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What was the “Luddite” movement? What is a “neo-Luddite”? Why are some people turning against technology?
As technology advances at an unprecedented speed, a growing number of neo-Luddites are urging caution about what we use and how we use it. According to them, we need to stop adopting new technologies mindlessly and start questioning their potential consequences.
Read on for an overview of the Luddite movement and learn how neo-Luddites are continuing the fight against technology.
The Luddite Movement
To understand what a “neo-Luddite” is, we’ll need to first understand the “Luddite” movement, and where the term comes from historically.
During the Industrial Revolution in early 19th-century England, textile manufacturers began introducing mechanized looms, gradually replacing skilled textile tradesmen with machinery and low-paid factory workers. This caused widespread unemployment among traditional artisans, who began staging protests and eventually formed an organized movement opposing the new technology. The leader of this movement was an elusive figure called Ned Ludd—who most historians now believe was a fictional character—and followers of the movement became known as “Luddites.”
The Luddite movement grew in size and momentum, resulting sometimes in riots, destruction of factory machinery, and violent conflict with factory owners and the authorities. The Luddites were active for about two years, from 1810-1812, before the movement was squashed by the authorities, with 25 Luddites executed by hanging.
Although the term “Luddite” is used today to refer to someone who simply rejects technology altogether, that meaning isn’t exactly accurate. The Luddites didn’t reject technology itself—they objected to the damaging social and economic repercussions of a specific technology. The same is true of neo-Luddites today.
What Are the Neo-Luddite Objections to Technology?
Like their historical predecessors, neo-Luddites don’t oppose all technology; instead, they promote technological reform and advocate much more careful consideration of the possible consequences of adopting any technology. And these consequences can be broad and varied.
The neo-Luddite movement began taking shape in the 1990s with the publication of Notes toward a Neo-Luddite Manifesto by psychologist and environmental activist Chellis Glendinning. This document outlines some of the principles of the movement, including:
- Technology is only good insofar as it benefits us, and is only bad insofar as it harms us.
- Technologies that encourage a mechanistic, hyper-rational, and materialistic worldview are destructive to people and communities.
- All technologies can be used as political tools that serve to uphold oppressive structures and systems of exploitation.
- Too much emphasis on our personal enjoyment of technologies without consideration of the larger, long-term effects they have on the world is dangerous and shortsighted.
Since the 1990s, though, a singular organized neo-Luddite movement has never taken shape. It remains a leaderless movement of individuals raising their voices against a growing tide of what some call “digital authoritarianism.”
Let’s take a closer look at some of the specific problems technology is creating, according to some of the movement’s leading voices.
Political and Economic Problems
One of the major issues neo-Luddites raise is the growing political and economic inequality being caused by technology. Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking shared this concern, predicting that the replacement of jobs by technology would result in widening economic inequality unless a major redistribution of wealth were to take place (which, he argued, was unlikely).
Another concern is that by adopting technologies indiscriminately, we disempower ourselves and give away our rights to privacy and autonomy. Historian Kirkpatrick Sale, who wrote the book Rebels Against the Future, argues that technology serves to empower corporations and governments intertwined in a capitalist society. First, he says technology expedites the ever-expanding wealth gap, by creating more wealth faster for those who already control the technology and the economy. Second, he says technologies such as weaponry and surveillance equipment serve to widen the power gap between the corporate/political elite and the citizens.
Glendinning calls this “techno-fascism.” She says the government and tech companies decide what technologies we “need” and we blindly accept them. She points to not just the pervasiveness of surveillance technology in our lives, but to the increasingly sophisticated ways media outlets manipulate public opinion with propaganda. By these means, our beliefs and our very realities are being shaped for us.
In addition to all of these issues, even the most enthusiastic technology adopters recognize that advancing technology for nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons means the capacity for large-scale destruction of the world.
Social and Psychological Problems
We’re also seeing a rise in the occurrence of mental health problems in modern societies, and some of that has been associated with technology use. Experts are now recognizing technology addiction alongside other forms of addictive behaviors—three in 10 American adults report being “almost constantly” online. Social media use has been associated with a rise in narcissism, depression and anxiety, and loneliness, and platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube exacerbate political polarization, which is harming our relationships. These trends, taken together, don’t bode well for our future mental health. Psychologists have long recognized having quality relationships as the biggest contributor to happiness; another contributor is spending time in nature, which is vastly reduced as we spend more time on our devices.
Ecologist Stephanie Mills says our psyches are being shaped by technology, and we’re becoming so dependent on it that we’re losing our sense of self-reliance. She argues in her book Epicurean Simplicity that use of technology has resulted in a loss of the skills all humans once possessed. For example, most people in the modern world don’t grow their own food or have basic knowledge of how to survive in nature. She contends that self-sufficiency contributes to a sense of meaning and fulfillment in life, and we’re becoming devoid of that in the modern world.
Undoubtedly, one of the biggest challenges technology poses to the world is its environmental consequences. Creating and maintaining the technologies that are pervasive in our lives takes enormous amounts of energy, which means burning fossil fuels. Some neo-Luddites argue that we need to “decomputerize” the world to avoid a climate crisis. Manufacturing technologies have dramatically affected air and water quality worldwide, with devastating effects not just on ecosystems, but also on human health.
On this front, neo-Luddites are part of a much larger social and political movement focused on environmental issues. Within this movement, some argue that technology is a double-edged sword, because at this point it’s only technology that will save us from environmental disaster. This is a good example of why neo-Luddites don’t reject all technology outright. Kirkpatrick Sale says, on this issue, we need to evaluate every technology we use and develop in terms of how it weighs on a scale of environmental harm—for example, hearing aids would weigh low compared to their benefit, while gas-powered automobiles would weigh high. And of course technologies specifically designed to fix environmental damage would be given priority, after considering all possible negative impacts—for example, the pollution caused by manufacturing something like windmills.
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