Song for the Luddites
THE ECOTOPIA 2121 PROJECT PREDICTS THE FUTURE OF 100 ECOFRIENDLY CITIES ACROSS THE GLOBE. THIS WEEK, WE FOCUS ON THE CITY OF PLYMOUTH.
It is a cool, still night in early November; the year 2111AD. Our location is the port city of Plymouth, England. Arms, limbs, and heads are being blasted across the harbor by homemade explosives. The citizens in the city nearby are yelling joyfully.
The body parts belong to robots. And the people are hooting as the machines’ remains get tossed out to sea. After watching the robot heads bob up and down in the waves for a little while, the citizens all retire to local pubs to celebrate, proudly singing the first verse of a nineteenth-century poem penned by Lord Byron — to contemporary music, of course:
As the Liberty lads o’er the sea
Brought their freedom, and cheaply with blood,
So we, boys, we
Will die fighting, or live free,
And down with all kings but King Ludd!
Plymouth, England, c2121AD.
Exactly three hundred years before this night of revel, on a chilly November evening in the textile factory towns of Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire, the Luddite movement was born. A group of textile artisans -- skilled weavers who were about to be laid off -- went into a factory at night and smashed all the machines.
Today, in the early twenty-first century, anybody who resists technology in any way is often branded with the 'Luddite' label, which is meant pejoratively. Bill Gates’s lawyer, for example, used the term in this way in the courtroom against the people who filed lawsuits claiming Microsoft was breaking monopoly laws.
Yet the modern-day myth that Luddites are backward techno-haters just exposes a willful ignorance of history on the part of those who use it as a term of abuse. The original Luddites were not opposed to all technology. They were against the uncontrolled and unnecessary use of it just to let businesses make tiny savings on labor costs. As a Luddite sympathizer explained in the Nottingham Review in 1811:
"If the workmen dislike certain machines, it was because of the use to which they were being put, not because they were machines or because they were new."
It’s also the case that the quality of the product, the cloth that was spun by the new machines, was demonstrably inferior to the cloth fashioned by the human artisans—thus disenfranchising consumers as well as the workers.
As they made their feelings known and put their ideas into action, the Luddites and those who supported them in any way were actually very much risking their lives, since the Parliament in London had hastily passed a law imposing the death sentence on anybody found guilty of Luddism. About seventy Luddites were hanged, and many others were sent to detention in penal colonies abroad. To be a Luddite was to be deeply courageous.
In addition, the government sent not police or other law enforcers to deal with the situation but instead dispatched twelve thousand soldiers. Ludicrously, these soldiers were marched around the textile counties of northern England in a high-profile attempt to deter Luddite activity. Given that this was 1811, at the peak of the Napoleonic wars in Europe, it is surprising that so many soldiers could be found in England and then wasted on such an expensive task, but such was the hostility toward workers’ rights among those in power.
The Luddites lived during a time when workingmen and -women did not have a vote or a political party to represent them, and when unions were outlawed. All this means that the smashing up of a machine seemed a perfectly rational action in order to keep one’s job. The historian Eric Hobsbawn called Luddism:
“collective bargaining, early nineteenth-century style.”
Various public show trials were held in towns and villages in England to warn people off of supporting the Luddites. If Bill Gates’s lawyer had been around in the nineteenth century, maybe he would have been on the side of the parliamentarians, allied with rich merchants to force workers out of jobs and calling for them to be hanged if they resisted.
Not all parliamentarians in London were out to vilify the Luddites. This is why we find the joyous people of Plymouth in 2111 singing aloud the poetry of Lord Byron. In 1811, Byron wrote and published his first major collection of poetry. It made him into a huge celebrity around the nation, but as a life peer in the House of Lords he was also obliged to turn up in the upper house of Parliament once in a while to vote on matters of state. One of his first speeches in this venue was an eloquent statement against the death penalty for Luddites. From this speech he later crafted his “Song for Luddites”, the second verse of which
When the web that we weave is complete,
And the shuttle exchanged for the sword,
We will fling the winding sheet
O’er the despot at our feet,
And dye it deep in the gore he has pour’d.
And why would people in Plymouth in 2111 so happily chuck robot parts into the sea? Well, the robots had just arrived in a huge container ship, all preset and preprogrammed to take over their jobs. The people foresaw that the robots would be employed to load and unload the ships and would move goods from here to there all over the city.
Soon enough, robots might end up teaching the kids at school and pouring the tea and beer in the cafés and pubs. This prospect of total automation in Plymouth had galvanized Plymothians into action, hence all the flying robot limbs.
Of course, a robot company isn’t going to get very far in the twenty-second century just by advertising the superiority of robots over humans. So in Plymouth the robot company spent lots of money trying to seduce and manipulate the populace into loving robots by making the machines as human as possible, giving free pet robots to kids, and donating robots to the local schools. These freebies soon ended up floating on the sea as well.
Because the owners of the robot company couldn’t manipulate Plymouth as they had wished, they soon left the city, and the Plymothians had to resurrect the operations of the port themselves using old fashioned labor and machines. Over the course of the next decade, they also realized how much better off they would be if they rid their workplaces not only of robots but of many other unnecessary technologies. They would be much safer and lead much more satisfying lives with less need for capital investment, which in turn made them less dependent on external influences. Many people also felt the city to be more peaceful and family friendly. Welcome to Plymouth 2121.
Like Nottinghamshire in 1811, Plymouth in 2121 is not a wholesale reaction against every form of new technology but resistance to those forms that end up being used to make local people weaker and relinquish control over their work lives. Occasionally, the Plymothians are warned that they will never compete with other English port cities on the global stage, yet Plymouth 2121 manages to secure sole trading rights to the eco-cities of Athens 2121 and Antalya 2121 and also to the Slow City of Malaga 2121, exporting and importing all they need to survive and prosper.
If Luddism develops in such a way as to become the most popular form of politics and management in Plymouth 2121, how can it be classed as a type of ecotopia? Plymouth’s Luddism involves the enshrinement in law of the Precautionary Principle, which states that if there is any risk to human or environmental health from a new machine system, and if this risk is uncertain or makes for possibly irreversible consequences, then Plymouth will err on the side of caution and not just willy-nilly adopt the machines. All the risks of any new machines are then weighed and counterweighed by a democratically elected jury, including some recruited within it to speak for the marine and terrestrial wildlife in or nearby the city. Only after substantial evidence is found that no harm will befall Plymouth -- its people or its environment -- will new machine systems be approved.
Most Plymouth citizens accept this as standard, since they feel there’s no need to rush a technology into use just to make some anxious investor or corporation happy. Plymouth will survive well enough without certain machines for as long as it takes to ensure that they are safe. If any developer attempts to circumvent this rule by invoking a British law not voted for by a local MP or by appealing to an out-of-town magistrate, then the by law states that any registered Plymouth residents may undertake eco-sabotage in order to ensure the health of the city, as long as they publicly announce their actions by singing aloud all three verses of Byron’s “Song for Luddites.” Here’s the final verse:
Though black as his heart its hue,
Since his veins are corrupted to mud,
Yet this is the dew
Which the tree shall renew
Of Liberty, planted by Ludd!