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« knowledge access as a public good | Main | "The internet's output is data, but its product is freedom" »

July 9, 2007

Andrew Keen: Rescuing 'Luddite' from the Luddites

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Posted by Clay Shirky

Last week, while in a conversation with Andrew Keen on the radio show To The Point, he suggested that he was not opposed to the technology of the internet, but rather to how it was being used.

This reminded me of Michael Gorman’s insistence that digital tools are fine, so long as they are shaped to replicate the social (and particularly academic) institutions that have grown up around paper.

There is a similar strand in these two arguments, namely that technology is one thing, but the way it is used is another, and that the two can and should be separated. I think this view is in the main wrong, even Luddite, but to make such an accusation requires a definition of Luddite considerably more grounded than ‘anti-technology’ (a vacuous notion — no one who wears shoes can reasonably be called ‘anti-technology.’) Both Keen and Gorman have said they are not opposed to digital technology. I believe them when they say this, but I still think their views are Luddite, by historical analogy with the real Luddite movement of the early 1800s.

What follows is a long detour into the Luddite rebellion, followed by a reply to Keen about the inseparability of the internet from its basic effects.

Infernal Machines

The historical record is relatively clear. In March of 1811, a group of weavers in Nottinghamshire began destroying mechanical looms. This was not the first such riot — in the late 1700s, when Parliament refused to guarantee the weaver’s control of supply of woven goods, workers in Nottingham destroyed looms as well. The Luddite rebellion, though, was unusual for several reasons: its breadth and sustained character, taking place in many industrializing towns at once; its having a nominal leader, going by the name Ned Ludd, General Ludd, or King Ludd (the pseudonym itself a reference to an apocryphal figure from an earlier loom-breaking riot in the late 1700s); and its written documentation of grievances and rationale. The rebellion, which lasted two years, was ultimately put down by force, and was over in 1813.

Over the last two decades, several historians have re-examined the record of the Luddite movement, and have attempted to replace the simplistic view of Luddites as being opposed to technological change with a more nuanced accounting of their motivations and actions. The common thread of the analysis is that the Luddites didn’t object to mechanized wide-frame looms per se, they objected to the price collapse of woven goods caused by the way industrialists were using the looms. Though the target of the Luddite attacks were the looms themselves, their concerns and goals were not about technology but about economics.

I believe that the nuanced view is wrong, and that the simpler view of Luddites as counter-revolutionaries is in fact the correct one. The romantic view of Luddites as industrial-age Robin Hoods, concerned not to halt progress but to embrace justice, runs aground on both the written record, in which the Luddites outline a program that is against any technology that increases productivity, and on their actions, which were not anti-capitalist but anti-consumer. It also assumes that there was some coherent distinction between technological and economic effects of the looms; there was none.

A Technology is For Whatever Happens When You Use It

The idea that the Luddites were targeting economic rather than technological change is a category fallacy, where the use of two discrete labels (technology and economics, in this case) are wrongly thought to demonstrate two discrete aspects of the thing labeled (here wide-frame looms.) This separation does not exist in this case; the technological effects of the looms were economic. This is because, at the moment of its arrival, what a technology does and what it is for are different.

What any given technology does is fairly obvious: rifles fire bullets, pencils make marks, looms weave cloth, and so on. What a technology is for, on the other hand, what leads people to adopt it, is whatever new thing becomes possible on the day of its arrival. The Winchester repeating rifle was not for firing bullets — that capability already existed. It was for decreasing the wait between bullets. Similarly, pencils were not for writing but for portability, and so on.

And the wide-frame looms, target of the Luddite’s destructive forays? What were they for? They weren’t for making cloth — humankind was making cloth long before looms arrived. They weren’t for making better cloth — in 1811, industrial cloth was inferior to cloth spun by the weavers. Mechanical looms were for making cheap cloth, lots and lots of cheap cloth. The output of a mechanical loom was cloth, but the product of such a loom was savings.

The wide-frame loom was a cost-lowering machine, and as such, it threatened the old inefficiencies on which the Luddite’s revenues depended. Their revolt had the goal of preventing those savings from being passed along to the customer. One of their demands was that Parliament outlaw “all Machinery hurtful to Commonality” — all machines that worked efficiently enough to lower prices.

Perhaps more tellingly, and against recent fables of Luddism as a principled anti-capitalist movement, they refrained from breaking the looms of industrial weavers who didn’t lower their prices. What the Luddites were rioting in favor of was price gouging; they didn’t care how much a wide-frame loom might save in production costs, so long as none of those savings were passed on to their fellow citizens.

Their common cause was not with citizens and against industrialists, it was against citizens and with those industrialists who joined them in a cartel. The effect of their campaign, had it succeeded, would been to have raise, rather than lower, the profits of the wide-frame operators, while producing no benefit for those consumers who used cloth in their daily lives, which is to say the entire population of England. (Tellingly, none of the “Robin Hood” versions of Luddite history make any mention of the effect of high prices on the buyers of cloth, just on the sellers.)

Back to Keen

A Luddite argument is one in which some broadly useful technology is opposed on the grounds that it will discomfit the people who benefit from the inefficiency the technology destroys. An argument is especially Luddite if the discomfort of the newly challenged professionals is presented as a general social crisis, rather than as trouble for a special interest. (“How will we know what to listen to without record store clerks!”) When the music industry suggests that the prices of music should continue to be inflated, to preserve the industry as we have known it, that is a Luddite argument, as is the suggestion that Google pay reparations to newspapers or the phone company’s opposition to VoIP undermining their ability to profit from older ways of making phone calls.

This is what makes Keen’s argument a Luddite one — he doesn’t oppose all uses of technology, just ones that destroy older ways of doing things. In his view, the internet does not need to undermine the primacy of the copy as the anchor for both filtering and profitability.

But Keen is wrong. What the internet does is move data from point A to B, but what it is for is empowerment. Using the internet without putting new capabilities into the hands of its users (who are, by definition, amateurs in most things they can now do) would be like using a mechanical loom and not lowering the cost of buying a coat — possible, but utterly beside the point.

The internet’s output is data, but its product is freedom, lots and lots of freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association, the freedom of an unprecedented number of people to say absolutely anything they like at any time, with the reasonable expectation that those utterances will be globally available, broadly discoverable at no cost, and preserved for far longer than most utterances are, and possibly forever.

Keen is right in understanding that this massive supply-side shock to freedom will destabilize and in some cases destroy a number of older social institutions. He is wrong in believing that there is some third way — lets deploy the internet, but not use it to increase the freedom of amateurs to do as they like.

It is possible to want a society in which new technology doesn’t demolish traditional ways of doing things. It is not possible to hold this view without being a Luddite, however. That view — incumbents should wield veto-power over adoption of tools they dislike, no matter the positive effects for the citizenry — is the core of Luddism, then and now.

Comments (26) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: social software


COMMENTS

1. j-lon on July 9, 2007 2:58 PM writes...

What the Luddites were was pro-worker's control. While they may not have been anti-capitalist in the way you are framing it, they did object to a certain evolution of capitalism and the effect it would have on them both experientially and financially. At every juncture, there are winners and losers. And this is always going to be contested terrain, filled with moral ambiguity.

Technology has certainly delivered on many of it's Utopian ideals. But it has not been a frictionless process.

Permalink to Comment

2. tom s. on July 9, 2007 10:42 PM writes...

j-lon is too kind. I'm sorry, but I believe your view of Luddism is way off track.

The main impetus for Luddism was surely that a class of people had their livelihood destroyed. In the face of poor laws, they had little to fall back on save the poor house. What, exactly, would anyone expect them to do? Accept their role as scapegoats for the greater good of the population of future decades?

Second, the idea that there are two variables at play - weaver wages and cotton prices - and two groups of people involved - weavers and "consumers" - is a caricature of a cartoon of a sketch of the turmoil of the time. Much of the cotton was for export (including to India, which had been an exporter until the British parliament put a stop to that at the behest of the fledgling British textile industry), not for "their fellow citizens". To argue that their cause was "against citizens and with those industrialists who joined them in a cartel" is an assertion that would need facts to back it up. I suspect you have little - what I have seen suggests a large degree of support for the Luddites from the surrounding populace. And to suggest that they were engaged in "price gouging" suggests they had serious control over prices, which they did not.

The case you make is both economically simplistic and, from a humanitarian view, condescending and callous.

Permalink to Comment

3. DanB on July 10, 2007 12:22 AM writes...

If your job can be "better" done by a machine, it should be.

The Luddites don't have a defensible position here. The "support" they may or may not have had was based entirely on poor information and a poor understanding of technology (which was to be expected at the time). Given that the textiles produced by the machinery at the time were of an inferior quality, there would still be demand for the work these people already knew how to perform. The fact that they were unable to see this opportunity simply speaks to their need for replacement. Society evolved and left these people behind, it's a tragic story that does not excuse their behavior. If displaced Ford employees destroyed a newly mechanized auto plant today, I would hope you wouldn't have this same sort of empathy, Tom.

Permalink to Comment

4. cdog on July 10, 2007 12:22 AM writes...

In light of this article, I find striking similarities between Luddites destroying looms and the self-serving DRM perpetrated by large media companies.

Permalink to Comment

5. anonymous on July 10, 2007 12:41 AM writes...

After reading the initially interesting essay which began this thread, I found the last comment to sum up what, if simplified, is the zeitgeist of the original writer's view; "If your job can be "better" done by a machine, it should be."

This taken to it's logical extreme leaves one with the impression that one day surgeons, supreme court justices, decision-makers, management personnel, artists and computer programmers would be unnecessary, if only the heavy investment was made to create the robots, software, research, etc which is required to replicate and refine their work.

Ergo, no one is necessary.

I believe without knowing it the Luddites, to one degree or another intuitively sensed a facet of this, in the same way which rank-and-file labor movements across the globe and time sensed the peril of the dehumanization of work.

This is only one facet of the larger question asked but seems a good start.

Permalink to Comment

6. Anonymous on July 10, 2007 12:56 AM writes...

If "surgeons, supreme court justices, decision-makers, management personnel, artists and computer programmers" are ever made "unnecessary" by machinery... then I think we may need to re-evaluate our definition of humanity and machinery. Even if you're going by Ray Kurzweil exponential graphs of technological evolution, those days are still a generation or two away.

But you're right, anonymous, no one and nothing is "necessary" depending on your perspective... and you could take that view right now, with no further (or previous) advancement of any kind.

Q: "What is the meaning of it all?"
A: "nothing, without my job doing menial labor, surgery or management, as the case may be."

Permalink to Comment

7. DanB on July 10, 2007 1:08 AM writes...

I think the evolutionary direction of Man is to care (on the whole) less and less about the minor things in life.. such as finding food, water, shelter, clothing and transportation and caring more about the greater things in life... such as entertainment, learning, expressing, loving and enjoying... isn't the ultimate direction of humanity to eliminate the tasks that someone "needs" to do until all that is left are the things people want to do?

I wrote the Anonymous comment from 12:56 as well.

Permalink to Comment

8. fouro on July 10, 2007 1:20 AM writes...

Safety doesn't sell was Lee Iacocca's aphorism. He was right and wrong. Safety doesn't sell when you're not selling safety. Exploration or real freedom doesn't sell when you're selling guided tours or incrementalism vetted by committee and CFO. Simple, but opaque.

There's seemingly nothing here in what Clay or j-lon or tom s says that finds disagreement except in a fundamental derived of the old Jesus/Moses one-up joke: We gonna play golf or are you gonna fuck around?

If you're a true capitalist, you have to believe that the execution of your basic idea is worthy enough to stand on its own and up to the winds of the market, as Clay says. So maybe the history is useful but almost besisde the point. If you insist on playing where no unexpected gust can enhance or detract from your "beautiful stroke" then you are merely a coward pretending skill at a game that requires courage, resilience and resourcefulness. If you can't deal with what the market says about your pains-taking projections, you're probably a finance company that occasionally turns its mind to making automobiles, like, for instance, those in Detroit.

A teacher once said it's too bad that so many mis-read Wealth of Nations and never read Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments. The idea is that much of what we think we know about commerce and trade and it's usefulness relative to our own advancement is lost between the two and we end up arguing angels on pins or weighted accumulated cost of capital, while the wise park their heads in the future to connect the present-bound to it and to their ambition with product and tools to get there with all our courage and dignity and hope still intact.

Maybe next year we can write books about the evils of Babbage or Hollerith while another realist eats our lunch because she gets how powerful the explorer and creator are within everyday folk who are denied the chance by "caring Professionals"?

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9. Phil on July 10, 2007 4:13 AM writes...

in 1811, industrial cloth was inferior to cloth spun by the weavers. Mechanical looms were for making cheap cloth, lots and lots of cheap cloth. The output of a mechanical loom was cloth, but the product of such a loom was savings.

This is extraordinarily wrongheaded. By your own account - even before taking account of Tom's corrections - the product of the mechanical loom was a loss of quality in the goods produced, accompanied by a devaluation of the skills of the makers and a redistribution of wealth from the makers to the owners of capital. What's not to like?

The internet’s output is data, but its product is freedom, lots and lots of freedom.

There are assertions of verifiable fact and then there are invocations of shared values. Don't mix them up.

Permalink to Comment

10. Vincent van Wylick on July 10, 2007 6:02 AM writes...

You seem to have a very optimistic view of technology, and I can definitely see some negatives to it. For one, we are human and our brain has been fairly unchanged in the last few millennia. But we are forced to deal with a drastic increase in information, and technology seems to grow more in enabling the creation of information than the management of it.

If we see our brain as layers of bandwidth, reserved for specific macro-topics, like family and friends, your job, and health, and a number of micro-topics, like hobbies, blogs, and other information from the media. Technology seems to have enabled media to explode, while our regular lives are fairly unchanged. We still have the same amount of bandwidth left for data. So technology, as it is, is not the perfect answer to that problem. A great example is rss, which your site also seems to employ. It is a push-mechanism, completely uncaring if your readers actually have time to digest the information.

In the "real" world, there is a certain balance to things. When we don't want to speak to people we close the door, when we want to stop eating, we throw away our food or our body tells us to throw it up. There are certain, more or less, natural gatekeepers in place that facilitate the management of the ins and outs of life. These, by and large, do not exist in our digital double-lives.

Thus it is no surprise that depression and stress is growing, that obesity is growing as people are overwhelmed with other things, instead of devoting their bandwidth to their health and well-being. Some crazy technologists seem to have given people the idea that just because computers grow exponentially in performance, humans will too.

Don't get me wrong, I love technology and what it has achieved. But I would never put it on the same scale as real life.

Permalink to Comment

11. toms. on July 10, 2007 6:45 AM writes...

"The fact that they were unable to see this opportunity simply speaks to their need for replacement."

- What do you mean by 'replacement'? And how do you 'leave people behind'; where do they go?

Technology changes what skills are needed, sure. But what does society do with those whose skills are no longer so valuable? If modern society treated "displaced Ford employees" the way early 19th weavers were treated then I would absolutely have empathy with factory destruction.

To assert that the weavers of the time deserved their lot because they were unable to see the opportunities is hugely presumptuous of you. Are you really sure they were so short sighted? On what basis do you assert that you have better insight into their possibilities than they did?

The web 2.0 faith in the amateur and in the expertise of "everyday folk" seems to vanish when applied to real people of the 19th century.

Permalink to Comment

12. Nick Carr on July 10, 2007 7:13 AM writes...

"What the internet does is move data from point A to B, but what it is for is empowerment."

Yes, but what the internet is also for is control. We're still a long way from knowing how the tension between those conflicting uses will play out.

Permalink to Comment

13. Brask Mumei on July 10, 2007 8:42 AM writes...

When we don't want to speak to people we close the door

Not many doors in the wild, now, are there? Doors aren't "real" things. They are technological artifacts to help us deal with the very non-"real" situation of living in densely populated cities.

Your argument is both correct and incorrect. Correct that a lot of people will flounder with our nascent tools and have issues balancing the new types of information flow. Incorrect in presuming this is permanent state of affairs. I have faith that the young generation has already figured out how to manage their Do Not Disturb settings on their IM clients and how to stop reading their email.

Permalink to Comment

14. Clay Shirky on July 10, 2007 10:04 AM writes...

So many comments in overnight, so I'm going to concatenate some of my answers here, as a kind of Q&A:

Comment from j-lon on July 9, 2007 2:58 PM

What the Luddites were was pro-worker's control.

Yes, of course. But what did they want control of?

They wanted control of two things: they wanted the right to keep prices artificially high, and they wanted to control who was allowed to make cloth. To make this sound like some relatively simple and cost-free benefit ignores the fact that they were rioting to control both price and employment in ways that passed a tax on the entire population of England.

More from j-lon: While they may not have been anti-capitalist in the way you are framing it, they did object to a certain evolution of capitalism and the effect it would have on them both experientially and financially. At every juncture, there are winners and losers. And this is always going to be contested terrain, filled with moral ambiguity.

It's filled with moral ambiguity, to be sure; part of my writing this post is to set out my position. There will always be winners and losers; in general, it would be good if the winners were society as a whole, and the losers were special interests trying to hijack the process.

(It will not surprise you that I am against DRM and pro-VoIP, for the same reasons...)

Comment from tom s. on July 9, 2007 10:42 PM

The main impetus for Luddism was surely that a class of people had their livelihood destroyed. In the face of poor laws, they had little to fall back on save the poor house. What, exactly, would anyone expect them to do? Accept their role as scapegoats for the greater good of the population of future decades?

Yes, except it wasn't future generations they were proposing to harm, it was the entire population of England at the time of the riots. The Luddites were a special interest -- we shouldn't be surprised when special interests try to re-work the world to their liking, but we can certainly be relieved when they fail.

Let's take the counter-argument -- people who are seeing their livelihood destroyed should reasonably expect to be able to destroy threatening technologies. Why should the phone companies not launch DoS attacks against Skype? Why should record store clerks not set fire to the iTunes data center? Why should Microsoft, in fact, not attack Google? By your rationale, any group that decides its interests are being harmed by progress should be allowed to act illegally and unilaterally in order to create or preserve a monopoly.

More from Tom:: To argue that their cause was "against citizens and with those industrialists who joined them in a cartel" is an assertion that would need facts to back it up. I suspect you have little - what I have seen suggests a large degree of support for the Luddites from the surrounding populace. And to suggest that they were engaged in "price gouging" suggests they had serious control over prices, which they did not.

They _were_ engaged in price gouging -- you are simply letting them off the hook because they failed. The entire point of the Luddite rebellion was to preserve what had previously been a by-product of the system -- cloth was expensive because it took a lot of inefficient work to produce. When that stopped being true, they tried to force customers to continue paying high prices anyway.

The person to read on this is Kevin Binfield. He is in the "Robin Hood" camp, so I disagree with his interpretations, but has done the best job of marshaling the historical documents in Writings of the Luddites. For a web reference, you might look at The Machine Breakers and the Industrial Revolution (Alessandro Nuvolari) : '[The Luddites] were accustomed at capitalist labour relationships and they did not oppose the market as a system of organizing production. They affirmed that the markets should operate within the stable set of limits established by custom. Hence, the continuous reference to "fair" or "unfair"prices.'

Needless to say, the "fair" price was the high one and the "unfair" price was the low one; they were agitating to keep prices high even when the cost of production fell (which is my definition of price gouging.)

If the Luddites said "Everyone in Nottingham should pay inflated prices for cloth" and the residents of Nottingham agreed, that would be a local matter of taxation through other means, like Vermont disallowing Wal-Marts. But that wasn't the case; even assuming that the surrounding populace supported the Luddites (can we trade cites? I'd like to find additional sources), the people they were trying to gouge were all over Britain.

Comment from anonymous, on July 10, 2007 12:41 AM

This taken to it's logical extreme leaves one with the impression that one day surgeons, supreme court justices, decision-makers, management personnel, artists and computer programmers would be unnecessary, if only the heavy investment was made to create the robots, software, research, etc which is required to replicate and refine their work.

Ergo, no one is necessary.

Every generation that has face labor-saving machinery has had this thought, making it something like 500 years old (prior to that, we know less, because there was little recorded history) but its worth noting that its never happened. Every age in the last 500 years has had more people than the last, yet every measure of human achievement, from lifespan to literacy, has risen rather than fallen.

Comment from Phil on July 10, 2007 4:13 AM

[Quoting me:] in 1811, industrial cloth was inferior to cloth spun by the weavers. Mechanical looms were for making cheap cloth, lots and lots of cheap cloth. The output of a mechanical loom was cloth, but the product of such a loom was savings.[/quote]

This is extraordinarily wrongheaded. By your own account - even before taking account of Tom's corrections - the product of the mechanical loom was a loss of quality in the goods produced, accompanied by a devaluation of the skills of the makers and a redistribution of wealth from the makers to the owners of capital. What's not to like?

But you are recapitulating the "Robin Hood" argument -- you nowhere account for the redistribution of wealth to the buyers of cloth. When something becomes cheaper, the public can use the money for other things, and any accounting for the redistribution of wealth has to include the savings for the citizens.

I know it seems confusing, but this pattern is common in the history of technology; Clay Christensen called it the Innovator's Dilemma. If you ask "Does the public want inferior cloth?", the industrial revolution makes no sense. If you ask "Does the public want to save money on cloth, and are they willing to trade quality for savings?" suddenly the whole thing makes sense.

More fromPhil [Quoting me:]The internet's output is data, but its product is freedom, lots and lots of freedom.[/quote]

There are assertions of verifiable fact and then there are invocations of shared values. Don't mix them up.

I didn't mean to -- I meant that as an assertion about the technology, not about shared values. This is important enough that I'm going to answer in a separate post.

Permalink to Comment

15. DanB on July 10, 2007 10:25 AM writes...

"What do you mean by 'replacement'? And how do you 'leave people behind'; where do they go?"

The were replaced by machines... I believe this was the Right outcome. Where do the go? The get a different job... learn a new skill, start a new business... they move on in some way... this is progress... it's not always easy, but their loss is societies gain... billions ultimately benefited from the restructuring of the weaving industry. Should we _still_ be weaving by hand so those people and their descendants never had to adapt or change? Should we have ignored the printing press as not to ut all those poor scribes out of work?

"On what basis do you assert that you have better insight into their possibilities than they did?"

hindsight.

Permalink to Comment

16. Seth Finkelstein on July 10, 2007 2:09 PM writes...

"broadly discoverable at no cost"

Sorry, this is complete and utter nonsense, and the counter-example is Google (note ad-supported != "no cost")

I agree, this is all merely flag-waving. It was wrong in the 90's, when strong crypto was supposedly going to bring down governments, and it's wrong now, when data-mining and digital sharecropping is called "freedom".

Permalink to Comment

17. JohnO on July 10, 2007 2:41 PM writes...

To Tom's post, to make the case that they are therefore being replaced, will be unable to feed their families and keep their houses - that is one argument to make. You might get some sympathy, however, that is not the case that Luddites today make. They assume they deserve their control, positions and possessions.

Permalink to Comment

18. Clay Shirky on July 10, 2007 3:01 PM writes...

@Seth, I think the _example_ is Google -- the ability for people to find expressive content has improved by orders of magnitude in less than a generation. Let me instead say "broadly discoverable at a cost so low it has changed the world."

And you are now arguing with someone other than me -- I argued *against* the strong crypto nonsense in the 90s, because it didn't make any sense, and I'm not introducing data mining, pro or con into these arguments.

As for digital sharecropping, if you mean the ability of amateurs to create and distribute their work, I'd certainly call that freedom. Its a new, positive capability that people enter into of their own volition, and, as with us paying the postal service to carry our writings, without us extracting payment from the recipient, I don't think that the revenues of the service providers invalidate that freedom.

Permalink to Comment

19. Seth Finkelstein on July 10, 2007 5:33 PM writes...

Clay, for this discussion, for this context, I think it's far more relevant to say a new middleman, a new intermediary, has been created to find information - the world has certainly changed, but that change has created new gatekeepers and new choke-points of control.

And, sorry, no, I am arguing with you - I am saying your rhetoric here is akin to the cypherpunk rhetoric back then, not that you rode that hobbyhorse then. It's the same error - the ability to move money around very cheaply has affected the world - but not for cryptoanarchy, but much more towards favoring multinational corporations.

Sharecropping is not a new positive phenomena, though making it cheaper certainly is a new twist. And I think you're whitewashing vanity press style hucksters. Just because Andrew Keen makes old-fogey type arguments doesn't mean the other side is automatically good.

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20. Jed Harris on July 10, 2007 10:29 PM writes...

The usual economic "solution" to the dilemma of the weavers losing their livelihood (which in that era with no safety net was a very serious issue) is that the "losers" should be compensated by giving them some of the "winner's" benefits. In this example, mechanically produced cloth could have been taxed to pay for a safety net for out of work weavers. Of course there are all kinds of problems making this work, but such a solution avoids destroying people's lives, and still permits "efficient" social changes.

I do think this handles most of the objections to in the comments so far, and I hope would also be acceptable (in principle) to Clay. Even "handwork is ennobling" objections are dealt with, because the out of work weavers can become ennobled fiber artists living off the fabric tax.

Of course we are in the realm of pure fantasy. However, as long as we're here, let's play out the string. Pure income transfer still has major social downsides, tying the "losers" to potentially degrading "welfare" and likely causing resentment in others. Also, in the limit we still have problems -- when robot technology gets good enough, there's no place to go for gainful employment, and no income for consumers to spend.

So my suggestion would be to give the out of work weavers (or whatever the current class of losers is) equity in the "new thing". In effect, we buy off social opposition. Then, in the limit, nobody's working but we all own the means of production, so there's no problem.

I did say it was fantasy, didn't I?

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21. Simon on July 11, 2007 3:30 PM writes...

Clay Shirky wrote:

I think the _example_ is Google -- the ability for people to find expressive content has improved by orders of magnitude in less than a generation. Let me instead say "broadly discoverable at a cost so low it has changed the world."

I can find "expressive content" for the cost of a bus fare to skid row, and an hour of standing on the street listening to the drunk and crazy.

But isn't that Keen's point?

Permalink to Comment

22. Phil on July 12, 2007 8:27 AM writes...

"you nowhere account for the redistribution of wealth to the buyers of cloth"

Because we don't know (from what you've written here) that there was any such redistribution. You haven't shown that the machine-woven cloth was sold to the same people who bought the hand-weavers' product; or that the factory owners passed on some of their own savings in reduced prices; or that any saving in purchase price wasn't outweighed by the loss of quality (a saving of 25% on a product that wears out in half the time is no saving at all). You've also hand-waved away any broader disbenefits from concentration of production (e.g. loss of choice). In short, you've taken it as read that this entire process was benign.

Let's take the counter-argument -- people who are seeing their livelihood destroyed should reasonably expect to be able to destroy threatening technologies

No, that's not the counter-argument. (Even the Luddites weren't all about the destruction.) Jed is closer:

my suggestion would be to give the out of work weavers (or whatever the current class of losers is) equity in the "new thing"

I strongly suspect the weavers would have settled for that. Of course, it wasn't on offer.

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23. Clay Shirky on July 12, 2007 6:10 PM writes...

@Phil:

It never occurred to me that I needed to back up the idea of lowered prices for the consumer -- that was what made the Industrial Revolution revolutionary. Mechanization and inanimate power caused productivity to rise and prices to fall in every sector they were introduced to -- transportation, mining, threshing, weaving, and more.

To take one quote from the literature, more or less at random:

"The improved technology [in textile production] no longer created a surplus that accrued as profits to firms in the industry, but rather provided consumers with textiles at lower prices. Thereafter the industry grew as a result of continued technological progress and demand expansion."

[Cotton Textiles and the Industrial Revolution - C. Knick Harley]

Note, btw, the reference to the expansion of demand -- the citizens' desire for cloth had been deflected by the previously high prices. As those prices fell, that demand could finally be expressed (aided, of course, by the rising GDP per capita driven by industrialization.)

But you don't have to take my word for it -- a search on "Industrial Revolution"+textile and either "price" or "cost" will yield a trove of economic history. (The big debate among economic historians is how fast prices fell and productivity rose; no one is debating whether either thing happened.)

And, concerning Luddite history, you say Even the Luddites weren't all about the destruction.

They weren't? That's news to me. They gussied up their efforts in Robin Hood terms, but they were in favor of stealing from the populace and redistributing to themselves. They destroyed property and killed people in order to defend price gouging -- what part of that program _wasn't_ about destruction?

And, quoting Jed: give the out of work weavers (or whatever the current class of losers is) equity in the "new thing"

Oooooh, an innovation tax! Now _there's_ a great way to lift society out of a productivity trap.

That makes no sense, both on Little Red Hen logic (the weavers did nothing to produce the novel social value in the first place) and on basic human nature (imagine that newspapers were allowed to set an innovation tax on the web, or the phone companies on VoIP -- how high do you think those taxes would be? See internet radio v. the RIAA for a more realized example.)

The obvious solution is to set up a safety net for everyone equally, as a cushion for living in an innovation-friendly world. The current British model is close, as is the Poland's -- a fairer distribution of state support than in the US, but more innovation-friendly than northern Europe.

In my view, the best (which is to say least distorting) model would be a basic income, which is sort of like an Earned Income Tax Credit tied to citizenship rather than work.

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24. Michael Becker on July 12, 2007 6:33 PM writes...

The major issue here is not the Luddite analogy--frankly, gauging the historical accuracy of an analogy will only lead to madness, since there is no one-to-one fit between examples of history and present-day situations.

However, your response to Keen (and, through him, the other anti-amateurs like Michael Gorman at the Britannica blog) got me thinking about how traditionalist their ideas are.

You write:

Keen is right in understanding that this massive supply-side shock to freedom will destabilize and in some cases destroy a number of older social institutions. He is wrong in believing that there is some third way � lets deploy the internet, but not use it to increase the freedom of amateurs to do as they like.
Is the Internet a perfect system? No. Will false information and outlandish claims put forth by amateurs make it live? Yes, of course. Being buried under the rabble of millions is still better than being misled by the ranting of a few.

Luddites aside, authors like Keen want us to remember our roots and to preserve them. By "preserve," they seem to mean "use without interruption, forgetting that situations and circumstances change." Few of their arguments against collaborative technologies and amateur contributions allow that perhaps this new trend is not producing a worse future, but simply a different one.

They cannot let go of the idealized past to make way for something new. Keen and others like him are holdouts refusing to acknowledge that their privileged means of communicating and authoring are not the arbitrary best of all possibilities, refusing to realize that the human brain will not turn to jelly because of collaborative online efforts.

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25. Michael Chui on July 13, 2007 2:44 AM writes...

For me, the poignant moment in the larger context of this debate was listening to an interview of Michael Gorman. Gorman was asked how he saw the library in 20 years. His response, and I am not taking it out of context (though I paraphrase from memory), was "As they were 50 years ago." He then went on to explain, but I heard nothing that detracted from this central point.

However, I like Ben Casnocha's concept of the entrepreneur, not as an economic agent, but as a philosopher. The entrepreneur as someone who takes control of his own life. This, to me, is precisely what people who are displaced by innovation often fail to do.

When displaced, you should build, rather than try to tear down. Especially if you were replaced by something honestly better, it is heartless and wrong to selfishly impede progress merely because you yourself have been hurt. If your spouse divorces you, your response should not be to try to kill them or manuever them into remarrying, but to try to reconstruct your life and become a better person despite the pain. If you're lucky (or unlucky) you might end up with that same spouse again; or you'll find someone better who you never would have given a second glance if not for that previous pain.

Novelty is opportunity, not threat.

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26. Jed Harris on July 13, 2007 5:22 AM writes...

Clay says: "Oooooh, an innovation tax!"

Eeek taxes! Run away!

But actually I'm not talking about a tax, any more than it is a tax if a mining company has to pay to prevent or clean up the poisoning of a lake.

Innovation is only socially beneficial if its net impact is positive. If the innovator can reap the benefits and let others pay the costs, innovations with net negative social impact can be very profitable. Then we impose regulations to prevent bad things from "happening". And so it goes.

I'm in favor of safety nets for (I think) the same reason Clay is -- they help social fluidity generally, reduce perceived risk, aid experiments, etc.

But safety nets don't give innovators incentives to create net improvement rather than just reallocation in their favor.

Little Red Hen logic doesn't help here either (however emotionally compelling). A village on the poisoned lake didn't contribute to the innovation in mining techniques -- why should any of the resulting cash flow benefit them? I've worked with real estate developers who reason exactly like this.

Then Clay reverts to "tax talk". But we're talking about equity, not killer taxes. Potential blockers don't get to extract anything up front. They benefit only only by gaining a stake in the new.

I agree with Michael Chui: "When displaced, you should build, rather than try to tear down." Holding onto resentment is very debilitating.

The trick is to structure events so people can let go of the old and transition to building something new -- psychologically, financially, socially, etc. It's harder to build when you're in the gutter or on the dole.

Again, a safety net helps. But for residents of villages on the poisoned lake, it isn't enough to know you can leave, and get basic rent and living expenses elsewhere. Your children and possibly even their children inherit bitterness.

So in cases like this we typically offer compensation, to acknowledge the value that has been transferred or destroyed. And I think in many cases such an offer does ease the transition to building the new.

Again equity in the new (literal or metaphorical) is a much healthier support for this transition than some kind of income stream. Equity tends to empower; income streams tend to tether, and generate resentment on both ends of the tether.

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