In Defense of Luddites

“Luddite” is a cudgel to batter technology skeptics. It might be applied to a friend without a smartphone, a grandparent who refuses to use a computer, or a neighbor who hangs their laundry on a line. The protest of eighteenth-century weavers has been misunderstood as a stand against new technology. Their smashing of mechanical looms was thought to be the raging against the industrial revolution, when it was in fact a comment on how that technology was being used to alter society. Technology is inanimate and cannot be judged to be good or evil per se, but how people choose to use technology carries consequences just like any other decision.

The Historical Luddites

In 1799 Combination Laws made unions illegal in England. In 1812 highly skilled laborers known as croppers, who trimmed the nap off of the surface of handwoven textiles, were put out of work by machines. A single machine, run by a low-skilled laborer, could produce five times more fabric than a cropper. The production of woolen fabric had been a mainstay of the English economy for centuries and its high quality made it the country’s top export. Croppers were at the top of the pay scale and highly respected.

Mechanical innovations, such as the flying shuttle, coincided with the adoption of water and steam power. At the same time, new metallurgical know-how enabled the production of new machines. In short order, a cropping machine had been built and adopted throughout the factories of England. Croppers were put out of work and former pillars of the community were reduced to waiting on line for poor relief at a time when the parish-by-parish welfare system was already taxed to its limits by a continental war and poor harvests.

The low-skilled workers who ran the machines felt alienated from their product, unlike the croppers who had felt a sense of pride in their handicraft. The croppers had lost their dignity. The factory workers felt that they were servants of the machine and slaves to the clock.

The croppers believed they were betrayed by the factory owners: the latter had become rich by exporting the former’s high-quality fabrics and used their wealth to build machines to replace the croppers. Because of the law against combination (forming a union), the individual croppers’ demands for redress were weakened. Croppers attempted to persuade the mill owners to see their point of view but had to revert to force when the mill owners ignored them.

Small bands of croppers, calling themselves Luddites after a probably fictitious machine-breaker named Ned Ludd, broke into factories and destroyed the new cropping machines. The mill owners employed their own security forces but asked for government assistance when Luddites continued to wreak havoc on their factories. Government soldiers guarded the factories and sent spies to infiltrate Luddite groups. Ringleaders were identified, arrested, and exiled to Australia or hung.

The Meaning of the Term “Luddite”

The wealthy owners had the ear of the government and newspapers. They portrayed the Luddites as standing in the way of progress. This one-sided simplification of the Luddites has persisted to today. Luddites were painted as simpletons, fearful of progress, and opposed to new technology.

An important part of industrialization is novophilia, or the love of the new. Industrialization produced more goods than could be comfortably used by the more self-sufficient cottagers of the preindustrial world. By encouraging novophilia among the public, factory owners ensured a market for the glut of products they were able to produce. This sentiment has persisted to today, seen in the rapid cycling of fashion, smartphones, cars, and other products deemed to be out of date before their usefulness has ended. Surely – the factory owners would argue – anyone who stands in the way of such material wealth is a social deviant.

Raging Against the Industrial Machine

The Luddites were not against industrial technology. Many of them were not even opposed to cropping machines. They were upset about losing their livelihood to the blind adoption of new technology. Indeed, croppers requested assistance in finding other work but were ignored. The wholesale adoption of revolutionary technology has far-reaching effects on society. Today’s free market encourages the production of a panoply of new products, some of which revolutionize how we live. Recently we have seen the proliferation of smartphones, and our society has yet to come to grips with the benefits and drawbacks of the widespread adoption of this technology. The sharing economy has given rise to Uber, Task Rabbit, Air BnB, and other businesses; some view these as platforms for utilizing otherwise-dormant resources while others see them as the further weakening of predictable employment.

The adoption of industrial technology fundamentally changed the lives of the croppers (and the rest of those living in the countryside) during the Industrial Revolution. While life improved for a few, it got distinctly harder for many. Questioning the unthinking adoption of new technology is not a vice or an impediment to progress; it is simply healthy skepticism.

More: Paul Josephson’s TEDx Talk on Neo-Luddites, Michal Rozworski’s article on Uber and Luddites


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