What the Luddites Really Fought Against | History | Smithsonian
Ludd, drawn here in 1812, was the fictitious leader of numerous real protests. (Granger Collection, New York)

What the Luddites Really Fought Against

The label now has many meanings, but when the group protested 200 years ago, technology wasn't really the enemy

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In an essay in 1984—at the dawn of the personal computer era—the novelist Thomas Pynchon wondered if it was “O.K. to be a Luddite,” meaning someone who opposes technological progress. A better question today is whether it’s even possible. Technology is everywhere, and a recent headline at an Internet hu-mor site perfectly captured how difficult it is to resist: “Luddite invents machine to destroy technology quicker.”

Like all good satire, the mock headline comes perilously close to the truth. Modern Luddites do indeed invent “machines”—in the form of computer viruses, cyberworms and other malware—to disrupt the technologies that trouble them. (Recent targets of suspected sabotage include the London Stock Exchange and a nuclear power plant in Iran.) Even off-the-grid extremists find technology irresistible. The Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, attacked what he called the “industrial-technological system” with increasingly sophisticated mail bombs. Likewise, the cave-dwelling terrorist sometimes derided as “Osama bin Luddite” hijacked aviation technology to bring down skyscrapers.

For the rest of us, our uneasy protests against technology almost inevitably take technological form. We worry about whether violent computer games are warping our children, then decry them by tweet, text or Facebook post. We try to simplify our lives by shopping at the local farmers market—then haul our organic arugula home in a Prius. College students take out their earbuds to discuss how technology dominates their lives. But when a class ends, Loyola University of Chicago professor Steven E. Jones notes, their cellphones all come to life, screens glowing in front of their faces, “and they migrate across the lawns like giant schools of cyborg jellyfish.”

That’s when he turns on his phone, too.

The word “Luddite,” handed down from a British industrial protest that began 200 years ago this month, turns up in our daily language in ways that suggest we’re confused not just about technology, but also about who the original Luddites were and what being a modern one actually means.

Blogger Amanda Cobra, for instance, worries about being “a drinking Luddite” because she hasn’t yet mastered “infused” drinks. (Sorry, Amanda, real Luddites were clueless when it came to steeping vanilla beans in vodka. They drank—and sang about—“good ale that’s brown.”) And on Twitter, Wolfwhistle Amy thinks she’s a Luddite because she “cannot deal with heel heights” given in centimeters instead of inches. (Hmm. Some of the original Luddites were cross-dressers—more about that later—so maybe they would empathize.) People use the word now even to describe someone who is merely clumsy or forgetful about technology. (A British woman locked outside her house tweets her husband: “You stupid Luddite, turn on your bloody phone, i can’t get in!”)

The word “Luddite” is simultaneously a declaration of ineptitude and a badge of honor. So you can hurl Luddite curses at your cellphone or your spouse, but you can also sip a wine named Luddite (which has its own Web site: www.luddite.co.za). You can buy a guitar named the Super Luddite, which is electric and costs $7,400. Meanwhile, back at Twitter, SupermanHotMale Tim is understandably puzzled; he grunts to ninatypewriter, “What is Luddite?”

Almost certainly not what you think, Tim.

Despite their modern reputation, the original Luddites were neither opposed to technology nor inept at using it. Many were highly skilled machine operators in the textile industry. Nor was the technology they attacked particularly new. Moreover, the idea of smashing machines as a form of industrial protest did not begin or end with them. In truth, the secret of their enduring reputation depends less on what they did than on the name under which they did it. You could say they were good at branding.

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About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

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