Dude, you don’t use Instagram? What are you, some kind of Luddite? Believe it or not, Luddites aren’t just people who cross their arms at, lag behind of, or turn up their nose at tech. Originally, they smashed it apart.
The Luddites were violent radicals. Only instead of attacking people, as is the case with most violent radicals, their enemy was the machine. The Luddites, named after the mythical English folk hero Ned “King” Ludd, were terrified of what Industrial Revolution tech meant for their lives. For many of them, it meant the destruction of their lives — the loss of their vocations. Sound familiar?
Like those autoworkers who saw robotic arms replacing their craft, countless English men and women who worked in the cotton trade — refining it for sale — saw mill technology usurping their labour. The jobs they did, machines could do faster and cheaper. And that’s exactly what the machines did. So the labourers decided to destroy these machines.
Using hammers and arson, Luddite armies of furious laborers destroyed the machines that encroached on their vocation — causing a staggering £100,000 ($152,000) worth of damage between 1811 and 1812. They left factories in ruin, and earned a reputation as heroes of the working class — an “unprecedented” “character of daring and ferocity,” wrote the Annual Register in 1812.
The British Empire, which saw a rise in wealth unprecedented in the whole of human history through the use of industrial machinery, naturally, wasn’t going to take this. They dispatched the military against Luddite groups, quashing, arresting, imprisoning and executing them. Laws were passed to make the destruction of equipment a grave crime. Force was used until workers were too scared to resist the progress of history and technology.
It’s a struggle that’s still felt in this country and every country across the world — and a problem all of us grapple with. What hands did once, gears replaced. What gears did once, robotic arms replace. What paper did once, screens do now. Though we all enjoy modern life too much to ever smash it apart or burn down the local electronics store, the struggle of the Luddite remains, at least in abstract. So next time you’re called one because you don’t want to upgrade your smartphone, tell your friend to kindly shut up and read a history book. Whether it’s a Kindle or a paperback is your problem.