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Telecom workers in Australia strike against a computer-automated switching system. At the Washington Post in the mid-’70s, pressmen threatened by layoffs related to computer technology break into the pressroom and wreck their old machinery. And at the Department of Justice, a computer breaks because it’s been saturated in urine. Isolated eruptions of employee dissatisfaction? Or symptoms of a larger backlash against the computer, and the shifts it’s imposing on society with such blinding speed? Whatever the answer, it’s clear that the average Joe is beginning to regard the “information superhighway” with skepticism.
After all, large companies can’t be trusted to highlight the infobahn’s menacing side. Corporations—from Time Warner to IBM to Washington City Paper—are generally more interested in info technology’s profit potential than its less savory societal implications.But critics are beginning to sound off, among them celebrated computer geek Clifford Stoll, whose Silicon Snake Oilstrenuously debunks the idea that computer networks can replicate face-to-face interaction.
The most strident indictment of the approaching information power shift is found in Kirkpatrick Sale’s Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution—Lessons for the Computer Age. An unabashed opponent of technological progress, Sale not only examines the 1811-13 Luddite uprising, but attempts to use its example as a call to arms against “the second Industrial Revolution.”
Not quite terrorists, not exactly revolutionaries, the Luddites were a loose-knit group of British craftsmen—wool spinners and finishers, blacksmiths, etc.—that responded violently to the upheaval wrought by the Industrial Revolution. They set about destroying the devices—steam-powered wool finishing machines, or “shearing frames”—that they held directly accountable for their discontent. Sale chronicles the displaced workers’ Dickensian misery, employing both statistics (“the total number of indigents at the very bottom of British society around 1810 must have been well over 2 million, out of a population of 10 million”) and heartbreaking anecdotes (“We have no time to be wise, no leisure to be good, we are sunken, debilitated, depressed,” one factory drone wrote).
In November 1811, in the Nottinghamshire area, bands of craftsmen began breaking into mills and wrecking the shearing frames. They took as their commander a mythical figure, General Ludd (the exact origin of the name is disputed), and sent letters in Ludd’s name to mill owners and members of parliament, warning of dire consequences for the continued use of the “obnoxious Frames.” Even though there was virtually no central organization to their movement, the Luddites successfully burned through Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire, and Cheshire for more than a year. Considerable damage was caused to area mills, food riots took place, and Luddites and manufacturers alike died in armed clashes. Eventually, the crown sent troops to quell the uprising, and many convicted Luddites were banished to Australia or executed.
Since they were members of a secret society and not given to keeping careful notes of their criminal activities, the Luddites revealed little of themselves to history. However, despite the scarcity of information, Sale skillfully paints a vivid (if overly sympathetic) picture of his subjects through the use of administrative records, newspaper clippings, and a (very) few diaries. In discussing the Luddites’ cause, Sale is an effective storyteller: His prose is brisk, and shows the occasional flash of wry humor (the Luddite rebellion, he writes, cemented England’s concept of “class,” making it “an eternal and acceptable given of Britain, like bad weather and abundant coal”). As history, then, Rebels is an edifying effort.
But Sale isn’t just interested in history. Once he has dispensed with the original Luddites, Sale turns to comparing the Industrial Revolution to the present day. Given that info technology will impose radical shifts on society, Sale makes some valid points. He compares England’s Enclosure Acts, which drove peasants from the land and into the maws of factories, to the United States’ foreclosure crises, which decimated family farms in the ’80s. He further draws parallels between the Industrial Revolution’s “manufacture of needs”—a system in which consumerism enslaves the working class—and today’s advertising industry, which creates “insatiable” desires.
With our volatile environment, Sale writes, the imposition of vastly expanded digital technology will cause social change just as wrenching as that of the early 1800s. Principally to blame, he writes, is the computer, which enables the kind of automation that can gobble up positions presently held by people. He predicts that thousands of telephone operators, post-office sorters, data typists, and other “human impedimenta” will lose their jobs to machines. This “second Industrial Revolution” will also change the nature of whatever jobs remain: permanent positions, even in the professional sector, will give way to temporary jobs without benefits, subject to termination at the whim of the corporation.
Sale’s arguments are scary, alarmist…and correct. Digital technology will indeed throw our lives into permanent flux, and Sale appropriates Jean Beaudrillard’s idea of catastrophe to illustrate his contention that life in such an environment would be “degraded” and “dispiriting.” But he perverts the term somewhat: Originally, the idea of catastrophe involved a culture gripped by chaos, but not without hope for the determined, quick-witted individual, and not necessarily apocalyptic.
Unfortunately, Sale advocates wholesale rejection of the industrial age. His dogmatism won’t allow him to imagine even a shred of hope for the industrialized world: He considers Amish society an ideal sans-industrial utopia, and believes that the very “machine- ness” of machines makes them inherently evil. Such vehement anti-technology opinions make him as unrealistic as the technology cheerleaders who refuse to see the infobahn’s darker side.
Sale readily admits that the Luddites “lost” the first time around, but he hopes that a modern-day Luddite movement will put a stop to the information revolution, if not roll the clock back on the industrial one. Really, though, that won’t happen. While Sale’s historical treatment of the original Luddite movement is worthwhile, his own Luddism relegates him to the margins.