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Even Luddites Have Web Sites

by Kitty Williams
Do you know what a Luddite is?

Until UVA Professors E.D. Hirsch, Jr., Joseph F. Kett, and GMU Professor James S. Trefil published the "Dictionary of Cultural Literacy" in the late 1980s, I didn't have a clue.

In the publicity for the book, "Luddite" was listed as one of the 100 terms all literate persons ought to know. At once, all my smugness evaporated. After years of education, I couldn't call myself culturally literate. I'd never even heard the word. Well, you can be sure I found out what it meant, quickly!

"Luddites," the dictionary says, "-- Opponents of the introduction of labor-saving machinery. The original Luddites, followers of a legendary Ned Ludd, were British laborers of the early nineteenth century who smashed textile-making machines that threatened their jobs. Modern opponents of technical change are sometimes called Luddites."

What a useful word for today. The workplace is full of Luddites. Politics has its "neo-Luddites." Science has its "pseudo-Luddites." We all know people who profess a bias against technology.

Is it any wonder that the Internet is full of Luddite links and information?

Luddites On-Line is tastefully designed, with illuminated borders, and graphics reminiscent of woodcuts. I particularly like the mouse cords and computer cables depicted in formal Celtic knots. The page is also, just slightly, tongue in cheek. Proclaiming that "Life was better before sliced bread," they offer refuge for those who feel "like roadkill on the infobahn." Cute.

They have a version of The Origin of Luddism, told in "Fractured Fairy Tale" style, that seems to agree with more sober accounts found elsewhere on the Web. If you think you might be a Luddite, yourself, take the Luddite Purity Test at the site. (The last time I took the test, I got a Network Error message every time I clicked the "I hate submit buttons" button.) Finally, don't miss Luddites On-Line's links to Great Luddites in History: Ronald Reagan, Senator Exon and Bill Gates. Did I mention that this site was tongue in cheek?

Another site features The Ballad of Ned Ludd, a techno-folk opera. Rather strange. You click one scene after another, and you can download the songs in a choice of formats. It's a somewhat serious composition by Corinne Becknell and Marty Lucas, who also sing and play various instruments including bottle caps, over-ripe zucchini, keyboards, skillet lid, mop handle, and steel trunk.

Luddites aren't all merry musicians and jokers, though.

Obviously Ned Ludd and his followers have struck a cord with the modern online population.

"Is it OK to be a Luddite?" an article in the New York Times Book Review, October 28, 1984, made me realize this is not a brand new idea. "...[W]e now live, we are told, in the Computer Age," wrote Thomas Pynchon. "What is the outlook for Luddite sensibility? Will mainframes attract the same hostile attention as knitting frames once did? I really doubt it. Writers of all descriptions are stampeding to buy word processors. Machines have already become so user-friendly that even the most unreconstructed of Luddites can be charmed into laying down the old sledgehammer and stroking a few keys instead."

He wasn't right about the sledgehammer part. Wired Magazine's executive editor Kevin Kelly interviewed Luddite Kirkpatrick Sale in March. Sale is the author of "Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age." He's serious about resisting technology and, to make his point, did take a sledgehammer to a computer.

"It felt wonderful," said Sale. "The sound it made, the spewing of the undoubtedly poisonous insides into the spotlight, the dust that hung in the air..." What larks!

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Last modified 7/29/96

© 1996 Hope Springs Press