History and Appliances: The Case for Luddism

Tags: Why I hate our freedoms, built environmentalism, hail King Ludd.

So. What was the point of the dystopic little reverie in my last post? Do I hate the idea of history appliances? Do I hate technology? Am I a Luddite?

Answers: No. No. No. And/or yes. I certainly don’t hate technology, and I actually love the idea of history appliances: of smart objects that know their own history, of historians thinking beyond the production of texts and into the physical realm, of media devices that allow ordinary people access to the riches of the past, from the Bayeux Tapestry to “Cowboy George.”

The question of Luddism is a little more complicated. The “self-proclaimed Luddites” Bill describes annoy me too. It’s a self-deprecating label that really isn’t; it reminds me of people who are too pleased to tell you they don’t own a TV. But the original Luddites weren’t people who don’t like Blackberrys or only watch Nova at a friend’s house. They were artisans and laborers threatened with extinction by the automation of the British textile industry. In Making of the English Working Class, E.P. Thompson shows how 19th-century Luddites smashed the knitting frames and steam-powered looms of factory owners and cloth merchants who were using automation to slash wages but spared those owners who observed more traditional customs and practices in setting rates. Real Luddism was never a fight against technology per se. It was a fight against the shift in power caused by a specific implementation of a specific technique. The Luddites’ targets were human choices, not machines.

If the word Luddism has come to represent a free-floating hostility to “technology in general” (a perverse and probably meaningless stance for a member of species homo sapiens), that’s symptomatic of a larger amnesia afflicting our society. We seem determined not to remember that all technology is political and politically constructed. We pontificate about the “natural” progression of technology, ponder the “inevitable” impacts of technological change, wonder if information “wants” to be free. We persist in forgetting what the original Luddites knew in their bones: technology is the sum product of human choice.

We could use more of that kind of Luddism today. Technological change demands our attention and our input. We have to have conversations and make real decisions about the kind of technological environment we want to live in and bequeath to our children, or those decisions will be made for us. And the people most eager to make those decisions do not have our best interests at heart.

When I say we need more Luddism, I don’t mean simply grousing about gadgetry. The pessimistic expectation that new technologies are inevitably going to be pointless, annoying, and overpriced is no more helpful than the uncritical embrace of every shiny new gizmo the megacorps roll out for us. And if my rant the other day came across as a peevish complaint about the number of remote controls on my couch, I didn’t do it right. I tried to seed that post with reminders that design choices are indeed choices, and that ordinary people are not being consulted on the ways these choices affect all of our lives. The inconveniences of inconsiderate design–proliferating gadgetry, feature creep, overzealous DRM–do not seem as serious as the oppression of the British working class in the industrial revolution. But they add up. And the more ubiquitous gadgetry gets, the more imperative humane design becomes.

Bill’s post touches on Heidegger’s categories of present-at-hand and ready-to-hand. Grumpy neo-Luddites complain about objects that are present-at-hand, that impinge upon their consciousness and must be dealt with. Gee-whiz technophiles skip ahead in their imagination to the day when new technologies are ready-to-hand, when everything works right. But between those states is a window, a moment of interpretative flexibility where choices about technology can and must be made. Like Bill says, technology is most dangerous when you stop seeing it. When something becomes pervasive and invisible, that political moment is probably gone.

Do we need a “built environmentalism” to shepherd the built environment just as environmentalists seek to protect the natural world? If “smart appliances” are going to be everywhere in our future, let us pray–better, let us take responsibility for making certain–they really are smart.

10 Comments

  1. Pingback: Old is the New New :: History and Appliances: I Love the Gilded Age

  2. Rob,

    As a professional advocate for free software, of course I share your primary concern with the human choices that shape our technological environment and I agree wholeheartedly with your normative statements about the need for critical examination of technology decisions.

    But while it’s important not to fall into the naturalistic fallacy so common among technological determinists, I also believe that thinkers like McLuhan and Lewis Mumford have a lot to tell us about the complex feedback loops by which technology shapes, as it is shaped by, our minds, cultures, cities, and daily routines. It is precisely the invisibility of technology that you and Bill cite – the same invisibility that McLuhan invokes in his statement about water being unknowable to fish – that allows technology to contrain social reactions to it. In that sense, I think it’s dangerous to overstate the one-way determinism of technology as “the sum product of human choice”, just as it is dangerous to overextend McLuhan’s whimsical notion that humans are simply the reproductive organs of technology. Brand’s “Information wants to be free” – and Stallman’s recontextualization of the phrase (changing Brand’s [free/gratis] to [free/libre]) – isn’t a bad metaphor for the social affordances of digital networks. Benkler’s Wealth of Networks builds on these kinds of ideas in a very direct way, and I think it’s work that needs to be done.

    So while I don’t think we disagree, I think it’s important not to be overly critical of scholars looking at the technology–>culture part of the feedback loop, even as we focus our efforts on the culture–>technology part.

  3. […]I’d like to direct your attention to a tangle of thoughtful posts on gadgetry, real and fake Luddism, history appliances, and why tech is most dangerous when you quit noticing it. Old Is The New New and Digital History Hacks appear to be the epicenter of discussion[…]

  4. Thanks for your comment, Matt. I forgot that is what you do for a living.

    I don’t think we disagree either, and I hope nothing I said sounds like I don’t believe technology shapes our minds, cultures, and lives. It’s because it does have all sorts of shaping and constraining effects that taking responsibility for shaping technology is so important. But I am still uncomfortable with assigning agency to technology: to me, “information wants to be free” mystifies the more important point, “we (some of us) want information to be free.” But you’re right that both directions of the feedback loop deserve and demand our scrutiny.

    It’s funny how different the starting point on these questions is inside and outside the bubble of academic historians of technology. In a review of Tom Misa’s Leonardo to the Internet, I called it refreshing that Misa was even willing to talk about technology’s effects on culture:

    Nonspecialists will probably come away from Leonardo to the Internet impressed with the many ways technologies have been shaped by social and cultural factors. Historians of technology, who have been struggling to get that message out for years, may be more struck by the reverse. Misa argues boldly for the influence of technology on society in a way that his colleagues, wary of technological determinism, have often been reluctant to sustain. His is a refreshing and powerful perspective. Surely the interaction of technology and culture, to the extent that they are separate entities at all, should be seen as a two-way street.

    Yet in this post I seem to have fallen into the stock role of the SHOT/SCOT historian, once more wagging his finger about the bogeyman of technological determinism.

    The technology -> culture / culture -> technology debate has such a chicken / egg quality that one is tempted to go all Bruno Latour and say there’s no meaningful distinction between the two.

  5. And I’m embarrassed to say Benkler’s Wealth of Networks is still in my “Read Me” pile. Though I do know his brother-in-law, for whatever that’s worth.

  6. But I am still uncomfortable with assigning agency to technology: to me, “information wants to be free” mystifies the more important point, “we (some of us) want information to be free.”

    I suppose it depends how you read it. We use this kind of anthropomorphic language all the time without inferring any actual agency: I don’t see how “Information wants to be free” is any different from “water wants to be downhill” or “supply wants to match demand”. If we believe that social science is actually science, then surely we can talk about patterns in human behavior that vary across social contexts and that create certain “laws”. I read Brand’s statement as just such a law: in a digital world, information wants to be free more than it does in an analog world. Maybe I misunderstand him. But I think this is all he’s saying. And I don’t see how it’s any different from the sorts of laws formulated by social scientists everywhere.

    This, I think, is similar to Benkler’s thesis: in a networked digital society, more cultural artifacts get produced by non-market forces than in a non-networked, analog society. It discounts agency on the part of either humans or technology (or information), just as all economic theories do. This is, for better or worse, what economics and other social sciences are good for: examining human behavior as a mechanical system and generating models with predictive power. I think Brand’s statement accomplishes this too, and I think it’s been borne out pretty well by events since.

    Insofar as it’s been read as a normative statement – a rallying cry for techno-libertarianism – I agree with you that it’s a dangerous way to think. Techno-utopians are increasingly rare in an age when it has been made painfully obvious to everyone that Brand’s statement applies equally to Hollywood movies and Social Security numbers. Free information has created a lot of efficiencies, but it has also created a lot of problems. If McLuhan was honest about anything, it was the fact that changes in the media environment are often terrifying to the moral understandings of the residents of the previous environment. I’m no great fan of rampant harassment and invasion of privacy. And I agree with you that these social changes wrought by technology underline the need for humans to make good choices: about what technologies to foster, and about how to react to the technologies that have already been adopted.

  7. Pingback: ClioWeb » Archive » History Carnival 52

  8. They physically destroyed new wide-framed looms that a monkey could run. Brits Fight the Power that be, now El-vis…too bad industrial sabotage was a capital offence in 1813.

    Partly related to the harsh economic climate due to the Napoleonic Wars, but mostly because I find technology overwhelming, I’ve always been interested in observing misuse of technology by others. P.S. who took my technocracy sign?

    Oh, and I’ve _never_ owned a T.V.

  9. I enjoyed your post (and related links) on Luddism. I realized consciously only recently how very close to Ned Ludd is my name — thinking in block letters, just two horizontal lines away. I wonder if my parents were making any kind of postmodern commentary…

    It is a little sad, but probably inevitable, that the terms “Luddism” and “Luddite” have been hijacked and reduced to a thin broth of their original meaning, which should be more on the opposed-to-technological-and-social-changes-that-screw-the-little-guy tip, ie social justice concerns. It is now often used as a shorthand blanket indictment of “all” technology (as if) because of two big reasons: bad design and bad personal choices. I’m willing to rail against bad design (just ask my wife), but people in affluent/fortunate circumstances should shut the hell up about bad personal choices (or make better ones).
    – Ned

  10. Ned: Amen! And thanks for the comment.

    Also applicable here is the peculiar but common belief that “technology” means only “stuff that was invented after you were born.”

    Yuki says hi!

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