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U3A Writing: The Luddites

...Today, a person is called a Luddite if he is viewed as a hindrance to progress. It is used as an epithet. However, its meaning has changed over the years. When it was first coined it was not a defamatory word. In fact, those to whom it was applied were convinced of their righteousness, because they were fighting the most important battle that men can ever fight. They were fighting for survival...

Walter Murton’s takes a cool look at an important event in Britain’s industrial history, and its effect down the decades.

The age in which we live has experienced an advance in technical knowledge that has been more rapid than at any other time in the history of man. That advance has carried men to the moon; it has enabled them to confront virulent diseases and it has taken them to the rim of the creation of life and to the brink of destroying us all.

Not unexpectedly, fear has been generated by the relentless march of technology. Anxious people, with serious forebodings, have used every kind of publicity to warn the world of impending calamity. Its proponents claim to be earnest in their desire to use the newly found knowledge to produce more food and also to provide a healthy, sickness-free existence for the human race. To its detriment, this faction includes
politicians, drug companies and financiers, so its sincerity is often questioned. The fundamental gap which yawns between the two camps, however, lies in their attitude to mankind The opponents of unfettered technological advance are biocentric, so they subscribe to the view that man is just a part of an ecology and that man is unwise to tamper with it. They are afraid that if he does upset the delicate balance between the various components of the ecology, then the very existence of life on earth may be threatened. The supporters of technical progress put mankind at the top of their priorities. Whatever they do is for the benefit of man, even if their actions are detrimental to the earth’s well being or to the environment of weather and vegetation and animals. Their attitude is anthropocentric. They use a pejorative term to describe their opponents. They call them “Luddites”.

Today, a person is called a Luddite if he is viewed as a hindrance to progress. It is used as an epithet. However, its meaning has changed over the years. When it was first coined it was not a defamatory word. In fact, those to whom it was applied were convinced of their righteousness, because they were fighting the most important battle that men can ever fight. They were fighting for survival.

The first Luddites were members of a movement which erupted in Nottingham in England, in 1811. Their supposed leader was a Ned Ludd, a shadowy figure, so shadowy, in fact, that there is doubt as to whether he ever existed. Ned Ludd was
credited with being the first man to resist the mill owners of that time. The mill owners, riding on the very crest of the technical advances of the Industrial Revolution, were replacing their skilled workers with machines which could each do
the work of twenty men and only a few men were needed to operate them.

Nottingham was at the centre of the stocking-making industry and skilled stocking-makers were justifiably dismayed as the new machinery was used to replace them. Their dismay grew to anger as unemployment soared and it was then that Ned Ludd struck. He broke into a mill and smashed two stocking-making machines. Desperate men, who saw their livelihoods threatened, were quick to follow his example. Armed with hammers, they swarmed through the northern counties of Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire and smashed all the new mill machinery that they could find. Sadly, on occasion, their crusade turned to violence against the mill owners, but they were driven by fear and the spectre of poverty. This extract from an account by a Lancashire man, presumably a machine operator, gives a snapshot of the
conditions at that time.

“I have five children and a wife. The children are all under 8 years of age. I get 9 pence clear (per week). I work 16 hours a day to get that. It will take 2 pence a week coals, 1 penny a week candles. My family lives on potatoes chiefly and we have a pint of milk a day.” (9 pence would buy a few loaves of bread).

As the Luddite Rebellion gathered momentum, the hard-pressed British government was already trying to contain rampant inflation and a cataclysmic loss of foreign trade. These resulted from Napoleon’s policy of closing Europe to British exports.

There were crop failures, as well, in three successive years from 1809 to 1811. The threat of revolution, following so soon on the French and American revolts, galvanised the government into action and troops were deployed to stamp out the unrest. Eventually, many of the Luddites were caught and were brought to trial. Some were hanged, but the majority was deported to the colonies. So, by a harsh and bloody repression, the Luddite Rebellion was brought to an end.

Although the Luddites were crushed and machinery was eventually accepted as a valuable aid to production, the spirit of Luddism lived on and it has surfaced once more during the past 20 years. People throughout the world have expressed growing concern about the ill effects of unfettered technological advance. For example, although they acknowledge that nuclear energy allows electricity to be generated in a clean and cheap way, nuclear by-products will pollute the earth for thousands of years. The modern Luddite (known as a “Neo-luddite”) asks whether electricity should continue to be produced from nuclear energy. There is no need for Neo-luddites to smash power station machinery. Their point of view can be expressed by way of street protests, petitions, and publicity in all of the media, including the Internet.
Organisations such as “Greenpeace” have been established and, amongst a host of new technologies, they question the wisdom of embryonic stem cell research, cloning and genetically modified crop growing. Carbon dioxide emission is also high on their agenda, since it is causing the earth to be blanketed in noxious gases, resulting in global warming and potentially catastrophic weather changes. The Neo-luddites ignore all the traditional boundaries of religion, politics, colour and class distinction in their determination to foster the wellbeing of Gaia, once the goddess of the earth, but now transposed to be the earth itself.

In the past few years, the term “Luddite” has been used, more and more, as a derogatory expression to describe people who don’t use modern technology, even though it is available to them. Their reticence is most noticeable in the field of
communication. Home computers and mobile ‘phones have revolutionised the way in which we communicate with each other. One is more likely to be asked for one’s email address rather than for a post box. Mobile ‘phone numbers are proving to be more accessible than cable ‘phone numbers. Yet, some people continue to use outdated technology and they are dubbed as Luddites because they don’t adopt these new techniques.

Certainly, there are many who are resistant to change. It is a
common human frailty. Others regard change as a retrograde step. However, there are some who cannot change. It does requires skill to send an email. It is far easier to write a letter. Mobile ‘phones are frightening in their complexity and elderly people, in particular, jib at the learning and experience that has to be accumulated in order to operate a personal computer. To label such people, in a pejorative sense, as
Luddites, may be a harsh judgment.

Luddites, then, come in many guises; as desperate machine destroyers, as people bent on the preservation of the earth and as people who remain unresponsive to the changes around them. All of them, in their own way, confront the mighty forces of money, authority and public opinion. They are different. Whatever their motivation, long may their spirit live, because, in a bland world, they have chosen to be different, and, paradoxically, people who are different, change the world.


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