The term “Luddite” emerged in early 1800s England. At the time there was a thriving textile industry that relied on manual knitting frames and a talented workforce to create cloth and garments out of cotton and wool. But as the Industrial Revolution gathered momentum, steam-powered mills threatened the livelihood of hundreds of artisanal textile staff.

Faced with an industrialized future that threatened their jobs and their skilled identity, a growing variety of textile staff turned to direct motion. Galvanized by their leader, Ned Ludd, they began to smash the machines that they saw as robbing them of their source of income.

It’s not clear whether Ned Ludd was an actual person, or just a figment of folklore invented during a period of upheaval. But his name became synonymous with rejecting disruptive recent technologies – an association that lasts to this present day.

Questioning doesn’t mean rejecting

Contrary to popular belief, the unique Luddites weren’t anti-technology, nor were they technologically incompetent. Rather, they were expert adopters and users of the artisanal textile technologies of the time. Their argument was not with technology, per se, but with the ways in which wealthy industrialists were robbing them of their lifestyle.

A wood engraving from 1844 depicts Luddites destroying power looms.
Archiv Gerstenberg/Getty Images

Today, this distinction is usually lost.

Being called a Luddite often indicates technological incompetence – as in, “I can’t determine learn how to send emojis; I’m such a Luddite.” Or it describes an ignorant rejection of technology: “He’s such a Luddite for refusing to make use of Venmo.”

In December 2015, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates were jointly nominated for a “Luddite Award”. Their sin? Raising concerns over the potential dangers of artificial intelligence.

The irony of three distinguished scientists and entrepreneurs being labeled as Luddites underlines the disconnect between the term’s original meaning and its more modern use as an epithet for anyone who doesn’t wholeheartedly and unquestioningly embrace technological progress.

Yet technologists like Musk and Gates aren’t rejecting technology or innovation. Instead, they’re rejecting a worldview that each one technological advances are ultimately good for society. This worldview optimistically assumes that the faster humans innovate, the higher the longer term shall be.

This “move fast and break things” approach toward technological innovation has come under increasing scrutiny lately – especially with growing awareness that unfettered innovation can result in deeply harmful consequences that a level of responsibility and forethought could help avoid.

Why Luddism matters

In an age of ChatGPT, gene editing and other transformative technologies, perhaps all of us have to channel the spirit of Ned Ludd as we grapple with learn how to make sure that future technologies do more good than harm.

In fact, “Neo-Luddites” or “New Luddites” is a term that emerged at the tip of the twentieth century.

In 1990, the psychologist Chellis Glendinning published an essay titled “Notes toward a Neo-Luddite Manifesto.”

In it, she recognized the character of the early Luddite movement and related it to a growing disconnect between societal values and technological innovation within the late twentieth century. As Glendinning writes, “Like the early Luddites, we too are a desperate people in search of to guard the livelihoods, communities, and families we love, which lie on the verge of destruction.”

On one hand, entrepreneurs and others who advocate for a more measured approach to technology innovation lest we stumble into avoidable – and potentially catastrophic risks – are regularly labeled “Neo-Luddites.”

These individuals represent experts who consider in the ability of technology to positively change the longer term, but are also aware of the societal, environmental and economic dangers of blinkered innovation.

Then there are the Neo-Luddites who actively reject modern technologies, fearing that they’re damaging to society. New York City’s Luddite Club falls into this camp. Formed by a gaggle of tech-disillusioned Gen-Zers, the club advocates using flip phones, crafting, hanging out in parks and reading hardcover or paperback books. Screens are an anathema to the group, which sees them as a drain on mental health.

I’m undecided how a lot of today’s Neo-Luddites – whether or not they’re thoughtful technologists, technology-rejecting teens or just people who find themselves uneasy about technological disruption – have read Glendinning’s manifesto. And to make sure, parts of it are somewhat contentious. Yet there may be a typical thread here: the concept technology can lead to private and societal harm if it is just not developed responsibly.

And perhaps that approach isn’t such a nasty thing.

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