Join 3,561 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


We Pledge Allegiance to King Ludd
August 17, 2010 3:20 PM   Subscribe

Is It Okay to Be a Luddite? Thomas Pynchon wants to know. In an essay from 1984, Pynchon responds to the 25th Anniversary of C.P. Snow's "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution."

The term, "luddite," has come to be used as a term of opprobrium for anyone who opposes technology or, even more inappropriately, for people who don't understand technology. The real Luddites, however, consisted of groups of artisans out to defend their trades from machines that directly competed with them. Pynchon sets out to defend Luddism, in both its 18th century and 20th century variants:

Ned Lud's anger was not directed at the machines, not exactly. I like to think of it more as the controlled, martial-arts type anger of the dedicated Badass.
...
The knitting machines which provoked the first Luddite disturbances had been putting people out of work for well over two centuries. Everybody saw this happening -- it became part of daily life. They also saw the machines coming more and more to be the property of men who did not work, only owned and hired. It took no German philosopher, then or later, to point out what this did, had been doing, to wages and jobs. Public feeling about the machines could never have been simple unreasoning horror, but likely something more complex: the love/hate that grows up between humans and machinery -- especially when it's been around for a while -- not to mention serious resentment toward at least two multiplications of effect that were seen as unfair and threatening. One was the concentration of capital that each machine represented, and the other was the ability of each machine to put a certain number of humans out of work -- to be "worth" that many human souls. What gave King Ludd his special Bad charisma, took him from local hero to nationwide public enemy, was that he went up against these amplified, multiplied, more than human opponents and prevailed.


(It's also worth pointing to this little gem from the end of the essay:

If our world survives, the next great challenge to watch out for will come -- you heard it here first -- when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge.)
posted by outlandishmarxist (38 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Is It Okay to Be a Luddite?"

Asking this question on the internet is some kind of perverse performance art.
posted by mullingitover at 3:30 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Asking this question on the internet is some kind of perverse performance art.

Read the post.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 3:36 PM on August 17, 2010 [7 favorites]


Asking this question on the internet is some kind of perverse performance art.

I'm just online to google how to make fire.

But yeah, the dark side of automating everything has been a genre in sci-fi for a while.

Technology will march on, I guess we will have to come to terms with socialism like they did in Star Trek.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 3:42 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


What with all the technological advancement and automation that has happened since the invention of the mechanical loom and the knitting machine that so angered Ned Lud, you would think that everyone would now be out of work. But no. Technology eliminates some jobs and creates others. Will the time come when everything is automated and there is no work left for any human being to do? That is not impossible, but we are very far from that point. If we do get there and we don't totally screw things up, it will mean that everyone will effectively retire, and we will let the robots take care of us. Of course, the cynical response will be to predict that as we will be useless to the robots, the robots won't take care of us, they will just get rid of us. That is possible. But not if the robots are well programmed.
posted by grizzled at 3:43 PM on August 17, 2010


Grizzled: The classical argument, at least as I'm aware of it, is not that technology will reduce the number of jobs available, but that it will reduce the ratio of skilled jobs to unskilled jobs in the population at large.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 3:46 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, for starters there's not much in the way of proof that there ever was a living Ned Ludd, he was just a mascot for a bunch of butthurt unemployed weavers. Beyond that, getting angry at mechanization for making a skillset obsolete is about as logically sound as the broken window fallacy, no?

When all the skilled manual labor is taken over by machines we can all be artists of whatever stripe we like. I fail to see the problem with this.
posted by mullingitover at 3:49 PM on August 17, 2010


When all the skilled manual labor is taken over by machines we can all be artists of whatever stripe we like.

Ahem: When all the skilled manual labor is taken over by machines, the owners of those machines can all be artists of whatever stripe they like. The rest of us will just be poor.
posted by mittens at 3:52 PM on August 17, 2010 [6 favorites]


mittens: "Ahem: When all the skilled manual labor is taken over by machines, the owners of those machines can all be artists of whatever stripe they like. The rest of us will just be poor."

That assumes that we let them. What exactly is a tiny number of uber-wealthy elites going to do to prevent the vast numbers of unemployed from voting for steep progressive taxes?
posted by mullingitover at 4:03 PM on August 17, 2010


What exactly is a tiny number of uber-wealthy elites going to do to prevent the vast numbers of unemployed from voting for steep progressive taxes?

Sick their endless armies of cyborg security drones on 'em?
posted by AdamCSnider at 4:05 PM on August 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


Or maybe they'll just go the traditionalist route and do the same sort of things they're doing now.
posted by AdamCSnider at 4:06 PM on August 17, 2010 [6 favorites]


From the first link: Will mainframes attract the same hostile attention as knitting frames once did? I really doubt it.

I wrote this novel.
posted by localroger at 4:10 PM on August 17, 2010


I have a vague memory of an essay written by C. P. Snow that I read in high school, titled "The Virgin and the Dynamo," but my Google-fu only comes up with a chapter in "The Education of Henry Adams". I may be conflating two things here. Is anyone familiar enough with Snow's work to straighten me out?
posted by Mental Wimp at 4:10 PM on August 17, 2010


When all the skilled manual labor is taken over by machines, the owners of those machines can all be artists of whatever stripe they like. The rest of us will just be poor.

Well, that's what'll happen if we (a) don't go at least partly socialist or (b) not everybody owns a machine.

In the U.S., we probably can't count on (a), so it's some form of (b).
posted by weston at 4:11 PM on August 17, 2010


They also saw the machines coming more and more to be the property of men who did not work, only owned and hired.

If only the workers could own the means of production somehow!

It took no German philosopher, then or later, to point out what this did, had been doing, to wages and jobs.

Wages and jobs are a symptom of the problem, not an Absolute Good to be achieved. For instance, what if you owned land enough to grow all your own food AND a machine that would do that for you? How many hours a week would you need to work? What if you had a machine that could care for all your health needs? Then how many hours?

That's why I always have to shake my head when the politicians talk about creating jobs. We shouldn't be making the system eat more people. We should be reducing our reliance on jobs.
posted by DU at 4:11 PM on August 17, 2010 [10 favorites]


Interesting. I like how the essay focuses early on demystification as "the order of the day." I get the sense that Pynchon wouldn't celebrate any militantly anti-technology stance, but instead wants to wonder how we might imagine a 20th (and 21st) century that would have kept a sense of wonderment -- of enchantment -- intact. I wouldn't be surprised if he had these same ideas in mind as he was working on Against the Day. That book, in particular, reads (at times) like a sort of sci-fi that's retained its sense of the miraculous.
posted by .kobayashi. at 4:14 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]


The "Luddites" who bother me are those whose technology stopped at the telephone. I do not want to call x number of people to remind them of meeting.
posted by Cranberry at 4:14 PM on August 17, 2010


What exactly is a tiny number of uber-wealthy elites going to do to prevent the vast numbers of unemployed from voting for steep progressive taxes?

Purchase the votes of key representatives, same as in town.
posted by spacewrench at 4:15 PM on August 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


Not CP Snow, but there's an essay by that name by Lynn White:

The Dynamo and the Virgin

(I know it, and might even have read it 35 years ago, but I don't recall it.)
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 4:20 PM on August 17, 2010


> What exactly is a tiny number of uber-wealthy elites going to do to prevent the vast numbers of unemployed from voting for steep progressive taxes?

Are you serious? You live in America, right? Look around you.
posted by languagehat at 4:20 PM on August 17, 2010 [16 favorites]


lh: "Are you serious? You live in America, right? Look around you."

*looks around*

Hmm...socialized retirement, police, firefighters, military, education, and health care. We already have progressive taxation. What's your point?
posted by mullingitover at 4:44 PM on August 17, 2010


It wasn't only in England there were Luddites.
In France disgruntled weavers would screw up the machines by throwing their clogs into the works. Clogs or wooden shoes = sabots.
Hence sabotage.
posted by jan murray at 4:50 PM on August 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


If our world survives, the next great challenge to watch out for will come -- you heard it here first -- when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge.

Err, if by "heard it here first" you mean "what follows is one of the most common tropes of modern sci-fi and futuristic predictions," then yes!

The Big Plan, as far as I can tell, is we'll be rewriting our genomes. Once computers allow for intensive simulations of entire populations using real (or similar) physics, we can use the principles of natural selection to evolve towards whatever traits we want. Set the simulation to create an environment that selects for self-regeneration, theoretically unlimited lifespan, etc. All the benefits of eugenics with none of the real people dying. From there, it's transitional gene therapy every few decades on up the chain to something much more permanent (and certainly, partly digital.) If nanotech is involved, we could be our own factories. Technology not only becomes more sophisticated, it can also become more reliable and self-sustaining with time (if we develop for it.)

If all our computers shut off right now--let's say there's a total global economic collapse-- we'd be dead in the water because everything is computerized including the means of production. There'd be no support to maintain current tech levels. But 50-100 years from now? Well if solar is more efficient, and fabrication machines are smaller/more widespread, we might be able to recover pretty quickly. In fact, a global collapse might be impossible (barring strong malicious intervention a la nuclear war) because much of the system would become self-supporting, repairing, and "intelligent". And I think the same principle will apply to human beings (or whatever we grow into.)

The arc that started with the division of labor--taking the means of production away from the single person--will likely settle on the other side with ubiquitous high technology once again allowing the individual to produce.

...And yes, this is all very common sci-fi thinking with lots of names in lots of fields, I know I'm not forging any new ground here.
posted by Phyltre at 4:53 PM on August 17, 2010


Lord Byron's Song for Luddites
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:02 PM on August 17, 2010




Hmm...socialized retirement, police, firefighters, military, education, and health care. We already have progressive taxation. What's your point?

I would like to move to mullingitover's America where social security is plenty to retire on and where progressive taxation pays for my education and health care because this doesn't happen in my America.
posted by boubelium at 5:25 PM on August 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


out to defend their trades from machines

Exactly. And so, tho I've been technical all my life, I choose to be a luddite about some things because they hurt people or other living things. E.g. grocery store self-scanners (they're unnecessary, unless you've got one item and you're behind two people with full carts), or poisonous chemicals.

Knee-jerk approval of all technology without qualification is not a positive sign in any human being ... right, Ed Teller?
posted by Twang at 5:33 PM on August 17, 2010


boubelium: "I would like to move to mullingitover's America where social security is plenty to retire on and where progressive taxation pays for my education and health care because this doesn't happen in my America."

I didn't say it was a socialist worker's utopia, but it's not the dog-eat-dog capitalist nightmare it's cracked up to be. If unemployment crept up high enough while a speck of the population sat on all the wealth you can be sure that public welfare programs would be greatly expanded, if for no other reason than to avert violent revolution.
posted by mullingitover at 5:41 PM on August 17, 2010


We are all supposed to keep tranquil and allow it to go on, even though, because of the data revolution, it becomes every day less possible to fool any of the people any of the time.

Isn't it pretty to think so?

If you were throwing sabots, the advantage was that the machine was big, expensive, hard to replace. Your sabotage caused real harm--not permanent, of course, but noticed. But if the machines are small, if the machines don't even really exist as machines, but are, say, a million pieces of media diffused over hundreds of channels and URLs, then where do you throw the shoe? Because it hasn't gotten any less possible to fool anyone; if anything, the data revolution has made propaganda so easy that you don't even have to pay for it anymore; someone out there is willing to make your point for you, persuasively and repetitively, for free.

There is no counter-revolution, because there is no target that will sit still long enough to be harmed by your fit of insane rage.

To insist on the miraculous is to deny to the machine at least some of its claims on us, to assert the limited wish that living things, earthly and otherwise, may on occasion become Bad and Big enough to take part in transcendent doings.

There is something really sad here that I can't quite draw out--something that has happened to our sense of the miraculous and transcendent, something to make it more shallow, more marketable, so that every monster of the past gets its own timeslot on TV, sanitized and brought up to date. But I can't quite figure out how to say what it is.
posted by mittens at 5:50 PM on August 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


I think Battlestar Galactica covered this pretty well...
posted by OHenryPacey at 5:58 PM on August 17, 2010


What exactly is a tiny number of uber-wealthy elites going to do to prevent the vast numbers of unemployed from voting for steep progressive taxes?

Sick their endless armies of cyborg security drones on 'em?


Release ... the robotic Richard Simmons.
posted by griphus at 6:04 PM on August 17, 2010


MetaFilter: the controlled, martial-arts type anger of the dedicated Badass.
posted by jimfl at 6:59 PM on August 17, 2010


Metafilter: the robotic Richard Simmons.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 7:09 PM on August 17, 2010


I didn't say it was a socialist worker's utopia, but it's not the dog-eat-dog capitalist nightmare it's cracked up to be.

No, it sucks. We're just used to it sucking. In time, various interests will convince us that it's just fine for it to be even worse.
posted by mobunited at 9:38 PM on August 17, 2010 [3 favorites]


If unemployment crept up high enough while a speck of the population sat on all the wealth you can be sure that public welfare programs would be greatly expanded, if for no other reason than to avert violent revolution.

I did notice rather large sums of money directed to the automobile industry and some financial institutions. Is that the public welfare program to which you're referring?
posted by sneebler at 9:43 PM on August 17, 2010


We already live in a system so complex and variegated that no one individual or even group/cabal has much control on how things come out; and this system will only increase in complexity as technology continues to develop until we, as a species, become part of the efficient causation chain, a chain whose final ends we know little of today and nothing of tomorrow.

Heidegger writes about this in the question concerning technology.

But, as usual, it is best not to worry -- things will most likely work themselves out or they won't.
posted by Shit Parade at 10:28 PM on August 17, 2010


Heidegger writes about this in the question concerning technology

Okay, it's not okay to be that much of a Luddite.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 7:30 AM on August 18, 2010


If unemployment crept up high enough while a speck of the population sat on all the wealth you can be sure that public welfare programs would be greatly expanded, if for no other reason than to avert violent revolution.

I hope this is true, and I think you're right that some (probably inadequate) action would be taken in the US to prevent a sharp expansion of the underclass, but it's also possible that the elites would choose to let the underclass grow, and, instead of expanding social programs will instead erect and extend barriers that wall off the elite from the poor.
posted by Philemon at 8:49 AM on August 18, 2010


Soylent Green is people! PEOPLE!!!!!!!!!!!!
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:13 AM on August 18, 2010


> by throwing their clogs into the works

Lousy font made it look like there was animal cruelty going on there (clogs == dogs)

~Matt
posted by mdoar at 5:59 PM on August 19, 2010


« Older "This is the best day of my life. I want a cold be...  |  The Twinkie is made up of 37 o... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments