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Luddism in the 21st Century

"And down with all Kings but King Ludd"
Lord Byron, 1812

The original Luddites were followers of a mythical hero known as "King Ludd" or "Ned Ludd". In 1779, in a village somewhere in Leicestershire, Ned Lud broke into a house and "in a fit of insane rage" destroyed two machines used for knitting hosiery. Word got around. Soon, whenever a stocking-frame was found sabotaged, the locals would respond with the catch phrase "Lud must have been here." His name was adopted by the frame-breakers of 1812. Historical Ned Lud became "King Ludd," and was now all mystery, resonance and dark fun: a more-than-human presence, out in the night, roaming the hosiery districts of England. Every time he spots a stocking-frame he flies into a rage and proceeds to trash it.

Of course, the original Luddites were not against machinery per se. Rather, they wanted mechanical progress to be delivered on more favourable terms. The problem was that new machinery was taking away their jobs as skilled artisans. If machines could automate their skills, they might lose their livelihoods and place in society.

Is there any evidence of Luddism in modern, post-industrial societies? Is there still a core of disaffected people actively opposed to increased automation in the workplace? Many workers reject technology because of laziness, incomprehension or sheer cantankerousness. Few however express their feelings about technology in acts of destructive violence that signify true Luddism. Today, technology is more likely to spread the ideas of militant activists rather than be smashed up by them.

So what remains of this awkward mob that resist change? History reveals that the Luddite tendency has always existed in one form or another. There was a long-standing taboo throughout Europe and Asia against the use of new-fangled iron thousands of years ago, especially in religious activities. The use of iron ploughs was blamed for failed crops. Circumcision with an iron knife was forbidden in many cultures. Whether or not ancient flint craftsmen fearing for their monopoly of sharp objects started this taboo, history does not relate.

More recently, in the mid-nineteenth century, the invention of steamships spurred new developments in sailing ships. Clipper ships, such as the Cutty Sark, were the fastest sailing craft ever produced and for a while they were able to compete with their lumbering, smoke-belching cousins. Old sailors probably lamented the loss of tall ships and the skills needed to keep them moving and afloat, but nevertheless the Navy was quick to develop an entire fleet of steam powered warships.

The single most widespread sign of technological change in the last decade or so, the Internet, seems to provide novel opportunities rather than eliminating old trades. If anyone wanted to destroy the Internet in order to safeguard their own job, they would have to be a very skilled computer hacker with a lot of cunning, time and energy. Information technology is so entrenched in our civilisation that attempts to wreck it would require almost biblical destruction. The Internet was built with resilience in mind.

However, technologies that spin off from advances that have made the Internet possible may hold some frightening surprises in store. Bill Joy, co-founder and Chief Scientist of Sun Microsystems and co-author of The Java Language Specification has aired his severe misgivings about the possible consequences of developments in robotics, nanotechnology and genetic engineering. He says:

"I think it is no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals"

"Now, with the prospect of human-level computing power in about 30 years, a new idea suggests itself: I may be working to create tools which will enable the construction of the technology that may replace our species."

When someone so well placed to understand the rate of progress of high technology is issuing such warnings, it's time to think again about where we're going. Luddism may be a healthy counterbalance to unrestricted research and development of technology that might be our undoing. In his book Darwin Among the Machines, George Dyson warns: "In the game of life and evolution there are three players at the table: human beings, nature, and machines. I am firmly on the side of nature. But nature, I suspect, is on the side of the machines."

Of the many possible Pandora's boxes that may litter the future, one has already had its lid prised off and its contents spilled into the natural environment. In response, the most active form of modern Luddism is the position taken by Green activists against the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops. Many test sites ended up being trashed by demonstrators clad in white suits. Lord Melchett, one-time chairman of Greenpeace was recently acquitted along with a dozen others when their criminal damage trial came to court. These high-profile actions, taking place in the full glare of the media are set against a background of popular refusal to embrace genetic modification with open arms. In the United Kingdom, we're suspicious because of the outbreak of BSE, an unforeseen consequence of feeding cattle their own brains. In the Third World, farmers are concerned about the introduction of crops which do not produce seeds (they feature so-called 'Terminator Genes') or contain in-built, largely un-tested pesticides.

When it comes to what we eat, the old ways are still considered to be the best ways by a large section of the population, particularly in Europe. The jury is still out on whether or not GM research will bring about benefits for the starving millions or just more misery and dependence on multinational biotech corporations. But the case against the industry is a strong one and has deep philosophical and ecological roots. Amory Lovins has written in a recent editorial "the new [genetically modified] botany aligns the development of plants with their economic, not evolutionary, success." What implications the release of modified plants will have on the still poorly-understood interdependencies of nature are not clear, but their have been extinctions and unforeseen consequences in the past after seemingly trivial tweaks.

What of the recent tide of mass unrest that has accompanied meetings of the World Trade Organisation and International Monetary Fund? As this is being written there may still be protesters languishing in Czech camps after last month's demonstration in Prague. The media has failed to make the connection between anti-capitalist/anti-corporate demonstrators and classical Luddism. Rather than breaking looms, smashing up factories, or trashing mutant maize, these protesters are seeking to disrupt industry on a more abstract level. Anti-capitalist protesters such as Reclaim The Streets and numerous other 'disorganisations' want to break financial and monetary instruments and institutions. Like the original Luddites, these protesters are fighting for their own interpretation of social justice. Unlike the originals however, there is something more than immediate self-interest at work. They justify their actions as part of a high-stakes game, a pop-ideological battle for the future well being of the entire planet and all its inhabitants rather than a single stratum of society.

Genetic modification and the rise of democratically unaccountable, super-national corporations are the key battlegrounds for contemporary acolytes of Ned Ludd. If an industrial elite develop machines that overtake us in terms of intelligence and influence, it's easy to see how the next conflict and defence of humanity will take shape. So, Luddites are alive and well, more numerous and better organised than ever in human history. The industrial wing of the counterculture may yet save all our necks.

Related links

Bill Joy's 'Why the future doesn't need us'

'Is it OK to be a Luddite?' asks novelist Thomas Pynchon

20 ways the world might end

A Tale of Two Botanies By Amory B. Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins

Read about King Ludd's associate, King Mob

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