March 2011, Week 2


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Sun, 13 Mar 2011 22:50:49 -0400
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What the Luddites Really Fought Against
The label now has many meanings, but when the group
protested 200 years ago, technology wasn't really 
the enemy
By Richard Conniff
Smithsonian magazine
March 2011

In an essay in 1984 -- at the dawn of the personal
computer era -- the novelist Thomas Pynchon wondered if
it was "O.K. to be a Luddite," meaning someone who
opposes technological progress. A better question today
is whether it's even possible. Technology is everywhere,
and a recent headline at an Internet hu-mor site
perfectly captured how difficult it is to resist:
"Luddite invents machine to destroy technology quicker."

Like all good satire, the mock headline comes perilously
close to the truth. Modern Luddites do indeed invent
"machines" -- in the form of computer viruses,
cyberworms and other malware -- to disrupt the
technologies that trouble them. (Recent targets of
suspected sabotage include the London Stock Exchange and
a nuclear power plant in Iran.) Even off-the-grid
extremists find technology irresistible. The Unabomber,
Ted Kaczynski, attacked what he called the "industrial-
technological system" with increasingly sophisticated
mail bombs. Likewise, the cave-dwelling terrorist
sometimes derided as "Osama bin Luddite" hijacked
aviation technology to bring down skyscrapers.

For the rest of us, our uneasy protests against
technology almost inevitably take technological form. We
worry about whether violent computer games are warping
our children, then decry them by tweet, text or Facebook
post. We try to simplify our lives by shopping at the
local farmers market -- then haul our organic arugula
home in a Prius. College students take out their earbuds
to discuss how technology dominates their lives. But
when a class ends, Loyola University of Chicago
professor Steven E. Jones notes, their cellphones all
come to life, screens glowing in front of their faces,
"and they migrate across the lawns like giant schools of
cyborg jellyfish."

That's when he turns on his phone, too.

The word "Luddite," handed down from a British
industrial protest that began 200 years ago this month,
turns up in our daily language in ways that suggest
we're confused not just about technology, but also about
who the original Luddites were and what being a modern
one actually means.

Blogger Amanda Cobra, for instance, worries about being
"a drinking Luddite" because she hasn't yet mastered
"infused" drinks. (Sorry, Amanda, real Luddites were
clueless when it came to steeping vanilla beans in
vodka. They drank -- and sang about -- "good ale that's
brown.") And on Twitter, Wolfwhistle Amy thinks she's a
Luddite because she "cannot deal with heel heights"
given in centimeters instead of inches. (Hmm. Some of
the original Luddites were cross-dressers-more about
that later-so maybe they would empathize.) People use
the word now even to describe someone who is merely
clumsy or forgetful about technology. (A British woman
locked outside her house tweets her husband: "You stupid
Luddite, turn on your bloody phone, i can't get in!")

The word "Luddite" is simultaneously a declaration of
ineptitude and a badge of honor. So you can hurl Luddite
curses at your cellphone or your spouse, but you can
also sip a wine named Luddite (which has its own Web
site: www.luddite.co.za). You can buy a guitar named the
Super Luddite, which is electric and costs $7,400.
Meanwhile, back at Twitter, SupermanHotMale Tim is
understandably puzzled; he grunts to ninatypewriter,
"What is Luddite?"

Almost certainly not what you think, Tim.

Despite their modern reputation, the original Luddites
were neither opposed to technology nor inept at using
it. Many were highly skilled machine operators in the
textile industry. Nor was the technology they attacked
particularly new. Moreover, the idea of smashing
machines as a form of industrial protest did not begin
or end with them. In truth, the secret of their enduring
reputation depends less on what they did than on the
name under which they did it. You could say they were
good at branding.

The Luddite disturbances started in circumstances at
least superficially similar to our own. British working
families at the start of the 19th century were enduring
economic upheaval and widespread unemployment. A
seemingly endless war against Napoleon's France had
brought "the hard pinch of poverty," wrote Yorkshire
historian Frank Peel, to homes "where it had hitherto
been a stranger." Food was scarce and rapidly becoming
more costly. Then, on March 11, 1811, in Nottingham, a
textile manufacturing center, British troops broke up a
crowd of protesters demanding more work and better

That night, angry workers smashed textile machinery in a
nearby village. Similar attacks occurred nightly at
first, then sporadically, and then in waves, eventually
spreading across a 70-mile swath of northern England
from Loughborough in the south to Wakefield in the
north. Fearing a national movement, the government soon
positioned thousands of soldiers to defend factories.
Parliament passed a measure to make machine-breaking a
capital offense.

But the Luddites were neither as organized nor as
dangerous as authorities believed. They set some
factories on fire, but mainly they confined themselves
to breaking machines. In truth, they inflicted less
violence than they encountered. In one of the bloodiest
incidents, in April 1812, some 2,000 protesters mobbed a
mill near Manchester. The owner ordered his men to fire
into the crowd, killing at least 3 and wounding 18.
Soldiers killed at least 5 more the next day.

Earlier that month, a crowd of about 150 protesters had
exchanged gunfire with the defenders of a mill in
Yorkshire, and two Luddites died. Soon, Luddites there
retaliated by killing a mill owner, who in the thick of
the protests had supposedly boasted that he would ride
up to his britches in Luddite blood. Three Luddites were
hanged for the murder; other courts, often under
political pressure, sent many more to the gallows or to
exile in Australia before the last such disturbance, in

One technology the Luddites commonly attacked was the
stocking frame, a knitting machine first developed more
than 200 years earlier by an Englishman named William
Lee. Right from the start, concern that it would
displace traditional hand-knitters had led Queen
Elizabeth I to deny Lee a patent. Lee's invention, with
gradual improvements, helped the textile industry grow-
and created many new jobs. But labor disputes caused
sporadic outbreaks of violent resistance. Episodes of
machine-breaking occurred in Britain from the 1760s
onward, and in France during the 1789 revolution.

As the Industrial Revolution began, workers naturally
worried about being displaced by increasingly efficient
machines. But the Luddites themselves "were totally fine
with machines," says Kevin Binfield, editor of the 2004
collection Writings of the Luddites. They confined their
attacks to manufacturers who used machines in what they
called "a fraudulent and deceitful manner" to get around
standard labor practices. "They just wanted machines
that made high-quality goods," says Binfield, "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."

So if the Luddites weren't attacking the technological
foundations of industry, what made them so frightening
to manufacturers? And what makes them so memorable even
now? Credit on both counts goes largely to a phantom.

Ned Ludd, also known as Captain, General or even King
Ludd, first turned up as part of a Nottingham protest in
November 1811, and was soon on the move from one
industrial center to the next. This elusive leader
clearly inspired the protesters. And his apparent
command of unseen armies, drilling by night, also
spooked the forces of law and order. Government agents
made finding him a consuming goal. In one case, a
militiaman reported spotting the dreaded general with "a
pike in his hand, like a serjeant's halbert," and a face
that was a ghostly unnatural white.

In fact, no such person existed. Ludd was a fiction
concocted from an incident that supposedly had taken
place 22 years earlier in the city of Leicester.
According to the story, a young apprentice named Ludd or
Ludham was working at a stocking frame when a superior
admonished him for knitting too loosely. Ordered to
"square his needles," the enraged apprentice instead
grabbed a hammer and flattened the entire mechanism. The
story eventually made its way to Nottingham, where
protesters turned Ned Ludd into their symbolic leader.

The Luddites, as they soon became known, were dead
serious about their protests. But they were also making
fun, dispatching officious -- sounding letters that
began, "Whereas by the Charter"...and ended "Ned Lud's
Office, Sherwood Forest." Invoking the sly banditry of
Nottinghamshire's own Robin Hood suited their sense of
social justice. The taunting, world-turned-upside-down
character of their protests also led them to march in
women's clothes as "General Ludd's wives."

They did not invent a machine to destroy technology, but
they knew how to use one. In Yorkshire, they attacked
frames with massive sledgehammers they called "Great
Enoch," after a local blacksmith who had manufactured
both the hammers and many of the machines they intended
to destroy. "Enoch made them," they declared, "Enoch
shall break them."

This knack for expressing anger with style and even
swagger gave their cause a personality. Luddism stuck in
the collective memory because it seemed larger than
life. And their timing was right, coming at the start of
what the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle later called
"a mechanical age."

People of the time recognized all the astonishing new
benefits the Industrial Revolution conferred, but they
also worried, as Carlyle put it in 1829, that technology
was causing a "mighty change" in their "modes of thought
and feeling. Men are grown mechanical in head and in
heart, as well as in hand." Over time, worry about that
kind of change led people to transform the original
Luddites into the heroic defenders of a pretechnological
way of life. "The indignation of nineteenth-century
producers," the historian Edward Tenner has written,
"has yielded to "the irritation of late-twentieth-
century consumers."

The original Luddites lived in an era of "reassuringly
clear-cut targets -- machines one could still destroy
with a sledgehammer," Loyola's Jones writes in his 2006
book Against Technology, making them easy to
romanticize. By contrast, our technology is as nebulous
as "the cloud," that Web-based limbo where our digital
thoughts increasingly go to spend eternity. It's as
liquid as the chemical contaminants our infants suck
down with their mothers' milk and as ubiquitous as the
genetically modified crops in our gas tanks and on our
dinner plates. Technology is everywhere, knows all our
thoughts and, in the words of the technology utopian
Kevin Kelly, is even "a divine phenomenon that is a
reflection of God." Who are we to resist?

The original Luddites would answer that we are human.
Getting past the myth and seeing their protest more
clearly is a reminder that it's possible to live well
with technology -- but only if we continually question
the ways it shapes our lives. It's about small things,
like now and then cutting the cord, shutting down the
smartphone and going out for a walk. But it needs to be
about big things, too, like standing up against
technologies that put money or convenience above other
human values. If we don't want to become, as Carlyle
warned, "mechanical in head and in heart," it may help,
every now and then, to ask which of our modern machines
General and Eliza Ludd would choose to break. And which
they would use to break them.

Richard Conniff, a frequent contributor to Smithsonian,
is the author, most recently, of The Species Seekers.


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