Technology's wreckers and breakers

Luddite is not a welcome appellation for anyone interested in technology. It’s a byword for backwardness and ineptness, shorthand for anyone who grumbles and moans about the new technology. This withering epithet, frequently crowbarred into newspaper headlines, only developed the full force of this meaning in the 1970s. Before the start of our own revolution of microchips and microprocessors, the definition of Luddite was much more rooted in its historical origins.

Two hundred years ago, textile workers broke in to a mill in Nottingham and wrecked some of the machinery. This gang of masked men were protesting about machines taking over their skilled jobs and producing inferior products. Throughout 1811, organised and anonymous groups caused havoc in the mills of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire. They damaged property, but rarely harmed people. Local support was strong. In 1812, a mill owner called Horsfall ordered a group of these Luddites, as they came to be known, to be shot at. He was murdered in revenge. From then on, things went downhill: the uprising ended in repression, mass trials, hangings and transportations.

It is unclear if the Luddites chose the name themselves, but friend and foe described them as such. Dig a little deeper - in the Oxford English Dictionary - and an interesting story emerges. In 1779, someone called Ned Ludd apparently broke into a house in a village in Leicestershire and smashed two stocking frames. Word spread. Pretty quickly the stock response to textile equipment being vandalised was something along the lines of “Ned Ludd did it”. It became a sardonic slogan for rage against the machine and was the natural name for the mill saboteurs thirty-odd years later.

Articles and radio programmes have marked the bi-centenary of the Luddites. Alongside the history lessons, has often come the question, what, if anything, can we learn from the Luddites?

Not much, is perhaps the first thought. Economists have long derided the idea that new technology makes unemployment rife, dubbing it the Luddite Fallacy. Two centuries of economic progress have only served to highlight the absurdity of the Luddite’s position. Yet this group of 19th-century “badasses”, as the novelist Thomas Pynchon called them, still hold an allure.

No doubt you have at some point or another used Microsoft Word. Sitting at your computer, you’ve typed sentences and deleted words until you’re more or less happy with the result. The process is so natural, so lodged in our way of working, you probably don’t even think about it. Word-processing programs are efficient ways to write, but they are not so good at tracking the process of creation. We can work on a document for hours - typing, editing, deleting, cutting, pasting - and there’s no record of that work other than the current document. Of course, Control+z can transport us fleetingly back a few steps, but in essence there is only the digital now.

Digital technology does not reveal traces of history and memory very well. Myriad tracks exist, but they are often difficult to access and assess. Everything is geared around the present and the near future. Comparing and contrasting, teasing out what has been lost, is turning out to be one of the major shortcomings of the digital age. Living in this perpetual now, like an amnesiac seeing the world afresh each day, reinforces the idea that we are living in completely new and unprecedented times. Of course, the digital world is new, but the Luddites provide an historical example of a different response to new technology. They remind us to look at what will be lost when new technologies are introduced.

Part of the problem of keeping track of change in the digital age is the pace at which it is occurring and the mass of material being produced. Two and a half billion people with cameras took about 375 billion photos in 2011. That’s about ten per cent of photos taken ever. Similarly staggering figures exist at Youtube, where an hour of video footage is now uploaded every second. No wonder concentration is difficult to muster amidst this buzz and clamour.

Today’s tools - laptops, iPhones, Blackberries - are starting to dominate our lives making it even more difficult to focus on the task at hand. In doing so, they are, as the digital artist Jonathan Harris pointed out, breaching the unwritten agreement between tools and their owners: to recede into the background once they have helped to complete a task. Pencils and hammers are examples of such traditional tools. In contrast, these glowing rectangles continually demand our attention. They woo us insistently and distract us from other tasks. “Wired” and “user” are apt terms in this realm: being online is akin to a frenzied, distracted state and withdrawal produces symptoms like a drug addict going cold turkey. The Luddites remind us to question the inherent association of technology with progress and ask whether a particular tool is the best way to complete a particular task or simply the latest.

Computers and devices connected to the web are beguiling in a way which knitting frames and stocking frames were not. They are built to seduce and charm with the lure of efficacy. It is difficult to imagine an iPhone provoking even a glimmer of hostility, let alone vexing someone enough to smash it to pieces. Yet the digital age is not without its victims. Take the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, where demand for coltan, a vital component in mobile phone circuit boards, has fuelled a murderous war. In the case of the Luddites, the effects of new technology on people were visible. In the digital age, they are not necessarily so immediately apparent.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting we forgo technology and head barefoot into the hills. But next time you feel ambivalence towards a machine, don’t just push it aside or bury it. Revel in Ludditism rather than automatically viewing it with contempt. To question new technology is not necessarily to oppose progress per se. It may provoke you not just to try track changes in Microsoft Word, but to pick up a pen and pencil now and again.

This article first appeared on The Kernel.