XVI: the cropper lads for me! - Langdon Winner

XVI: the cropper lads for me!




The Luddites were the first brave souls of the Western world to identify technology’s role in building mass society.  According to their analysis empire, capitalism, and technological development are intertwined.  The textile mills that disrupted the weavers’ villages could never have been funded by using the limited resources on the isle of England proper; more capital than could be locally mustered was required.  Industrial development was rather bankrolled by the riches grabbed from the far reaches of the empire, specifically from India and China.  The means to control such faraway locales was fueled by the hubris of “free trade,” whereby the “rights” of companies to pursue global transactions were legitimized by complexly-written legalistic proclamations, and protected by technologies of military might.  The situation today is mightily similar.
And so, we ask, might the Luddites be guides for us today?
The view originally formulated by British reformist historians is that the Luddites were irrational crazies who stood in the way of all that was useful.  And inevitable.  A less biased look into historical fact informs us that the Luddites were savvy thinkers about the incursion of capital and technology into their communities.  When they first saw the scale and meaning of what was being perpetrated, they employed normal means to object.  Meetings.  Discussions.  Letters.  Public posts.  But, as we saw in 2003 when President George W. Bush flipped off more than 12 million anti-war protestors in more than 60 countries, “emperors” have a propensity to ignore that which unveils their lack of “clothes.”  It was within such a context of desperation that the Luddites took to their acts of protest against the physical means of perpetrating the new order.  It was within such a context that they stealthily attired themselves in darkened masks and slipped into the night to destroy what was destroying them.  They did their work deftly and in numbers; so successfully that, at the height of the rebellion, Britain “invaded middle England” -- an area the size of Delaware -- with as many as 14,400 soldiers.[i]

To the enclosure of the common more than to any other cause may be traced all the changes which have subsequently passed over the village.  It was like knocking the keystone out of an arch.  The keystone is not the arch; but, once it is gone, all sorts of forces, previously resisted, begin to operate towards ruin,  and gradually the whole structure crumbles down ... The enclosure … left the people helpless against influences which have sapped away their interests, robbed them of security and peace,  rendered their knowledge and skill of small value, and seriously affected their personal pride and their character … When the cottager was cut off from his resources ... there was little else that he could do in the old ways.
                   --George Sturt, Change in the Village, 1912[ii]

I have been led into reasonings which make me hate more and more the existing establishment …. Have beheld scenes of misery …. (The workers) are reduced to starvation.  My friend, the military are gone to Nott’m – Curses light on them for their motives if they destroy one of its famine wasted inhabitants …. The groans of the wretched may pass unheeded till the latest moment of this infamous revelry (of the rich), till the storm burst upon them and the oppressed take furious vengeance on oppressors.
                   --Percy Shelley[iii]

And night by night when all is still
And the moon is hid behind the hill,
We forward march to do our will
         With hatchet, pike, and gun!
Oh, the cropper lads for me,
The gallant lads for me,
Who with lusty stroke
The shear frames broke,
The cropper lads for me!
                   --Song[iv]



When I was reciting my spiel as the modern-day technology critic in Interview with a Luddite, I had an on-stage awakening.  I was faced with the task of explaining to a 19th-century weaver what kinds of technologies had befallen humanity in the ensuing centuries –- in language he could understand.  Not “telephone,” mind you -- but “box that echoes into your ear the voice of a person who is somewhere else.”  Not “nuclear weapon” -- but “gunshot that is catapulted from a flying wagon and can blow up all of Lancashire, yes, including the surrounding farmlands and forests.”  Since we had not prepared for this glitch in language, I will tell you that I hemmed and hawed, grappled, even choked.  I suppose my flailing appeared to the audience like “acting.”  It was real.
We are up against a similar impossibility of translation but one that flies, across time, in the opposite direction.
At that second-to-last gathering of the Jacques Ellul Society at Dartington Hall, a committee met to expand upon the ideas for technology assessment that Hazel Henderson and Wendell Berry had previously etched out.  Henderson had asked questions about the motives behind the origins of specific technologies and whether they promote dependency or self-reliance.[v]  Berry’s questions sprang from his concern for a technology’s relevance to community, culture, and bioregion.[vi]  The questions we invented went the next step -- providing what we hoped would be useful linguistic-conceptual chinks in the knee-jerk armor so many don for whatever new systems corporations and government thrust upon them.

Ecological Questions
What are (the technology-in-question’s) effects on the planet?
Does it preserve or destroy biodiversity?
Does it preserve or reduce ecosystem integrity?
How much and what kind of waste does it generate?
Does it break the bond of renewal between humans and nature?

Social Questions
Does (the technology-in-question) serve community?
How does it affect our perception of our needs?
Is it consistent with the creation of communal human economy?  What are its effects on relationships?
Does it undermine traditional forms of community?
Does it erase a sense of time and history?
What is its potential to become addictive?

Practical Questions
What does it make?
Whom does it benefit?
Where was it produced?
Where is it used?
Where must it go when it's broken or obsolete?
Can it be repaired by an ordinary person?

Military Questions
Does it undermine traditional moral authority? 
Does it require military defense?
Does it enhance military purposes?
Does it foster mass behavior?

Aesthetic Questions
Is (the technology) ugly?
Does it cause ugliness?
What noise does it make?
What pace does it set?

Moral Questions
What values does its use foster?
What is gained by its use?
What are its effects on the least powerful person in the society?

Ethical Questions
What does it allow us to ignore?
To what extent does it distance agent from effect?
What behavior might it make possible in the future?
What other technologies might it make possible?
Is it conducive to nihilism? 

Vocational Questions
What is its impact on craft?
Does it reduce, deaden, or enhance human creativity?
Does it depress or enhance the quality of goods?
Does it depress or enhance the meaning of work?

Metaphysical Questions
What aspect of the inner self does (this technology) reflect? Love? Fear? Rage? Cyclical or linear thinking?

Political Questions
Does it require a knowledge-elite?
Does it require bureaucracy for its perpetuation?  
What legal empowerments does it need? 
Does it concentrate or equalize power?

[i] Cited in Kirkpatrick Sale, Rebels Against the Future. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley, 1995, p. 148; from letters to the British Home Office, whose job was to document unrest, by magistrates, elected officials, and military officers. 42/123; F.O. Darvall, Popular Disturbances and Public Order in Regency England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1934. Reprint: New York: Kelley, 1969, pp.100-103, 26off.; Derek Gregory, RegionalTransformation and the Industrial Revolution. Minneapolis: University of MinneapolisPress, 1982, pp. 167-68; E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Victor Gollancz, 1963. Reprint: Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, Pelican Edition, 1982, p. 615.
[ii] George Sturt, Change in the Village. New York, G.H. Doran, 1912, p. 77ff.
[iii] Quoted in Richard Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit. London: Weidenfeld, 1974, p. 98.
[iv] Quoted in Frank Peel, The Risings of the Luddites, Chartists and Plug-drawers. 1888. Reprint: London: Frank Cass, 1968, pp. 47-48.
[v] Hazel Henderson in Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Vol. 12, 1978, pp.317-324.
[vi] Wendell Berry, Another Turn of the Crank. Washington DC: Counterpoint Press, 1995.
[vii] Adapted from “78 Questions” in Stephanie Mills, ed., Turning Away from Technology. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1997, pp.235-37; and Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers/New Catalyst Books, 2008, pp. 235-37.

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