Cultural Resistance to Technology: From Machine-breakers to Citizen Developers (1)
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”—George Santayana
New technology is always disruptive. Because technology has a human component, the introduction of new technology changes something at the social, cultural and economic level. It puts some people at a disadvantage and gives some others an upper hand. If people can adjust to the ongoing technological change, the results can turn out to be manageable. If not, new technology will wreak havoc like a wrecking ball.
You can be sure that the invention of wheel caused a ripple effect throughout the societies that started using the wheel for the first time. It made pottery possible and overland transportation easier. The introduction of gunpowder must have raised some eyebrows among the artisans who made the bolts, arrows and bows the armies of that era used—they must have sensed that this black powder was about to put them out of work. Change triggered similar patterns of reactions every time. As the French would say: Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
Fortunately, the destruction that Industrial Revolution caused among the working class in Britain is better documented. Actually, this is the topic of The Making of the English Working Class, the monumental work by the British historian E. P. Thompson. In his own words, Thompson’s effort was an attempt “to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the "obsolete" hand-loom weaver … from the enormous condescension of posterity.” (Thompson, 1963, p.12) These people fell by the wayside as the industrial machinery gained more reception. They were handworkers in the textile and woollen industries who lost their jobs and were left without a livelihood after the introduction of machinery.
These people did not take it lying down, however. They fought back, first, through legal means: They petitioned the parliament and lobbied for a complete ban on industrial machinery. When that failed, they organized in armed groups and started roaming around in Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire, breaking machinery, threatening and attacking industrialists (Thompson, 1963, pp.472-602). They came to be called the Luddites, after a certain Ned Ludd, who was supposedly the first person to break machinery in protest.
The machine-breakers were quite clear about their demands (Thompson, 1963, p.530):
We will never lay down Arms [till] The House of Commons passes an Act to put down all Machinery hurtful to Commonality, and repeal that to hang Frame Breakers.
The Luddite movement started in 1811 and was totally defeated by 1817. The determination machine-breakers showed in protest of a technological breakthrough garnered a lot of attention in the later historiography. But there might be a lesson for us in their motives. Thompson used the term 'moral economy' to account for the way machine-breakers perceived the transformation they were subject to (Thompson, 1963, pp.63, 550, 583). According to this view, the machine-breakers believed that there were social values rooted in a traditional, paternalistic society upholding the economic order. These people thought they were party to a social contract, and thus had a right to livelihood. But the new machinery, by driving down prices of products, was putting them out of work and violating their ancient rights. This was the reason that made them take up arms against the royal army. In other words, stockingers, croppers, weavers and the like were the casualties in the battle between a traditional moral economy and free market forces.
The machine-breaker protests and the ensuing mob violence were the symptoms of a crumbling socio-economic order. They were the signs that Industry 1.0 had arrived. Industry 2.0, which came with increasing electrification, expanding railway network and the first assembly lines, and Industry 3.0, which relied on computer technologies, all had their winners and losers. Today we are standing at the threshold of another industrial revolution—the term Industry 4.0 was not coined for nothing. This one, too, is coming with all the destructive powers of previous revolutions. Do we have a moral economy in place? Who stands to lose this time around? This discussion deserves another post.