As I See It: Ned Ludd Has Left the Building
April 7, 2014 Victor Rozek
Although historians are much too stuffy to admit such things, it was the desire for sex that launched the Industrial Revolution. And contrary to accepted thinking, it all started about 200 years earlier than the dry retelling of history would have us believe. As earth-shaking occurrences go, it was surely unintended, a solution to a private problem that, one could say, went viral.
And although the event has been relegated to historic footnote status, it is worth recounting because it also spawned a notable oddity: a Luddite of royal lineage.
The year was 1589 and the Reverend William Lee was indulging in the fifth of the seven deadly sins: lust. The object of his desire was a young woman from Nottinghamshire. The earnest cleric repeatedly stopped by her cottage, hoping to lure her away from the carnal limitations of parental scrutiny. But he was rebuffed at every turn, always with the same exasperating excuse: the lady had work to do. The young woman, it seems, made her living knitting hosiery–a time and labor-intensive process that left little opportunity for the naughty aspirations of the good reverend.
But raging libido is not easily deterred. Lee, impervious to the concept of rejection, set about easing her time constraint by speeding up the knitting process. The result was the Stocking Frame Knitting Machine, a device that would eventually make hand knitting (and hand knitters) obsolete. It was the first salvo fired in the Industrial Revolution. The device proved to be so innovative it was used for more than two centuries before the seeds of mechanization that Lee planted blossomed into Luddite-sponsored industrial sabotage. And even though Lee was overshadowed by the Big Bang events of history, at the very least he proved that necessity is indeed the mother of invention.
Queen Elizabeth I, however, was not amused. She foresaw a downside to mechanizing the knitting process. When Lee applied for a patent she twice rejected it fearing her subjects would be “deprived of employment, thus making them beggars.” The Royal Luddite had misgivings about technology nearly two hundred years before Ned Ludd “in a fit of insane rage” destroyed two hosiery-knitting machines, igniting the movement that bears his name to this day.
For his part, Lee did what any contemporary CEO would do when stymied by local regulations–he relocated to another country, France in this case, where concern for working peasants was no obstacle to progress.
The Luddite rebellions, which began in 1811 and continued for six years, were not simply a knee-jerk reaction to mechanization. They were grounded in over 200 years of provocation. Thomas Pynchon, in his 1984 New York Times Book Review essay “Is it OK to be a Luddite?” notes that, “The knitting machines had been putting people out of work for well over two centuries.” The technology itself was not foreign, or even objectionable, to the Luddites. They rebelled against its cumulative impacts.
Pynchon’s essay examines another technology ripe with unintended consequences. He asks whether it’s OK or even possible to be a Luddite in the age of computers. Three decades ago, he was prescient enough to see “The next great challenge will come when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge.” Who knows, by then, opting out of singularity may make you unemployable. And people who refuse the embedded chip will be marginalized as Luddites. Regardless, computers have never spawned serious opposition, possibly because they quickly transitioned from mathematical novelty to household item. As Pynchon notes, “mainframes haven’t attracted the same hostile attention as knitting frames once did.”
Still, many people have an uneasy relationship with technology. If not with the technology itself, then the uses to which it is put. If they object too loudly, “Luddite” has become the accusation used to dismiss their concerns. Derision is less risky than dialogue. Yet with the exception of a few religious sects and intentional communities, not many people contemplate a life without technology. Today’s Luddites are tentative. They don’t want to get rid of technology altogether, they just don’t want it overwhelming every part of their lives.
Not surprisingly, as new technologies with the power to radically alter our lives come online, they spawn potent antibodies in the form of fearful opposition. Resistance originates with people who frame events in the negative. That is, they look first for what will be lost, not what can be gained. But while the perils of certain technologies–nuclear power, for example–are self-evident, the hazards of computer technology have evolved to be far more subtle and subversive.
Unlike a frame you could strike with a hammer, computer technology has grown to be as nebulous and imprecise as the cloud. It is the unfathomable vastness of the Internet; the modern Merlins crafting their magic in restricted development labs; the invisible software perpetually running in the background; the data quietly siphoned for purposes unknown. It is the absence of wires, and nonstop communications swirling in the ether like migrating birds. It is inaudible conversations floating past our ears; and satellites that bombard us with unseen microwaves. We are immersed in a soup of signals veiled from our senses. They breech our walls and pass through our bodies unnoticed. Even if one were so inclined, where would you strike the enemy? And which enemy would you strike?
In 1996, the technology leery gathered in Ohio to conduct the Second Luddite Congress from which emerged a manifesto advocating simplicity, self-reliance, and “passive resistance to consumerism and the increasingly bizarre and frightening technologies of the Computer Age.” The fact that there hasn’t been a third congress suggests little progress to report.
While there are ample reasons to be suspicious of emerging technologies, those with serious objections have, for all practical purposes, been co-opted. No one attending the Second Luddite Congress arrived by horse and buggy. Their manifesto was probably typed on a laptop and distributed by email. There are no purists. As soon as Voluntary Simplicity became marketable, it also became an oxymoron.
These days if you’re musically inclined, you can buy a guitar called the Super Luddite. But you’ll need some place to plug it in because the Super Luddite is electric. And you’d better have a good paying job because it will cost you well over five grand. Not to worry, you can always charge it on your Citi Simplicity Credit Card. Then you can play discordant music and rail against the machine at the next Luddite Congress.
If they ever hold another one, that is.