Luddism

Luddites n English history  1 any of the textile workers opposed to mechanization who rioted and organized machine-breaking between 1811 and 1816 2 any opponent of industrial change or innovation ► adj 3 of or relating to the Luddites > ‘luddism n

Etymology: C19: alleged to be named after Ned Ludd, an 18th-century Leicestershire workman, who destroyed industrial machinery

I came across this word in an article of the Lapham’s Quarterly; and had to enroll the assistance of two dictionaries to get a firm grip on what it means. The definition above comes from the Collins, and did not fully explain the use of the word in the context I had found it. Another definition, far less refined and just as the Internet requires, simply mentioned “fear of change”.Together, it seemed to fit, with the Collins perhaps not (yet) aware of the extension of the word outside of the industrial lingo.

Having said this, there are probably not so many politicians, in particular activists, who made it in the dictionary or who gave their name to an “-ism” (the most well-known might be Marxism, and considered more singular are Magonism and Gaullism among others).

Politics aside, I wonder if we are not all ‘natural’ Luddites and very often resist change in one way or another. For example in the workplace: the boss wants to change something, ideally for the good of the company, but meets resistance from other stakeholders: the near-classical “let’s buy this new machine, more cutting in less time!” versus “but it will not cut as well as human hands!” When not purely an issue of jobs destruction, such resistance is often discussed and attributed to a hindrance to innovation. It quickly ramifies into political issues (distribution of wealth, integrity of the workers, etc.) It certainly goes the other way as well, when employees propose ideas that are systematically turned down by their management.

But luddism today no longer only means resistance to change on the job, it certainly applies to technological change (in its historical and contemporary meaning). It also reaches deep within ourselves: we resist to changes at home and in our communities in different ways. The essence of luddism is then, in my view, the natural trait humans have to resist novelty of all sorts, in trying to stay comfortable. That is: safe.

Rationality implies we fight this natural tendency and take risks. When evidence tells us there is a benefit for change, we ought to take the step. However, we are not always rational, being driven by emotions (short term) and natural instincts (safety). Overcoming the natural tendency to avoid change is a must for mankind to attempt to move forward. This is one argument to be made on behalf of the anti-luddites.

However, being concerned by change, technological or otherwise, can be a healthy thing. We may reflect on this in two ways. Firstly, changing for the sake of making changes can be dangerous. This claim is common sense: why change something that works, for an unproven alternative, based on evidences often open to various challenges? Secondly, rationality is the antonym to change: not only it would be senseless to change for the sake of change, but it would be insane to become irrational just because we think it is necessary to agree to change.

Both rationalism and luddism in face of change have their limits and an answer of what is right lies somewhere in between: an inner choice we need to make. Our appreciation for and our reaction to change is part of our identity.

This discussion also opens a question about aesthetics: where does art stand in constructing newly aquired beliefs or opinions? If art has a role to play there, then art is perhaps irrational. Thus we can wonder if art the ultimate enemy of the luddists? Can one be a luddist and be creative?