Burn it All Down: A Guide to Neo-Luddism

By Gizmodo on at

By Roisin Kiberd

Luddism by definition is nebulous: It has only ever existed in resistance, named for its fictional leader Ned Ludd as a reaction to machines that threatened to strip the livelihood of workers during the industrial revolution. It wasn't a passive refusal to adapt to technology and join with to modern world, as numerous daily tweets would have you think; the Luddites sought to understand technology even as they attempted to resist it.

The original Luddites hold a certain romance, as underdogs and prescient technophobes. But today, their cause has evolved into a diverse and fractured medium through which to resist not only technology, but government surveillance, capitalist hierarchies and modernity itself.

Defining "Neo-Luddism" is even more fraught. The term—and ideology—overlaps and confuses itself with a diverse collection of causes and "isms": anti-materialism, minimalism, anarchism, eco-terrorism, anarcho-primitivism, dystopian futurology.

Consider this your bare-bones guide to the many faces of Neo-Luddism.

The "hold up a sec and think about this" camp

It's a sensible enough philosophy: Let's be conscientious and mindful about new technology before embracing it. Take a beat and question the impact it'll have on society.

This Neo-Luddite sect took root, unsurprisingly, in the early 90s. In 1990, author and activist Chellis Glendinning published "Notes toward a Neo-Luddite Manifesto" in quarterly journal the Utne Reader, reclaiming the term "luddite" for the modern era and listing the principles of the movement.

The Neo-Luddites would be "not anti-technology," it stated, but would oppose technology that was materialistic or destructive of community.

The principles claim that "all technologies are political" and should be questioned before we adopt them, in particular striving for the "dismantling" of nuclear technologies, television and computers ("which cause disease and death in their manufacture and use, enhance centralized political power, and remove people from direct experience of life"). Lets assume they gave up the fight on that one.

The "robots are stealing our livelihood" camp

Though frequently pitted against transhumanism in debates, Neo-Luddite opposition to technology is often not spiritual so much as economic. A certain wariness surrounds announcements of AI that can assume to roles of an increasing number of professions—a debate that plays out in books, films, TED talks and constant media debate over whether the robots are stealing our jobs or not.

Last year's Pew Report on automation was divided on whether or not to fear the rise of "robot overlords," and a McKinsey report the previous year on 'disruptive' technologies explored "the automation of knowledge work."

It raises questions around the great uncoupling of work productivity from wages, of Keynesian "technological unemployment'" and whether the Luddite Fallacy—the belief that robots will free up human time to focus on more sophisticated tasks—still prevails.

This subject has been tackled by many a theorist. Jaron Lanier's books Who Owns the Future and You Are Not a Gadget urge readers to maintain human imagination in the face of digital maoism. First technology blurs the meaning between work and free time (in using social platforms like Instagram and Facebook, we are essentially working for them), then it takes over our work and makes us passive consumers dependent on automated processes.

Similarly, Nicholas Carr's The Glass Cage argues that automation breeds torpidity of knowledge: The more jobs are automated, the more out-of-touch the people involved in the process become (i.e.. pilots who supervise the automated take-off and landing of planes, factory supervisors, etc).

Carr quotes the technology historian George Dyson: "What if the cost of machines that think is people who don't?"

The "burn it all down" camp

Unlike today's intellectualising, the original luddites are remembered for their violence and action. Smashing looms may not have accomplished much in the long term, but it served as a potent act of symbolic resistance. This part of their legacy remains in a niche showing of eco-activist and anarchist groups today.

The line between the terms "eco-activist" and "eco-terrorist" is blurred: It's used to describe groups like the radical ecologist collective in Italy, Il Silvestre, formed in 1998. Several years ago Italian police intercepted a car filled with explosives destined for an unfinished £36 million IBM nanotechnology facility in Zurich, imprisoning three members, and in 2012 the anarchist collective claimed responsibility in a four-page open letter for kneecapping Roberto Adinolfi, an Italian nuclear engineering executive.

Meanwhile, in Mexico, several eco-terrorist collectives including Individuals Tending Toward the Savage (ITS) and the Obsidian Point Circle of Attack formed in the late 2000s in response to Mexico's push for nanotechnology.

Nanotech is a controversial branch of science fingered for posing environmental and biological risks and the doomsday 'grey goo' scenario of nanoparticles spawning self-replicating robots which run amok and take over the world (no really, people are legitimately concerned).

In April and May 2011, anarcho-primitivist collectives, known locally as primativistas, claimed responsibility for bombing attacks on Carlos Alberto Camacho Olguin, head of nanotechnology at the Polytechnic University of the Valley of Mexico.

Monterey Institute of Technology has been another prominent target. Is director, Armando Herrera Corral, was sent a pipe bomb in 2011 which failed to explode completely but left one member of faculty with fragments of metal lodged in his lung.

In a 5,500-word communiqué the following day ITS claimed responsibility—quoting unabomber Ted Kaczynski's Manifesto:

"The ever-increasing acceleration of Technology will lead to the creation of nanocyborgs that can self-replicate automatically without human intervention… The conclusion of technological advancement will be pathetic, Earth and all those in it will have become a large gray mass, where intelligent nanomachines reign."

Adjacent group 'Obsidian Point Circle of Attack' published a similar diatribe last year, claiming responsibility for a mail bomb sent to Dr José Narro Robles:

We bitterly oppose the progress of the technological or industrial system, its cultural values and its slave society… the physique, character and mentality of the human being is manipulated and dominated now by machines, our deepest and darkest natural instincts are domesticated with their propaganda on television, radio, internet, newspapers, schools, jobs and universities. Progress kills, sickens and makes everything artificial and mechanical.

And speaking of technology that sickens…

The "technology is making us unhealthy" camp

Green Bank, West Virginia is described as the town without Wi-Fi, a federally mandated 'National Radio Quiet Zone' free from electromagnetic signals thanks to presence of a large telescope which needs complete 'radio silence' to function.

The town has become a haven for those suffering from electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS), a collection of symptoms including nausea, disorientation and headaches apparently induced by exposure to phone and internet signals, as yet unrecognised by modern medicine.

Even without physical illness induced by modern-day tech, interest in tiny houses and off-grid living is on the rise, and an increasing number of people are deciding to live in 'voluntary simplicity', which argues for "a thoughtfully sceptical stance in relation to technology and science, rejecting those aspects which, all things considered, seem to cost more than they come to."

The protest camp

Protests over local politics, gentrification, and cost of living have surfaced in San Francisco recently, targeting the giant tech companies based in Silicon Valley and specifically Kevin Rose, Google venture partner, founder of Digg and hero among tech bros.

Favouring physical obstruction over online protest, activist group the Counterforce has been blocking shuttle buses used by tech employees, breaking windows, picketing the homes of Google executives and even vomiting on Yahoo's employee bus.

We've also seen a handful of attacks aimed at a specific kinds of emerging technology, like drones and wearers of Google Glass, mirroring public concern for privacy invasion and surveillance.

But are any of them real "luddites?"

Today, to bottle up every sceptical opinion about the technological evolution is an exercise in futility, and probably pointless. The Neo-Luddites of today are faced with greater challenges than the local loom: The 'industrial technological society' warned of in the Unabomber's manifesto has become reality, and to resist technology is to resist society itself.

"I'm not sure there is any real Luddism today," said academic Kirkpatrick Sale in an interview with Forbes last year.

Sale first rose to prominence almost 20 years ago, smashing computers on stage at conferences and making a public wager Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired, that by 2020 the world would encounter "global currency collapse, significant warfare between rich and poor, and environmental disasters of some significant size."

"There were Neo-Luddites in the 1990s—and I was one—who warned against the obsessive use of the computer in all transactions and interactions," Sale said. "And that movement came to nothing when computers, from chips to laptops, became universal."

He may well be right: It's as hard to imagine life without technology as it is questioning the terms and conditions each app, device and social platform issue us with when we join them. As governments seek to monitor and censor our use of apps and devices, one Luddite warning, from filmmaker Godfrey Reggio, holds true: "technology is not neutral." That much we know for sure.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby