The Luddites were right

Luddites were not objectively anti-technology, even if that is what their acts of sabotage and destruction might suggest, and even if that is how history has on the whole remembered them. What they were searching for was a way to integrate new technologies into their way of life, rather than allowing each new gadget dictate what form society would take. In this, they were the first to encounter the problem which endures today, namely the disparity between new processes and technologies on the one hand, and on the other, social and political models which took place long before such changes could even have been imagined. It is the divide between the human and the machine. It is an abyss of scale.

What was needed was a new social technology which could have been attendant to the machine and organizational technologies which had been developed. As it was, the machine begat the organization, with the social and human crowded out. Concepts such as “change” and “progress” were introduced which lacked the nuance and sophistication to equip us intellectually with these inventions. This conceptual dearth impoverished our intellectual world to such a degree that only recently have we begun to exit this recession of the mind. Critics of the effects of industrial organization on the lowest levels (such as Engels and Dickens) showed that all was not well, but yet we still needed to have the tools of thought to formulate not just the answer, but also the problem.

One definition of ideology is that which we don’t know we know. It is a pervasive paradigm of heuristics, prejudices (in Gadamer’s sense), assumptions, and habits. It is that ‘unthought’ which to some extent leads our thinking. The Victorian moralists who criticized the ‘excesses’ of their age were still under the dark pall that the smokestacks spread throughout all economic and intellectual life. The should, rather, have been realizing that the problem was the essence of their age. The entire model of industrial scale economics allowed for a skewed accounting, such that those advocates of factories and railroads genuinely believed that theirs was the best way. They had so structured their informational world, that the excesses for which they were critiqued were in fact the foundation for everything they did. Industrialization was predicated upon markets being opened at gunpoint. Industrialism and colonialism are mutually defining.

What works on the international scale works on the local too, however, and ‘markets for the sake of markets’ is equally reprehensible to the Luddites as it is for the subjugated inhabitant of a colonized land. What was apparent even in 1811, when the Prince Regent offered a reward for information regarding “giving information on any person or persons wickedly breaking the frames” was that it was the new technologies who set the terms against which the actions of people might be measured. Destruction of property was all this matter was, and questions of why there were people attempting to be so destructive were scattered before they could be formulated in the knee-jerk accusation of immorality: destruction of property = evil, end of. Rather than engage in a discussion, it was more convenient to allow a spontaneous order to develop, without thinking it through. It is as though it was decided that the economy to which Adam Smith’s invisible hand was attached should be blindfolded too, as long as it suited those whom it benefited. 

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One thought on “The Luddites were right

  1. Pingback: Techno-scepticism is not Neo-Luddism « Wetwiring

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