What the Luddites Really Fought Against- page 3 | History | Smithsonian
Current Issue
September 2014  magazine cover
Subscribe

Save 81% off the newsstand price!

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

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 2)

The Luddites, as they soon became known, were dead serious about their protests. But they were also making fun, dispatching officious-sounding letters that began, “Whereas by the Charter”...and ended “Ned Lud’s Office, Sherwood Forest.” Invoking the sly banditry of Nottinghamshire’s own Robin Hood suited their sense of social justice. The taunting, world-turned-upside-down character of their protests also led them to march in women’s clothes as “General Ludd’s wives.”

They did not invent a machine to destroy technology, but they knew how to use one. In Yorkshire, they attacked frames with massive sledgehammers they called “Great Enoch,” after a local blacksmith who had manufactured both the hammers and many of the machines they intended to destroy. “Enoch made them,” they declared, “Enoch shall break them.”

This knack for expressing anger with style and even swagger gave their cause a personality. Luddism stuck in the collective memory because it seemed larger than life. And their timing was right, coming at the start of what the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle later called “a mechanical age.”

People of the time recognized all the astonishing new benefits the Industrial Revolution conferred, but they also worried, as Carlyle put it in 1829, that technology was causing a “mighty change” in their “modes of thought and feeling. Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand.” Over time, worry about that kind of change led people to transform the original Luddites into the heroic defenders of a pretechnological way of life. “The indignation of nineteenth-century producers,” the historian Edward Tenner has written, “has yielded to “the irritation of late-twentieth-century consumers.”

The original Luddites lived in an era of “reassuringly clear-cut targets—machines one could still destroy with a sledgehammer,” Loyola’s Jones writes in his 2006 book Against Technology, making them easy to romanticize. By contrast, our technology is as nebulous as “the cloud,” that Web-based limbo where our digital thoughts increasingly go to spend eternity. It’s as liquid as the chemical contaminants our infants suck down with their mothers’ milk and as ubiquitous as the genetically modified crops in our gas tanks and on our dinner plates. Technology is everywhere, knows all our thoughts and, in the words of the technology utopian Kevin Kelly, is even “a divine phenomenon that is a reflection of God.” Who are we to resist?

The original Luddites would answer that we are human. Getting past the myth and seeing their protest more clearly is a reminder that it’s possible to live well with technology—but only if we continually question the ways it shapes our lives. It’s about small things, like now and then cutting the cord, shutting down the smartphone and going out for a walk. But it needs to be about big things, too, like standing up against technologies that put money or convenience above other human values. If we don’t want to become, as Carlyle warned, “mechanical in head and in heart,” it may help, every now and then, to ask which of our modern machines General and Eliza Ludd would choose to break. And which they would use to break them.

Richard Conniff, a frequent contributor to Smithsonian, is the author, most recently, of The Species Seekers.

Tags
About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

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

Read more from this author

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus