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Glossary: “Luddite” – Rhetorical Device

by Paul Creech on Friday, August 15, 2014

The term Luddite is used as a slur to refer people who oppose technology, normally out of self-interested concern for their employment. Pew recently released a survey of ‘experts’ who were split about whether robots were going to put us all out of our jobs, as they did line workers at automotive plants, textile workers and telephone operators. In response, many of those wringing their hands over job losses due to technological advancement were labeled Luddites.

Throughout history there have been groups of people who have suffered the loss of their employment due to the utilization of labor saving technologies. Many times these people have been the most vulnerable: they tend to be low skilled, poorly paid, and face incredible difficulty because of the seemingly radical technology that rendered them unnecessary. For more than hundred years before Marx, these workers formed mobs to destroy the very machines that put them out of work. More than fifty years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence it was made illegal to destroy machinery in protest within the British Empire by an Act of Parliament. Before Franklin invented electricity, mobs formed in violent attacks on factories, lead by those who where disenfranchised due to mechanization. There is a long history of violent uprisings that attack the machines that put people out of work. At first, the penalty for destruction of machinery was transportation to a penal colony like Australia, later the death penalty was authorized.

One group who’s employment was threatened by labor saving technology were the stocking makers. In the early 19th century groups of textile workers engaged in sometimes violent protests to try and halt the transition to steam powered machines that threatened their livelihood–for some reason lost to history, they became known as Luddites. The Luddite protests sometimes required the use of the British military to put them down.

In the old days, to make a pair of socks, a person had to sit and weave the garment on a wooden frame. Each sock would take a substantial period of time to manufacture, and a person would be paid for that time. To make a profit, the sock would be sold a greater cost than the materials, labor and other costs associated with the making of that sock. Then came steam power and engineers who could create a machine that harnessed that power, which put a lot of textile workers out of a job. Now a sock is made faster, by fewer workers, and can be offered for less money to the consumer.

Today, instead of steam power disrupting and remaking the world, we have smart phones (an almost antiquated sounding term itself), and developers are harnessing that power to change the way goods and services are being created, marketed, and delivered to consumers. Technologies have conspired to allow for globalization of manufacturing, transportation, communication. As these technologies evolve, they can bring out Luddite reactions.

Are the taxi and cab drivers who oppose mobile application based ‘ride sharing’ Luddites? Are hoteliers who oppose apps that can facilitate any person renting out their apartment or home for a night Luddites? What about teachers and professors that do not want iPads and laptops in their classrooms? When the president blames banks installing ATMs as a cause of unemployment is he a Luddite?

Government, with its coercive regulatory and taxation power, can create and destroy products or industry at a whim–even before they have chance to be created. Often the government is cast by critics as Luddites, protecting entrenched interests with pre-textual arguments, at the expense of progress and to the detriment of consumers. Those people concerned about privacy and government abuse have been referred to as Luddites. Labor unions that fight modernization, automation, and seek ‘make work’ regulations have often been called Luddites.

Technological advances disrupt established norms. A company that develops a better product, or can make it cheaper because of technological advancements may become more profitable, and cause competitors to fail, causing the competitor’s employees to lose jobs. Or the competitor may be forced to introduce the same or greater labor saving technologies. Whole industries can be transformed, jobs lost, families tossed into hardship, and all in the name of progress.

We often associate the term Luddite with manufacturing, where it originated. In the United States manufacturing output has doubled since 1975. Yet, throughout the country we have heard story after story of people, towns, and whole rust-belt states who have lost out when manufacturing jobs disappeared. This is because they have; the number of people employed in manufacturing is two-thirds of what it was in 1975. We make twice as much, with a third less labor. The United States is twice the manufacturing giant it was in 1975, yet those jobs have steadily disappeared while the population has increased. Meaning that only a fraction of the population today is employed in manufacturing compared with 1975.

Now, technology is allowing for disruption of established service based industries. These are industries who are usually protected by government mandated cartels, where competition is prohibited by legislated licensing quotas, fixed rates, and other costly entry-prohibitive regulations. Everyday, people are looking at the world around them and asking what can this magical device in my pocket do that would be attractive to consumers and that would make them money. What established norm can we disrupt? How many call centers, manned by single moms and college students, has the mobile app closed? How many book store employees lost their jobs to Amazon?

It is very easy to dismiss opponents of any technological advance as Luddites. And, perhaps, they are only seeking to protect their own interests at the expense of potential competitors and consumers. Luddites however are protectionists, not hipsters. Luddites seek to use force, whether physical or the coercive power, usually of government, for their aims. When labeling a group as Luddites, the speaker wants to associate them with industries or practices whose day has passed and will disappear as sure as the Sun will rise–and all the lobbying in the world will not save them. One political science professor of mine used to use the example of the buggy-whip industry when mocking Luddites, who the government failed to properly protect from technological advancement, as having particularly ineffectual lobbyists.

A person can see value in a hand made garment, and even pay a great premium for that article because it was not produced in mass. They can prefer locally sourced items. They can care about the manner in which a thing is produced, as adding a spiritual or aesthetic value to the item that is lost in automated factory production or when a good or service is purchased through a chain store. Some people feel they gain on a spiritual level when they buy certain products or services, which transforms their purchase into a morally righteous action. They seek to use social pressure to demonize and assign a moral judgment on those who produce, sell, and purchase certain goods or services because of nature of its production. When these values are used by the consumer to make choices, it creates niche markets for craftsmen or service providers. When used to justify laws and rules to protect these people from competition then the person is acting as a Luddite just as much as when they protest, destroy property, or use another form of force.

Luddite is a term that used as a rhetorical device to persuade the audience that certain point of view is opposed to technological advancement based on fear and self interest, and not based on reason. There are many reasonable discussions that we could have about technology and how it effects our lives, the lives of others, and what regulation, if any, should be imposed upon an industry or practice. Terms like Luddite can be unhelpful to those discussions.

These materials have been prepared for general informational and entertainment purposes only and are not intended as legal advice.

Paul Creech
Paul Creech is an attorney living in Houston, Texas. Paul has baccalaureate degrees in philosophy and political science from Utah State University, and a juris doctorate degree from Houston College of Law. He is a former U.S. Marine. Besides the law, Paul's interests include sports, art, and food.