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Who's been giving Luddism a Bad Name?


featuring a guest edit by Clifton Lemon


Luddism today remains a perjorative term intended pretty much to marginalize anyone who questions, fears, ignores, or ridicules new technology. And that was pretty much its intended function when it was put to propaganda purposes back in the early 19th century in England. Talk about history being written by the victors! If that’s true, do those who rewrite unexamined history stand a ghost of a chance in winning a new battle?

So who were these Luddites? After all, they get a pretty bad press for their efforts – much of which appears to have been an over-enthusiasm for breaking up the bosses’ property. Let’s take a look at what the situation was before the followers of King Ludd got active. Where does the term “Luddism” come from? Amongst the usual foggy references to maybe-historical kings and Celtic deities, Luddites signed their proclamations ‘Ned Ludd’ after a Leicestershire weaver of that name who’d been accused of smashing a couple of knitting frames in 1799. Maybe.

Luddite actions need to be seen against a wider attack on the lives of both industrial and agricultural workers in England. The burgeoning factories of the early decades of the Industrial Revolution needed a workforce, but most people preferred their country heritage, where ‘the commons’ provided land and sustenance sufficient to maintain their communities. The first demonstration of the government’s support for the new industries was through the various Enclosures Act, finally consolidated in the Inclosure (Consolidation) Act of 1801. This removed the right of access to common land, thus removing the ability of the working rural population to feed itself and, in consequence enabling landlords to increase the cost of renting land. This provided sufficient impetus for thousands of families to move to the new industrial settlements.

I once read an information panel at an industrial heritage site (a retired cotton mill) that a successful mill needed two things: access to energy (usually water power) and a compliant workforce. When the alternative is starvation, it makes a workforce very compliant indeed.  

But, of course, when the livelihood of skilled people like the hand-weavers became threatened by new machinery (early technology, if you will), that provided understandable grounds for the protection of their economic interests, and demonstrated the impact on the working class as a whole. And although Luddism is generally associated with the emerging industrialism, there was parallel activism amongst the surviving agricultural workforce, with the arrival of ‘Captain Swing’ and his supporters, dedicated to the destruction of new threshing machines.

As we've aready said, history is written by the victors (who also tend to be the ones who write the laws and control the firepower). There are far more statues and memorabilia to men like Jethro Tull (the seed drill), Andrew Meikle (the threshing machine), James Hargreaves (the Spinning Jenny), and Edmund Cartwright (the steam loom), than to the men and women who starved as a consequence of their inventions.

Here’s the cold-eyed capitalist view of all of this. Richard Guest in 1823 made a comparison of the productivity of power and hand loom weavers:
A very good Hand Weaver, a man twenty-five or thirty years of age, will weave two pieces of nine-eighths shirting per week, each twenty-four yards long, and containing one hundred and five shoots of weft in an inch, the reed of the cloth being a forty-four, Bolton count, and the warp and weft forty hanks to the pound, A Steam Loom Weaver, fifteen years of age, will in the same time weave seven similar pieces.[27]

He goes on to speculate on the wider economics of using powerloom weavers: may very safely be said, that the work done in a Steam Factory containing two hundred Looms, would, if done by hand Weavers, find employment and support for a population of more than two thousand persons.

The capitalist argument is, then, that automation (and the associated de-skilling of the workforce) increases output ten times over from conventional hand weaving. Imagine the profits . . . but imagine the descent into poverty by the other 1800 souls and their families.

Did ‘we’ benefit from the introduction of technology to the industrial cause? It would be ridiculous to suggest otherwise. But was the head-on warfare between Capital and Labour inevitable?

Was there never any prospect that Capital could thrive while Labour also tasted the fruit of the vine?

England has had its proponents for a Common Wealth system of production and political governance across the years.

We generally shot or hanged them.


Where does that leave Luddism today?
Perhaps more active than we would first think. I believe that today we’re witnessing three distinct forms of Luddism:

Economic Luddism
There may not be many examples around of new technology being put under the hammer (though we’d better tiptoe around the issue of religious fundamentalism attacking the mores of western post-religious culture), but economic Luddism is still with us. The work of Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and all of the other whistle-blowers could be said to represent the modern version of machine-breaking, though in their case its not the physical machine that they’re taking a swing at, it’s The Machine (that would wish to rule us all, or so we fear). On a more recognisable level, perhaps, every company that has had cause to bless the internet for the way that it’s made communications so much easier, is also cursing the internet for undercutting its prices and taking its business away.


Ethical Luddism
I do not own a flat screen TV . . .yet. I inherited a wide-screen CRT TV from my parents and it’s working fine, thanks for asking. One day, we’ll notice that coloured smog appearing on one of the corners and realise that the game is up. Then we’ll see about getting a new set.

I have friends who choose not to buy certain products from certain companies because of claims of poor working conditions, undisclosed or underdisclosed exploitation of natural resources, lack of concern for climate change . . . you name it, there’s a reason not to buy it. The aim of this non-participation is not necessarily passive; its about wanting to drive change through an economic blockade – much the same as Barclays Bank was ‘encouraged’ to change its attitude to the apartheid regime in South Africa and as, more recently Lego has reviewed its relationship with Shell.

Common-sense Luddism
This is my favourite kind of Luddism – refusing to buy into the hype of a product because the product itself is nonsense. And here we meet the global LED lighting industry full-on, because there is much nonsense spoken and much nonsense sold. My Luddism of choice is the daftness that surrounds LED street-lighting (just give me a minute to explain; the coffee’s not made yet).

Because the LED is an easy light source to control in this world of wireless communication and – I have to say it  – the “Internet of Things” there are companies promoting control strategies that might make sense in some parallel universe, but they certainly don’t make sense in mine. For instance:

1. Let’s connect our LED street-lights to the emergency services so that a crew can follow the sequence of flashing lights from base to the scene.
WOW! That is SO COOL!
Hmm: OK – so all emergency incidents happen at night and they happen so rarely that one flashing line of lights doesn’t get confused by a dozen other lines of the same. Here’s another idea: keep on using the GPS that’s in the driver’s cab and save the money on the daft lighting idea.

2. Let’s install motion sensors in our street lanterns so that we can save money when there’s no one walking along the road, then the sensor can increase the lighting when someone walks underneath it.
WOW! That is SO COOL!
Hmmm: if I might ask a question or three here. When you’re walking around at night, what do you look at? Do you a) look at the ground beneath your feet, or b) look about a hundred yards ahead to assess your overall surroundings, for ever in search of the sabre-toothed tiger who might be lurking behind the rubbish bin? And c) do you feel more comfortable knowing something about what’s happening at the end of the street, or feeling like a popstar in a spotlight (or the victim in a cheap horror movie).

Luddism is permissible when the product is such cack.

Luddism is a derogatory term used by people who are trying to sell you something. Anyone with less commercial involvement might just describe you as a robust critic of a new technology that hasn’t found its adult feet yet.



RIBA CPD in 2015

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