Almost no one is actually a Luddite anymore



I have written a number of posts expressing great skepticism about MOOCs, the for-profit online universities, and, more broadly, the view that technology can be used to make education more affordable by simply replacing educators.

In several responses to my posts and more often in references to my posts on other sites, I have been accused of being a Luddite. The premise of those accusations seems to be that one either enthusiastically embraces all technological “innovations” or one is inherently against technology and, by extension, against innovation.

I would like to suggest that a focus on binary applications may be behind such either-or fallacious reasoning, and if that seems an unnecessary personalization of the debate, it is a lot milder than the remarks that have been made about the limits of my reasoning.

The following paragraphs are taken from a terrific article by Richard Byrne, “A Nod to Ned Ludd,” which appears in the No. 23, 2013 issue of The Baffler []:

“The destructive swath cut by the Luddites—who smashed hundreds of knitting frames that made stockings and later attacked gig mills and shearing frames—posed such a threat to public order that thousands of troops had already been sent to occupy the centers of machine-wrecking discontent in Nottingham and Leeds. Majorities in both houses of Parliament were spooked so badly by this highly organized campaign of violence against property that they pushed through a bill making Luddism a capital offense.

“Flash forward two hundred years. Today’s Luddites (or, as they often selfidentify, “neo-Luddites”) pose no threat at all. Their public salvos against technology embrace knotty nuances and eschew the bare knuckles. There’s a touch of Bartleby the Scrivener to them: if this be the future, they’d definitely prefer not to. Yet the disquiet apparent even in a watered-down and largely nonconfrontational Luddism still packs a punch, if only in the Luddites’ refusal to bow down before the tech class’s vision of a benevolent, inevitable march toward Total Information Awareness.

“In the straitened and highly ritualized discourse of tech boosterism, ‘Luddite’ has become a catchall dirty word for anything that stands in its way. The specter of Luddism is raised and stigmatized again and again as a crank persuasion—the province of the Unabomber and a handful of aging sports columnists loudly proclaiming their contempt for sabermetrics. Indeed, the concept has become so thoroughly muddled in our market-addled age that the cyber-utopians, who would regard the smashing of Windows or Google Glass as a human rights violation, have expanded their Luddite demonology to include the original enemies of the machine wreckers—i.e., government and industry. . . .

“Any reflexive tendency toward criticism, or skepticism about the aims of our confident new digital elite, must be equated with the doomed rebellion of the first generation of English industrial workers. And the distorted memory of that rebellion swells past the point of coherence to absorb any and all perceived enemies of the Information Order.

“It seems, then, past time to revisit the original Luddite movement—its devisers, their activities, and the mechanisms of their undoing—and to ask if any facet might be recoverable for critically approaching the imperial gadgets of our own postindustrial machine age. Or failing all that, a basic acquaintance with Luddite history might let us call each other by more accurate names.”