From 1811-1816, a secret society styling themselves “the Luddites” smashed textile machinery in the mills of England. Today, we use “Luddite” as a pejorative referring to backwards, anti-technology reactionaries.
This proves that history really is written by the winners.
In truth, the Luddites’ cause wasn’t the destruction of technology – no more than the Boston Tea Party’s cause was the elimination of tea, or Al Qaeda’s cause was the end of civilian aviation. Smashing looms and stocking frames was the Luddites’ tactic, not their goal.
In truth, their goal was something closely related to science fiction: to challenge not the technology itself, but rather the social relations that governed its use.
The critique of Luddism as anti-technology is as shallow a reading of the Luddites as the critique of science fiction as nothing more than speculation about the design of gadgets of varying degrees of plausibility.
In truth, Luddism and science fiction concern themselves with the same questions: not merely what the technology does, but who it does it for and who it does it to.
The Luddites were textile workers – skilled tradespeople who enjoyed comfortable lifestyles because they commanded a hefty portion of the money generated by the product of their labor. What’s more, it took a lot of labor to weave fabric, and as a result, cloth was incredibly expensive, as were clothes, naturally.
The advent of textile automation upended everything. It didn’t just reduce the amount of labor that went into a yard of cloth – it also created unprecedented demand for wool (leading to the mass eviction of the tenant farmers to make way for sheep) and cotton (supercharging global slavery).
Textile automation also produced a lot of textiles (obviously). These were cheaper and often finer than the textiles they replaced, and transformed ready access to clothing of all sorts from a luxury for elites into something working people came to expect.
You really couldn’t ask for a more science-fictional setup: someone invents a couple of gadgets and everything changes. A whole industry of skilled workers is threatened. Ancient settlements are razed and replaced by sheep, their residents turned into internal refugees, wandering the land. Slavers sail around the world, murdering and enslaving distant strangers to feed the machine. The entire material culture of a nation is transformed. Guerilla warfare breaks out. Machines are smashed. Factories are put to the torch. Guerrillas are captured and publicly executed. Blood runs through the streets.
The Luddites weren’t exercised about automation. They didn’t mind the proliferation of cheap textiles. History is mostly silent on whether they gave thought to the plight of tenant farmers at home or enslaved people abroad.
What were they fighting about? The social relations governing the use of the new machines. These new machines could have allowed the existing workforce to produce far more cloth, in far fewer hours, at a much lower price, while still paying these workers well (the lower per-unit cost of finished cloth would be offset by the higher sales volume, and that volume could be produced in fewer hours).
Instead, the owners of the factories – whose fortunes had been built on the labor of textile workers – chose to employ fewer workers, working the same long hours as before, at a lower rate than before, and pocketed the substantial savings.
There is nothing natural about this arrangement. A Martian watching the Industrial Revolution unfold through the eyepiece of a powerful telescope could not tell you why the dividends from these machines should favor factory owners, rather than factory workers.
The Luddites did what every science fiction writer does: they took a technology and imagined all the different ways it could be used – who it could be used for and whom it could be used against. They demanded the creation of a parallel universe in which the left fork was taken, rather than the right.
That is many things, but it is not technophobic. Using “Luddite” as a synonym for technophobe is an historically insupportable libel.
We’re living in quite a Luddite moment, as it happens. Many of us are contesting the social relations surrounding our technologies: should we continue to subsidize big agriculture? Should our cities continue to be organized around cars? Should tech giants be permitted to continue to gobble up each other and their small competitors, reducing the internet to “five giant websites, each filled with screenshots of the other four?” (to quote Tom Eastman).
Some of that contestation is taking place in the streets, some at the ballot-box, some in boardrooms; some is happening at high-level meetings like COP26 in Glasgow. To mangle William Gibson’s rallying cry, the street is desperately asserting its right to find its own use for things.
Luddism is the key to resolving the tension in some of our most important labor and technology debates. For example, labor economists have long decried automation as “de-skilling” – a way to decompose skilled labor into a series of easy tasks, which weakens the bargaining position of workers by allowing employers to replace them more easily.
But automation isn’t solely disempowering: it also lifts people up. Today, thanks to automated machining tools like CNC mills, someone with very little training can do a lot of fine machining for themselves, without having to bother a skilled machinist. Democratizing access to the means of production isn’t intrinsically anti-labor – it’s only bad for workers when the bounty of automation is disproportionally allocated to a small number of capital owners, and not workers.
The history of science fiction is rife with stories of people who seize the means of production. The classical “problem story” – in which an engineer has to figure out how to repurpose some machine or system to make it work in ways its creator never intended – is, at root, a story about technological self-determination. It’s a story that says that the person who uses the machine matters more than the person who designed it or bought it.
You don’t have to go turn to cyberpunk to find this ethic: when a Heinlein character like Kip Russell uses duct-tape and ingenuity to save his friend’s life on the lunar surface in Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, he’s unilaterally remapping the social relations of the technology he depends on, as a matter of life and death. Kip Russell is a Luddite, convinced that his own welfare is more important than the intentions and choices of the company that made his spacesuit.
The difference between de-skilling and democratizing isn’t what the gadget does – it’s who it does it for and who it does it to. Imagining new ways of arranging those factors is profoundly science fictional.
The Luddites weren’t merely science fictional, either. They took their name from King Ludd, or Captain (or General!) Ludd, a mythological titan who supposedly led their shadow army. The Luddites spun tall tales about this leader and signed his name to letters to the newspapers and to factory owners. King Ludd was a creature out of fantasy – an imaginary giant who was often depicted as towering over the factories that were the object of the Luddites’ rage.
A secret society bent on remaking the social relations for technology, who claimed to be led by a mythological giant? That’s fannish as hell, a Golden Age fantasy/SF crossover worthy of an Ace Double.
Cory Doctorow is the author of Walkaway, Little Brother, and Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free (among many others); he is the co-owner of Boing Boing, a special consultant to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a visiting professor of Computer Science at the Open University and an MIT Media Lab Research Affiliate.
All opinions expressed by commentators are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Locus.
This article and more like it in the January 2022 issue of Locus.
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