Neo-Luddism

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Neo-Luddism is a philosophy opposing many forms of modern technology. According to a manifesto drawn up by the ‘Second Luddite Congress’ in 1996: Neo-Luddism is ‘a leaderless movement of passive resistance to consumerism and the increasingly bizarre and frightening technologies of the Computer Age.’ The name is based on the historical legacy of the British Luddites, textile artisans who rebelled against the Industrial Revolution and newly developed labor-saving machinery that threatened their livelihoods. Both the original Luddites and their modern counterparts are characterized by the practice of destroying or avoiding technological equipment as well as advocating simple living.

Neo-Luddism stems from the concept that technology has a negative impact on individuals, their communities and the environment. It also seeks to examine the unknown effects that new technologies might unleash. The modern Neo-Luddite movement has connections with the anti-globalization movement, anarcho-primitivism (a political critique of the origins and progress of civilization), radical environmentalism, and Deep Ecology (a contemporary environmental philosophy advocating for the inherent worth of living beings regardless of their instrumental utility to humans). The word Luddite is also used as ‘a derogatory term applied to anyone showing vague technophobic leanings.’

German philosopher Martin Heidegger was a major critic of technology; ‘In The Question Concerning Technology’ (1953), he posited that the modern technological ‘mode of Being’ was one which viewed the natural world, plants, animals, and even human beings as a ‘standing-reserve’ — resources to be exploited as means to an end. To illustrate this ‘monstrousness,’ Heidegger uses the example of a hydroelectric plant on the Rhine river which turns the river from an unspoiled natural wonder to just a supplier of power. In this sense, technology is not just the collection of tools, but a way of Being in the world and of understanding the world which is instrumental and grotesque. According to Heidegger, this way of Being defines our modern way of living in the West, where technological process reduces beings to not-beings, which he called ‘the abandonment of Being’ and described as the loss of any sense of awe and wonder, as well as an indifference to that loss. According to philosopher Julian Young, Heidegger was a Luddite in his early philosophical phase and believed in the destruction of modern technology and a return to an earlier agrarian world. This view would soften later in life, however, as he came to accept the need for some technologies.

One of the first major contemporary anti-technological thinkers was French philosopher Jacques Ellul. In his 1964 book ‘The Technological Society,’ he argued that the rationality of technology enforces logical and mechanical organization which ‘eliminates or subordinates the natural world.’ Ellul defined ‘technique’ as the totality of organizational methods and technology with a goal toward maximum rational efficiency. According to this conception, technique has an impetus which tends to drown out human concerns: ‘The only thing that matters technically is yield, production. This is the law of technique; this yield can only be obtained by the total mobilization of human beings, body and soul, and this implies the exploitation of all human psychic forces.’ The views of Ellul influenced the ideas of the infamous American Neo-Luddite Ted Kaczynski, who engaged in a nationwide mail bombing campaign, killing three people and injuring 23 others. The opening of Kaczynski’s manifesto reads: ‘The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.’

In a letter to ecological philosopher David Skrbina, Kaczynski gave an extensive ‘partial list’ of problems he believes are brought about by the technological system: ‘War (with modern weapons, not comparable to earlier warfare), nuclear weapons, accumulation of nuclear waste, other pollution problems of many different kinds, global warming, ozone depletion, exhaustion of some natural resources, overpopulation and overcrowding, genetic deterioration of humans due to relaxation of natural selection, abnormally high rate of extinction of species, risk of disaster from biotechnological tinkering, possible or probable replacement of humans by intelligent machines, biological engineering of humans (an insult to human dignity), dominance of large organizations and powerlessness of individuals, surveillance technology that makes individuals still more subject to the power of large organizations, propaganda and other manipulative psychological techniques, psychoactive medications, mental problems of modern life, including inter alia, stress, depression, mania, anxiety disorders, attention-deficit disorder, addictive disorders, domestic abuse, and generalized incompetence.’

Another critic of political and technological expansion was American historian Lewis Mumford, who wrote ‘The Myth of the Machine,’ which insisted upon the reality of the ‘megamachine,’ the convergence of science, technics, and political power as a unified community of interpretation rendering useless and eccentric life-enhancing values. Other philosophers of technology who have questioned the validity of technological progress include philosophers of technology Albert Borgmann, Don Ihde and Hubert Dreyfus. Neo-Luddism believes in slowing or stopping the development of new technologies. They prescribe a lifestyle that abandons specific technologies as the best prospect for the future, or a return to nature and what are imagined as more natural communities. In the place of industrial capitalism, Neo-Luddites see small-scale agricultural communities such as those of the Amish and the Chipko movement in Nepal and India as models for the future.

Neo-Luddites are apprehensive about the ability of any new technology to solve current problems without creating more, potentially dangerous problems. They are generally opposed to anthropocentrism, globalization, and industrial capitalism. It often expresses itself in stark predictions about the effect of new technologies. Composer John Philip Sousa for example regarded the introduction of the phonograph with suspicion, predicting: “‘a marked deterioration in American music and musical taste.’ Many, however, reach far more dire conclusions about the impact of technology. To some Neo-Luddites, technology has created psychological disorders, social alienation, loss of community, unemployment, and economic and political inequality. They argue that environmental degradation, nuclear warfare, and biological weapons can not be solved with improvements in technology. Many Neo-Luddites believe that current technologies are a threat to humanity and to the natural world in general, and that a future societal collapse is possible or even probable.

Contemporary Neo-Luddites are a widely diverse group of loosely affiliated or non affiliated groups which includes ‘writers, academics, students, families, Amish, Mennonites, Quakers, environmentalists, ‘fallen-away yuppies,’ ‘ageing flower children’ and ‘young idealists seeking a technology-free environment.’ Some Luddites see them selves as victims of technology trying to prevent further victimization (such as Citizens Against Pesticide Misuse). Others see them selves as advocates for the natural order and resist environmental degradation by technology (such as Earth First!).

The ‘Second Neo-Luddite Congress’ was held in 1996 at a Quaker meeting hall in Barnesville, Ohio. In 2001, the ‘Teach-In on Technology and Globalization’ was held at Hunter College in New York city with the purpose to bring together critics of technology and globalization. The two figures who are seen as the movement’s founders are ecopsychologist Chellis Glendinning and political scholar Kirkpatrick Sale. Prominent Neo-Luddites include historian Theodore Roszak, astronomer Clifford Stoll, environmentalist Bill McKibben, cultural critic Neil Postman, environmental activist Wendell Berry, and economic critic and farmer Gene Logsdon.

In 1990, Glendinning published her ‘Notes towards a Neo-Luddite manifesto’ in the ‘Utne Reader,’ reclaiming the term ‘luddite.’ According to Glendinning, Neo-Luddites are ’20th century citizens — activists, workers, neighbors, social critics, and scholars — who question the predominant modern worldview, which preaches that unbridled technology represents progress.’ She proposes destroying the following technologies: electromagnetic technologies (this includes communications, computers, appliances, and refrigeration), chemical technologies (this includes synthetic materials and medicine), nuclear technologies (this includes weapons and power as well as cancer treatment, sterilization, and smoke detection), genetic engineering (this includes crops as well as insulin production). She argues in favor of the ‘search for new technological forms’ which are local in scale and promote social and political freedom.

Glendinning then proposes the following principles for Neo-Luddism: ‘Neo-Luddites are not anti-technology (they should only be against specific kinds of technology which are destructive to communities or are materialistic and rationalistic); ‘All technologies are political’ (Neo-Luddites should question if technologies have been created for specific interests, to perpetuate there specific values such as short-term efficiency, ease of production and marketing, profit); and ‘The personal view of technology is dangerously limited’ (the secondary aspects of the technology such as social, economic and ecological implications need to be examined before adoption of technology into our technological system, and not personal benefit).

In “The coming revolution”, Ted Kaczynski outlined what he saw as the new Luddists’ ‘new values that will free them from the yoke of the present technoindustrial system’: Rejection of all modern technology (‘This is logically necessary, because modern technology is a whole in which all parts are interconnected; you can’t get rid of the bad parts without also giving up those parts that seem good’); Rejection of civilization itself;Rejection of materialism and its replacement with a conception of life that values moderation and self-sufficiency while deprecating the acquisition of property or of status; Love and reverence toward nature, or even worship of nature; Exaltation of freedom; and Punishment of those responsible for the present situation (‘Scientists, engineers, corporation executives, politicians, and so forth’).

Some Neo-Luddites promote the uses of vandalism and sometimes violence to achieve social change. However, according to Kirkpatrick Sale, modern Neo-Luddites are more likely to ‘confine their resistance…to a kind of intellectual and political resistance.’ The manifesto of the ‘Second Luddite Congress’ specifically rejects violent action. Kaczynski, initially sabotaged developments near his cabin but dedicated himself to getting back at the system after discovering a road had been built over a plateau he had considered beautiful. Between 1978 and 1995, he engaged in a nationwide bombing campaign against modern technology, planting or mailing numerous home-made bombs, killing three people and injuring 23 others. In his 1995 manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future, he wrote: ‘The kind of revolution we have in mind will not necessarily involve an armed uprising against any government. It may or may not involve physical violence, but it will not be a POLITICAL revolution. Its focus will be on technology and economics, not politics.’

In 2012, credit for the shooting of Roberto Adinolfi, an Ansaldo Nucleare executive, was claimed by an anarchist group who targeted him for stating that none of the deaths following the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami were caused by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster itself: ‘Adinolfi knows well that it is only a matter of time before a European Fukushima kills on our continent […] Science in centuries past promised us a golden age, but it is pushing us towards self destruction and slavery […] With our action we give back to you a small part of the suffering that you scientists are bringing to the world.’

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