Monday, December 3, 2012

Why Luddites are pro technology

There were many good reasons for the US to adopt slavery. It was more efficient to have slaves for agricultural and domestic labor than paid employees. Though it was not very good for the slaves, rationalizations were made by the non-slaves that it was actually for the slaves' benefit as well. The whole economy of the South depended on slavery. There were those that would demand better treatment for slaves in a particular plantation. But to demand and implement the abolition of slavery occurred to only very few people. Once people get used to a system, whether it is economic, moral or technological, it is hard for them to conceive of another system. It is easier to conceive of changing bits and pieces of the old system, even if the changes do not solve any fundamental problem. It took a bloody civil war to end chattel slavery. People died rather than recognize that the whole nation made a mistake in accepting slavery. The benefits were too good (for the whites), the alternatives unknown in their effects and too scary to try.

Luddites are like modern day abolitionists. They believe (and some know from personal experience) that the industrial revolution was largely a mistake. That the benefits of mass production/efficiency are offset by the effective slavery of people working in factories, the conversion of skilled labor to purely menial labor (The so-called Luddite Fallacy says that jobs will be lost, which is not necessarily true. What is true is that the percentage of skilled work that promotes creativity and initiative decreases), the destruction of nature, the destruction of communities and the centralization of political control by economic means. There are some Luddites that focus on the negative psychological effects of some modern technologies like computers and TV (e.g. Chellis Glendinning, though she also understands the systemic nature of the problem with the industrial mode of production and consumption). Generally, Luddites are not interested in boycotting a particular company for ungainly practices (the historical equivalent being asking the master of a plantation to treat his slaves better). They are interested in providing an alternative system of production, based on small-scale craft (artisanal) and agricultural production (i.e. abolition of slavery). That this non-industrial system existed for most of humanity's history and was superseded by the industrial one does not mean that the industrial one is better. Mistakes can be made, just like with slavery. The religion of Progress gets in the way of admitting that one of its gods is a mirage. The simple minded slur "you want to go back" is often hurled at Luddites. It is partially true, in that the pre-industrial mode of production is something they aim for. But innovations are welcome, as long as craft-based technology can be used.

Does prosperity demand either slavery or industrialization? This is debatable. I think not, but I am not sure. I would be willing to be less prosperous and more connected, more creative, more free, more useful to those around me, giving freely of my gifts. I would think that if a craft and agrarian based technology was combined with political freedom and equality and with a gift economy or some approximation, that prosperity and full, MEANINGFUL employment could be shared by most.

In this essay, I'd like to dispel some myths about Luddites. Though some Luddites will disagree with me about some things, I hope the views I present are generally accurate and that I point out where differences arise among Luddites. I also want to explain myself, how I can be a scientist, an engineer and a Luddite. How I can believe that both the use and production of computers can be justified despite some serious issues, yet that most of industrial technology is more destructive than life-giving and needs to be replaced with something else, mostly craft and agrarian-based technology. I want to explain how being a Luddite is an intelligent and nuanced position vis a vis technology, that Luddites do not dislike all technology, only the kind that is more destructive to life than creative, and why most industrial technology falls under the former category.

The original Luddites were skilled weavers who were being displaced by machines. Some were farmers who were pushed off common land by the Enclosure movement. The machines also displaced the looms that the skilled weavers previously used. They could weave faster and needed workers with much less skill to operate them. They also could only be afforded by a few wealthy individuals. People who could previously make a living farming and weaving, who could have edifying, skilled work, who could take pride in their work, lost their livelihood to machines and became cogs in an inhumane system which required little creativity or initiative from them. It was not done with their consent. This is the pattern that repeated everywhere to turn craftspeople and farmers into factory hands, and eventually office workers and other modern jobs (including beggars) which are mostly an insult to human initiative, creativity, labor and connection. The domestic crafts (which were mostly not part of the money economy) somehow mostly endured this shift, though they too suffered.

The industrial revolution destroyed nature, communities, creativity, while creating efficiency. It promised a paradise of leisure and wealth, but most people work harder with less satisfaction in their work, and I think this is a direct result of the industrial paradigm. In the popular mind science is somehow linked to the industrial revolution, but the scientific revolution was fueled by a craft and agrarian-based technology (printers, lens grinders, glass workers, carpenters, gardeners, chemists and blacksmiths) For a few engineers, scientists, scholars, doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs and other middle-class professionals the industrial revolution enabled creative jobs, but even for those few the cost was a loss of connection with their families, communities, nature and their humanity. Perhaps this is too extreme a rendition of history. But I have seen all three worlds (the privileged work world, the work for a paycheck and the work in a non-industrial, gift economy setting) and I think I am fit to judge. I worked for a while in the industrial global economy as a physicist, an engineer, an assistant custodian, and a molecular biologist. I also worked as a gardener, a caretaker of mentally handicapped people, a construction hand and as an alternative technology installer and inventor in gift economies in intentional communities (guess which work I like better).

There are many famous Luddites, though most people don't know it. Gandhi is famous for his non-violence and peace (whereas the original Luddites advocated smashing industrial machines), but he worked hard to promote local, craft and agrarian based technology. Unfortunately, Nehru did not carry that work forward after Gandhi's death (see J.C. Kumarappa's Why The Village Movement). Other famous Luddites are Wendell Berry, Leo Tolstoy, Ursula LeGuin, Kurt Vonnegut, Henry David Thoreau, Peter Maurin, EF Schumacher, Lanza del Vasto, Ivan Illich, and J.R. Tolkien (the LOTR is allegorical of the battle between luddites and the military-industrial-academic complex), John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Aldous Huxley, Paul Goodman, Max Weber, Rachel Carson, Lewis Mumford. Most of these also believed in economic (and some in personal, spiritual), not just technological reform. If being a Luddite is not a binary state, but an analog continuum, it would be more accurate to say that these folks are more or less Luddite on some scale.

Luddites are pro technology which is more life-giving than life-sapping. They are interested not only in how technology is used (or to use the industrial term, "consumed"), but how it is produced and what happens after it is used (end-of-life analysis). It is no coincidence that most luddites also believe in and practice non-violence. Industrial technology promotes a violent way of life. Here is how:

It enables the control of people by centralized institutions. If people can't take care of their basic needs except by participating in a centrally controlled system. whether it is market driven or not, well, they can be controlled without their explicit consent. A clever form of coersion.
It promotes an "I want it now" instant gratification mentality, a click of the mouse away. Whether it is a gratification of wanting to know, wanting to get something done, wanting sex or wanting to kill someone is irrelevant for this discussion.
It allows violence (see complaints against oil companies destroying not just the environment but communities) resulting from consumers' demand to be abstracted because it is happening somewhere else.
It creates enemies of nature and other people, because instead of trying to gently work with them when an apparent conflict comes up, we would rather annihilate them, since we have the technological power to do so. So we remove mountaintops, spray insecticides and herbicides, shoot those who make us angry (or their kids), bulldoze houses of "terrorists", napalm the "enemy", kill, flippantly diagnose as "insane" and dehumanize "criminals".

By contrast craft-based local technology is less violent:
It allows small groups to take care of their basic needs. This makes them harder to be controlled.
It develops thoughtfulness, patience, resourcefullness and more gentle attitude towards the material and social world.
It promotes relationships with one's neighbors and makes consumerism less palatable (because of the feedback between production and consumption)
It promotes peace because one is involved in being useful and productive to one's community instead of  just dealing with the abstraction of money. Also because there is less material power. The power of craft tools and machines are on a human scale, not a super human scale.

Unfortunately there is also a violent strategy brand of Luddites, such as the unabomber and the original weavers. I would like to say they are just angry and not thoughtful, but that does not seem to be true.

Human and animal-powered tools which enable us to produce our own food, science, shelter, music, art, dance, games, and tools for these, that enable us to have face-to-face relationships with our neighbors and nature, that create balance and beauty in nature, that can be recycled are life-giving. Machines that enable us mostly to make money, that we can't manufacture or maintain ourselves (hence make us easier to control by the owners of said machines), that force us to buy our basic necessities from far away and be dependent on other machines and impersonal markets, that force us to be complicit in the destruction of nature and war, terrible working conditions and inhumane treatment of other people far away are life-sapping. If a community can extract and produce its own petroleum with local materials, with little environmental destruction, and use it for life-giving purposes, then most Luddites would probably support that technology. Life-giving attributes of a technology include edifying the human who produces it and the human who uses it, encouragement of his initiative and creativity, enhancement of the natural systems around that human.

But there is a bigger issue and a bigger system to consider than an individual technology. Luddites believe that the industrial revolution was largely a mistake(despite the bigger efficiency), that the whole industrial system is in the balance life-sapping and needs to be replaced by a more life-giving system such as a craft and agrarian local system. They are distinguished from economic reformists (e.g. Charles Eisenstein) in that they believe that though the economic system may or may not need to be replaced, the technological system underlies the economic one and needs to be replaced in order for any economic reform to be effective.

One would think that a technology can be both life-giving and life-destroying and then a calculation of the net must be done. But this is not something that can be computed in isolation from the rest of the system, since every technology interacts with the whole system.  Since technology, like economy and ecology is an ecosystem/network, changing just one part  usually does not improve things. Though Luddites may engage in a tradeoff analysis for individual technologies, for most Luddites, it is useless to (except strategically) focus on the pros and cons of any one industrial technology like TV, cell phones or computers, since according to Luddites, the whole industrial paradigm is basically sick and must change.

As far as particular technologies, the pros and cons can be debated with regards to strategy--does the use of a particular technology promote the Luddite goal better than another technology?

Putting aside strategy for the moment, and with the caveat that it is difficult to measure net life-giving or life-sapping of any particular technology given the systemic nature of technology, I still like to consider the question of whether any particular currently industrial technology is worth keeping if there were a functional craft-based technology ecosystem. It may be that a particular technology has many life-giving aspects in its use, though the net may be debated. A fundamentalist Luddite may still consider that technology as ultimately to be disposed of, but some Luddites might think that even if that technology can't be produced through local, craft-based means, that it should continue to be produced by a limited industrial system. I think that about computers--though their production is environmentally destructive, and a lot of people use them as escapism and they can create alienation and ADD, their existence can be justified by the information exchange, and the powerful computation they enable. I wonder if there could be an industrial system for just a few things like computers, with most other things being manufactured by crafts and agriculture. Computers definitely enhance some forms of connection. They allow for the exchange of ideas among people far away from each other. The connection may not be as satisfying as a face to face connection, but it can be useful and life-enhancing. Computers can also do computations that would be tedious and too slow for humans--I use Mathematica to do General Relativity computations in a few seconds that might take me weeks to do otherwise.

Besides assessing the pros and cons of individual technologies, we can compare the production of goods as livelihoods for different technologies. A cooper or a blacksmith can usually not make a living in an industrial technology ecosystem (blacksmiths can make knick-knacks for a few wealthy people and thus survive, not very satisfying), so it would not be fair to compare coopering with, say, computer programming within the industrial system. A cooper surrounded by hundreds of different craftspeople and farmers who are all producing for each other can rightfully compare with working as a computer programmer or whatever else in an industrial technology system.

Luddites can be knowledgeable not only of pre-industrial technology, but modern high-tech (I went to MIT and got a degree in EE and one in Physics, then a PhD at BU in Physics, then worked as a process simulation engineer at Motorola). Understanding both modes of production gives one more authority to choose between the two. Ironically, some Luddites are motivated by similar sentiments of abundance and altruism that some of the engineers (and the few entrepreneurs who weren't motivated by greed) of the industrial revolution were motivated by. We want the earth and the human spirit to flourish. We want material, cultural and spiritual abundance, connection, scientific exploration, edifying work as a manifestation of love and our unique gifts, art, music and dance. Based on history, a calling (from the future?) and our own limited experiments, we think these could be better encouraged through a craft-and agrarian mode of production. Our recent ancestors saw only the benefits of industrialization and were bamboozled by efficiency and convenience.

We are just beginning, as a culture, to see not only the benefits (convenience and efficiency) of industrial production, but also the costs. The logic of machine/industrial/capitalist production is the logic of efficiency and convenience. This is the logic not only of monocultures in agriculture, but also of standardization and robotization in industry. It is the logic of turning life into death. It is not true that industrialization kills diversity. It only kills diversity in local production, but on a global scale, and with the help of petroleum, a diversity of goods becomes available to the local and global consumer. Pre-industrial production was more diverse than industrial production (think not only agriculture, but the hundreds of crafts that existed in thriving villages), but with less trade, consumption was in some ways less diverse. Since we are a part of nature, the law of nature which says that a locally diverse production is more resilient than a local monoculture production (even if globally there is a diversity of monocultures), applies to us as well.

Just for fun, I am starting a list of "backwards" industrial technologies vs "progressive" Luddite alternatives (I am using these words facetiously, in a mock anti-religion-of-Progress. In reality I think that Luddism is more adaptive to the present time than industrialism, not more progressive). Remember that no one Luddite technology can be switched to to make things better. All these,  a large enough subset have to work synergistically to make things better.
Inustrial                                           Luddite

lawn mowers                                   scythes
Facebook                                         face to face gatherings
power looms                                    hand looms
combines                                          threshers, winnowers, dehullers
cnc lathes                                         foot or hand powered lathes
computer                                          brain plus pen/paper
petroleum/electric power                  human (sometimes pedal) or animal power
car                                                    bicycle or horse (with carriage if needed)
oil furnace                                        wood stove
refridgerator                                     ice house or rootcellar or stream
machine shop                                   blacksmith shop
shoe factory                                      shoe maker shop
hostpital with megamachines            clinics of various alternative medicine modalities
monoculture+pesticides                    polyculture+predators of pests
chemical agriculture                          soil health agriculture
factory animal processing                 free range animals
multimillion dollar                     barn dance, porch jam, sing-alongs,
film, video games                              storytelling, live games

Besides the Possibility Alliance, which is a real present day example of a Luddite community, there have been depictions of such communities in fiction. My favorite is the scholarly, monastic (understanding the value of cultural isolation) "Maths", in Neil Stephenson's Anathem. It shows how people can continue to do science, math and other scholarly pursuits, while being judicious about which technologies are worth having.


  1. Several comments:

    1. This is is very good essay. Well begun and well continued.

    2. Keep writing.

    3. Regarding computers, I wonder if it is necessary to complete a Relativity calculation in less than a few weeks. Much if not most of the computerized modeling that I do in civil engineering could be done just as quickly by approximate hand estimates if we weren't so driven by frankly insane attempts to make marginally feasible projects feasible. Would I need AutoCAD drawings and a complicated GIS system for my utility records if I followed careful practices for marking underground installations? Do I gain richness of life by doing property research from my desk instead of traipsing over the land or visiting the county records office? On the other hand, it's hard to discount the spiritual power of global communication for the dissemination of powerful ideas like non-violence and the Near Death Experience.

    4. I'd like to attempt a commentary on some of the items in your final list:

    With a scythe instead of a lawnmower, I couldn't have OCD-level lawn manicuring. I would have to relax.

    With a hand loom instead of a power loom, I couldn't own 20 shirts and 20 pairs of pants.

    With threshers, winnowers, and dehullers instead of combines, I wouldn't need to go into debt or go to the gas station. I would spend a lot of effort getting food. Same in general for a lot of the power vs. hand tools.

    With human power instead of machine power, I would be more fit (and worn out).

    With home spun dance, jam, song, stories, and games instead of mass media, I would fulfill my creative longing instead of shrinking in embarrassment before the world's "best". Even with regard to composition and writing, I would be a bigger fish in a smaller pond.

    5. You have been fearlessly bold. You inspire me to create, create, create.

    1. Thanks, Tom.

      Computers: they are more or less necessary under current cultural environment. Under a luddite one, they are not. I might still miss wikipedia and mathmatica, but you probably won't miss your GIS and CAD? See:, about how changing just one thing (e.g. not using computers) usually makes things worse. You have to change a high level master meme for a chance at improving the situation.

      Recreation: The culture of consumption of the "world's best" performances sucks. In a small village creativity might be more equally distributed, though unless there is also fellowship, care for others, and humility, jealousies may abound..

      Consumption: yes, there is a natural strong feedback between production and consumption in a local technology network. In our current global network, the feedback is very weak and consumption is haywire, out of touch with environmental and psychological realities.

      Boldness: maybe, but I have also been fearlessly punished by the powers that be. I will tell you that story some time.