Ned Ludd Was Wrong...Sort Of
by Blair Korchinski
ďJust then Ned Ludd
came 'a running in the room
he saw that power loom
and he sensed impending doom,
and we don't know why
but Ned Ludd went awry,
he screamed and had a fit
and he crashed right into it.
And it shuddered and it fell.
and the weavers liked it well.Ē
ĖThe Ballad of Ned Ludd
Technological changes bring other changes with them. In Ned Luddís case, he was afraid that many would lose their livelihoods when advances were made to the technology of the loom. He was right--they did.
Technology is advancing at an ever increasing rate. In 1811 when Ludd and his followers began rioting and destroying machinery in an attempt to hang onto their jobs, nobody had ever dreamed that someday there would be a world so dependent on technology that many would be unable to survive without it. The Luddites were put down with government actions that included mass shootings and hangings and by 1813 the Luddites were all but gone. There was a brief resurgence in 1816, but the Luddites were done. Or were they? People have been distrustful of technological advances for a very long time. Like Ned Ludd, those people are not necessarily wrong.
The problem isnít the technology that gets blamed of course. Ned and his followers might have blamed new mechanised looms for their predicament, but the real problem was that the owners of the looms were causing wages to go down and people with traditional skills but lacking modern skills were having trouble earning any wages at all. They were being dispossessed by technology and nobody in a position of power was willing to help them.
At the same time people all over the world were suffering the problem of not being technologically advanced enough to stave off military invasions and economic subjugation by the imperial powers which existed at that time. The European powers were at their height with holdings all over the world. They got and held on to those holdings as much through military might as any other method.
Things havenít really changed much. There are some new players on the block and the rate of technological change is dizzying, but the base problem remains the same. Those that control the technology also control the wealth. They make the rules, they set the wages, they develop the systems, they control who has access to what, they use their technologically advanced military might to enforce their wills. Doing that ensures that those presently in charge remain in charge and that their wealth and power grows.
It doesnít even particularly matter what domain the technology is in. Large agribusiness survives on technology...GM crops, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, massive irrigation projects, global positioning systems, satellite imaging, automated equipment. Modern agribusiness bears little resemblance to what most people think of when they think of a farm. The industry is heavily subsidised and technologically advanced.
Now consider trying to effectively grow crops in a developing nation using technology that is decades, even centuries, old on a scale that would allow you to compete with rich western nations. You plow with animals or an old-technology tractor. You sow and harvest largely by hand. You use seed saved from last yearís harvest. You hope that thereís enough rain and that the crop isnít eaten by pests. You need to keep part of the crop for your family and likely for your village. Youíve just been effectively removed from the world economy before you ever really got there. Now you are expected to advance.
Whatís needed for that advancement? Well first you have to give up seed-saving. The system you use for getting seed to plant next yearís crop with does not fit with the modern technology. You need to get money (or more likely credit) to buy modern equipment with. You cannot compete without using economies of scale so you must have the modern equipment. Besides, the modern crops are designed for mechanised handling and may not do as well if you donít have the latest equipment. You need chemicals. Those modern crops are designed to grow with chemicals and have little natural resistance to local pests. You need a marketing system thatís computerised so you can be paid for your crop. You need that money to pay for your equipment and to feed your family because you cannot save the seeds. Of course there isnít enough money there because the subsidies other countries can afford have sunk the market value of your crop.
You are now poorer than you used to be. The new technology you purchased requires updating and servicing. It is not easily adaptable for other uses. Your crops are providing a lower rate of return than predicted.
The culture of technology is such that we expect people to adapt to its systems instead of adapting the technology and to the people or the situation. Itís the equivalent of me going on a tropical vacation and taking only clothes suitable for a Winnipeg winter. Except itís more than that because the way we impose technology on others would also require the resort staff who dealt with me to dress for a Winnipeg winter as well.
The cultural assumptions inherent in most technologies are so built in that we never even notice them until they become a problem. When those problems arise, the tendency is to blame the culture, climate or the people where the technology failed. Our concept of a global technology is one that suits western sensibilities. The dominant language is English, the accounting systems are based on western practices, everything from the equipment to the architecture is suitable to the climate and conditions in North America or Western Europe.
There is also the problem of weapons technology. Just like the conquerors of old, todayís major powers insist on a right to more advanced weaponry than those in less developed countries. The US is allowed to have nuclear weapons and a new nuclear research program, but other countries are not. Western nations are able to use depleted uranium weapons, but other countries are not. The US is opposing the EU setting up its own version of global position because it would take control of that system away from the US.
Not that everybody should be allowed to have nukes and other weapons of mass murder, nobody should be allowed to have them. Instead of working towards the goal of disarmament powerful countries work against it. Why shouldnít Iran or North Korea have nuclear problems when the US is developing so-called ďfield nukes?Ē Why is it all right for countries such as the US and Great Britain to use depleted uranium weapons that will have devastating effects on generations of people in countries where those weapons are used? More importantly, why are developing nations not to be trusted with dual use technologies? Software and computers that can be used for industry or warfare are routinely kept out of the hands of developing nations.
Imagine being a developing nation that has suddenly found itself to be resource rich. You consider your neighbour to be a threat, modern nations to be a threat, rebel insurgents to be a threat. You are told by the already developed nations that you are not entitled to the same technologies they use to defend themselves. You not only find these nations to be a threat, but need them both to technologically exploit your new-found wealth and as a market for the resources to build that wealth. Those technologies include not only weapons ranging from the traditional to the nuclear, but dual use technologies...things that would best help you develop your industry, but could also be used to develop weapons or to defend yourself against the weapons of others.
While terms like democracy are regularly bandied about, restrictions are being placed on poor nations that are not placed on wealthy nations. This leads to the not inaccurate perception that wealthy nations would like the poor nations to advance only as far as benefits the wealthy nations...that they are to be kept subordinate.
The current system, one that refuses to acknowledge the problems that our technology brings and expects others to adapt to the technology we see fit to allow them without limiting the technology we allow ourselves, is creating a new group of Luddites every day. Like Ned Ludd and his followers, they are as apt to blame the technology as those who use that technology to keep them subordinate.
We are doing little to encourage real technological advancement on most of the planet. The technologies we do share often have the effect, or at least the appearance, of subjugating the people they are introduced to. Ned Ludd and his followers shunned violence against people, targeting technology itself. Most of the human race does not have a history of being that discriminating.
Reverend Blair was raised in Saskatchewan and currently lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He comes from a long line of social activists and cried on Tommy Douglas before his first birthday. His column appears biweekly on Vive le Canada.