Against Technology: From the Luddites to Neo-Luddism ,
There is a little Ned Ludd in us all. And why not? Who hasn't felt the urge to attack his or her laptop with a hammer? Homo sapiens evolved as hunter–gatherers in a Pleistocene wilderness. Our oversized brain prepared us to outthink quarry that were faster and stronger, not to meekly watch as mindless machines take over. So we empathize with workers in England who toiled two centuries ago in “dark Satanic mills,” as poetically described by William Blake, and felt driven to smash the weaving machines that were replacing them.
Those workers were the original Luddites, now a term of derision directed at individuals who oppose technological progress. The motive of the neo-Luddites is rarely simply job security: It is usually ideological. In Against Technology: From the Luddites to Neo-Luddism, Steven Jones, a professor of English at Loyola University Chicago, traces the movement from the historical Luddites of the early 1800s, led by Ned Ludd, their imaginary general, to Ted Kaczynski, the Harvard-educated “Unabomber” who maimed and killed in a personal war against progress for 18 years before being unmasked in 1996.
Scientists and technologists should pay close attention to what Jones has written. In tracing the history, he follows a very different set of footprints than a technologist would. The path Jones takes is, for example, not marked by rewriting the first law of thermodynamics to arrive at Lenz's law, which allowed factories to make the energy shift from steam to electromotive force. He views the history apart from science. Jones begins with Romantic poets—Blake, William Words-worth, Lord Byron, and Percy Shelley—who were contemporaries of the original Luddites, but he does not forget to mention the power of popular ballads that stirred men to violence.
Jones's path leads him through novels that have come to symbolize the dangers of technology taken too far, particularly Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, even though, as Jones points out, that book had little actual representation of technology. In the story, Dr. Frankenstein crudely stitched his monster together from body parts. Film makers added in the electrodes and levers—and the Frankenstein movies just keep coming. The props change in every new adaptation to reflect recognizable icons of current technology.
Technology that becomes uncontrollable has been the subject of countless science fiction stories, and the Luddite theme has been perfect for movies. In 1936, Charlie Chaplin starred in Modern Times as the little assembly-line worker, who, as Jones describes, with “wrench in hand, is caught up bodily in the giant gears and wheels of his machine,” from which he emerges unscathed to escape from the factory. Then there are Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film classic 2001: A Spacscodee Odyssey, with the mistake-prone computer “Hal,” and the more recent Matrix trilogy. The first Matrix movie was in 1999. All of the above films exploit society's machine paranoia.
I found Jones's path to be much more interesting than the predictably defensive route taken by technologists, who invariably aim to show that the benefits of technology outweigh the negatives. That conclusion is probably true, but it doesn't get at the underlying anxieties of the overwhelmingly nontechnical public. In 1950 MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener coined the term cybernetics in his book The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (Houghton Mifflin) and made the ethical argument that humans should be liberated from work that machines can do better. Like most worthy goals, Wiener's vision may be unattainable, but we can strive to come closer to it—and we have come closer. In most of the world today, machines are freeing humans from the mind-numbing toil that had been the lot of common people everywhere, for all of history.
Ironically, the most egregious example of using humans to perform menial and dangerous work is in spacscodee exploration. The telerobot rovers Spirit and Opportunity have explored the Martian surface for three years. Living on sunshine, the rovers have never taken a break for lunch or complained about the cold nights. Yet NASA plans to replace them with astronauts at a staggering cost, with little idea of how to keep the astronauts alive or what they could do that a telerobot could not. Meanwhile, today's arrayed forces that are against technology are led by religion, which generally opposes change. Biotechnologies involving human reproduction, stem-cell research, and even vaccinations are declared unnatural within some religions.
In Against Technology, Jones has opened up a rich field of study that cries out for more examination. The unintended consequences of technology, such as global warming, should not be seen as a call to retreat to a simpler time. By nature's cold calculus of survival, Homo sapiens is doing very well—so well that the road back is blocked by population growth. A simpler world is no longer possible.
Robert L. Park is a professor of physics at the University of Maryland, College Park. He writes an online weekly interest column called What's New (http://www.bobpark.org) and is the author of Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud (Oxford U. Press, 2000).