November 2011 – January 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of the Luddite uprisings, in which artisan cloth workers smashed machines which were destroying their trades, undercutting wages and forcing them into unemployment and destitution.
Today, the industrial system that the Luddites were rebelling against has led to climate change and huge losses of biodiversity, and its new technologies, such as information technology, genetic engineering and nanotechnology raise equally profound issues. Yet anyone who raises concern about the price and side-effects of new technologies is harshly condemned as a 'luddite', someone supposedly irrationally opposed to technology and progress.
In fact, the Luddites were not 'luddites’ in that sense: the idea that they were opposed to all technology is a history written by the victors. In fact the Luddites opposed only technology ‘hurtful to Commonality’, ie. to the common good, rather than the narrow interests of the few. They destroyed some machines whilst leaving alone others in the same workshop. So being a luddite today means being a sceptic about the dogma of technology as progress, not about denying the real benefits of some technologies. It means insisting that the crucial decisions about which technologies are developed are made democratically, not just imposed by corporations and technocratic elites. And it means standing up for our own ideas of what progress really is.
Computers and digital technology like this website are certainly hurtful to Commonality in some ways, although they have their advantages, and are hard to avoid entirely. Over the coming months we plan to launch some debates about the way that we all have become dependent upon them.
The Luddites200 Organising Forum are celebrating this anniversary partly because we want to honour the Luddites' struggle and challenge the myths about them. But we also want to use this opportunity to catalyse a more vigorous public debate about technology and its social and environmental consequences, a debate that goes beyond dogma and name-calling. We would love you to get involved.
Read our two-page summary of the history of the Luddites and current issues raised by technology.