Andreas Späth

Call me a Luddite

2011-05-04 16:10

I’ll admit it: when some people first started calling me a Luddite, presumably because I’m opposed to things like nuclear energy, genetically modified crops and fracking, I was a little upset. After all, I’m not someone with an irrational fear or hatred of technology.
Quite the opposite. I’m convinced that science and technology must play an important part if we’re to extricate ourselves from the increasingly sticky environmental mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. But after a little research and reflection it occurred to me that they might actually have a point and that yes, I was indeed a Luddite of sorts.

I guess I’d better explain.

It turns out that the historical Luddites, a 19th Century movement of mostly skilled British textile workers, have been much maligned and misrepresented. Having taken their name from a legendary figure called Ned Ludd and following on from a long tradition of protest against poor working conditions brought about by the Industrial Revolution starting as early as 1675, the Luddites destroyed mechanised knitting machines throughout northern England between 1811 and 1817.

Not because they were opposed to technology per se, but because wide-framed, automated textile looms that could be operated by relatively unskilled and cheap labour resulted in precipitous drops in wages and working conditions as well as wholesale job losses for skilled artisans. Their movement was brutally suppressed by the British government, using the army, mass trials, imprisonment, deportation and eventually the introduction of the Frame Breaking Act which made machine destruction a capital offense.

What the original Luddites realised about technology, far from being irrationally afraid of it, was that it is neither neutral nor necessarily beneficial to all of those it affects. And it’s in that sense that I’m quite happy to hear myself described as a Luddite. We shouldn’t be forced to accept technology simply because it improves the financial bottom line of an industrial process, but should be allowed to assess its long-term impacts on the environment, on human health, safety and wellbeing and on people’s livelihoods. And if it doesn’t measure up on those counts – regardless of whether it could make someone a whole lot of money – we should be able to dismiss it as inappropriate.

That’s not the same as saying that all technology is bad or that I wish to return to some sort of pre-technological, primitivist Pleistocene idyll that never really existed anyway.

The American historian and philosopher of science and technology, Lewis Mumford, pointed out that from the earliest times of human civilisation two types of technology have existed side by side. “System-centred, immensely powerful, but inherently unstable” authoritarian technology characterised by large-scale, centralised, top-down political and financial control. And a “(hu)man-centred, relatively weak, but resourceful and durable” democratic technology associated with widely distributed, diversified and locally appropriate application and under the control and creativity of much more autonomous human operators.

At a time when the vast majority of scientific and technological knowledge is ever further removed from any real democratic influence and increasingly controlled, accessed and owned by the financially rich and the politically powerful, Mumford’s warning that any surviving democratic technologies are steadily being suppressed and supplanted by authoritarian ones rings particularly true.

“We must ask not what is good for science or technology,” he said, “still less what is good for General Motors or Union Carbide or IBM or the Pentagon, but what is good for man (sic)”.

So to me, being called a Luddite – in the proper historical sense – means not blindly accepting technology simply because a company or a government is trying to foist it on us, be they Monsanto peddling genetically modified seeds, Shell fracking the Karoo or the SA government building more coal and nuclear power stations. It means honestly assessing technologies for their overall benefits and detriments to humans and nature. And it means bringing authoritarian technologies back under the control of people and communities to the extent to which they are impacted by them.

Andreas manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath.
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