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 distinction 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 economists 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 because 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 barter and traditions of mutuality lying outside the chaffer of the marketplace." The Luddites, he feels, were rebelling against the transformation 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 belonged 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 occurred 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 improve 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 sheepishly that for that reason the stocking industry became "among the most backward in the country." 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 Commoner 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 "reciprocity 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 Revolution indicates that this idyllic society of mutually supportive, responsible neighbors never existed. 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.

The difference between the original Luddite rioters and the ideologues is clearly demonstrated in this book. Sale's history of the Luddite riots, which occupies about two-thirds of the text, shows that they were obsessed with specific and local issues and grievances. On the other hand, according to Sale, modern technology and industrial society can get nothing right. They destroy the physical environment as they disrupt and displace the traditional forms of communities and societies; they eliminate jobs, pauperize workers, and increase inequality, leading to growing frustration and alienation, implausibly leading to the wars and refugee problems of the 1990s. He even manages on the same page to blame the "second Industrial Revolution" (by which he means technological developments since 1945) for overpopulation and the decline in male sperm count, presumably in the long run an inconsistent coupling.

In short, Sale's is the voice of the intellectual technophobe. He and his colleagues appear not to have personally suffered from modern technology; indeed some of them seem to have done quite well by it even as they rail against it. Sale repeats the standard accusations against modern technology, but his book is neither particularly well documented nor especially evocative. Where he differentiates his product from that of Rachel Carson and Ivan Illich is in his explicit attempt to co-opt the Luddite riots for his ideological purpose and to endow them with the values of activists chaining themselves to nuclear power plants or intellectuals on the talk-show tour. In this attempt the book fails to convince. Today's technophobes and Britain's Luddites of 1811–­1816 have nothing in common.

Indeed, despite the alleged ravages inflicted by the "second Industrial Revolution" on modern society, Sale has to admit that Luddism is rare in the modern workplace. While a few instances of sabotage can always be cited, the modern work force seems oddly complacent in the face of the horrid damages caused, in Sale's account, by computers, chemicals, and other tools of technological destruction. Instead, modern "neo-Luddites" are non-specific or consumer-oriented: the Union of Concerned Scientists, animal-rights groups, Greenpeace, and even unlikely organizations such as Aspartame Victims and Their Friends. Instead of machine breaking we have "ecotage," violent attempts to prevent acts alleged to be environmentally damaging.

Here and there Sale gets caught in inconvenient inconsistencies: He hails demonstrating French farmers disrupting traffic because "they were arguing for other values than those of capitalist enterprise, including rural communities and rural lifeways." Some cynics might suspect that the French farmer just wanted a larger slice of the industrial-capitalist pie. In any case, if these Luddite farmers have so much power, why were they not able to stop the proliferation of nuclear power plants in France?

The Luddites of England and the modern technophobe movements share one feature not acknowledged by Sale. Neither has been very successful in stopping the phenomenon they so detest. The Luddites were little more than a historical hiccup, as Sale is the first to admit. While he still feels their actions were "dramatic, forceful, honorable and authentic enough to have put the Luddites' issues forever on the record," it is clear that they did not make much of a dent in the progress of the Industrial Revolution. In similar fashion, the Sales and Rifkins of this world do not have a prayer of stopping modern technology, from computers to nuclear plants.

As long as they insist, with fellow-traveler Wendell Berry, that a new contraption should be adopted only if it is cheaper, smaller, and locally made; uses less energy; does not disrupt anything good that already exists (including family and community relationships); does not infringe on the rights of other species (plants and animals alike); and does not harm the interests of the next seven generations, the "neo-Luddite" movement will inspire derision rather than effective technological resistance.

Joel Mokyr (j-mokyr@nwu.edu) is the Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences and professor of economics and history at Northwestern University and the author of The Lever of Riches (Oxford University Press, 1990).