Thursday, January 27, 2011

Luddites of the Future

Things change in our modern world. If you think about sailing ships from 1000 AD to 1800 AD, there was very little change in those 800 years. A sailor from 1000 AD could have probably figured out a sailing ship in 1800 AD without too much trouble. But in the last 100 years, the changes have been enormous and its mainly due to technology driven by scientific discoveries.

Human societies have not naturally evolved in to keep up with such a fast pace of technological change. People are more comfortable with gradual change, where people can raise their children with more or less the same values, skills, knowledge that they had themselves. When change occurs too rapidly, parts of society retreat mentally into the past.

How can we tell when and if we are retreating into the past? I'm guessing that religion can be in indicator. People who convert to religions that oppose scientific advances would be an indication that science is moving too fast for them.

Just as people in the early 20th century opposed electricity in general, today people oppose new green energy wind turbines.

I am not trying to pass judgment and say just how fast science is supposed to advance. I agree that at times it goes too fast, and I can think of some examples: The atomic bomb, drilling for oil over a mile under water, the technology for cloning humans, cell phones in cars, nuclear power plants, genetic engineering, the AK47 assault rifle, poison gas, biological warfare, air travel. All seem to exceed human civilizations ability to control them properly.

Today, we can see evidence that some people think things are changing too fast. There are religions and political movements in the USA that would like to take us back to America's golden age. (Probably the cowboy era)

  • Opposed to new immigrants coming in
  • opposed to restricted gun use
  • opposed to destruction of the environment (pesticides and clear cutting for example)
  • Opposed to equal opportunity programs for minorities
  • Opposed to finding alternate green sources of energy
  • Opposed to the theory of evolution proposed by Darwin
  • Do not believe in Global warming
  • Opposed to gay marriage
  • Wants a return to the gold standard for currency.
  • Opposed to modern contraceptive methods and abortion.
  • Need a return to old time religion, before people challenged the words of God in the Bible.
  • Opposed to modern culture, such as movies, dance, immodest dress, long hair.
  • Then again, some believe that the world is going to end soon anyway, and none of this really matters.

The above points generally define conservatives.

Luddites is another word for people who resist change. Named after Ned Ludd, these people were scared of losing their jobs as weavers, and so destroyed the new mechanical looms in England, that could be operated by unskilled labour to do the work of many skilled craftsmen.

It could be argued that technology was moving too fast in Britain at the time of the Luddites, and that's why the Luddites appealed to so many people. At some point during the Napoleonic wars, there were more British soldiers fighting Luddites at home, than fighting the French in Europe. Speaking of which, there was also a war going on, increasing the economic stress on the country.

Just to be fair to Luddites, here is a paper that argues the point that Luddites were not opposed to technological change per se, just opposed to reductions in their economic situation. (being laid off, having the prices of cloth undercut, wages reduced, etc.) And they broke machines to enforce their bargaining power with the factory and mill owners.

You could probably argue that there are Luddites among liberals and among conservatives. I do not own a cell phone, and I have wind-up windows in my car with manual door locks, and I generally call myself a liberal these days. Change will surely come, and some people better get used to it faster than the currently are.

Picture Dog sled (but I photoshopped the GPS):

Picture Modern Igloo

1 comment:

  1. Resistance to change arises from a number of different motivations.

    As you point out, many people feel uncomfortable with social and technical change which threatens their worldview, especially when it affects their own perceived place in the 'established' social order.

    That, in fact, is one of the (if not, the) essential characteristics of 'conservatism' ... resistance to change (or even regression to some notional 'good old days') and the assignment of excessive merit to 'traditional' institutions (e.g. 'family values'). And which has been, and continues to be, so cynically exploited by our conservative 'leaders.'

    As you point out, in popular contemporary usage, 'Luddism' has come to signify an irrational (and often violent) resistance to technological change. But, as Eric Hobsbawm explains in the article you link, the original Luddites were essentially workers fighting for some basic rights.

    Hobsbawm is, of course, one of our greatest leftist historians. His trilogy on the 19th Century remains one of the most distinguished writings about that period.

    In my humble opinion, no one is truly qualified to intelligently discuss our historical context (plagued as it is with the distorted view of history most of us were inculcated with during our secondary school educations) without having read Hobsbawm.

    In fact, I would go as far as to say that anyone's historical education would be essentially incomplete without having read the following:

    · Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes
    · Chris Harmon's A People’s History of the World, and
    · Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States.

    These serve as an antidote to the 'great men' histories on which we were raised, and punch through the propaganda which the powerful interests have used to perpetuate their hegemony over the lesser classes.