Lessons from the Luddites resonate

In this Dec. 7 2014 file photo, Houston Texans fans take a photo with a cell phone before the start of an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton, File)

Twenty years ago this month, my book on the Luddites of the English midlands, “Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age,” was published .

Until then there had been no good American history of the workmen who from 1811-1816 resisted the coming of the steam-powered factories that put them out of their jobs, taking up sledgehammers to smash machines and setting fire to the hated smoke-belching plants. Few people in 1995 knew anything about the long-forgotten worker uprising, and those few knew little beyond “I’m not a Luddite, but ...” to announce their discomfort with one computer task or another.

The point of the book was to get people to understand the Luddites and their cause and then call alarmed attention to the extent to which modern technology was altering our lives in the 1990s, apparently beyond control, in a technological revolution as sweeping and rapid as the industrial one a hundred years or so earlier.

Just as the Luddites resisted new technologies that were altering their centuries-old, cottage-based way of life, I thought it would be best if modern Americans resisted the computers and attendant gadgetry that were altering not only a centuries-old way of life but a centuries-old way of thinking. It was already obvious that the Internet revolution, though then in its infancy, had plunged us into a global economy that dislocated the jobs market — “down sizing” and “offshoring” were new catch-phrases then — and accelerated economic, social, and environmental changes beyond anyone’s reckoning or control.

The last chapter of the book was called “Lessons from the Luddites,” in which I drew eight warnings and admonitions from their experience. Among them: Technologies are never neutral, and some are hurtful; industrialism is always a cataclysmic process, destroying the past, roiling the present, making the future uncertain; resistance to the industrial system, based on some grasp of moral principles and rooted in some sense of moral revulsion, is not only possible but necessary. And the point of resistance is that it must force not only “the machine question” but the viability of industrial society into public consciousness and debate.

Well, needless to say, that resistance did not happen. We did have a few national conferences of “Neo-Luddites,” including such notables as Wendell Berry, the Kentucky author, and Doug Tompkins, founder of North Face and ESPRIT, and a few activist organizations were established to send out the message for a few years.

I got to be modestly famous for my practice of smashing computers with a sledgehammer, just like the Luddite hammers, and I must have been on at least two dozen television programs wreaking my damage.

But the message, though it resounded in many quarters — as Time magazine said, “there’s a little bit of Unabomber in all of us” — did not inspire any serious resistance, and faded away in the face of new powers of the computer, particularly the Internet. It was the same year my book came out that the federal government dropped all regulation of commerce on the Internet and the dot.com explosion began.

Within a few years, the World Wide Web was international, with blogs, social networks, online shopping, email, instant messages, and video calls, and intimate contact became global. The Internet only communicated 1 percent of the information flowing through two-way online communication networks in the year 1993, as much as 51 per cent by 2000, and more than 97 percent by 2007. The Internet hasn’t stopped growing, and social networks are now a major factor in all political, cultural, and commercial communication globally.

And then came the “smart” phone just eight years ago, and in that time it has come to affect, if not to dominate, most people’s daily routines. Technology has truly won out over individual and collective human lives, with severe — I would say catastrophic — effects on economics at all levels as machines increasingly outperform humans, allowing the stagnation of the middle class, the growth of the underclass, and the triumph of the one-percent.

Next will come increased robotification, already extensive, soon to be pervasive. The number of industrial robots shipped worldwide was 67,000 in 1995, 120,000 in 2010, then about 200,000 last year, for a worldwide total of something more than 1.5 million in use today. And not your father’s robots: today they are capable of processing spoken language, recognizing faces, reading expressions, and carrying on conversations, as well as performing brain surgery and defeating chess champions. They have already displaced workers at the lower and middle levels of most manufacturing and communications work, their effect is steadily rising up the ladder, and there would seem to be few jobs, not excluding writing and editing, that they will not eventually be able to do.

And just wait for the drone revolution, in the next year or two, when even pizza delivery folk will be out of jobs.

Of course the Luddites did not win — the Industrial Revolution swept through Britain and then Europe, the Americas, and the world, with terrible economic and social consequences for workers and their communities wherever it went. The “machine question” never gained much attention anywhere.

Nor has it now, in the last quarter century, so it is not difficult to predict the Computer Revolution will be even more dangerous and catastrophic than the one before.

Kirkpatrick Sale is the author of 12 books of history and politics, including “Rebels Against the Future” and “Human Scale.” He lives in Mount Pleasant.