What Luddites Did For Us

I’d love to be called a Luddite. But it’s unlikely in this day and age. As a web developer and social media addict, I’m the one of the last people that my friends would call a Luddite. Maybe one day I can be one, if people begin to understand what a Luddite is.

The first action recognized as being from a “Luddite” group was in 1811 when workers in Nottingham attacked and destroyed knitting frames following a gathering a framework knitters. The workers had a number of complaints about the frames, shoddy products, loss of skills, and labour rights. The owners employed people who had not completed the 7-year training required by law and so were undermining their profession. Workers had no say at all about this technology when they were being hugely affected the changes. Work was a more important part of life then… you stayed in a profession for life. Being unemployed often meant death. These weren’t the very poor, these people had a craft, had an income and were proud of their work. Trade unions were banned at the time so organising a strike was harder.

They took their name from Ned Ludd who in 1779 became well known after destroying machinery in anger.

What followed then was a similar pattern of attacks on mechanized looms, shearing frames, and other machines, mainly in the North West and Yorkshire. Many of the Manchester riots coincided with high food prices – wages had been cut due to the lower skills required and people could no longer afford to eat. They targeted specific machines that were a threat. And conditions changed – from workshops where they were in control of their lives, some workers were suddenly at risk of death or serious injury on a daily basis. That’s not to say it was all rainbows before, but technology was a serious threat to the small number of positive aspects of life that they enjoyed.

I wouldn’t say the tactics of destroying machines is the best way to go. But generally, I agree with their mindset. The protests took part in a time when government were colluding with capitalists and business owners to remove workers’ rights. A petition in 1808 on workers rights’ was rejected, and the idea of using children in work was conceived – which Luddites protested about. Technology was being used as a weapon to destroy workers’ rights and provide business with more profit, and to further the cause of the new vision of a free trade world that Adam Smith preached. The government were terrified of this movement, making it a capital offence to destroy machinery and shipping many culprits to Australia. Then the Swing Rioters took up the Luddite cause in the 1830s when their wages were cut, destroying agricultural devices.

What they were trying to do was defend a right to a transition where technology is introduced appropriately, where the social and economic implications of the technology are understood and managed properly, to ensure lives and communities are not destroyed.

Let’s face it – they were right to be sceptical about technology. It has completely transformed the way we live across the whole world.

The word Luddite used to be a word only associated with the movement, but since the 1970s has become a lazy way to describe people who can’t/don’t want to use technology. But this has nothing to do with the real movement. They weren’t anti-technology, they were anti forcing technology into people’s lives with no consideration of the impact.

Nowadays you still have Luddite movement. The Landless movement in Brazil is a Luddite movement. The use of GM crops is destroying their land with enormous monocultures, and the ‘accidental’ spreading of GM crops into a nearby farmer’s land is violating a gene-patent. The company takes the farmer to court until the farmer gives up the land. Technology is helping to destroy the workers.

Technology is never neutral if it is owned – the owner will always use this for their own intentions.

Wikipedia and open source movements could be seen as Luddite movements. They are anti-technology towards corporate control -e.g. Microsoft and Facebook. They are pro using commonly owned technology to benefit society as whole.

It makes me wonder what our relationship with technology is. When everyone is obsessed with technology, buying the latest gadget, where do we think this technology is taking us? Perhaps a 60s futuristic world where everyone is free – robots serve all our needs with hovercars and spaceships flying around the cities? It doesn’t seem that technology has enabled us to be any closer to our vision of freedom so far. Have we become the slaves to the computer instead of them serving us? We work long hours as our digital world is now 24/7, requiring instant responses, pressuring people to work as many hours as possible.

One of my favourite examples of inappropriate technology is the lovely electronic toilets in Virgin trains. They have a button to close, a button to lock, and a button to open. Let’s compare this to a nice plastic bolt (a big lightweight one that elderly/disabled would find better).

Which is more easy to use?

Which will break less?

Which is easier to maintain?

Which is cheaper?

Um. #TechFail.

I must have walked in on at least 5 people on the toilet… I’ve never had anyone walk in on me, but it’s always a worry… “I can see ‘L’ is lit up, but how do I know it’s really locked until someone tries to open it…”

We often are so obsessed with computers that we fail to recognize that old technology has advantages, because we don’t look at the consequences. We just go “ooh, shiny thing!”

EF Schumacher pointed to international development as a case of using inappropriate technology. To aid development a poor country in Africa it is helped to industrialize. For example, a community given a new set of tractors for farming. When it breaks, they can’t fix it. When oil is scarce, they can’t run it. When soil or crops change, they can’t adapt it.

Alternatively for the same money, lots and lots of top of the range ploughs could be provide tools for lots of communities, can be adapted, never break, and never run out of oil (they know how to breed animals to pull them).

I’m not saying new technology is always bad… far from it. I’m saying it shouldn’t be assumed that new technology is always better.

I feel we are coming to an interesting point in time. People are becoming more and more fed up with office based computer jobs and mechanization for the sake of it. People are beginning to want authentic goods and skills, and to be in touch with their community… not just a desk. If we followed the Luddite cause, maybe we’d be live happier lives, and actually get the best results from technology.

I’ve just been listening to Were The Luddites Right on Radio 3 and I recommend a listen if you are interested, it’s a great panel discussion.

I finish with a lyric and video from Robert Calvert’s song Ned Ludd:

They said Ned Ludd was an idiot boy
That all he could do was wreck and destroy, and
He turned to his workmates and said: Death to Machines
They tread on our future and they stamp on our dreams.

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