November 30, 1998

Of Luddites' and 'Eli-ites'

Why is there a word for those seen to be opposing technological change but not for those forcing untested technologies upon us? In the midst of the great biotechnology debate, an understanding of our different perspectives could help ...

In 1811, beleaguered textile workers defending their jobs took on the Industrial Revolution by axing mills and machinery in the English Midlands. Lord Byron's maiden speech in the House of Lords was an impassioned plea for their cause. Although the plight of the workers caught in the technological transition won some sympathy, by 1815 the rebellion led by Ned Ludd ended at the gallows for many of its leaders. Today, Ludd's rebellion is almost universally interpreted as a tragic example of society's failure to comprehend the march of scientific progress. Anyone opposing new technologies is dismissed as a Luddite".

But if the Industrial Revolution - as exemplified in new textile machinery - devastated working families in the Midlands, it brought mass starvation in India where cotton-growers and cloth-weavers lost everything. Cotton production shifted to the southern US. Finished cotton cloth - spun with the new machinery symbolized by Eli Whitney's cotton gin - usurped the work of Indian hand-looms. By 1834, the Governor of the British East India Company wrote, "The misery hardly finds a parallel in the history of commerce. The bones of the cotton-weavers are bleaching the plains of India."

Yet, not all the devastation was due to the inexorable pressure of 'a good idea whose time had come.' To the dismay of British mill-owners and the chagrin of US slave-owners, India remained competitive. Indian cloth was of finer quality and its price threatened the purse and premise of the new industrialists. To safeguard the march of progress, British agents set impossible production quotas and then seized the goods of defaulting Indian weavers. At times, in desperate protest, cloth winders cut off their own thumbs. By 1814, as the Luddite rebellion ended with its leaders hung, the British imposed harsh restrictions on the export of India's finished cloth. Soldiers actually smashed the fingers of rebellious weavers with their muskets.

Eli Whitney's patented cotton gin (1793) was not the only concern of British and Indian Luddites. In 1798, Whitney also patented the first musket with interchangeable parts - the very muskets used by British soldiers smashing the hands of Indian weavers and winders. The ideological heirs to Eli Whitney's musket and machinery must, two hundred years later, be considered the 'Eli-ites' of technology today.

Whatever their methods, were the 'Eli-ites' correct? In Britain, the Industrial Revolution led to unprecedented wealth and increased life expectancy. Within the textile industry, cloth and clothing prices fell to levels even the poor could afford. Not so in India. Even in England, as The Economist recently conceded, by the mid- 19th century "the initial enriching impact of the industrial revolution had given way to the Dickensian miseries of urban life." One well-documented indicator, the stature of British and U.S. soldiers, shows that the steady rise in the height of new recruits witnessed from the mid- 18th century to the beginning of the 19th century (the time of the Luddites) turned downwards until the 1850's or later and did not return to the levels of 1800 until after 1900. Luddites would argue that social well-being could have been better-served.

RAFI's Laws of Technology Introduction: For every Luddite trying to impose social controls over the introduction of untested technologies, there is an Eli-ite using social controls to speed the acceptance of new technologies. Any new technology introduced into a society which is not, by its nature, a "just" society will exacerbate the gap between rich and poor. The issue is not science but who will control technology. In the case of a tool as powerful as biotechnology, the answer is vital to all our lives.

Seven Sins/Saints of Commission/Omission

  1. Conception (Good/Bad Old Days)
    As "Eli-ites" See It: Look how much better thing are now. Give us credit for making major - if uneven - improvements.
    The "Luddite's" Response: The issue is usually not that there has been no improvement - but that there could have been greater improvement, with fewer complications - if the science had been conducted in a more socially-beneficial context.
  2. Connection (Tandem Technologies)
    As "Eli-ites" See It: We are the experts in our science and we say it will move slower/faster than Luddites think and, therefore, will not have the implications they suggest.
    The "Luddite's" Response: Scientists in one field are often unaware of tandem technological developments elsewhere (the impact of micro-electronics on microbiology; of oil drilling on the auto industry; of rocketry on materials, etc.) that can affect the pace of change.
  3. Context (Optimist/Pessimist)
    As "Eli-ites" See It: This technology could do wonders. Lud-dites don't see its labour-saving / energy-saving/ food-securing /health-benefiting /pollution-abating /wealth-creating merits.
    The "Luddite's" Response: It takes at least a generation to comprehend the implications of any new technology (internal combustion engine; synthetic chemicals; nuclear power; electricity or new biotechnologies). This is not an indictment of science but an argument for humility - and caution.
  4. Control (Ownership and Osmosis)
    As "Eli-ites" See It: Government and Industry know their voters/customers and will protect their interests. After all, there are anti-trust and consumer protection laws.
    The "Luddite's" Response: Commercial technologies are quickly appropriated & contribute to new concentrations of economic power (railways, petroleum, media, biotechnology). There is an osmosis effect as the irresistible force of profit pressures the highly-movable object of government legislation/regulation to bend to its needs (ie. Commons Enclosures; seed certification; life patents).
  5. Consequence (Safe or Suicidal?)
    As "Eli-ites" See It: Luddites are alarmists. The world will not come to an end. We know how to control this technology.
    The "Luddite's" Response: Tell it to the railway workers of the 1800's, the miners, and chemical workers in the first half of this century, or the nuclear workers today. It takes a generation to understand the consequences (positive & negative).
  6. Contribution (Taking Up and Trickling Down)
    As "Eli-ites" See It: If not directly beneficial to all of society, at least there will be a trickle-down effect from the creation of new wealth that will benefit the poor eventually.
    The "Luddite's" Response: Any new technology introduced into a society which is not, itself, a "just" society will exacerbate the gap between the rich and poor. Whether it ultimately benefits the poor depends upon many social factors. (Agricultural Revolution on Enclosures; Industrial Revolution on health; Green Revolution on rural poor, etc.).
  7. Conflict (Pugilists and Polemicists)
    As "Eli-ites" See It: Luddites paint everything in intractable black and white making sweeping simplifications, trumpeting doom to the media, and refusing to compromise. Why can't they be more realistic and reasonable?
    The "Luddite's" Response: Eli-ites are in charge. Luddites get "one kick at the can" when new technologies first appear. Those in opposition fight an uphill battle with an uncritical, mesmerized media. The political forum is such that every compromise is just an interim step toward total control. The message has to be clear and compromise is to be distrusted. "

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