From 1811 to 1816, a secret society calling itself “the Luddits” smashed textile machinery in factories in England. Today we use “Luddite” as a derogatory term referring to backward and anti-tech reactionaries.
It proves that history is truly written by the winners.
In truth, the cause of the Luddits was not the destruction of technology – neither was the cause of the Boston Tea Party the elimination of tea, or the cause of Al Qaeda was the end of aviation. civil. The Luddits broke the looms and the sills. tactical, not their goal.
In truth, their goal was something closely related to science fiction: to challenge not the technology itself, but rather the social relationships that governed its use.
The critique of Luddism as anti-technology is such a superficial reading of Luddits as the critique of science fiction is nothing more than speculation on the design of more or less plausible gadgets.
In truth, Luddism and science fiction ask the same questions: not only What technology does it, but who does it for and who does it at.
The Luddits were textile workers – skilled tradespeople who enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle because they commanded a significant portion of the money generated from the product of their labor. In addition, it took a parcel to weave the fabric, and as a result, the fabric was incredibly expensive, just like the clothes, of course.
The advent of textile automation has changed everything. This not only reduced the amount of labor required for a fabric yard, it also created an unprecedented demand for wool (leading to the mass eviction of sharecroppers to make way for sheep) and cotton (surfactant the world slavery).
Textile automation has also produced a lot of textiles (obviously). These were cheaper and often thinner than the textiles they replaced, and transformed easy access to clothing of all kinds from a luxury for the elites into something workers expected.
You really can’t ask for a more science-fictional setup: someone invents some gadgets and everything changes. An entire industry of skilled workers is under threat. The old settlements are razed and replaced by sheep, their inhabitants have become internal refugees, wandering the land. Slavers navigate the world, killing and enslaving distant aliens to power the machine. The whole material culture of a nation is transformed. A guerrilla war breaks out. The machines are broken. Factories are set on fire. The guerrillas are captured and publicly executed. Blood is flowing in the streets.
The Luddits did not practice automation. The proliferation of cheap textiles did not bother them. The story is mostly silent as to whether they thought about the fate of sharecroppers at home or enslaved people abroad.
What were they are fighting for? Social relations governing the use of new machines. These new machines could allowed the existing workforce to produce much more fabric, in much fewer hours, at a much lower price, while still paying those workers well (the lower unit cost of the finished fabric would be offset by higher sales volume, and this volume could be produced in less hours).
Instead, the owners of the factories – whose fortunes had been built on the labor of textile workers – chose to employ fewer workers, working the same long hours as before, at a lower rate, and have pocketed the substantial savings.
There is nothing natural about this arrangement. A Martian watching the Industrial Revolution unfold through the eyepiece of a powerful telescope couldn’t tell you why the dividends from these machines should favor factory owners over factory workers.
The Luddits did what any science fiction writer does: they took a technology and imagined all the different ways it could be used – who it could be used for. for and to whom it could be used vs. They demanded the creation of a parallel universe in which the left fork was taken, rather than the right.
It’s a lot of things, but it’s not technophobic. To use “Luddite” as a synonym for technophobe is historically unbearable defamation.
We’re having a pretty Luddite moment, in this case. Many of us dispute the social relations around our technologies: should we continue to subsidize large-scale agriculture? Should our cities continue to organize themselves around the automobile? Should tech giants be allowed to continue to engulf themselves and their smaller competitors, reducing the Internet to “five giant websites, each filled with screenshots of the other four?” (to quote Tom Eastman).
Part of this contestation takes place in the streets, others at the ballot box, others in the boards of directors; some take place at high level meetings such as COP26 in Glasgow. To distort William Gibson’s rallying cry, the streets are desperately claiming their right to find their own use of things.
Luddism is the key to resolving the tension in some of our most important debates about work and technology. For example, labor economists have long decried automation as “deskilling” – a way of breaking down skilled labor into a series of easy tasks, which weakens the bargaining position of workers by allowing employers to replace them more easily.
But automation is not only disempowering: it also uplifts people. Today, thanks to automated machining tools like CNC milling machines, someone with very little training can do a lot of precision machining for themselves, without having to bother a skilled machinist. Democratizing access to the means of production is not inherently anti-labor – it is only bad for workers when the bounty of automation is disproportionately allocated to a few owners of capital, and not to workers.
The history of science fiction is full of stories of people taking over the means of production. The classic “problem story” – in which an engineer has to figure out how to reuse a machine or system to make it work in a way its creator never intended – is, at its core, a story about technological self-determination. It’s a story that says whoever uses the machine matters more than whoever designed or bought it.
You don’t have to turn to cyberpunk to find this ethic: when a Heinlein character like Kip Russell uses duct tape and ingenuity to save his friend’s life on the lunar surface in Have a spacesuit, will travel, it unilaterally redefines the social relations of the technology on which it depends, as a matter of life and death. Kip Russell is a Luddite, convinced that his own well-being is more important than the intentions and choices of the company that made his spacesuit.
The difference between deskilling and democratization is not what the gadget does – it’s who it does for and who does it at. To imagine new ways of arranging these factors is deeply science fiction.
The Luddits weren’t just science fiction, either. They took their name from King Ludd, or Captain (or General!) Ludd, a mythological titan who is said to have led their shadow army. The Luddits made great stories about this leader and signed his name on letters to newspapers and factory owners. King Ludd was a creature of fantasy – an imaginary giant who was often portrayed as towering over the factories that were the subject of the Luddits’ rage.
A secret society bent on remaking social relations for the sake of technology, which claimed to be run by a mythological giant? It’s fantastic, a golden age fantasy / sci-fi crossover fit for an Ace Double.
Cory Doctorow is the author of To abandon, Little brother, and Information doesn’t want to be free (among many others); he is co-owner of Boing Boing, special consultant to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, visiting professor of computer science at the Open University, and affiliated with MIT Media Lab Research.
All opinions expressed by reviewers are their own and do not reflect the opinions of Place.
This article and others like it in the January 2022 issue of Place.
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