Members of a radical agrarian movement in early l9th-century England, the Luddites surfaced in Robin Hood country -- Sherwood Forest, near Nottinghamshire -- and for 15 bloody months took on the Industrial Revolution's first factories and entrepreneurs, until the British army suppressed them for good. The term has come to mean something else, though -- an attitude of fear and resentment toward technology. The Luddites never really left us completely, but the rise of the Net, the Web and the screen-driven culture they're helping to push along are bringing Luddites, or at least modern pretenders, back in force.
The historical Luddites drew their ranks from farmers and artisans whose families had lived for centuries in small villages, using simple machines that could be operated by individuals or small groups. The big mills and factories of the Industrial Revolution meant an end to social customs and community, to personal status and individual freedom. Having worked independently on their own farms, they grasped that they would be forced to use complex, dangerous machines in noisy, smelly factories, enduring long hours for slave wages, and that the trade was not in their favor.
Contemporary Luddites are fighting technology to keep power rather than livelihood, though they have as much chance of succeeding as their predecessors did.
These self-appointed watchmen are opportunists and cultural reactionaries led by people like Joseph Lieberman, former Education Secretary William Bennett, (one of Washington's leading moral gasbags, and one of Lieberman's closest friends), and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, who bemoan the lack of "morality" in popular culture, entertainment, and of course, most of all, the Mother of All Demons, the Net.
In fact, plenty of people call themselves Luddites today; they're popping up all over in media and Academe. The writer and social critic Kirkpatrick Sale, best known for his prescient book on the rise of the Sunbelt and his portrayal of Christopher Columbus as a raving imperialist scumbag (he's most recently the author of Rebels Against the Future: the Luddites and Their War on The Industrial Revolution), routinely attracts college audiences who cheer while he figuratively or literally smashes computers and denounces technology for ruining the world.
Unlike the first time 'round, this time corporations have joined the Luddite movement with a fury, hiring platoons of lawyers and lobbyists to fence off the Net and beat back the menace of free information online. Congress has passed a number of anti-democratic and unconstitutional laws designed to curb the free speech spawned by new technologies. Every season brings more books, articles, news stories warning that technology is driving us crazy, making us stupid, turning out kids into murderers, endangering out families. And how many articles and TV news stories have you seen on dangerous "hackers," online predators, Net addicts?
The neo-Luddites have attacked on a broad range of fronts blaming technology for everything from copyright theft to addiction to the oft-invoked menace of hacking and cracking. But no assault has been more relentless than the idea that technology and culture endanger the moral and literal lives of children. For years Bennett and Lieberman have led a wildly successful campaign (now joined both by Al Gore and George W. Bush), thumping the entertainment industry for allegedly contributing to violent behavior. Columbine advanced the hysterical ideal that computer games were not only unhealthy, but mortally dangerous. This idea has become the central rallying cry of the neo-Luddites.
It's interesting how modern-day Luddites invoke morality as a shield to mask zealotry and ignorance. Basically, they're doing what fanatics have done for centuries: try to force everyone to accept their own personal ideas of right and wrong. We are constantly being told this cultural piety and conformity is really for our own good -- and that of our children. This despite evidence that young people are safer than they've ever been, according to every recent statistical survey, from the FBI Uniform Crime Report to the Center for Juvenile Justice in New York. There are virtually no credible connections between technology use, media and violence.
Author Richard Rhodes, a scholar both of technology and violence, pointed out in The New York Times last week that violent behavior isn't learned from mock struggles on a screen. Violence is learned in personal encounters, beginning with the epidemic brutalization of children by their parents and peers. "Violence is on the decline in America," wrote Rhodes, "but if we want to reduce it even further, protecting children from real violence in their real lives -- not the pale shadow of mock violence -- is the place to begin."
But that isn't likely to happen. Exploiting the idea that technology as a menace to children is a lot easier and cheaper than confronting more complex social problems like child abuse or guns. Rhodes and others have pointed out that as media use has increased in the western world, violence has generally declined. Private violence (as opposed to the military or nation-state kind) has been dropping in the West since the Middle Ages, when homicide rates are estimated to have been 10 times those of Western nations today. Historians attribute the drop to improved social controls -- police forces and common access to courts of law -- and to a shift away from brutal physical punishment in child-rearing, a practice that shows up again and again as a common factor in the background of violent criminals.
Yet most Americans believe violence among the young is skyrocketing, and more than 80% told the Gallup poll last year that they believe the Internet is at least partly responsible. that's how good a propaganda job the neo-Luddites and their media have done.
"This time around the technology is even more complex and extensive," warns Sale, "and its impact even more pervasive and dislocating, touching greater populations with greater speed and at greater scales." In a way, Sale has a point. The neo-Luddities do have a whole new crop of legitimate issues with which to rouse an already alarmed populace: nano-technology, artificial intelligence, the open source challenge to proprietary businesses, and the growing access to information by younger Americans who could previously be easily censored and influenced.
Little organized political or other opposition counters the neo-Luddites. Few people are using mainstream media to argue that digital technology actually is creating many new kinds of jobs, sparking new kinds of communities and liberating information for millions in ways never before possible. Some should. For all its many flaws, the digital culture fosters freedom and opportunity and information everywhere it goes. The irony is that the neo-Luddites, like their predecessors, are fighting forces beyond anybody's control. They can't win either. The only issue is how ugly the brawl will get.