Warding Off General Ludd: The Absurdity of “The Luddite Awards”

luddite image

By Zachary Loeb

Of all the dangers looming over humanity no threat is greater than that posed by the Luddites.

If the previous sentence seems absurdly hyperbolic, know that it only seems that way because it is, in fact, quite ludicrous. It has been over two hundred years since the historic Luddites rose up against “machinery hurtful to commonality,” but as their leader the myth enrobed General Ludd was never apprehended there are always those who fear that General Ludd is still out there, waiting with sledge hammer at the ready. True, there have been some activist attempts to revive the spirit of the Luddites (such as the neo-Luddites of the late 1980s and 1990s) – but in the midst of a society enthralled by (and in thrall to) smart phones, start-ups, and large tech companies – to see Luddites lurking in every shadow is a sign of either ideology, paranoia, or both.

Yet, such an amusing mixture of unabashed pro-technology ideology and anxiety at the possibility of any criticism of technology is on full display in the inaugural “Luddite Awards” presented by The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF). Whereas the historic Luddites needed sturdy hammers, and other such implements, to engage in machine breaking the ITIF seems to believe that the technology of today is much more fragile – it can be smashed into nothingness simply by criticism or even skepticism. As their name suggests, the ITIF is a think tank committed to the celebration of, and advocating for, technological innovation in its many forms. Thus it should not be surprising that a group committed to technological innovation would be wary of what it perceives as a growing chorus of “neo-Ludditism” that it imagines is planning to pull the plug on innovation. Therefore the ITIF has seen fit to present dishonorable “Luddite Awards” to groups it has deemed insufficiently enamored with innovation, these groups include (amongst others): The Vermont Legislature, The French Government, the organization Free Press, the National Rifle Association, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The ITIF “Luddite Awards” may mark the first time that any group has accused the Electronic Frontier Foundation of being a secret harbor for neo-Ludditism.

Unknown artist, “The Leader of the Luddites,” engraving, 1812 (image source: Wikipedia)

The full report on “The 2014 ITIF Luddite Awards,” written by the ITIF’s president Robert D. Atkinson, presents the current state of technological innovation as being dangerously precarious. Though technological innovation is currently supplying people with all manner of devices, the ITIF warns against a growing movement born of neo-Ludditism that will aim to put a stop to further innovation. Today’s neo-Ludditism, in the estimation of the ITIF is distinct from the historic Luddites, and yet the goal of “ideological Ludditism” is still “to ‘smash’ today’s technology.” Granted, adherents of neo-Ludditism are not raiding factories with hammers, instead they are to be found teaching at universities, writing columns in major newspapers, disparaging technology in the media, and otherwise attempting to block the forward movement of progress. According to the ITIF (note the word “all”):

“what is behind all ideological Ludditism is the general longing for a simpler life from the past—a life with fewer electronics, chemicals, molecules, machines, etc.” (ITIF, 3)

Though the chorus of Ludditisim has, in the ITIF’s reckoning, grown to an unacceptable volume of late, the foundation is quick to emphasize that Ludditism is nothing new. What is new, as the ITIF puts it, is that these nefarious Luddite views have, apparently, moved from the margins and infected the larger public discourse around technology. A diverse array of figures and groups from figures like environmentalist Bill McKibben, conservative thinker James Pethokoukis, economist Paul Krugman, writers for Smithsonian Magazine, to foundations like Free Press, the EFF and the NRA – are all tarred with the epithet “Luddite.”The neo-Luddites, according to ITIF, issue warnings against unmitigated acceptance of innovation when they bring up environmental concerns, mention the possibility of jobs being displaced by technology, write somewhat approvingly of the historic Luddites, or advocate for Net Neutrality.

While the ITIF holds to the popular, if historically inaccurate, definition of Luddite as “one who resists technological change,” their awards make clear that the ITIF would like to add to this definition the words “or even mildly opposes any technological innovation.” The ten groups awarded “Luddite Awards” are a mixture of non-profit public advocacy organizations and various governments – though the ITIF report seems to revel in attacking Bill McKibben he was not deemed worthy of an award (maybe next year). The awardees include: the NRA for opposing smart guns, The Vermont legislature for requiring the labeling of GMOS, Free Press’s support of net neutrality which is deemed as an affront to “smarter broadband networks,” news reports which “claim that ‘robots are killing jobs,” the EFF is cited as it “opposes Health IT,” and various governments in several states are reprimanded for “cracking down” on companies like Airbnb, Uber and Lyft. The ten recipients of Luddite awards may be quite surprised to find that they have been deemed adherents of neo-Ludditism, but in the view of the ITIF the actions these groups have taken indicate that General Ludd is slyly guiding their moves. Though the Luddite Awards may have a somewhat silly feeling, the ITIF cautions that the threat is serious, as the report ominously concludes:

“But while we can’t stop the Luddites from engaging in their anti-progress, anti-innovation activities, we can recognize them for what they are: actions and ideas that are profoundly anti-progress, that if followed would mean a our children [sic] will live lives as adults nowhere near as good as the lives they could live if we instead embraced, rather than fought innovation.” (ITIF, 19)

Credit is due to the ITIF for their ideological consistency. In putting together their list of recipients for the inaugural “Luddite Awards” – the foundation demonstrates that they are fully committed to technological innovation and they are unflagging in their support of that cause. Nevertheless, while the awards (and in particular the report accompanying the awards) may be internally ideologically consistent it is also a work of dubious historical scholarship, comical neoliberal paranoia, and evinces a profound anti-democratic tendency. Though the ITIF awards aim to target what it perceives as “neo-Ludditism” even a cursory glance at their awardees makes it abundantly clear that what the organization actually opposes is any attempt to regulate technology undertaken by a government, or advocated for by a public interest group. Even in a country as regulation averse as the contemporary United States it is still safer to defame Luddites than to simply state that you reject regulation. The ITIF carefully cloaks its ideology in the aura of terms with positive connotations such as “innovation,” “progress,” and “freedom” but these terms are only so much fresh paint over the same “free market” ideology that only values innovation, progress and freedom when they are in the service of neoliberal economic policies. Nowhere does the ITIF engage seriously with the questions of “who profits from this innovation?” “who benefits from this progress?” “is this ‘freedom’ equally distributed or does it reinforce existing inequities?” – the terms are used as ideological sledgehammers far blunter than any tool the Luddites ever used. This raw ideology is on perfect display in the very opening line of the award announcement, which reads:

“Technological innovation is the wellspring of human progress, bringing higher standards of living, improved health, a cleaner environment, increased access to information and many other benefits.” (ITIF, 1)

One can only applaud the ITIF for so clearly laying out their ideology at the outset, and one can only raise a skeptical eyebrow at this obvious case of the logical fallacy of Begging the Question. To claim that “technological innovation is the wellspring of human progress” is an assumption that demands proof, it is not a conclusion in and of itself. While arguments can certainly be made to support this assumption there is little in the ITIF report that suggests the ITIF is willing to engage in the type of critical reflection, which would be necessary for successfully supporting this argument (though, to be fair, the ITIF has published many other reports some of which may better lay out this claim). The further conclusions that such innovation brings “higher standards of living, improved health, a cleaner environment” and so forth are further assumptions that require proof – and in the process of demonstrating this proof one is forced (if engaging in honest argumentation) to recognize the validity of competing claims. Particularly as many of the “benefits” ITIF seeks to celebrate do not accrue evenly. True, an argument can be made that technological innovation has an important role to play in ushering in a “cleaner environment” – but tell that to somebody who lives next to an e-waste dump where mountains of the now obsolete detritus of “technological innovation” leach toxins into the soil. The ITIF report is filled with such pleasant sounding “common sense” technological assumptions that have been, at the very least, rendered highly problematic by serious works of inquiry and scholarship in the field of the history of technology. As classic works in the scholarly literature of the Science and Technology Studies field, such as Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s More Work for Mother, make clear “technological innovation” does not always live up to its claims. Granted, it is easy to imagine that the ITIF would offer a retort that simply dismisses all such scholarship as tainted by neo-Ludditism. Yet recognizing that not all “innovation” is a pure blessing does not represent a rejection of “innovation” as such – it just recognize that “innovation” is only one amongst many competing values a society must try to balance.

Instead of engaging with critics of “technological innovation” in good faith, the ITIF jumps from one logical fallacy to another, trading circular reasoning for attacking the advocate. The author of the ITIF report seems to delight in pillorying Bill McKibben but also aims its barbs at scholars like David Noble and Neil Postman for exposing impressionable college aged minds to their “neo-Luddite” biases. That the ITIF seems unconcerned with business schools, start-up culture, and a “culture industry” that inculcates an adoration for “technological innovation” to the same “impressionable minds” is, obviously, not commented upon. However, if a foundation is attempting to argue that universities are currently a hotbed of “neo-Ludditism” than it is questionable why the ITIF should choose to signal out two professors for special invective who are both deceased – Postman died in 2003 and David Noble died in 2010.

It almost seems as if the ITIF report cites serious humanistic critics of “technological innovation” as a way to make it seem as though it has actually wrestled with the thought of such individuals. After all, the ITIF report deigns to mention two of the most prominent thinkers in the theoretical legacy of the critique of technology, Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul, but it only mentions them in order to dismiss them out of hand. The irony, naturally, is that thinkers like Mumford and Ellul (to say nothing of Postman and Noble) would have not been surprised in the least by the ITIF report as their critiques of technology also included a recognition of the ways that the dominant forces in technological society (be it in the form of Ellul’s “Technique” or Mumford’s “megamachine”) depended upon the ideological fealty of those who saw their own best interests as aligning with that of the new technological regimes of power. Indeed, the ideological celebrants of technology have become a sort of new priesthood for the religion of technology, though as Mumford quipped in Art and Technics:

“If you fall in love with a machine there is something wrong with your love-life. If you worship a machine there is something wrong with your religion.” (Art and Technics, 81)

Trade out the word “machine” in the above quotation with “technological innovation” and it applies perfectly to the ITIF awards document. And yet, playful gibes aside, there are many more (many, many more) barbs that one can imagine Mumford directing at the ITIF. As Mumford wrote in The Pentagon of Power:

“Consistently the agents of the megamachine act as if their only responsibility were to the power system itself. The interests and demands of the populations subjected to the megamachine are not only unheeded but deliberately flouted.” (The Pentagon of Power, 271)

The ITIF “Luddite Awards” are a pure demonstration of this deliberate flouting of “the interests and demands of the populations” who find themselves always on the receiving end of “technological innovation.” For the ITIF report shows an almost startling disregard for the concerns of “everyday people” and though the ITIF is a proudly nonpartisan organization the report demonstrates a disturbingly anti-democratic tendency. That the group does not lean heavily toward Democrats or Republicans only demonstrates the degree to which both parties eat from the same neoliberal trough – routinely filled with fresh ideological slop by think tanks like ITIF. Groups that advocate in the interest of their supporters in the public sphere (such as Free Press, the EFF, and the NRA {yes, even them}) are treated as interlopers worthy of mockery for having the audacity to raise concerns; similarly elected governmental bodies are berated for daring to pass timid regulations. The shape of the “ideal society” that one detects in the ITIF report is one wherein “technological innovation” knows no limits, and encounters no opposition, even if these limits are relatively weak regulations or simply citizens daring to voice a contrary opinion – consequences be damned! On the high-speed societal train of “technological innovation” the ITIF confuses a few groups asking for a slight reduction of speed with groups threatening to derail the train.

Thus the key problem of the ITIF “Luddite Awards” emerges – and it is not simply that the ITIF continues to use Luddite as an epithet – it is that the ITIF seems willfully ignorant of any ethical imperatives other than a broadly defined love of “technological innovation.” In handing out “Luddite Awards” the ITIF reveals that it recognizes “technological innovation” as the crowning example of “the good.” It is not simply one “good” amongst many that must carefully compromise with other values (such as privacy, environmental concerns, labor issues, and so forth), rather it is the definitive and ultimate case of “the good.” This is not to claim that “technological innovation” is not amongst values that represent “the good,” but it is not the only value – treating it as such lead to confusing (to borrow a formulation from Lewis Mumford) “the goods life with the good life.” By fully privileging “technological innovation” the ITIF treats other values and ethical claims as if they are to be discarded – the philosopher Hans Jonas’s The Imperative of Responsibility (which advocated for a cautious approach to technological innovation that emphasized the potential risks inherent in new technologies) is therefore tossed out the window to be replaced by “the imperative of innovation” along with a stack of business books and perhaps an Ayn Rand novel, or two, for good measure.

Indeed, responsibility for the negative impacts of innovation is shrugged off in the ITIF awards, even as many of the awardees (such as the various governments) wrestle with the responsibility that tech companies seem to so happily flaunt. The disrupters hate being disrupted. Furthermore, as should come as no surprise, the ITIF report maintains an aura that smells strongly of colonialism and disregard for the difficulties faced by those who are “disrupted” by “technological innovation.” The ITIF may want to reprimand organizations for trying to gently slow (which is not the same as stopping) certain forms of “technological innovation,” but the report has nothing to say about those who work mining the coltan that powers so many innovative devices, no concern for the factory workers who assemble these devices, and – of course – nothing to say about e-waste. Evidently to think such things are worthy of concern, to even raise the issue of consequences, is a sign of Ludditism. The ITIF holds out the promise of “better days ahead” and shows no concern for those whose lives must be trampled upon in the process. Granted, it is easy to ignore such issues when you work for a think tank in Washington DC and not as a coltan miner, a device assembler, a resident near an e-waste dump, or an individual whose job has just been automated.

The ITIF “Luddite Awards” are yet another installment of the tech world/business press game of “Who’s Afraid of General Ludd” in which the group shouting the word “Luddite” at all opponents reveals that it has a less nuanced understanding of technology than was had by the historic Luddites. After all, the Luddites were not opposed to technology as such, nor were they opposed to “technological innovation,” rather, as E.P. Thompson describes in The Making of the English Working Class:

“What was at issue was the ‘freedom’ of the capitalist to destroy the customs of the trade, whether by new machinery, by the factory-system, or by unrestricted competition, beating-down wages, undercutting his rivals, and undermining standards of craftsmanship…They saw laissez faire, not as freedom but as ‘foul Imposition”. They could see no ‘natural law’ by which one man, or a few men, could engage in practices which brought manifest injury to their fellows.” (Thompson, 548)

What is at issue in the “Luddite Awards” is the “freedom” of “technological innovators” (the same-old “capitalists”) to force their priorities upon everybody else – and while the ITIF may want to applaud such “freedom” it is clear that they do not intend to extend such freedom to the rest of the population. The fear that can be detected in the ITIF “Luddite Awards” is not ultimately directed at the award recipients, but at an aspect of the historic Luddites that the report seems keen on forgetting: namely, that the Luddites organized a mass movement that enjoyed incredible popular support – which was why it was ultimately the military (not “seeing the light” of “technological innovation”) that was required to bring the Luddite uprisings to a halt. While it is questionable whether many of the recipients of “Luddite Awards” will view the award as an honor, the term “Luddite” can only be seen as a fantastic compliment when it is used as a synonym for a person (or group) that dares to be concerned with ethical and democratic values other than a simple fanatical allegiance to “technological innovation.” Indeed, what the ITIF “Luddite Awards” demonstrate is the continuing veracity of the philosopher Günther Anders statement, in the second volume of The Obsolescence of Man, that:

“In this situation, it is no use to brandish scornful words like ‘Luddites’. If there is anything that deserves scorn it is, to the contrary, today’s scornful use of the term, ‘Luddite’ since this scorn…is currently more obsolete than the allegedly obsolete Luddism.” (Anders, Introduction – Section 7)

After all, as Anders might have reminded the people at ITIF: gas chambers, depleted uranium shells, and nuclear weapons are also “technological innovations.”

Works Cited

  • Anders, Günther. The Obsolescence of Man: Volume II – On the Destruction of Life in the Epoch of the Third Industrial Revolution. (translated by Josep Monter Pérez, Pre-Textos, Valencia, 2011). Available online: here.
  • Atkinson, Robert D. The 2014 Luddite Awards. January 2015.
  • Mumford, Lewis. The Myth of the Machine, volume 2 – The Pentagon of Power. New York: Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.
  • Mumford, Lewis. Art and Technics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
  • Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage Books, 1966.
  • Not cited but worth a look – Eric Hobsbawm’s classic article “The Machine Breakers.”


Zachary Loeb is a writer, activist, librarian, and terrible accordion player. He earned his MSIS from the University of Texas at Austin, and is currently working towards an MA in the Media, Culture, and Communications department at NYU. His research areas include media refusal and resistance to technology, ethical implications of technology, alternative forms of technology, and libraries as models of resistance. Using the moniker “The Luddbrarian,” Loeb writes at the blog LibrarianShipwreck, where this post first appeared. He is a frequent contributor to The b2 Review Digital Studies section.

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