Unraveling the Luddite Narrative
A few weeks ago I was asked to write an explainer on Luddites and Neo Luddites for The Conversation.
That article has just been published, and as always when working with a great editor, the final version is much tighter than the original.
That said, I’m always intrigued by the path between final draft and published article, and so on the assumption there are probably a couple of other people who are similarly intrigued, here’s the piece as it was delivered to my editor — admittedly more meandering, but I still like it:
What's a Luddite?
Being called a Luddite rarely feels like a compliment. It’s often used to indicate technological incompetence (as in “I’m such a Luddite”) or as a derogatory term to describe what is seen as an ignorant rejection of technology (as in “they are such a Luddite”). But the origins of the expression are far richer and more complex than its popular uses might suggest.
The term “Luddite” originates from early 1800’s England. At the time there was a thriving textile industry that depended on manual knitting frames and a skilled workforce to create garments and cloth out of cotton and wool. But as the industrial revolution gathered momentum, steam powered mills threatened the livelihood of thousands of artisanal textile workers.
Faced with an industrialized future that threatened their jobs, their livelihood, and their professional identity, a growing number of textile workers turned to direct action. Galvanized by their eponymous leader, Ned Ludd, they began to smash the machines that they saw robbing them of the futures they aspired to.
It’s not clear whether Ned Ludd was a real person, or simply someone who was invented out of the need to have a figurehead for a growing wave of anger and frustration. But his name became synonymous with a rejection of disruptive new technologies -- an association that lasts to this day. In contrast, the original Luddite movement was short lived. By 1812 the “Frame Braking act” had made breaking stocking or lace frames illegal, punishable by transportation or even death. And by 1816 the movement was largely over.
Contrary to popular belief, the original Luddites were not anti-technology. Neither were they technologically incompetent. Rather, they were skilled adopters and users of the artisanal textile technologies of the time. Their argument was not with technology per se, but with the ways that wealthy industrialists were robbing them of their way of life through the introduction of money-making new technologies.
Skip forward to the present day, and this distinction is sometimes lost. In December 2015, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates were jointly nominated for a “Luddite Award.” Their sin? Raising concerns over the potential dangers of artificial intelligence. The irony of three prominent scientists and entrepreneurs being labeled as Luddites underlines the disconnect between the term’s original meaning, and it’s more modern use as an epithet for anyone who doesn’t wholeheartedly and unquestioningly embrace technological progress.
In recent years the label "Luddite" has been used to describe experts and others who raise concerns about technologies ranging genetic engineering, nanotechnology, self-driving cars, social media, AI, and many more. Yet often the actions leading to the epithet are less a rejection of the technology than a rejection of underlying values associated with today’s technologically-dependent society (including those associated with capitalism and wealth creation).
“Luddites” opposed to the widespread adoption of genetically modified crops for instance are often motivated as much by [concerns around corporate power and social equity as they are the technology itself. And Famously, the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski rejected modern technology because of how, in his mind, it destroys personal liberty and the natural world. Sadly in this case the underlying ideology led to a deadly bombing campaign.
Labeling someone a "Luddite" is often driven by a worldview that all technological advances are ultimately good for society, and that technology itself is neither good nor bad. It’s a worldview that optimistically assumes that the faster we collectively innovate as a species and the fewer hurdles there are to innovation, the better the future will be.
This “move fast and break things” attitude toward technology innovation has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years -- especially with growing awareness that unfettered innovation can lead to deeply harmful consequences that a degree of responsibility and forethought could help avoid. And while the accusation of Luddism is often used in ad hominem attacks, it could be argued that advocates for more socially responsible approaches to technology innovation do indeed capture something of the positive spirit of the original Luddite movement.
Then there are the “Neo Luddites” or “New Luddites.” This is a term that has come to mean a different things to different communities, but is generally seen by its proponents as a good thing.
On one hand, entrepreneurs and others who advocate for a more measured approach to technology innovation lest we stumble into avoidable (and potentially catastrophic risks) are frequently labeled “Neo Luddites.” These, like Musk, Gates, and Hawking, represent experts who believe in the power of technology to positively change the future, but are also aware of the societal, environmental and economic dangers of blinkered innovation. In this context, Neo-Luddism is seen by some as representing a positive value set associated with creating a better future through technology innovation.
Then there are the Neo Luddites who actively reject modern technologies, fearing that they are damaging to society. In New York, a group of teenagers recently formed the Luddite Club. This is part of a Neo Luddite movement that advocates for moving away from modern technologies such as social media and smartphones (which they fear undermine social and personal wellbeing) and spending more time with older technologies, including printed books and flip phones.
Skipping over the dissonance around what constitutes a “good” versus a “bad” technology, the foundations of a New Luddite movement have been in place for some time. In 1990, the psychologist Chellis Glendinng published an essay titled “Notes toward a Neo-Luddite Manifesto.” It’s an insightful piece that both recognizes the nature of the early Luddite movement, and relates it to a growing disconnect between societal values and technology innovation in the late 20th century. As she writes, “Like the early Luddites, we too are a desperate people seeking to protect the livelihoods, communities, and families we love, which lie on the verge of destruction.”
I’m not sure how many of today’s Neo Luddites -- whether thoughtful technologists, technology-rejecting teens, or simply people who are uneasy about how the technologies imposed on them seem to diminish their lives -- have read Glendinnig’s manifesto. And to be sure, parts of it are rather contentious. Yet there is a common thread here around technologies that are perceived to lead to personal and societal harm if they are not developed responsibly.
And that maybe this isn't such a bad thing. In an age of ChatGPT, gene editing, quantum technologies, and other transformative technologies, perhaps we all need something of the spirit of Ned Ludd in us as we grapple with how to ensure that future technologies do more good than harm.
(you can read the final published article here)