What if… Luddism returns?

Originally published in PC Plus

In 1812 thousands of textile workers attacked a mill near Manchester, determined to destroy the power looms they believed threatened their jobs. Ten of them were shot dead, and in the aftermath a further four men were arrested, convicted and executed.

The men were Luddites, and if they thought power looms were scary, today’s technology would give them heart attacks. Technology is transforming everything: the way we work, the way we live, and even the genes inside us – and one day, it could become our master rather than our servant. As technology’s reach extends ever onwards, will Luddism live again?

Like King Canute, the Luddites get a raw deal from history: Canute was demonstrating his fallibility, not his power, and the Luddites weren’t a bunch of thugs protesting against technology for technology’s sake. They knew that the new mill machines – coupled with the abolition of price controls and the arrival of a free market – would destroy their jobs. They were right, and the issues they faced are back with a vengeance today.

The Luddites’ big problem was that the rest of the world couldn’t care less about their jobs. Sure, it was a tragedy if you were a skilled knitter whose job was replaced by a machine, but if you weren’t then new technology and the abolition of price controls meant cheaper fabric. The same thing happened in the 20th century as technology moved on to hot-metal printers, to car assemblers and to factory workers. Again, bad news for the people in those industries, but hey! Cheaper, colour newspapers! Better-built cars! Cheaper goods!

In the latter part of the 20th century, the combination of new technology and a free market was good news for lots of people. Areas such as Scotland’s Silicon Glen created new jobs in the form of circuit board population, computer case moulding and mobile phone assembly. Cheap imports slashed the cost of consumer goods as Asian firms perfected high-volume, high quality, low-cost manufacturing. Clothing had never been cheaper. Yes, the old jobs were gone, but we had new ones: high-tech firms! Retail! Call centres!

By the late 1990s, though, the cracks were beginning to show. The same electronics firms that had brought new hope to depressed areas started upping sticks, moving to other countries that offered the same level of technology but much lower labour costs (and in many cases, fewer environmental or workers’ protection regulations). In the first few years of the 21st Century such firms were leaving the UK en masse – and technology had turned its attention to the service sector.

While we were setting up call centres and teaching former shipbuilders to use PCs, technology’s march continued. We didn’t notice until we got our first telesales call from Mumbai, when we lost a lucrative contract to a cheaper, smarter, overseas firm, or when the tech support staff were made redundant and first-line support transferred to Bangalore. Suddenly everyone’s job was at risk, and Luddism was back.

Of course, nobody calls it Luddism – but when record companies demand government action against file sharers and new laws to criminalise copying; when IT workers campaign against outsourcing; when unions and tabloids protest as insurance firms shift their call centres to Bangalore; when retailers are wiped out by low-margin online shops; when book publishers attempt to stop Google from digitising everything ever printed… they’re all fighting against the relentless march of the terrible twins, technology and a global free market. In many cases it’s selective Luddism – anti-capitalist protesters make good use of cheaply made, imported mobile phones and computers to co-ordinate their protests, and video cameras to record them; the very firms that want protection from the relentless march of technology are quick to implement IT within their own businesses – but it’s still Luddism.

Stereotypical Luddism – a knee-jerk reaction to technology – is back too. You see it in the fringes of the environmental movement, in the reaction against GM crops, in campaigns against mobile phone masts, in the proliferation of quack homeopathic “cures” and in conversations with people who buy organic because “chemicals are bad”. While many – and probably most – of the people concerned about the environment, genetic research and so on have sound concerns, their concerns act as a magnet for the anti-technology crowd whose motto might as well be “if I don’t understand it, it’s evil.”

So should we expect angry mobs roaming the streets, destroying Dells and assaulting iPod owners? Probably not. However, whenever a speed or CCTV camera is destroyed, when GM crops are vandalised or anti-capitalist protests turn violent, it’s clear that neo-luddism has a distinctly ugly side. As technology’s influence on the way we live grows ever stronger, it’s a side we may see much more of.