Man Vs. Machine

Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution, Lessons for the Computer Age , by Kirkpatrick Sale, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 320 pages, $24.00

Western living standards and levels of physical comfort today are immeasurably higher than at any time in the past. This is hardly an earth-shaking revelation. Neither is the observation that the bulk of this achievement is due to human ingenuity and cleverness in controlling the forces of nature and using them to improve the human condition. And yet, technology has always had its detractors and enemies, who stood on the sidelines of progress, jeering and booing, and at times trying to place obstacles in the way. Ever since Prometheus discovered fire and Daedalus the art of flying, some people have felt uncomfortable and guilty about technology, and in each generation we can find some evidence of "Luddism," a hostile attitude toward the tools and ideas that are meant to make society richer.

What explains technophobia? The opponents of technological change are neither fools nor demons, their arguments neither insane nor ignorant. While on the whole their resistance is both misguided and futile, it is imperative to understand the roots and sources of their attitude. To start with, not all enemies of technological progress were created alike. The most fundamental distinc tion is between the victims and the ideologues.

Technological progress inevitably has victims. It is difficult to think of a single invention in history, no matter how beneficial to society, that did not make somebody worse off. Once a technique is replaced, those who had invested in the old way of doing things end up losing their investment. If physical equipment and human skills could painlessly and costlessly be converted from technique to technique, innovation might have only beneficiaries. In practice, obsolescence is inevitable, and thus there is pain and suffering for some even when society as a whole benefits. Technological progress in a free market society means that on the whole the benefits exceed the costs, so that society is better off, even if the improvement is not "Pareto-superior," as the econo mists like to say. Those at the losing end of the story, whose jobs may disappear, whose skills and equipment become worthless once they are replaced by machine, would be rational to do all they can to stop the competitive market process that threatens them.

There are two ways to short-circuit technological progress: get some form of legislation or regulation to ban the new process, or go against the law and resort to violence in the form of sabotage and terrorism. The latter option, what we usually refer to as "Luddism," is the main topic of Kirkpatrick Sale's book. The Luddites were groups of workers displaced by machinery during the early stages of the British Industrial Revolution who resorted to machine breaking and other acts of violence in an attempt to stop the technological advances that threatened their livelihood. Whereas the textile mills in Britain increased the overall economic welfare of the average Briton by reducing the price and improving the quality of textiles, the stocking-frame knitters in Nottinghamshire and woolen-cloth croppers in Yorkshire were clearly worse off.

The ideological sources of resistance to new technology are more diverse. Philosophers, social thinkers, and political activists who themselves have little to lose from new technology object to some or all of the changes brought about by industrial development. They range from British aesthetes such as John Ruskin to the philosophers of the Frankfurt School and their adherents (Herbert Marcuse and Jacques Ellul) to radical writers of our own time, such as Amory Lovins, Jeremy Rifkin, and Chellis Glendinning. Kirkpatrick Sale firmly belongs to the last category of ideologues. The intellectual foundations of their attitude are well understood. One element is simply an intuitive dislike of change and novel, unfamiliar things, the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality. Another is the dislike of technology itself; while few people admit to a dislike of mechanical devices, there is an instinctive sense that they are unnatural, opposed to the carefree green pastures and sunny skies of an old bucolic world that industrial smoke has obscured forever. Bleak and lonely life in grim and grimy factory towns is compared with a Walt Disney image of friendly and cooperative peasant communities of rustic society. Changes in technology often alter the environment, which is vaguely felt to be sinful and somehow contrary to a human instinct to leave the world to our children in the same shape we found it.

There is more to this movement, however, than just nostalgia, bad history, and intuition. One perfectly rational element is risk aversion: Precisely because new technology is new, its exact consequences cannot be known in advance. Fear of a thalidomide-type debacle means that many new technologies are resisted not because their effects are known to be harmful but be cause their effects are unknown. There is some probability, no matter how small, that nuclear power will lead to a major radioactive disaster or that bioengineering will create a mutant virus that wipes us out. There is no social calculus that can prove these judgments wrong; no matter how small the likelihood, if one is unwilling to take any chances, new technologies will always be suspect. Some cases of unanticipated nasty side effects of a seemingly benign product, such as asbestos and chlorofluorocarbons, support these views.

A related argument is that new techniques often fail to pay for their full social costs: The new factories of the Industrial Revolution unworriedly polluted the air, although clean air was a scarce resource as well. Only much later was it fully realized that even resources that are not privately owned may be scarce and should figure in the cost-benefit calculus; in the meantime the environment may sustain major damage. It is also felt that new technology dehumanizes, turns people into slaves of their own technology, and is responsible for assorted social ills, from crime to loneliness. Whereas the standards of proof required in these accusations are often loose and the nostalgic look backward to an earlier and better period usually based on incomplete knowledge of the human condition before the Industrial Revolution, it would be rash to dismiss an argument just because it was technophobic.

The problem with Sale's book, however, is that he conflates the story of the Luddites, a self-interested group of victims, with his own ideological approach. He imagines preindustrial England as "a world based on an enclosed communitarian life, a high degree of non-market self -sufficiency, a simple system of local exchange and barterand traditions of mutuality lying outside the chaffer of the marketplace." The Luddites, he feels, were rebelling against the trans formation of this cloud-cuckoo land into an industrial wasteland in which they would become mindless and pauperized slaves of the omnivorous steam engine, the real villain of the Industrial Revolution.

Unfortunately for Sale's story, his record of the Luddite riots does not contain any evidence of an explicit ideology. The rioters in Northern England were simply frightened and destitute men, driven to desperation by forces they could only vaguely comprehend, but which they associated with machinery responsible for the decline in the demand for their labor. They be longed to a long tradition of machine breakers, going back to the 17th century, when gig mills were first introduced.

Machine breaking and forcible resistance to new technology of one kind or another oc curred in most industrial nations, with varying degrees of success. Inventors were often forced to flee for their lives, had their workshops burned down and their tools destroyed, and in a few cases were assassinated. Usually these acts were committed by people who perceived that their livelihood was threatened; sometimes machine breaking was simply a convenient and persuasive form of bargaining or an easy project for hooligans. Politics was only remotely involved. While the Luddites detested Britain's Prince-Regent, so did everyone else.

Sales's view that these Luddites were some kind of industrial Jacobins is unsustainable. The Luddites were simply responding to marketplace competition against which they could not prevail. They therefore attempted to muster non-market forces. Their objective was, depending on
the time and place, to get rid of the wide-stocking and lace frames that threatened the livelihood of cottage workers, of the gig mills (woolen finishing machines) that competed with skilled croppers in Yorkshire, or to stop the advent of power looms.

The unhappiness of the textile workers was compounded by the unusually bad economy in Britain between 1811 and 1813, when a combination of bad harvests and the disruption caused by warfare and blockade resulted in misery and unemployment throughout the country. The machines were a convenient scapegoat, but it is obvious that the workers sincerely believed the new contraptions were the cause of their poverty and that by destroying them they would im prove their material condition. Given the circumstances of the time, this was not an irrational response. Indeed, it seems that in Nottinghamshire the Luddite riots, despite their apparent failure, succeeded in slowing down the modernization of industry. Sale adds somewhat sheep ishly that for that reason the stocking industry became "among the most backward in the coun try." Should we infer that he considers that outcome to have been desirable?

The notion that these rioters were rebelling against an industrial and mechanized future and thus somehow shared the technophobic ideology espoused by modern radicals of the Barry Com moner and Bill McKibben type is fanciful. Sale laments the environmental damage inflicted by the Industrial Revolution and the disappearance of certain flora and fauna, and then argues that the Luddites reminded the rest of the population of the destructive effect of industrialization. The idea that the Luddites had any regard for the environmental implications of industrialization seems anachronistic, to say the least.

The related idea that the factory destroyed the social framework of mutual aid and "reci procity over the back fence" that Sale attributes to pre­Industrial Revolution England is equally weak. The dependence of the English poor on the poor laws long before the Industrial Revolu tion indicates that this idyllic society of mutually supportive, responsible neighbors never ex isted. Moreover, modern research carried out by Lynne Kiesling of the College of William and Mary shows that in the 1860s the factory workers of Lancashire's cotton industry did all they could to support their close relatives and neighbors in time of need. The old informal safety net, such as it was, survived the coming of the steam engine.

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