Neo-Luddism - A Sane Voice In a World Gone Mad?

Originally published on & October 2010

The Luddite movement of the early 1800s was a rebellion against technological and social change against a backdrop of extreme hardship caused by the Napoleonic wars, although the acts of destruction strongly associated with Luddism began in the previous century. At the dawn of the industrial revolution the textile industry was huge in England and had been so since the time of the Tudors so the effects of change were widely felt. It was a time of higher taxation to support war against France and so the introduction of automatic looms, which hugely affected skilled weavers, particularly in northern England, was extremely unpopular to say the least.

Mechanization allowed mill owners to employ less people and also replace skilled workers with lower paid unskilled workers. This led to mass rebellion in 1811-1812, which had to be put down by the British Army and resulted in large-scale executions and forced emigrations to the penal colonies in Australasia. There have been various uprisings of the last two hundred years but none so serious or so seriously dealt with as the Luddites (named after Ned Ludd). Even now ‘Luddite’ is a term still in common usage despite their desperate failure and two centuries having passed.

However, we now find ourselves in a situation not so different from the predicament of the Luddites – the poor continue to be pressurized to pay for a seemingly endless ‘War on Terror’ coupled with the grave errors of the world financial industry. As taxation and cost of living takes it toll on ordinary people we, like the Luddites, are not well equipped to cope with the effects of both Globalization and increasing automation taking jobs away. In fact Globalization and automation go hand-in-hand, as technological innovation is reducing the need for highly skilled workers and thus makes it possible to accelerate job transfers from 1st World nations to lower skilled workers in developing nations.

The growing Neo-Luddite movement is a reaction to the problems created by an increasingly technological workplace. Rather than being opposed to technology pers se, there is a spectrum of skepticism ranging from total simplicity to a critique of the role and value of modern technology. I would be of the view that technology itself is neutral – a stick is the most basic form of technology that can be used to cut a furrow in the ground for seed planting; conversely a perhaps bigger stick can be used to beat someone to death.

The real problem lies not in the technology itself but the application of it; and as time progresses we can follow a clear transition from functionality to convenience and also from longevity to disposability. The application of technological innovation seems to have gained its own momentum so that upgrades of existing products and all-new products appear regardless of the need for them, simply so that there is a continue flow of more new and exciting stuff for us to consume.

Technology is marvelous and it is great to have all manner of useful items that make life easier and more enjoyable. The trouble is that there is no accountability in all this, no acceptance or even realization of the consequences of unchecked production and innovation. A perfect example is the television – the CRT set was perfectly good and having been pretty much perfected was available in forms that used as little as 40W before its demise. The lovely new LCD and plasma sets take up less space but the picture quality is arguably no better (sometimes worse) and uses up to 8 times more electricity, not to mention a far greater amount of energy in production and more rare metals. So one must ask, was it worth it? Was there any real benefit?

Most of us don’t even consider these issues, being too blinded by the marketing and slick appearance to care about the dramatic upsurge in real cost. However, this is beginning to change as more people wake up to the reality of the environmental, social and psychological cost of sweeping changes in technology. Even if this takes the form of asking ‘Do I really need this?’ the questioning of the status quo is vitally important for the future of humanity. If I have a working CRT television then why do I need to spend more money thus encouraging the continual churning of the 24/7 factories that spew out new, over-packaged gadgets, create pollution and use up precious natural resources?

One need only walk into any ‘Nickel and Dime store’ or ‘Pound shop’ to see a plethora of cheap plastic goods, most of which are completely unnecessary and of questionable usefulness. Unfortunately, most people are not able to visualize the large-scale degradation of the natural world, the social shifts and decay or the psychological malaise of laziness and addiction which is increasingly prevalent all over the globe - as a result of the consumer society made possible by modern technology.

All systems in nature have a level of tolerance for threats – for instance a garden pond can tolerate a certain level of contamination before the plants and aquatic creatures begin to suffer. In the case of a ruined pond it is possible to fix this externally by removal of toxins to another location, replacement of the water, the plants and the fish etc. Unfortunately for us, this does not work on a planetary level – there is no outside, there is no place to go for more air, more clean water, more oil or more unpolluted soil. Of course, a ruined pond might recover by itself in a number of years, but as fossil records indicate, a ruined planet might take millions of years to recover.

The signs of systemic stress are showing all over the planet, whilst it does not appear to be overly serious it is still easy for us to put our heads in the sand and deny the obvious impact of our unchecked growth in population and consumption of resources. Time is beginning to run out, if we choose to wait until the evidence is undeniable to all then it will be an irreversible process by then. The stakes are too high to blindly accept the saccharin promises of technophilia; a series of checks and balances are urgently needed to stop or divert the unimpeded train of consumer driven techno-economies before it hurtles off the inevitable cliff. If technological progress is to continue to be part of our lives then it most definitely needs to be refocused on necessity, efficiency, benevolence and functionality.

Neo-Luddism is an alarm bell ringing that must be heard and amplified, not suppressed like its antecedent. If the real cost of ‘progress’ is mass depravation, intellectual and moral degradation and the failure of our ecosystem; then I for one am happy to forgo electric toothbrushes, fast cars, fossil fuel central heating and designer gear. A simple future is infinitely better than no future at all.