It happened today - February 27, 2016

On this day in 1812, Feb. 27, Lord Byron opened his big yap in the House of Lords for the first time and said something colorfully irresponsible. As you’d rather expect.

Radicals might be torn between disdain for a hereditary upper house and enthusiasm for his view. And he would certainly have had difficulty getting into politics by any other route given his views and scandalous personal conduct, although some extraordinary people do manage to win elections.

In any case his impact on society, for good or ill, and it was the latter, had virtually nothing to do with his membership in the legislature. It was to do with the vehemence and seductive skill with which he put forward dangerous ideas.

His speech to the Lords was certainly in that category. It was essentially a sarcastic defence of Luddite violence against the new-fangled machinery associated with the First Industrial Revolution, that is, steam powered textile machines.

The thing is, Byron had a point about the impact of automation, both on the immediate prospects of those currently involved in the threatened technology, in this case hand-weaving, and on the long-run prospects for the average person to find meaningful work in a coherent community.

Modernity has many worrisome aspects, including the gaga enthusiasm of a lot of the sort of people who talk loudly for a living about robots, smart cars and appliances and this whole “Internet of things” that is not only deeply vulnerable to hacking but also threatening to the ability of normal people without graduate degrees to get jobs. Byron wasn’t wrong about that.

What he was wrong about, characteristically not just of Regency Romantic poets but of radicals generally, was in endorsing a violent and hopeless solution. The Luddites themselves carried out riotous acts of sabotage against machinery, clearly breaching the rule of law in ways that could not be allowed to stand or society would become a war of all against all. And their program was for state coercion to stop technological progress, an even more futile endeavor than state coercion to accelerate it. They aimed at the skull not the brain.

If there is to be a solution, a way either to hold back repellent and disruptive technology or to channel it into courses that enhance rather than undermine human dignity, it must be through cooperation, and a reordering of our own values away from novelty and ease toward meaningful participation in worthwhile creation.

In that quest, we will find Lord Byron to be what Lady Caroline Lamb (who he seduced into adultery then dumped) called him: mad, bad and dangerous to know. Even in the House of Lords.

It happened todayJohn Robson