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Look Out for the Luddite Label

Tagging thoughtful skeptics as anti-technology effectively excludes them from policy debates.
November 1, 1997

I’m no Luddite, but….” we often hear people give this apology as they begin even the most tepid criticism about some technology or another. Evidently, it’s important to let everybody know that you still affirm the overall beneficence of technological progress. How astonishing, then, to read in the Wall Street Journal and other recent press reports that a movement of “Neo-Luddites” is taking shape in the United States.

The original Luddites were displaced workers in early nineteenth-century England who resisted the destruction of their traditional, crafts economy by mechanized industrial production. In an era when labor organizing was illegal, the followers of the mythical “Ned Ludd” smashed textile machines as a protest against a system whose rise spelled their eventual doom. In the end, the British army brutally crushed the rioters.

Those who adopt the term Luddite today (or have it thrust upon them by others) turn out to be a diverse group of writers and social activists-Stephanie Mills, Jerry Mander, Wendell Berry, Chellis Glendinning, Kirkpatrick Sale, and Andrew Kimbrell, among others-whose views include a marked skepticism about what mainstream thinking considers economic and technical “advance.” They argue that our technology-driven world is moving too fast in the wrong direction.

Among the beliefs they share are the following:

Simple, conventional tools are often superior to the complex, high-tech instruments that replace them.Technical change ought to be guided by principles of social justice, ecological harmony, and personal dignity rather than the untrammeled pursuit of efficiency and profit.It is better to derive energy from renewable resources than from burning oil and coal.Methods of organic farming are superior to those of chemical-intensive agriculture.Local and regional economies are more sustainable than ones geared to global production and trade.The pursuit of a well-balanced life is not compatible with the speed and intensity
of activity that today’s digital electronics demand.

Neo-Luddite philosophers do not oppose technology per se; rather, they present a collection of arguments about what good technologies would look like and how to cultivate the wisdom needed to choose them. In fact, many enthusiastic techno-skeptics in this camp are deeply involved with highly sophisticated-though not necessarily modern-technical devices. Thus the writings of philosopher/novelist Wendell Berry describe in loving detail what the implements and methods of traditional agriculture mean for the soil, plants, and communities that use them. Eco-anarchist filmmaker Godfrey Reggio employs state-of- the-art tools of cinematography in movies that starkly depict the dangers of today’s global production system. Do these choices make Berry or Reggio “anti-technology”? Only zealots for technologies of a different brand would make that claim.

The ultimate purpose of labeling some approaches to technical practice as anti-technology or Luddism is not difficult to discern. Applying the decals of opprobrium-romantic, unrealistic, negative-to dissenters effectively excludes them from policy debates. When those who have serious reservations about the latest high-tech development are marginalized and stigmatized, the juggernaut of ill-considered change can proceed unimpeded.

President Clinton’s National Information Infrastructure Advisory Council, for example, recently assembled a panel of luminaries from electronics and communications firms, the entertainment industry, and education to examine prospects for computerizing the nation’s schools. But virtually all of the panelists convened were known in advance to be gung-ho for wired education. Not surprisingly, reports on the deliberations of the council stressed the unanimity of panelists’ views; apparently few members expressed any fundamental doubts about the wisdom of the project they were considering.

This way of stacking the policy deck is lamentable. Many technologically savvy experts in education now fear that saturation of schools with electronic gadgets is doing more harm than good. But none of the prominent skeptics on this matter, such as New York University’s Neil Postman and Stanford’s Larry Cuban, were invited to join Clinton’s advisory group. Thus, the planning of a grand strategy for American education proceeded smoothly, without any sour notes-and without meaningful debate.

In a climate like this, is it any wonder that people feel compelled to beg forgiveness for occasional lapses into technology criticism? When mere boosterism is mistaken for serious advice, people of a different mind are dismissed as Neo-Luddites. Labels of this sort speed the on-slaught of thoughtless innovation, crippling serious debate about the technological alternatives that confront us.

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