This image depicts Ned Ludd in 1812.

21 May 2021

The Luddites Were Right

Luddism wasn’t really about technology. But was their skepticism toward development a good thing?

Christopher Butler is a designer living in Durham, NC.

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Toward the end of the 18th century, a fed-up weaver — worn down physically, emotionally, and mentally from a lifetime of tedious and futile labor feeding the upper echelons of society he could never reach, traumatically smothered by the surrounding noise of constant armed conflict, and decisively aware of the absolute nothing he had left to lose — stood up and smashed his equipment with a hammer. His rage at the shrinking trap his life had become caught on quickly.

Some years later, this weaver, now renowned as a General and King, led armies of aggrieved protesters, promising a revision of society or to die trying for it. His name was Ned Ludd.

Except Ned Ludd never existed. He was, maybe, an inflation of a real person — a story that preserved a man’s name — but most likely, Ned Ludd was a complete invention. He was, like so many folk heroes, a necessary myth to motivate action against a formidable foe.

Centuries later, the myth and movement of the Luddites has become a misnomer. The Luddites weren’t just an angry mob. They weren’t even against technology. They were against being used like technology. Theirs was a rebellion of humanistic ideals. But, Luddite no longer means anything to do with principled rebellion.

Most commonly, Luddite is a term of derision. A Luddite in our day is someone content with their technological illiteracy or illogic, as in the “Luddite” dad who still prints his e-mails, or the “Luddite” coffee shop that withholds wi-fi, or the “Luddite” who returns a blank stare when you mention Tik-Tok or Bitcoin or NFTs.

Sometimes, Luddite means something more sinister. As in the government Luddite who regulates opposition to informational freedom, or the loosely organized individuals with complaints about the harms of a particular technology. All are Luddites, and yet, none really are.

Tracing Luddism back to its inception helps to illuminate what it was really about: Not technology, but the “dangers of the western approach to development, in particular the spread of an international economy based on hi-tech-driven finance.” I like that framing, as written over twenty years ago by Kirkpatrick Sale. Technology is not the object of Luddism, ethics and humanity — and more specifically, the absence of them — is.

Modernity is synonymous with speed. Sale’s invocation of hi-tech-driven finance, for example, is indicative. Over the last several decades, speed’s role in shaping finance has been profound. It’s also represented, like Luddism, by a misnomer. A decade after Sale wrote those words, Proximity Trading was the big thing on Wall Street. At that point, traders were losing money — big money — on latency. The time between when they’d initiate a purchase or sale, though less than a second, was enough for the price to be radically different by the time their order was processed. The greater the latency, the more of a surprise, for better but mostly worse. To solve this, companies began selling services to get traders closer — physically — to Wall Street so as to reduce the actual distance between them and the trading floor. Why? Because that means less cable for signals to travel through, and therefore less time between when a button is pressed and the signal it sends is able to reach its destination. In 2006, one trader boasted of reducing his latency from 150 microseconds to 1.2. I don’t know, you might be thinking, is that impressive? Given that a microsecond is one millionth of a second, I’d say it’s beyond impressive. It’s a level of speed that is nearly impossible to comprehend. Ten years later, High-Frequency Trading gets rid of the button altogether, handing trading over to algorithms that execute at approximately one 64 millionth of a second. No individual trader could ever compete with a company that can afford the infrastructure to maintain high-frequency trading. A Luddite on Wall Street would take out a hammer and smash their terminal. And in the second between the swing and impact, fortunes beyond the scope of an individual’s understanding are made and lost.

Sale’s decades-old perspective on Luddism is useful, as it came just prior to a sweeping sublimation of culture by technology, not just finance. In 1997, the internet was still a curiosity. Most people did not yet have a cellphone. And so when he cites the “voluntary simplicity” of the modern Luddite — their philosophy of “resisting consumerism, self-reliance, promoting local economies and evolving simpler, low-tech lifestyles” — or their “passive resistance to consumerism and the increasingly bizarre and frightening technologies of the Computer Age,” I marvel at how reasonable that all sounds today, compared to how shrill and histrionic it would have sounded then. And yet, they had their reasons, and more importantly, they had their foresight. If computer technology seemed bizarre and frightening in 1997, then we are not just through the looking glass now, but a million miles away from its frame, on an alien world, forced-colonized with no ticket home.

I’ve often taken issue with the interchangeability of terms like “skepticism” and “hostility” whenever technology — and specifically, Luddism — is discussed. After all, the organized Modern Luddites specifically espouse passivity. If they’re skeptical of the benefits of a technology, much as the Amish way of life is, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are hostile toward it. Swapping these terms is either a case of thoughtless synonym-ing or intentional editorializing (I suspect the latter). But when I think of the resistance of the Modern Luddite, circumstances of today seem to warrant something other than passivity.

A Modern Luddite would resist — not passively, but aggressively — many of what they found in the twenty-first century cultural landscape. Here are just a few of the weaving frames waiting for Gen-Z Ned Ludd’s hammer:

Like Luddism, paranoia is often used to describe what is actually entirely justified suspicion. Suspicion toward surveillance technologies, for instance, is not the metastasizing of delusions of persecution or exaggerated self-importance. It’s the warranted critique of a structural imbalance of power and the necessary question of why the burden of trust is put on those without it. This incomplete list of modern objects of Luddism all offer something to each one of us. The technology is compelling and seductive? But why should any of us trust that the benefits are evenly shared?

Kirkpatrick Sale goes on to widen the scope of Luddism to bring in to focus more than just the direct lines between technology and its user. He notes that the Modern Luddite movement includes “victims of technological aggression, pesticide poisoning, radiation exposure, deforestation, massive dam building, urban sprawl or land and fishery depletion.” Suddenly Modern Luddism is virtually indistinguishable from the informed ecological perspective we should all have now, after years of increasingly destructive weather patterns and species collapse. We now live in the direct result of the speed and greed of modern imperialism.

A Luddite historian, Kevin Binfield, noted in an interview that the Luddites “were totally fine with machines.” What they were against was the way machine owners manipulated their way around regulated labor practices in “a fraudulent and deceitful manner.” Think what you might about the ethical balance sheet of modern technology, or about the literal inhumanity of financial markets, or about the environmental fallout of industrialization — it’s all, sadly, more satisfying to debate than to do anything about — but can anyone truly object to what the Luddites wanted? Binfield concludes, “They just wanted machines that made high-quality goods, and they wanted these machines to be run by workers who had gone through an apprenticeship and got paid decent wages. Those were their only concerns.” Sounds only fair to me. One can imagine millions of Ludds raising hammers on assembly lines, in fast food kitchens, within the hellish silos of factory farms, among packed cubicles, or even in the Zoom grids of post-pandemic knowledge work.

It’s nearly impossible to fully understand the fragility of a laboring citizen of a country mired in more than ten simultaneous wars. For a Ned Ludd, the disgust at the inhumanity of corporate expectations would naturally be projected upon the material of the labor itself. To loathe his treatment is to loathe those who subject him to it; to loathe his abusers is to loath the tools of their abuse. But more importantly, that disgust is inextricable from the constant existential dread that is the rotten fruit of imperialism. Empire is nothing more than gilded atrocity; its subjects burdened with manifold traumas and denied the inuring effects of its spoils. So while nearly impossible to imagine, not entirely impossible.

As much as Ned Ludd’s circumstances sound quite like our own today, there is at least one meaningful difference. Twenty-first century Empire is not political, it’s economic. Its controls are no longer just the calcification of class but also the numbing of accessible luxury. Its product is a honeypot for docile subjects.

A Modern Luddite not only has more to contend with than their progenitors, they have more reason to resist. Reclaim the name if you must, but more importantly, take action as you will.