Depending upon who you ask, the word “Luddite” is either a snide insult for an anti-technology atavist, or a mantle worn with rebellious pride. But between the Cambridge Analytica-inspired #DeleteFacebook trend and a widely reported “need to unplug,” refusal to buy into tech hype is becoming more mainstream. Scientific American recently ran an op-ed entitled “There’s Nothing Wrong with Being a Luddite,” in which Brett Frischmann writes, “The good thing about Luddism is that [it] enables critical reflection and evaluation of the world we have built and are building.” He calls on people to exercise their freedom to take breaks from technology, and especially their various digital networks.
According to scholar David Linton in ETC: A Review of General Semantics, the word itself began as a compliment to renegades who refused to bend to harmful changing societal norms.
The name’s origins are murky. Traditionally it is attributed to a young man named Ludlum, who, when told to adjust his weaving machine, destroyed it—out of either misunderstanding or frustration. The term was later widely adopted for willful destruction of machines. According to Linton, “Eventually the term grew to refer to those smashing machines for political ends, and one who did so was often called General Ludd.”
Linton highlights the background of the Luddite movement: a tumultuous nineteenth-century England, “torn by domestic strife, sapped by a series of unpopular foreign wars and undergoing dramatic changes in the work patterns of its people as the factory system made its presence felt.” He also notes that while there was little evidence of a widespread, organized group of radicals, the idea of raiding factories and breaking the machines captured the public imagination.
Although the Luddites’ targets were machines, they didn’t view the technology itself as the problem. The problem was “wage-cutting, speed ups, excessive employment of apprentices, unemployment, and high prices. The machines were simply the symbol of what was happening to the lives of the workers and their families.”
The Luddites, then, as frustrating as they were to factory owners, were expressing a widespread cultural angst. And eventually they were lauded for it. They became the subject of local praise and lore, compared to another famous Nottingham hero:
“Chant no more your old rhymes about bold Robin Hood,
His feats I but little admire.
I will sing the Achievements of General Ludd,
Now the Hero of Nottinghamshire.”
Today, the idea of Luddism might resonate with those worried about the unforeseen effects of the technology that has so quickly become a part of our lives. We may not be so hasty to break our machines, but we can certainly identify with feeling anxious about the dramatic changes they’re causing in our job prospects, family lives, wellbeing, and societies.