Rage Against the Machines

Witnessing the birth of the neo-Luddite movement

The global, organized neo-Luddite movement was born this February 24th, on New York City’s tony upper East Side, of all places. That’s when a group called the International Forum on Globalization held a "Teach-In on Technology and Globalization" at Hunter College. The goal of the event, announced IFG head Jerry Mander, was to "bring together the protest movement born in Seattle with the leading critics of technologies -- Luddites, if you will." If the reported attendance by 1,400 people is any indication, then the IFG succeeded in its goal -- a fact the world may some day come to rue.

The opening day of the Teach-In was devoted to a non-stop series of plenary sessions held in a cavernous and cheerless auditorium. The sessions started at 9 a.m. on Saturday and ran until 11 p.m.; they were followed by scores of workshops on Sunday. The list of speakers was a veritable Who’s Who of anti-technology and anti-free market activists from around the globe. The lineup included such heavy hitters as Kirkpatrick Sale, author of Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution; Jeremy Rifkin, head of the Foundation on Economic Trends; Stephanie Mills, from the Great Lakes Bioregional Congress; Andrew Kimbrell, head of the International Center for Technological Assessment; and Vandana Shiva, head of Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Natural Resource Policy.

The attendees were mostly "progressives" who have long been involved with the civil rights, peace, and environmental movements. (One guest confided to me that it has all been downhill since Henry Wallace ran for president.) Though there was a smattering of earnest youngsters hailing from too-cool college campuses located in places such as Vermont, Massachusetts, and Oregon, most of the participants were clearly over 45 years old. But their years have not mellowed the neo-Luddites.

Jerry Mander, a white-haired, humorless man still best known for his 1977 anti-TV diatribe Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, opened the event by explaining why the Teach-In focused on globalization and technology. The IFG and allied groups are concerned about "technology’s symbiotic relationship with corporate power," said Mander. Far from dispersing knowledge and empowering traditionally marginalized individuals and groups, argued Mander, the Internet "is facilitating the greatest centralization of unregulated corporate power in history." But we’re up against something far bigger than just the Internet. "Now we have biotechnology and its younger sibling nanotechnology, which can potentially redesign nature from the atomic level up," he declared. "With these technologies, nothing will be outside of corporate control."

For Mander and other neo-Luddites, "globalization" refers to what they claim is a self-evident centralization and expansion of "corporate power" (a loose term that seems to cover just about all for-profit economic activity). Stopping globalization requires overlapping and related strategies, which is why the Teach-In brought together a disparate collection of labor, environmental, indigenous, anti-trade, and civil rights activists. The first step in halting globalization, say the neo-Luddites, is to slow or stop the development and adoption of all new technologies. The primary tool for this is universal implementation of the so-called precautionary principle, which has been acerbically summarized as "regulate first, ask questions later." At rock bottom, the precautionary principle would require that all new technologies be approved by regulators using subjective criteria like whether the technologies are "needed" or are "too socially disruptive" before they could be offered to the public.

The second step in slowing globalization is to block the increase of free -- or, at any rate, freer -- trade. The neo-Luddites believe that trade does more than simply spread technology throughout the world; trade also empowers corporations while destroying the livelihoods of workers in both developed and developing countries. They are, of course, right that trade facilitates the spread of technology and the mixing of cultures; they are wrong, however, to assert that "the corporations" are the primary beneficiaries of such exchange, or that such exchange, on balance, immiserates workers and destroys the environment.

In place of a globally integrated, "corporatized" economy based on high technology, the neo-Luddites offer a vision of mandatory, small-scale, economically self-sufficient autarkies inspired by traditional and indigenous cultures. They draw their name and their animating spirit from the original Luddites, the infamous "machine breakers" in early 19th century England who protested the nascent Industrial Revolution by stealing into factories and smashing equipment. Like their forerunners, the neo-Luddites also want to break machines (sometimes literally) -- especially those that further biotechnology, nanotechnology, and computing.

In some ways, it is easy -- and tempting -- to write off the neo-Luddites as sad-sack ’60s refugees, aging hippies who pine away for a romantic, preindustrial idyll that never existed in the first place or, to the extent it did, was actually characterized by large-scale human deprivation. But in the wake of demonstrations in Seattle over the World Trade Organization and, more recently, in Quebec over the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, it is clear the neo-Luddite mentality is not only widespread, but a powerful motivating force in attacks on free trade and technological innovation.

Those of us who believe that markets and technology offer the best hope for reducing human poverty and misery -- and for increasing human opportunity and flourishing -- would do well to examine the basic premises of the neo-Luddite movement and engage its underlying fallacies. Because it drew together so many of the intellectual architects of the neo-Luddite movement, the IFG Teach-In provides a perfect occasion for such an exercise.

Technophobia Deluxe

Many of the speakers at the Teach-In repeated the mantra that "technology is not neutral" as though it were an incredibly deep and original insight. The slogan is hardly that, but its constant repetition offers insight into neo-Luddite thought processes and values.

"Technologies have consequences," explained neo-Luddite Kirkpatrick Sale. In a long interview with the Web site primitivism.com -- ah, the irony of a Web site that promotes primitivism! -- Sale elaborated on the notion: "Once we understand that technologies are not either accidental or neutral we will understand that they inevitably express the values and beliefs of the powers in society that introduce and adopt them; a progressive nation-state capitalism will produce one kind of technology, a decentralized tribal anarchocommunalism an entirely different kind."

Sale and the other neo-Luddites are without question correct that technology is not neutral. Then again, it’s not exactly clear who said that it was. The relevant question is not whether technology is neutral, but by what process is it adopted and whose interests does it serve?

Technology creates new possibilities. Inventing ways to make fire and clothing allowed human beings to leave the African savannas and inhabit new areas with harsher climates. Bows and arrows permitted our ancestors to become more efficient hunters. Learning how to plant and harvest grass seeds dramatically transformed the human prospect, as did taming goats, sheep, horses, cows, and pigs. Writing utterly changed the world. Smelting metals, building boats, carts with wheels, wine-making, stonemasonry -- the list of transformative technological breakthroughs is endless even if one only considers advances that happened before the birth of Christ.

The neo-Luddites point out that human beings change what they do and how they do things in response to new technologies. Again, that isn’t a blazing insight -- the point of technologies is precisely to change the way people do things, especially in ways that tend to benefit more people. Though -- or perhaps because -- the adoption process is decentralized and constantly under revision, technologies that benefit large numbers of people are the ones that generally succeed over the long haul, e.g., canning, cars, television, weaving, pottery, electricity, computers.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

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  • Labann||

    Commented on these issues several years ago in my book, Bike&Chain;, free on-line at...
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    Humanity wants neither frankensteins nor science moratoriums, rather a balanced approach to progress, which, in fact, demands even greater dedication than corporate profit motives.

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