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You've Got Luddites All Wrong

Stop using the word 'Luddite'—unless you're talking about a powerful, anti-automation labor movement that struck fear into the heart of industry.
Allison Cuddon, 'The Industrial Revolution'

Are you worried that children are using the internet too much? You are a Luddite, according to the Telegraph. Do you oppose fracking? Then you're a Luddite; so proclaims a Nevada newspaper. Don't want a smartphone to replace your wallet? You too are a Luddite, Forbes says.

Each of those references to Luddism, taken from the results of a quick Google News search—and, together, fairly representative of how the term is commonly used—has at least one thing in common: They're all wrong. None describes Luddism for what it actually was: a powerful, insurrectionary labor movement designed to protest layoffs and penalize business owners who replaced workers with machines.


Of all the terms marshaled out to describe our relationship to technology, 'Luddite' is maybe the most incorrectly and over-used. In modern parlance, it is a broad catchall for anyone who either fears, dislikes, opposes, or refuses to understand technology. It's a synonym for 'technophobe'—which is a travesty to the fearsome, machine-wrecking movement from which the term arose.

I spent much of Labor Day this year reading about Luddites past and present, historic social movement and modern anti-tech fable—and found that the gulf between the two couldn't be more yawning.

When someone mentions a Luddite, they are typically making a derogatory reference either to a quaint reactionary who is hopelessly behind the times—someone who refuses to buy a smartphone, say—or a critic of any technology whose concerns simply seem hopeless—someone who thinks Facebook is a bad influence, maybe—and is fighting a losing battle against the inexorable march of science, robotization, or progress.

To the extent that we're made to conceive of the actual Luddites—19th century textile workers who smashed machines in protest of the disruptive effects of the Industrial Revolution—we have remembered them as a lot of dim malcontents who bashed technology in factories because they were afraid of the encroaching modern world. Luddism is always portrayed as a knee-jerk reaction to technology; a brash, unthinking recoil.


But far from this conception of doddering conservatives who blindly smashed gadgets they didn't understand, the Luddites were actually well-organized guerrilla activists who fought a pointed and trenchant battle to protect their livelihoods.

"Luddism," the sociologist Donald MacKenzie writes, "was neither mindless, nor completely irrational, nor completely unsuccessful."

The Luddites were a group comprised mostly of textile artisans who, in the early 1810s, correctly saw the rise of efficient machinery like the power loom as a threat to their way of life. But contrary to their depiction in popular culture, they weren't afraid of the technology itself. They were acutely aware that the work they had been trained to do by hand, the craft they had refined over the course of their entire lives, was about to be made obsolete by a machine. A machine that would do a worse job, but for much cheaper.

So some decided to fight back, in an effort to preserve fair pay and what they believed was a healthy, sustainable mode of living. Taking up a moniker inspired by an apocryphal labor hero known as Ned Ludd, his anonymous acolytes sabotaged factory equipment under the cover of night, first in Nottingham, then in Yorkshire and throughout England. (It's interesting to note that the movement itself was based on an ambiguous and probably fictional figure—and the modern incarnation of the term is used ambiguously to describe a fictional version of a historical movement.)


And, there's ample evidence that, contrary to common perception, their tactics were, for a while at least, calculated, well-planned, and rather effective.

"[T]he Luddites did indeed understand the advantages which mechanization would bring," Raymond Boudon, a sociologist at Paris-Sorbonne University, wrote in his Analysis of Ideology, citing the work of influential historian Lewis Coser. But "their machine-wrecking was an attempt to show the owners of the new textile mills that they were a force to be reckoned with, that they had a 'nuisance value'. By acting in this way, their main objective was to gain concessions from the employers."

The Luddites weren't technophobes, then. They were labor strategists.

"This strategic interpretation of the Luddite movement is confirmed by the fact that the workers often destroyed only those machines which were turning out faulty goods," Boudon wrote. "It was still true, of course, that a worker who went on strike could easily be replaced by somebody from the army of unemployed people willing to be strike-breakers, at a time when nascent trade-unionism was harshly suppressed. Since machine-breaking brought the factory to a halt, it was not only a functional substitute for striking, it was also much more effective."

The Luddites weren't technophobes. They were labor strategists.

The Luddites' strategy, then, was even more effective than a strike, and often very carefully targeted. In his famous essay, The Machine Breakers, one of the first scholarly works that sought to understand the Luddites' true motives, the influential historian EJ Hobshawm called it "collective bargaining by riot."


The Luddites' acts of sabotage were enormously successful in drawing attention to the plight of the skilled tradesman, who faced obsolescence before the mechanizing powers of the Industrial Revolution, and they enjoyed widespread support from their communities. A specific law making machine wrecking punishable by death had to be passed in Parliament, and, according to Hobshawm, a force of 12,000 troops were dispatched to put the movement down by force, wherever necessary.

Eventually, the Luddites would fall victim to their own success, as Richard Byrne explains in A Nod to Ned Ludd. The oath-based organization was largely secret—so secret that members wouldn't rat each other out even as they were sent to the gallows—and decentralized, so its more radical elements eventually attempted to assassinate political figures and foment violent revolution.

Though unsuccessful, the extremism eventually steered public opinion safely back into a state in which it could be molded like putty in the governments' hands. This allowed the eventual rebranding of the movement, which left us with the image of out-of-touch goons who so desperately feared and hated progress they smashed any of its instruments they happened upon.

This important bit of history has been whitewashed, the toothless version perpetuated by lazy pundits and melodramatic startup boosters. And yet it's an episode that takes on new significance in a reinvigorated age of automation and mechanized job loss.


In the information age, use of the word 'Luddite' has skyrocketed, and outside of academia, it's almost always used in the incorrect, technophobic way. Google's Ngram Viewer, which shows how the phrase has occurred in a corpus of books over the last two centuries, shows a boom in usage beginning in the 1960s—as the era of computation was beginning in earnest:

That spike saw the term used as a stand-in for technophobia in headlines for magazine pieces, books, and op-eds about computers and nuclear power.

The Bulletin of Atomic scientists, for instance, deployed the modern understanding of the term in A Neo-Luddite Interpretation, a 1978 article arguing against expanding military R&D.

In a 1995 piece,Computer World wrote: "If you're not careful, you might be labeled a Luddite—someone who is opposed to technological change."

The same year,  The Computer Contradictionary mocked those resistant to computers and technology as Luddites—and certain to come around: "Having failed by stapling checks, folding tab cards, defacing OCR documents, demagnetizing credit cards, and part-paying utility and telephone accounts, the diehard Luddite resolves to continue the struggle from within by becoming an undercover programmer."

Usage has continued in that vein up until the present, where today we effectively ignore the actual legacy of the Luddites and instead use their mantle to mock those who would dispute technological determination.


But it's worth remembering that there was an important impact of the Luddite movement. Not only did it jolt industrializing society into recognizing that measures had to be taken to address worker concerns and stir up mass popular support, it seeded an enduring body of critical study on the topic.

"The working-class critique of machinery, of which machine breaking was the most dramatic concrete expression, left a major mark on British thought," MacKenzie writes.

If anything, we should stop using 'Luddite' as a facile insult, and use it to invoke a cautionary tale of what can happen when the specter of automation stokes fears of mass joblessness in an uneasy public—a phenomenon already taking root today.

Some observers are already coming around, and recognizing the actual context of the Luddite movement. The most striking modern day corollary to the Luddite's protest may be Paris's taxi drivers harassing (even smashing parts of) Uber-affiliated cars, which drew more accurate commentary. But even before that, many were of the opinion that anyone opposed to Uber's convenient cab-hailing app business—and in favor of driver protections and regulation—were the new Luddites. Radiohead's Thom Yorke, in another rare instance of Ludditic correctness, responded to Moby's criticism that he was like "an old guy yelling at trains" for opposing Spotify's extraordinarily poor artist compensation by tweeting the following:

I am a 45 yr old Luddite and proud of it.. yawn.

— Thom Yorke (@thomyorke) November 26, 2013

That Spotify pays its artists badly obviously isn't the most pressing labor issue posed by technology, but it reflects a greater trend: More convenience, lower wages, fewer jobs.

Luddites should remind us that we need good policies to smooth the road ahead, so we don't strand our skilled workforce when robots and algorithms usurp their employment. Nearly half the world's jobs are poised to fall to automation, remember, and only the rich currently stand to benefit.

Which is to say, stop calling people who caution about the deleterious effects of Google Glass 'Luddites'. Stop applying the label to anyone who hates social media. Stop thinking of Luddites as dopey old-timers who get frustrated that they can't program the DVR. Instead, perhaps, step away from the scolding modern mythology, and ask a different kind of question:

Are you a fierce labor activist, willing to risk life and limb to destroy the mechanical implements of your impending poverty, to protest the loss of your livelihood? Then you might actually be a Luddite, according to history. And there may be more of you out there than you think.