By Andrew Maynard
The term “Luddite” emerged in early 1800s England. At the time there was a thriving textile industry that depended on manual knitting frames and a skilled workforce to create cloth and garments out of cotton and wool. But as the Industrial Revolution gathered momentum, steam-powered mills threatened the livelihood of thousands of artisanal textile workers.
Faced with an industrialized future that threatened their jobs and their professional identity, a growing number of textile workers turned to direct action. Galvanized by their leader, Ned Ludd, they began to smash the machines that they saw as robbing them of their source of income.
It’s not clear whether Ned Ludd was a real person, or simply a figment of folklore invented during a period of upheaval. But his name became synonymous with rejecting disruptive new technologies – an association that lasts to this day.
Questioning doesn’t mean rejecting
Contrary to popular belief, the original Luddites were not anti-technology, nor were they technologically incompetent. Rather, they were skilled adopters and users of the artisanal textile technologies of the time. Their argument was not with technology, per se, but with the ways that wealthy industrialists were robbing them of their way of life.
Today, this distinction is sometimes lost.
Being called a Luddite often indicates technological incompetence – as in, “I can’t figure out how to send emojis; I’m such a Luddite.” Or it describes an ignorant rejection of technology: “He’s such a Luddite for refusing to use Venmo.”
In December 2015, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates were jointly nominated for a “Luddite Award.” Their sin? Raising concerns over the potential dangers of artificial intelligence.
The irony of three prominent scientists and entrepreneurs being labeled as Luddites underlines the disconnect between the term’s original meaning and its more modern use as an epithet for anyone who doesn’t wholeheartedly and unquestioningly embrace technological progress.
Yet technologists like Musk and Gates aren’t rejecting technology or innovation. Instead, they’re rejecting a worldview that all technological advances are ultimately good for society. This worldview optimistically assumes that the faster humans innovate, the better the future will be.
This “move fast and break things” approach toward technological innovation has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years – especially with growing awareness that unfettered innovation can lead to deeply harmful consequences that a degree of responsibility and forethought could help avoid.
Why Luddism matters
In an age of ChatGPT, gene editing and other transformative technologies, perhaps we all need to channel the spirit of Ned Ludd as we grapple with how to ensure that future technologies do more good than harm.
In fact, “Neo-Luddites” or “New Luddites” is a term that emerged at the end of the 20th century.
In 1990, the psychologist Chellis Glendinning published an essay titled “Notes toward a Neo-Luddite Manifesto.”
In it, she recognized the nature of the early Luddite movement and related it to a growing disconnect between societal values and technological innovation in the late 20th century. As Glendinning writes, “Like the early Luddites, we too are a desperate people seeking to protect the livelihoods, communities, and families we love, which lie on the verge of destruction.”
On one hand, entrepreneurs and others who advocate for a more measured approach to technology innovation lest we stumble into avoidable – and potentially catastrophic risks – are frequently labeled “Neo-Luddites.”
These individuals represent experts who believe in the power of technology to positively change the future, but are also aware of the societal, environmental and economic dangers of blinkered innovation.
Then there are the Neo-Luddites who actively reject modern technologies, fearing that they are damaging to society. New York City’s Luddite Club falls into this camp. Formed by a group of tech-disillusioned Gen-Zers, the club advocates the use of flip phones, crafting, hanging out in parks and reading hardcover or paperback books. Screens are an anathema to the group, which sees them as a drain on mental health.
I’m not sure how many of today’s Neo-Luddites – whether they’re thoughtful technologists, technology-rejecting teens or simply people who are uneasy about technological disruption – have read Glendinning’s manifesto. And to be sure, parts of it are rather contentious. Yet there is a common thread here: the idea that technology can lead to personal and societal harm if it is not developed responsibly.
And maybe that approach isn’t such a bad thing.
Andrew Maynard, Professor of Advanced Technology Transitions, Arizona State University
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Andrew Maynard is Professor of Advanced Technology Transitions at Arizona State University
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.
Sometimes the old way(s) just works better. Everything on the planet doesn’t need a computer chip & software updates.
Interesting article. I’m somewhat embarrassed that I have never heard the term “Luddites,” but am familiar with how change effects people. I remember a coworker who was a proficient typist, in Word, who could hit the hot keys at the speed of light. Then, Microsoft introduced the GUI interface and Word was a whole, new tool. Boy, was she mad! But, she adapted and again was typing at the speed of light.
I’m with Hawkins, Gates and Musk in regard that this AI needs more thought and less speed. Look at the atom bomb, and now, the nuclear bomb. We are all holding each other hostage with the possibility of destruction. On another level, I think CRISPR is amazing! An edited gene can stop sickle cell anemia, yet, do I really want genetically engineered food? Does that make me a semi-Luddite, or just cautious?
Bottom line: Go with the flow or be left behind.
Teknik Telekomunikasi says
What does the “move fast and break things” approach toward technological innovation entail, and why has it come under scrutiny in recent years?
Teknik Elektro says
What are some examples of harmful consequences that unfettered innovation can lead to?
Teknik Industri says
How can responsibility and forethought help avoid harmful consequences in technological innovation?
Teknik Komputer says
What is the significance of the disconnect between the original meaning of the term “Luddite” and its more modern use as an epithet for those who don’t wholeheartedly embrace technological progress?
when moderators ignore Teknik spam — and wave it on in?