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.
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.