It happened today - October 9, 2015

Leader of the LudditesOn October 9 1779 textile workers in Manchester, England rioted against cotton-spinning machinery and, allegedly inspired by one Ned Ludd, forever gave the name of Luddites to people who found exactly the wrong answer to a real problem.

Prosperity is not in itself a problem. The new machines disrupted employment for a few people and made cheap quality cloth available to most of the human race for the first time. And human ingenuity is not a problem either. Nobody likes a smart-aleck except maybe the smart-aleck, but creativity in the face of difficulties is a joy as well as a useful thing.

What’s more you cannot suppress it. If you don’t give creativity natural outlets it will bulge out in undesirable ways. But mechanising work and life did carry a real cost and the Luddites, by trying to stop it altogether, violating peace, property rights and decency and doing it basically to protect their own narrow self-interest simply discredited the idea that we needed to think carefully about where we were going and how.

The machines have made us wealthy. We are well fed, warm, amused and otherwise coddled by stuff. But we are also overweight, anxious, disconnected from nature, the original stuff and our own, and too busy taking selfies to read a good book that might help us sort out our lives.

Smashing a loom won’t help now and didn’t help then. But the fact that the Luddites had the wrong answer to the wrong problem doesn’t mean there wasn’t a real problem or that we don’t need a good answer.