Luddites Unite!

‘Luddite’ has in recent years come to function as a generic pejorative, describing an unthinking, head-in-the sand type afraid of all new forms of technology.  It’s an unfair use of the term.

images-1‘Luddite’ originates with a short-lived (1811 to 1817) protest movement among British textile workers, men who went about, usually under cover of darkness, destroying the weaving frames then being introduced to newly emerging ‘factories.’  These were the early days of the industrial revolution, and the new manufacturing facilities being attacked were supplanting the cottage-based industry the Luddites were a part of, leading to widespread unemployment, and therefore genuine hardship.  It was an age long before the existence of any kind of social safety net, times when employers were free to hire children, and they did so, at reduced wages, since the new machines were much easier to operate, requiring little of the skill possessed by the adult artisans being left behind.  (Just as causative in the sufferings of these newly unemployed were the prolonged Napoleonic wars that the British government was incessantly engaged in back then, at great economic expense.)  My point being that the Luddites were not opposed to technology per se; they were simply striking back at machinery which was making their lives well and truly miserable.  People were literally starving.

The term ‘Neo-Luddite’ has emerged in our day, referring, in author Kirkpatrick Sale’s words, to “a leaderless movement of passive resistance to consumerism and the increasingly bizarre and frightening technologies of the Computer Age.”  The vast majority of the people involved in this modern-day movement eschew violence, counting among their members prominent academics like the late Theodore Roszak, and eminent men of letters like Wendell Berry.  Again, the movement is not anti-technology per se, only anti-certain-kinds-of-technology, that is technology which might be described as anti-community.

Back in the 1970s, I read, quite avidly I might add, Ivan Illich’s book Tools for Conviviality, which from its very title, you might construe to be Neo-Luddite in its intent.  And you’d be largely right.  Illich condemned the use of machines like the very ones the British Luddites were smashing back in the 19th century—factory-based, single-purpose machines meant first of all for greater generation of the owner’s monetary profit.  The interesting thing is that Illich considered the then-ubiquitous pay phone as a properly convivial tool.  Anyone could use it, as often or seldom as they chose, to their own end, and the phone facilitated communication between individuals, that is community.

It’s not hard to see where all this is going.  Illich’s book was directly influential upon Lee Felsenstein, considered by many to be father of the personal computer.  Felsenstein was a member the legendary Homebrew Computer Club, which first met in Silicon Valley in 1975, spawning various founders of various microcomputer companies, including Steve Wozniak of Apple.  The original ethos espoused by members of the Club stressed peer-to-peer support, open-source information, and the autonomous operation of an individually owned machine.

Were he still alive, Ivan Illich would undoubtedly think of the personal computer, and of the smart phone as convivial tools.  But Illich had another concern associated with current technology—the rise of a managerial class of experts, people who were in a position to co-opt technical knowledge and expertise, and eventually control industries like medicine, agriculture and education.  Would the Lords of the computer age—those who control Google, Facebook, Apple—be considered by Illich to be members of a new managerial elite?

It’s not easy to say.  I suspect Illich would indeed think of the CEOs of companies like Toyota, General Electrics, and Royal Dutch Shell as members of a managerial elite, ultimately alienating workers from their own employment.  But Larry Page, the CEO of Google, who claims the company motto as, “Don’t be evil?”; is he too one of the new internet overlords?

The Neo-Luddites are right in saying that what we must all do is carefully discriminate among new forms of technology.  We must consider the control, the intent, the final gain associated with each type.  Convivial technology adds to our independence, as well as our efficiency.  It informs and empowers the user, not an alternate owner, nor the cloud-based controller of the medium.  If we could all make the distinction between convivial and non-convivial technology, it might make Luddites of us all.


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