Feb 23 2009

Against Technology: Lots of Luddism

by at 11:13 am

I am blown away by Steven E. Jones’s Against Technology. Dr. Macovski recommended reading it for my paper and I’m glad I did. Jones talks about the ways in which the term Luddite has evolved from its initial use in 1811 to describe the followers of Ned Ludd to its contemporary association with the general technophobe. The original Luddites, Jones argues, were far from techophobic. They were, in fact, highly skilled laborers who went around smashing the very machines that were being used to replace their labor. Unlike modern day Luddites or “neo-Luddites,” the original Luddites did not complain about the prominance of technology in their daily lives. “Neo-Luddites” express discomfort over technology’s capacity for enslavement. A “neo-Luddite” would complain of being tied to her cellphone, checking the internet twenty times a day, etc.

This, of course, complicates my earlier argument that electricity is construed as man’s slave. While it is true that electricity is described in these terms (see past blog entry, Electricity as Man’s Slave) other things are also going on in nineteenth-century philosophies of technology. So, at the same time that electricity is described as man’s slave, technology is also percieved as enslaving man. I would like to argue that the fear of technological enslavement that is seen in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has its roots in the ninenteenth.

In Samuel Butler’s 1875 Erewhon, the argument is made that machines will enventually develop consciousness and in order to avoid a mechanical take over machine should be selectively destroyed to limit their numbers (Note, the author says we can’t destroy all machines because we’ve become too dependent on them, thereby acknowledging that man is already enslaved). Butler’s text is an example of neo-luddism of the internet age rather than the Ned Ludds of 1811. Machines aren’t being smashed because they are a threat to the skilled labor force; rather, they’re being smashed because technology itself is fearful. 

So….I think I’ve offically decided on my thesis: I’m interested in the ways in which technology is associated with slavery. Specifically how the very technology that man enslaves also enslaves man. I think that nineteenth-century texts that deal with technology represent this very ambivalence: technology both liberates and enslaves. Yay, thesis!

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