The Robots Are Coming: Reformed Luddism Can Save Us

“If neo-Luddism is conceived of in psychotic or apocalyptic terms, it is of no use to anybody and could prove very dangerous. But if it is conceived of as a critical engagement with technology, it could be useful and essential.” – Bryan Appleyard.

Writing in The Guardian recently, Jamie Bartlett added to those voices who decry technology and its pernicious impact on our ever-increasingly, anxious lives. While Bartlett foresees a seemingly inevitable move towards off-grid lifestyles and even terror attacks against the technology industry itself, he suggests we are most likely to see an increasing number of people embrace what writer, Blake Snow, has termed reformed luddism – “a society that views tech with a sceptical eye, noting the benefits while recognising that it causes problems, too. And more importantly, thinks that something can be done about it.”

We need to become neo luddites, apparently, because our addiction to digital devices is causing us major psychological damage. And – if we think this is bad – the robots are coming and our jobs are going to be taken away and we will rebel and take it out on them. The author also draws parallels with the predictions of Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, who warned that technological change could destroy civilization, choosing to communicate this impending evil by murdering and mutilating innocent people. Luddites, we are warned, will soon be placed on governmental extremist lists along with “the far right and Islamist”. This is pretty dramatic, if not alarmist stuff. Little wonder our anxiety is growing. But what does it all mean? Bartlett sums it up neatly in the end:

“No one wants machines smashed or letter bombs. The wreckers failed 200 years ago and will fail again now. But a little luddism in our lives won’t hurt. The realisation that technological change isn’t always beneficial nor inevitable is long overdue, and that doesn’t mean jettisoning all the joys associated with modern technology. You’re not a fogey for thinking there are times where being disconnected is good for you. You’re just not a machine.”

I think it is wise, prudent, and essential to question all aspects of societal change, especially those accelerated, sometimes unchecked, by technology. As far as I can tell then, based on this account, “reformed luddism” means one needs to cast a critical eye on technological developments. It means switching off occasionally, being more mindful, and creating time to engage with people offline. It means we have choices to make. These are human choices, not digital ones. This used to be called balance, but now I realise I am a radical, reformed luddite. Common sense has morphed into a potential militant movement against the populist doctrine that constantly reminds us we have lost our free will and therefore become unwittingly enslaved to technology.

Here’s the good news. I now understand that most of the sensible people I know are reformed luddites. When I think about it, I suspect there are probably millions of others around the globe. Most of the students I work with would probably identify as reformed luddites, too, (addicted, as they are, to each other, not technology) and none of them, I would imagine, realise they were luddites in the first place.

Our day will come. We are waiting for the robots.

Appleyard, Bryan. “The New Luddites: Why Former Digital Prophets Are Turning Against Tech.” The New Republic. September 6, 2014.
Bartlett, Jamie. “Will 2018 Be the Year of the Neo-Luddite?” The Guardian. March 4, 2018.