Technological Progress: have you ever heard of it?
Yes, I know, lots of folks have. Marketers have made sure of this. We are bombarded with reports of it every day, by thousands of advertisements. We are told that this year’s new car is “better than” last year’s new car, and many reasons are given for this assertion: the new car is faster, it’s safer, it emits less pollution, it will carry more stuff, and so on. The same sort of assertion is made for everything for which there are advertisements. Having bought them, our life will then be better – won’t it?
Technological Progress: are you sure you have actually seen it?
Pardon me if I sound a bit skeptical here. I am sure that lots of folks think that they have seen technological progress. This year’s new car really does emit less pollution, doesn’t it? Owners of the new diesel Volkswagens will find themselves a bit disappointed on this score. The food which I buy at the grocery store must really be better for my children than anything I could grow in my own yard, isn’t it ? Parents whose children have early onset diabetes, or food allergies, or massive obesity will also find themselves a bit disappointed here.
This unfortunate pattern has been repeated for over two hundred years now — ever since the onset of the industrial revolution — whenever a new process is discovered or a new device invented. The people who initially bring forth the new process or device or discovery do so with good intentions as they truly intend to make life easier for everyone. These good intentions would even have applied, in the early days, to the invention and development of new types of gunnery that made it easier to hunt and to defend one’s family and community. The first few implementations of a new invention are generally beneficial.
Then a new invention is marketed. This process also need not necessarily be harmful. But the situation is changed, as the deployment of the new invention is now being managed by merchants, rather than by the original inventor(s).
After a while, changes are made to “the product”. Note that the invention has now magically attained a status which exists only in industrial societies — it has become “a product.” And are these changes made so as to render “the product” more useful to the people? Not at all, in fact most cases these changes accomplish quite the opposite result. The changes have been made in an increasingly desperate effort to hoodwink more people into purchasing the “new and improved” version, quite irrespective of whether they need it.
So desperate have the efforts of these marketers become that they now finance massive year-round worldwide “resource extraction” : strip mining, clear-cutting, and so forth. They seem to have become too bloated and too stupid to do anything else. Their money has made them stupid, and has ruined whatever survival capacities they might once have had.
An early lesson for me came in 1973. I had been working steadily and so had the means and opportunity to buy a new car. And I was being strongly encouraged to do so by no less a figure than my father. But I already had a car – a 1964 Ford Econoline van. A quick comparison of that vehicle with what I was expected to “want” to buy (in this case, a 1973 Datsun pickup truck) showed that if I were to open up my wallet and take this plunge, I would then be committing myself to maintaining a machine which:
- was built of approximately three times as many moving parts;
- was not built as strongly;
- had more separate systems which would need to be kept operative;
- was not as well suited to camping or long distance travel.
Look carefully. (Car salesmen never want you to do that.) Look especially at the common points of supposed usefulness that the salesmen will make. They really don’t care about your budget.
~ A] The 1973 Datsun will be newer than the 1964 Ford, and its parts are all new. This condition, though convenient, is only temporary. In a very few years the 1973 Datsun will have more worn-out parts and failing systems than the 1964 Ford could ever have, simply due to the 1964 Ford having fewer parts and fewer systems to begin with. Thus the 1964 Ford will over time be far less expensive to maintain than the 1973 Datsun.
~ B] The 1973 Datsun will emit less pollution than the 1964 Ford. So I thought myself at the time. In fact, it would be another twenty years before I learned that any gasoline engine built later than about 1935 which is at all properly maintained and tuned (with the exception of the larger V-6es and V-8es) will easily conform to the emissions standards for 1974 – a year later than the model of the Datsun in question.
~ C] The 1973 Datsun won’t have any rust. This was undoubtedly true (this was in Maine) but again, would only be so for a short while. I lived there long enough to find this out about car body rust : though it can’t be stopped completely, [and no, undercoatings have basically no effect], its advance can be slowed significantly by simply keeping the car or truck in service year-round – including right through the worst of the winter and the salt-on-the-road season. I saw this over and over again : a vehicle which was parked would quickly rust away just sitting there, – and one which was driven year-round would remain sound and mostly un-rusted. I suspect that the metal of a vehicle which was driven constantly remained in some measure “drier” than the metal of one which sat still. In that climate, this stuff matters, especially if one is living on a budget.
~ D] The 1973 Datsun will be better suited to modern highway speeds. I remember signs on Interstate 95 which said Speed Limit: 85 miles per hour. And I found over many years of driving that a 1964 Ford van, and other vehicles similar to it which have a properly maintained single-beam front axle is far steadier at 85 or 95 miles per hour than any but the most expensive and finely tuned of the “more modern” and supposedly “superior” so-called “independent front suspensions” – such as were fitted to the little Datsuns of that era. Again, fewer moving parts, and so fewer problems.
This was not the first time I had heard of someone being pressured to buy something which they did not need, nor was it the first time I had come up against such pressure. The overall pattern and intent were quite clear: hoodwink as many people as possible into purchasing an unlimited number of things which they do not need. In this way, they will essentially sign their entire lives away.
I saw a later example of the effects of advertising over time. The Occupy Movement were still fielding encampments in public parks, in late 2011 and 2012. I would sometimes bring a laptop computer to meetings, take notes, and send them out afterward. I’d be at a cafe where a few of us would meet in the evenings – – and I got some amused laughter when I pulled out a three and one-half inch floppy-disk on which I had been saving the notes. Here it was 2011, and my laptop had been new in about 1996. When I was asked why I was using such an ‘antique’, I could only reply that I had no need for anything newer, and could not have afforded to buy anything newer even if I had wanted to do so.
The laptop on which I am writing this was new in 2005 – and I still get the same laughter and the same questions. These questions are easily answered by the practiced Luddite. You acquire things or buy things if and only if you actually need them – as distinct from buying things merely because some advertiser has yelled at you that you are expected to want them. My little ‘antique’ here has fully modern wi-fi capability, it can read and/or convert nearly any file or data from nearly any other sort of computer, and can be used for word processing, generating graphics and .pdf files, e-mail, surfing the Internet, and so on. What more would I need?
All technologies are vulnerable to the uselessness and bloat which is brought on by marketing. My examples from the world of cars, or the world of of street demonstrations, may be a bit obscure. The world of computers also offers plenty of examples.
The first computer which I ever saw was an IBM 1620. My father had been hired to be the programmer & lead operator of this machine in 1967. The purpose for which this machine had been bought was clearly defined : it was needed to tabulate data and to perform advanced calculations and occasionally print reports of biological research. Data input was entirely by keyboard – three typists were constantly busy entering data. Data output was entirely by printer, – video monitors were nearly unheard-of at this stage, – and data storage was by way of punch cards.
Between that machine and the machine on which I am now typing, there is a long list of differences. I select from that list : The range of computers which were in use in my father’s day had been designed, financed, and built with a few highly specific purposes in mind. Their manufacture was known to be a significant expense which had to be soundly justified. Many of today’s typical buyers or users of today’s computers would find the machines of my father’s day impossible to use, and just hopelessly boring.
Forty years later here, what are we being taught to want ? Why, we must have sound with our data, and that sound must be quadrophonic so that we can think we are somewhere that we are not, and we must have pictures, they must be moving pictures, and they must be exquisitely life-like, of the most flawless clarity, surpassing the skill of the greatest of the master painters of the Renaissance ! Anything less simply will not do ! The pattern has repeated : an item which had been invented in the intention of serving a legitimate purpose is now being produced in immense quantities for people who never needed it. Once enough people are persuaded of ‘needing’ this new thing, its presence becomes ‘the new normal’. If you don’t have this new thing, then you’re just not normal, and society is no longer flexible enough to have you in it.
Here is the link with our honorable Luddites back in 1816 : a spinning wheel and a loom which were part of a family farm in the early nineteenth century, were the tools of fully conscious and fully participating people. Banks of steam-driven looms in factories were, by contrast, primarily the tools of the owners of factories.
The Luddites of that time saw clearly the damage and injury wrought on people who worked in those factories – injuries not only to the individual workers, but also to their families when the workers became – as they so often did – permanently disabled and unable even to function on their own farms.
A Luddite sensibility here in the present day can see the damage and injury to individuals and to families, which is wrought by literally millions of people having been enticed into spending their time uselessly in front of a mass-produced computer screen – a screen which basically did not exist and which would have had no function during my father’s time.
And lest it be thought that the factory-owned, steam-driven loom was not sufficiently different from its hand-operated cousin on the farm, to justify the tactics deployed against it by the workers ? Remember that the primary purpose behind the building and usage of steam-driven looms was to line the pockets of the owners of factories, – whereas the primary purpose of a spinning wheel and a loom on the family farm is to provide clothing for the family.
In similar fashion, remember that the primary purpose behind the building and usage of personal computers is the improper access of the personal data of every man, woman, child, and hound dog on the North American continent. Contrast this with the primary purpose behind the building and usage of the IBM 1620 and machines similar to it. The IBM 1620 had a perfectly legitimate purpose : management of data at a research laboratory which carries out advanced research on (among other subjects) the causes of cancer.
III. HISTORICAL LUDDITES
From about 1811 to 1816 and at sporadic periods thereafter, there were working people in England [one of the first countries to become significantly industrialized] who discerned the likely real-world results of industrialization. They noticed the advertising, understood it to be propaganda, and evaluated its effects on themselves and on their families. They stepped up and said, in effect, “No, we do not want this, and we shall not accept it”.
This took place principally around Huddersfield and Nottingham, though there were instances of it elsewhere in England, and possibly a few sporadic occurrences across the Channel in Normandy. Details are available in “The Luddites” by Malcolm I. Thomis (1970). In this book one can see a consistent thread of confusion in the reproduced reports taken from the newspapers of the time. The newspaper reporters and editors had expected to find [or perhaps they had been instructed to find ?] among the practitioners or sympathizers of Luddism, incitements to indiscriminate destruction, violence, and murder. And quite consistently, they did not find any such thing. These reporters were left writing confusedly that after many weeks of investigation, and going to factories where machine-breaking had occurred, and dozens of interviews with people who had seen Luddites or who confessed themselves to be Luddites, they still could not get any clear idea of what the Luddites really wanted.
For us who are here to see the effects fully two hundred years later, of runaway industrialism and its inevitable looting and its damage to our biosphere, it is not difficult to imagine what they wanted. I think they wanted the looters to go away and leave them alone.
When operating under ‘capitalism’ as currently practiced, developers of new technologies do not care – or perhaps have been instructed to not care – about methods which already exist. Nor do they care about people employed in [and in all likelihood dependent on] using the presently existing methods. Indeed, one way to ensure the “profitability” (read : “we are going to steal from the people and disable the people and abuse the people in order to fund this”) of a new technology, is to generate conditions which render use of existing methods either more difficult or less fashionable. The Luddites saw this clearly. They found it unlikely that the owners of woolen mills, etc, would desist from deploying these various new devices. They also found it unlikely that goods produced by these new methods would be boycotted sufficiently to deplete the ‘financial incentive’ to the factory owners to purchase and deploy the new equipment. This tale by itself tells of a woeful lack of class solidarity. Willingness to notice abuse, and to stand up and resist abuse, was not sufficiently widespread among the workers. So then, what could be done ? Deployment and usage of the new equipment could be made significantly less profitable to the factory owners, simply by demolishing the new equipment as soon as it arrived on the factory floor. Many people proceeded to do so, gleefully and with gusto, and they were even courteous enough about it to leave explanatory notes beside the fragments of the new equipment.
We are accustomed to hearing the perpetrators of these abuses identified as capitalists. That term is too vague. The perpetrators of these abuses are looters, plain and simple. When we recognize that, and are prepared to reject the nicey-nicey little euphemism of mis-identifying them as ‘capitalists’ – then perhaps we shall find the methods to render their works irrelevant, and find also the political will to rid ourselves of them.
IV. BECOME A LUDDITE
Word of Honor : most of the people who have been telling you about all this technological progress have no idea what progress is. As individuals they are not necessarily malevolent people, – they may genuinely believe their own words, – but you, gentle reader, are not required to believe them. With just a few short steps you can deconstruct their unfortunate propaganda, and be free of it.
First, – identify what you need. Be clear in your mind about this.
Second, – notice the abundance. Look around at the immense resources which are already just lying around, not in the stores, but outside of them ! Literally billions of dollars worth of these wondrous and sometimes quite useful “products” have already been manufactured and bought and paid for, and have then been frivolously thrown away. There they are, waiting for someone, anyone, to merely pick them up and use them.
Third, – dust them off and use them ! In the days and weeks which follow, you may hear your neighbors express amazement – – as in, “Where did you get the money to accomplish all of this ??” The joke’s on them : you didn’t have to spend the money, – certainly not the vast amount which they imagine you must have spent. The money had already been spent, the goods had already been bought. Generation after generation of consumers have been carefully taught by the advertisers, – taught to be like small children who pick up a shiny expensive object and then drop it two seconds later when something else drifts into their short little attention span. That process can be allowed to continue for a while. It seems a reasonably nonviolent way of liberating resources, no?
They said Ned Ludd was an idiot boy
That all he could do was wreck and destroy, and
He turned to his workmates and said: Death to Machines
They tread on our future and they stamp on our dreams.