No one knows exactly where the term “Luddite” (lud-ite) comes from, but the likely origin is a tribute to Ned Ludd, who in the late 1700’s entered the home of a stocking weaver in Leichester, England and destroyed his sewing equipment. Whether fact or fiction, the name stuck and people who oppose the introduction of new technology down through the ages have been labeled Luddites.
The Industrial Revolution
In 1811 during the Industrial Revolution there was great fear and concern as factories began to adapt to new machinery capable of disrupting society and displacing jobs. Near Nottingham, England the Luddites again surfaced as a band of workers, who were fearful of technology, banded together and began to riot against the changes. In some instances, they even destroyed the new machinery to stop or slow the changes. The concern over steam power was a trigger to the new fears.
Although more apocalyptic, the book 1984 was written along these same concerns but with a different theme. The 1949 George Orwell classic foretold a society characterized by destructive control through propaganda, surveillance, and disinformation. While not a perfect parallel to Luddism, it follows those fears to an extreme fear of technology and automation. The term Luddism began to be replaced with Orwellian or just a reference to 1984. Few know that “George Orwell” was a pseudonym for Eric Arthur Blair, an English novelist who opposed totalitarianism in favor of democratic socialism. The 1984 theme is so ubiquitous, and his pseudonym so well known that Blair’s true name was eclipsed.
Orwell’s vision is more up to date and relatable, but in my opinion, is nothing more than a twentieth century extension of Luddism. Orwell helped replace the fear of the sewing machine and its effect on garment workers with fear of computers, displacement of workers, and government control.
Wider Spread Acceptance in the 1950’s
In the 1950’s until the 1970’s computers were often viewed as helpful but gigantic calculators and business tools for major corporations. Without electronic storage and massive computing power, the punch card era was somewhat boring and non-threatening. It was the introduction of electronic storage and processing that transitioned us from just accounting machines to what we know today as computers.
Computing and the 1980’s
Moore’s Law, introduced by Gordon Moore, saw that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit board doubles about every eighteen months. This revelation became the measuring stick for all computing progress throughout the 1980’s. Personal computers ushered in a new era of computing where anyone could have more computing power in their home or at work than most major corporations had at their disposal just decades earlier. Affordability became key to the explosion of computing at the personal level.
The proliferation of PC’s did not slow the growth of much larger computers and the introduction of large mainframe computers allowed major corporations to process ever more data. Importantly, larger computers and improvements in telecommunications connected all the PC’s and terminals into networks. For the Luddites of that era, there was little fear of these advances. Uncontrolled access to data, hacking, and invasion of privacy was not a problem.
Concerns in the 1990’s
As I think about it, in recent times there was a resurgence of the Luddite/Orwellian theme through the 1999 movie The Matrix. Here the new generation of Luddites (Neo, Trinity, Morpheus, Tank, and Cypher) tackle the futuristic computer-driven world where reality and technology are so blended and blurred that finding the dividing line is often impossible. What we now know as Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality could have their roots in the movie. The Matrix may have been the catalyst for many Luddite fears. At a minimum the movie is a visual and entertaining reference to explain our fears, which is probably why I have watched it so many times.
The struggle against the unknown and the fear of change is not limited to an era. The fear of change is a human condition that has echoed down the ages from the late 1700’s. If we had written records from the Stone Age, we would probably find similar resistance all the way back to the discovery of fire or the wheel.
21st Century Luddites
In a strange twist of fate, in 2022 in New York a group of teens recognized that they had become addicted to cell phones and constant exposure to social media. They formed the “Luddite Club.” Once they went back to flip phones and reestablished personal contact with peers they rediscovered real friends, personal interaction, and a life without constantly snapping narcissistic selfies. They learned that life without Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram is more fulfilling. The Club rediscovered books, writing, and personal interaction. Will it spread; I do not know but hope so. Their effort is a welcomed sanctuary in a world of uncertainty for our youth.
Until the introduction of Artificial Intelligence, the word Luddite had become a derogatory term for those who were backward, slow to adapt, or primitive. But the perceived destructive potential of AI has turned many technology giants into Luddites.
In recent months, a new set of business Luddites warning against the introduction of Artificial Intelligence and recognition of the addictive nature of constant exposure to technology has appeared. This is the new “known unknown” with vague and poorly understood implications. Society does not have a handle on this morphing and blending of thoughts and actions, and the societal change it may bring. Interestingly, this time those with the greatest financial incentive and chance for profit are the ones sounding the alarm. Is it a real alarm or are they slowing the competition to get there first?
“I don’t want to really scare you, but it was alarming how many people I talked to who are highly placed people in AI who have retreats that are sort of ‘bug out’ houses, to which they could flee if it all hits the fan.” – James Barrat (Author)
With AI we are not discussing the replacement of seamstresses with sewing machines, but a total disruption of all we know. As usual the Luddites are in a Chicken Little position, and any attempt to slow the progress of AI will fail. As with all disruptive technologies the fear of change far exceeds any real concerns of our species to adapt. True AI that can replace human thought is decades away, if even that close.
What will appear is task specific AI capable of aiding the creation of specific things. ChatGPT cannot fix your car, but it can research articles on car repair more quickly, and maybe more thoroughly than you can. Watson plays chess better than any human, but it cannot cut the grass. Our military can develop highly intelligent machines of war, but those cannot build a building. All of these are phenomenal advances in technology, but they are all task specific and far from Artificial General Intelligence.
When many people think about AI, they suddenly leap from nothing to everything, not from nothing to some things. There is plenty of time for our species to find the proper use of AI and to fit it in to our daily lives. The modern-day Luddites will fade in the next few years and wait for their opportunity to reappear during the next technological revolution. They did not stop the progress of the steam engine and the sewing machine, and they cannot slow or stop the transition to an AI world.
Resources Used in This Article
Elon Musk warns of ‘benign dependency’ on AI: ‘dangerous to civilization’, by Bradford Betz, Fox Business, foxbusiness.com, May 1, 2023.
Experts are warning AI could lead to human extinction. Are we taking it seriously enough?, by Oliver Darcy, CNN Business, cnn.com, May 31, 2023.
I’m a Luddite. You should be one, too, by Jathan Sadowski, Lens, lens.monash.edu, August 18, 2021.
IMDB Database, The Matrix Cast, September 12, 2023.
Moore’s Law, Wikipedia.com, last accessed September 11, 2023.
Ned Ludd, wikipedia.com, September 12, 2023.
Why teens are giving up their smartphones and joining the ‘Luddite Club’, by Avery Hartmans, Business Insider, businessinsider.com, October 24, 2022.