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Word of the Day: Luddite

Word of the Day: Luddite

This is the first in what will turn out to be a daily feature of the Jeffersonian Report. We hope this will be a fun way to expand our vocabulary and understanding. Language is a fundamental tool for building and maintaining society, so it's important that we know how to use it effectively.

According to etymonline.com the Luddites were an "organized band of weavers in Midlands and northern England" who in 1811 and "for about 5 years thereafter destroyed machinery, for fear it would deprive them of work. Supposedly they got it from Ned Ludd, a Leicestershire worker who in 1779 had smashed two machines in a rage, but that story first was told in 1847." In it's less proper form it refers to anyone who rejects or is opposed to technological change. It can be used as both a noun and an adjective, and it typically carries a certain negative connotation by those who use it most frequently.

Definition of Luddite | Dictionary.com
Definition of Luddite from Dictionary.com, the world’s leading online source for English definitions, pronunciations, word origins, idioms, Word of the Day, and more.

Most of us are normally satisfied at this point that we understand the basic concept behind the Luddites. But do we? I found an article from the Smithsonian Magazine posted in 2011 on the 200 year anniversary of the first Luddite rebellion which points out a little bit more nuance that I think is important to understand if you are really going to be able to say you know what a Luddite is.

As the Industrial Revolution began, workers naturally worried about being displaced by increasingly efficient machines. But the Luddites themselves “were totally fine with machines,” says Kevin Binfield, editor of the 2004 collection Writings of the Luddites. They confined their attacks to manufacturers who used machines in what they called “a fraudulent and deceitful manner” to get around standard labor practices. “They just wanted machines that made high-quality goods,” says Binfield, “and they wanted these machines to be run by workers who had gone through an apprenticeship and got paid decent wages. Those were their only concerns.”

The fact that they limited their targets to those who they believed were behaving in a "fraudulent and deceitful manner" is telling, and it helps us to understand it wasn't actually the technology they had a problem with, but the way it was being used. With the advancements in modern AI, I am beginning to feel like a Luddite myself. I think we put too much stock in the capability of machines and computers, and we don't invest enough in strengthening our own minds and bodies. I live and breathe technology on a daily basis, but I do think the amount of dependence we have on fragile man made systems is detrimental to human development. This is also something that was expressed by the original Luddites according to the Smithsonian. They quote a contemporary writer named Thomas Carlyle saying there was concern of a "mighty change" in the “modes of thought and feeling" as a result of technology and that "Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand.”

I would say this has only gotten worse as time goes on. I read a study a while back that said that simply using a GPS actually caused a physiological change in our brains. The parts of the brain responsible for navigation actually "shut down" as a result of offloading this job to a machine. What are the long term ramifications? According to The Herald Dr Amir-Homayoun Javadi, one of the lead researchers in the study, said "the brain area responsible for navigation is less used, and consequently the brain areas involved in navigation tend to shrink".

Anyway, now you know, the Luddites were not necessarily against technology, but rather they were against the blind adoption and abuse of technology. If you have the time to read the Smithsonian article it's pretty thorough and really makes them seem more respectable than the history we typically hear around the movement. Hopefully we all have a little Luddite in us. If not, pay attention.

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Jamie Larson