Today, our guest, historian Rob Zaretsky makes peace
with his inner Luddite. The University of Houston presents
this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Last week I went to the local supermarket.
It was just down the block, but the trip covered centuries:
When I left, I was a suburbanite. But I returned as a Luddite.
Let me explain.
When I arrived at the store, my toddler whispered she had to go
potty. We trotted to the men's room, where I tried to create
an aseptic space in the stall suitable for open-heart surgery.
For my last act, I unfolded a paper cover over the glistening
toilet seat as my daughter hopped impatiently from one leg to the next.
And then, whoosh! The paper cover collapsed into a watery
vortex: I'd tripped the automatic flush. After my second and third
efforts also failed, I tried lowering Louisa from above. As her
small behind swung just above the seat, the flush's electronic eye
identified it as a UFO: whoosh.
It was impossible to soothe my daughter, so we had no choice but return
home. I had parked in the middle of the sweltering lot, several spaces
from the nearest car. And yet, as we made our way across the melting
tarmac, an SUV appeared. In the midst of the sun-blasted vastness, it
pirouetted like the hippo ballerina in Disney's Fantasia. And then,
thanks to its power steering -- and GPS, for all I knew -- it neatly
docked right next to our car. So close to our car that the small driver
could barely crack open her door and squeeze out.
I stood there, stunned. My expression caught the driver's attention,
for she stopped and asked if she had parked too close. What does one
say at such moments? "That's okay, I'll just lash my child to the roof."
This was my Luddite moment. Lifting my child high over my head and sidling
between the two cars, I thought back to early 19th century England. By
then, the English reached that tipping point when the technologies meant
to give us control over our lives instead snatched those lives from us.
With the spread of wide-frame looms, easily used by unskilled workers,
traditional weavers confronted a stark choice: resignation or rebellion.
Taking the name of a mythical weaver, Ned Ludd, they rebelled. The Luddites
smashed the new tools that threatened their future with such determination
that, by 1812, the monarchy feared that, along with Napoleon's France and
Madison's America, it now confronted an enemy within: English artisans.
The rebellion was suppressed and skilled weavers became extinct. Yet, let's
recall that the Luddites did not rebel against technology -- manual looms
were also tools. They rebelled against specific uses of technology -- uses
that threatened not just their livelihood, but their dignity.
I'll always plump for plumbing and even power steering. I'd be mad not to.
The Luddites also would've welcomed such advances. But automatic flushes?
Perhaps the Luddites would've reached for their hammers. But I'm consoled
by the knowledge that time, while slower than the hammer, is an even more powerful
an engine of technological discrimination.
I'm Rob Zaretsky, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class.
(New York: Vintage Press, 1966)
For more on Ned Ludd and the Luddites, see Episode 274.
Robert Zaretsky is professor of French history in the University of
Houston Honors College, and the Department of Modern and Classical
Languages. (He is the author of Nīmes at War: Religion, Politics and
Public Opinion in the Department of the Gard, 1938-1944. (Penn
State 1995), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the
Invention of the Camargue. (Nebraska 2004), co-editor of
France at War: Vichy and the Historians. (Berg 2001), translator
of Tzevtan Todorov's Voices From the Gulag. (Penn State 2000)
and Frail Happiness: An Essay on Rousseau. (Penn State 2001).
With John Scott, he is co-author of So Great a Noise: Jean-Jacques
Rousseau, David Hume and the Limits of Human Understanding. to be
published by Yale University Press in 2007.
By 1832, time had indeed discriminated. the game was over for Ned Ludd's
followers. This image from the 1832 Edinburgh Cyclopaedia is only
one of many power looms displayed in that source.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.