In his recent book about the future of technology, Tim O’Reilly, sometimes called the Oracle of Silicon Valley, faults the Luddites for a failure of imagination. According to O’Reilly, they did not imagine
… that their descendants would have more clothing than the kings and queens of Europe, that ordinary people would eat the fruits of summer in the depths of winter. They couldn’t imagine that we’d tunnel through mountains and under the sea, that we’d fly through the air, crossing continents in hours, that we’d build cities in the desert with buildings a half mile high, that we’d stand on the moon and put spacecraft in orbit around distant planets.…
Of course, O’Reilly doesn’t care about the Luddites in their historical particularity, as actual human beings who lived and suffered. The Luddites are merely a placeholder for an idea: that opponents of technological “progress” are ridiculous, misguided, and doomed. Never mind that the Luddites were not opposed to new technology, only to the disempowering and inequitable deployment of new technology.
In a fine critical review of O’Reilly’s book, Molly Sauter offers this bracing rejoinder of the contemporary application of this logic:
If you’ve lost your job, and can’t find another one, or were never able to find steady full time employment in the first place between automation, outsourcing, and strings of financial meltdowns, Tim O’Reilly wants you to know you shouldn’t be mad. If you’ve been driven into the exploitative arms of the gig economy because the jobs you have been able to find don’t pay a living wage, Tim O’Reilly wants you to know this is a great opportunity. If ever you find yourself being evicted from an apartment you can’t afford because Airbnb has fatally distorted the rental economy in your city, wondering how you’ll pay for the health care you need and the food you need and the student loans you carry with your miscellaneous collection of gigs and jobs and plasma donations, feeling like you’re part of a generational sacrifice zone, Tim O’Reilly wants you to know that it will be worth it, someday, for someone, a long time from now, somewhere in the future.
This is exactly right. There is a certain moral tone-deafness to O’Reilly’s rhetoric. He imagines that a family faced with destitution would bear up happily if only they knew that their suffering was a necessary step toward a future of technological marvels. Your family may not be able to put food on the table, but, not to worry, somewhere down the line, a man will walk on the moon.
In fact, it would seem as if O’Reilly would fault them not only for failing to stoically bear their role as the stepping stones of progress but for not celebrating while they were being trampled on.
There is a cold, calculating utilitarianism at work here. Consequently, the enduring meaning of the Luddites may best be captured in Ursula Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” The people of Omelas are prosperous and happy beyond our wildest dreams, but, when they come of age, they are each let in on a secret: the city’s happiness depends on the suffering of one lone child who is kept in perpetual squalor and isolation. Upon discovering this fact about their glittering city, most overcome their initial horror and settle back into the enjoyments the city provides. There are a few, however, who walk away. They forsake their happiness because they can no longer live with the knowledge of the price at which it is purchased.
“The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness,” the narrator concludes. “I cannot describe it at all. It is possible it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”
The point is a simple one: the story of technological progress is often told at the expense of those who have no share in that progress or whose prosperity and well-being were sacrificed for its sake. This is true of individuals, institutions, communities, whole peoples, and the swaths of the non-human world.
Here, then, is the meaning of Luddism: the Luddites are a sign to us of the often hidden costs of our prosperity. Perhaps this is why they are the objects of our willful misunderstanding and ridicule. Better to heap scorn upon the dead than reckon with our own failures.
In truth then, the failure of imagination is ours, not theirs. It is we who have not been able to imagine a more just society in which technological progress is directed toward human flourishing and its costs, such as they must be, are more equitably distributed.
The blog Librarian Shipwreck has published a number of thoughtful posts on Luddism, its history and contemporary significance. They are collected here. I encourage you to not only read these posts, but to also follow the blog.