parts strictly follow their instructions and build exactly what they are told. But, as a consequence, nobody gets any satisfaction or a sense of a meaningful life out of that production process.
Even artistic endeavours can be described in these terms. A street musician, Petch says, is free to decide for herself what and when to play, which instruments to use and so on. Her music is a product of her whole being, her taste in music, her ability to play various instruments, her skills in composing and writing the lyrics.
Richard Taylor (1919–2003) thought that it’s creativity that makes us feel happy and fulfilled. According to Taylor, a life lived without exercising one’s creativity is a wasted life.
In contrast, an orchestra can only work in a prescriptive way: every member needs to play their part in precisely the way that is required in order for the whole to produce a pleasant experience for the audience. The individuality of the individual artists has to be reduced as much as possible, and they have to obey the orders of the composer and the conductor, letting go of most of their own opinions, skills, and sensibilities.
Prescriptive technologies create employees that are interchangeable units, all doing the same, minimally skilled work. One can see that loss of skills in today’s factories. An IKEA table or bookshelf is not the product of any particular skill. It is something that an old-time carpenter apprentice would probably be ashamed of. All the skills that in old times were required to select the right tree, to cut and age the wood, to select the right pieces for this kind of furniture, to process and finish the table or bookshelf – all these have largely been lost. The IKEA bookshelf is an industrial product made in large numbers by machines that process identical, industrialised and standardised raw materials. No skill is required for their selection and processing, which is fully automated.
The result is, on the one hand, a cheap bookshelf, which is a good thing. On the other hand, though, we have, as a society, lost many skills that our grandparents still had. And for the individual worker, this process has deprived them not only of the satisfaction and meaning that their work gave them, but it has also taken away their job security. Anyone can probably oversee an IKEA bookshelf-making machine, and one or two engineers will be all that is required for its maintenance. The woodworker has become exchangeable, which, of course, is seen as a good thing by the owner of the factory, who now can lower wages and force the employees to accept worse working conditions. Since they are all replaceable, any leverage they might have had over the factory owner has disappeared.
Prescriptive technologies and quality of life
Of course, it’s not all bad.
Prescriptive technologies have enabled us to mass-produce goods at very low cost, which led to the flood of material goods that most people in industrialised societies can afford today. We might have lost much of the meaning and satisfaction of our work, but we have gained a material security and affluence like never before.
Industrialised agriculture has all but eliminated famines in the Western world, industrial medicines, vaccines and antibiotics have eradicated most of the terrible diseases of the past. Cars and airplanes allow us to escape for the holidays, and we can all afford to stuff our oversized IKEA wardrobes full of clothes we never wear.
But have these technologies really made our lives better?
Petch disputes that technology is necessary for a high quality of life.
… indeed, it is questionable whether [technological advancement] is even the major contributor [to quality of life]. … Modern attempts to measure quality of life largely focus on factors that can be affected by technological development: water quality, life expectancy, medical care, material possessions, and so on. Yet it is undeniable that there are things that contribute to our happiness and quality of life that are not technological in nature. Technology does not make us free from political injustice; it does not free us from racism, sexism, or any other form of discrimination. Technology cannot provide us with spiritual fulfillment (at least it doesn’t seem to be able to). Technology cannot make people behave morally towards us. Technology does not give us better governments. (p.3)
Can we fix technology?
The criticisms of technology are not new, and neither are the answers given to these criticisms.
As with the debate about the effects of the private car, one way to defend technology is to say that further engineering will fix all the problems. Solar powered electric cars will finally solve the pollution problems. Self-driving cars will eliminate road deaths. And so on. This is what Fromm calls the “false promise of unlimited progress”, and it is also a common reply to other problems created by technology, for example global warming. Yes, the defenders of technology say, we might have created a problem with the climate, but we can fix everything if we’re only allowed to shoot a cloud of reflective stuff into the upper atmosphere…
Petch calls this the “engineering response” to Luddism. The problems with the engineering response are many: First, engineering fixes might not be able to remove the problem. For example, Petch writes, fatal accidents with cars still occur, despite the highly sophisticated safety mechanisms that we have in today’s cars. In the same way, nobody can promise that an engineering fix to the climate crisis will actually work as intended. Often, the problems come precisely from the unintended consequences of our actions. A hundred and fifty years ago, the car seemed like a good technological fix for the problems of horse manure in the inner cities. It was only hundred years later that we finally realised that car traffic has brought a whole host of negative consequences that are probably even more severe than the problem that cars originally solved.
Another common answer to Luddism is the “control response”: the idea that technology is free of values and can be used for good or bad. It is in our control to decide how to use it. Therefore, instead of blocking technological progress, we should aim to control it better.
Another common answer to Luddism is the “control response”: the idea that technology is free of values and can be used for good or bad.
This argument has been used to support all kinds of technologies, from guns to nuclear power and surveillance cameras in public places. But the problem with it is that those who do have effective control of these technologies can not always be trusted to use them “for good.” Because the question is whose good we are looking at? The benefit of the factory owner and the dictator might be opposed to the good of the worker and the citizen. The good of a school management is not always identical with the good of the students.
A comprehensive overview of Erich Fromm’s philosophy of happiness. We discuss his life, his ideas and his main works, both in their historical context and how they are still relevant for us today.
And the second problem is, Petch points out, that we cannot always cleanly separate the effect of a technology from the technology itself: “The elimination of small business is incorporated within the design of a large-scale factory.” (p.5) For example, it is not realistic to hope to restrict writing or arithmetic to be used only for poetry and for counting flowers but not to write down oppressive laws or to calculate the strength of a detonating atomic bomb.
Are Luddites right?
So in the end, the Luddite response seems to be the only one that is likely to reliably avoid the bad effects of particular, dangerous technologies. Petch:
When a technology will cause far more harm than good to a group of people, then that technology should be rejected completely. This rejection would preferably occur before the technology is introduced to a society.
But this doesn’t seem to work either. How are we supposed to know what the effects of a technology will be before it has even been introduced into society? Could the first inventors of the automobile have predicted widespread global pollution, the climate crisis, the destruction of inner cities, the expansion of the suburbs, the economic rise of oil-producing nations and so on?
We should also not forget that, at the moment of their introduction, many technologies look not only good but necessary. It is only much later, often decades or centuries later, that we see the problems they cause.
In 1845-1849 in Ireland, the Great Famine killed one million people and Ireland’s population fell by about 25%. In the Great Chinese Famine (三年大饥荒) between 20 and 40 million people died (Wikipedia). From 1347 to 1350, the Plague killed 1/3 of Europe’s population. In the English Middle Ages, more than one in three women died during their childbearing years, mostly of complications during childbirth.
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All these problems have been largely solved through industrialised agriculture, mechanised food production and storage methods, advances in hygiene and medicine, and antibiotics: all results of technological progress. The Luddite must answer the question whether we really want, as a society, to abandon these technologies and return to the state of the world before they existed?
Luddism is an important part of the wider discussion about the role of technologies in our lives and how we can use them in ways that are compatible with and supportive of human happiness and dignity. But the wholesale rejection of technology does not seem to improve either happiness or the dignity of human life.
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 Petch, J. (2002). Luddites. Sophia: Undergraduate Journal of Philosophy, 5.