What is a Luddite?

luddites-textile-mill-2Many literary pundits have mentioned Luddites in their works from Herman Hesse and Charlotte Bronte to Thomas Mann and G.K. Chesterton. So who are these anti-technology people and why do we care? There have been pros and cons for ages revolving around their rejection of science. These 19th century textile workers smashed looms and broke equipment to knock the industrial revolution senseless and return to basic values. The band of weavers’ discontent with science seemed real enough. It was new and threatening as few precautions were initially taken. Plus plain and simple, machines put people out of work. There was an issue about the pride of skilled labor, of craftsmanship and quality, but it paled next to profit in industry. People were being put out of their jobs.

Luddite has a bit of mythology about it. From rejection to rebellion it has gained momentum in lore. It became part of the pop culture of the time, a group of actions that soon became politicized. Factory protests were just beginning to rear their ugly heads and wreak havoc with industrialization. Do we detect the word “union” stemming from this time? Dissatisfaction with working conditions has deep roots in the Industrial Revolution, not assuaged until well into the 20th century.

Charlotte Bronte’s book, Shirley, from 1849 takes place during this controversial era when factory rebellion was rampant. The Yorkshire textile industry is laid bare as exemplified by Cartright’s Mill from which the author was deeply affected. This is a social novel par excellence. Ethical and moral issues were also raised by Ernst Toller in his essay, “The Machine Wreakers,” which took liberties with history to make a point. Herman Hesse in Steppenwolf took a different route. He placed his neo-Luddites in a bizarre surrealist setting to enliven a long-feared competition between men and machines. He sharply delineated the “fat and well dressed and perfumed plutocrats who used the machines to sque4eze the fat from other men’s bodies.” This view carried over into Charles Chaplin’s film “Modern Times.”

Toi get back to specific, working conditions were tough at this time during the Napoleonic Wars. The movement soon spread from its ori8gin in England across Europe. As time wore on, the term “luddite” became associated with a negative attitude toward progress, particularly the budding dimension of technology which was destined to rule the world. Loosely used, it described a naïve or primitive mentality that eschewed the scientific method. It was derogatory and dismissive. Even in recent times, it has been used to refer to “a leaderless movement of passive resistance to consumerism and the increasingly bizarre and frightening technologies of the Computer Age.” (Kirkpatrick Sale, America’s New Luddites)

The concept was named after Ned Ludd, a young man who demolished two stocking frames (knitting machines) as early as 1779. By extension, Luddite denoted any machine destroyer. In addition, there is a character in Robin Hood known as King Ludd of Sherwood Forest. Whatever the origin, the word grew to large proportions. It is now a rather esoteric and sophisticated word to describe anyone who is anti-science and anything but modern. Maybe it doesn’t have to do with employment anymore, but with a philosophy about change and its repercussions. There are many sects in existence today who avoid modern technology in the form of automobiles and assorted appliances such as the Amish, who wouldn’t think of using something as utilitarian as a beginner’s sewing machine.

The urban dictionary defines Luddite as one who fears modern technology. This adds a twist to the already existing connotation of distaste. People of this persuasion want things to either stay the same or go back to basics before technology corrupted minds and hearts. Maybe “machines” threaten the true meaning of productive work from the hand of man or perhaps they interfere with personal privacy in some way. Would anyone be offended by being labeled a Luddite today? No doubt they would. It is a synonym for someone provincial, out of date, anti-science, and backward. This was not the original meaning of the word.

Why would someone be openly anti-technology today given the dominance of science? It is often said to be a matter of ignorance. If you can’t use a smart phone, well then it must be too complicated, too baffling, and of no real use. If you can’t operate and recharge an electric car, let’s just stick with gas. Most new things are seen as suspect until they become known and understood like new-fangled notions that become staples of life. Luddites are those who need a little more time.