Of Luddites and iPads

This little reflection, which I wrote yesterday while researching my book, seemed appropriate to post this morning, one day after the 199th anniversary of the birth of Luddism and the very day that the next great technology, the iPad, goes on sale.

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Luddites have gotten a bad rap. Synonymous with irrational suspicion toward technology, Luddites were, in reality, not nearly as concerned with technology as we might think. History has not been entirely fair to them.

Early in 1811, the owners of Nottinghamshire weaving mills began to receive angry and threatening letters from General Ned Ludd and his Army of Redressers. It’s unlikely that there ever was a Ned Ludd; historians believe that the name was a fictitious name fabricated by workers in the textile industry. And these workers, artisans mainly, had much to concern them. As the nation became increasingly industrialized, machines began to do the jobs previously done by men. The work of skilled craftsmen soon became the work of an apprentice or an unskilled woman operating a machine. Wages plummeted as did quality and even the demand for quality. The craftsmen were quickly becoming obsolete and impoverished. The new machines did inferior work, sure, but it was both fast and cheap—a trade-off most people were willing to make.

Under the banner of Ned Ludd, the old artisans plotted to thwart the factories that appeared bent on destroying them. They first wrote letters threatening harm to factories if they did not rid themselves of the machines. Not surprisingly, the factory owners refused to comply with the demands. And so the Luddites attacked. Within weeks factor raids were a nightly occurrence and hundreds of knitting machines had been destroyed.

Luddism, as it became known, quickly spread from one county to the next and soon the violence came to Yorkshire, Lancashire and beyond. The government reacted by passing the Frame Breaking Act, a bill that made destroying machines a capital offense; the next year, seventeen men were sentenced to death on that basis. For a time the violence continued, even extending to a pitched battle with government troops. But eventually, within just a couple of years really, Luddism came to its end. It petered out more than it was stamped out. It succumbed to the inevitable, unable to stand against the forces of industrialization.

Today Luddite is a disparaging term used to refer to anyone who is opposed to technology or perhaps even wary of it. But Luddites were not, in fact, opposed to technology. It is not the machines themselves that the Luddites feared and reacted against. Rather, they understood something that many of us have yet to grasp—that technology is meant to serve humans, not the other way around. Luddites were not protesting technology itself but the new economic and sociological realities brought about by the machines. In former times, craftsmen had been able to work at their own pace and set their own prices for their goods. But with the dawn of industrialization and mass production, craftsmen fell on hard times and were increasingly forced to work for the hated factories. Suddenly they were answerable not to themselves, but to a factory owner; they had to give up autonomy or starve. They saw what the machines meant to their livelihood, to their very lives. And though for a time they fought back, it was to little avail. Technology won as it nearly always does.

To be a Luddite today is to be a person who fights against technology. Maybe there ought to be a little bit of the Luddite in all of us. Let’s not forget that what the Luddites feared most was not the machines, but the effects of those machines on their lives and families. We do well to remember that when machine came into conflict with man, it was the machine that won.