Neo-Luddism: The Antidote to Reflexive Disruptivism

About this Blog: Somewhere in the course of arguing back and forth on various LinkedIn groups, John Bullock and I decided to “take it outside” as it were, or maybe offline, or at any rate away from the fray so we could do a deeper dive into things that bother us, fascinate us, and compel us to rattle on forcefully. We hit upon the format of a “blogversation,” whereby we are free to trade thought in a somewhat free form way rather than concocting set pieces in a traditional web journalism style. Also, we’re both rather too loquacious and irrepressible on our own, so we thought that forcing ourselves into something that resembled a format may bear fruit. You be the judge of that, dear readers, we only mean to entertain, inform, and above all, to critically examine, well, pretty much everything! Here’ s our first installment, a riff on Luddism. (Look for this theme to resurface in later dialogs).


John: I read two things recently: the first from Care Leah: "Can anyone really be defined as merely a Luddite if they happen to intuit where all of this is leading" and this from Clive James: "Common sense and a sense of humour are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humour is common-sense dancing." Let's conflate those two and suggest that a Luddite with a sense of humour is a dangerous thing - and that's probably why I believe that two of the wisest writers in my lifetime also happened to be two of the funniest: Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams. And they had quite a bit to say about the Onwards March of Technology. 

Clifton: Well we do need a sense of humor ( I’m using American spelling to remind people that I’m the Yank) to countenance the folly that arises daily out of our technocracy, typified nicely by things like the Smart Cup. The humor does go along with common sense, it’s kind of like country wisdom vs city puffery, a solid theme throughout history, eh? The thing is that these days, soon the entire world will be city slickers so to speak, and what then?

Part of what we wanted to do with this particular chat is to take a closer look at Luddism, about which you have been quite informative, piquant, and eloquent in THIS post, and of course to make it relevant to our world today. And who better to tell a detailed and colorful story perhaps not quite told so well recently than an ornery Englishman like yourself, who knows a thing or two about stuff that happened, well, just down the lane from you I suppose? So there are many strong threads here to pick up on ( pun intended, thinking of the weaver people ). One of the first that jumps out at me is that it had a lot to do with the Inclosures Act & such. And here we see a tipping point for industrial capitalism and much else.

One of my favorite themes lately is sort of along the lines of biological determinism – bear with me here, this will come up a lot when you talk to me. And the case for that in these historical political machinations I will explain by saying that evolution almost guarantees that different strategies for furthering the genes (Dawkins’ Selfish ones, yes) diverge and come into conflict with each other – it’s an eternal Battle of the Titans, where the Titans are basically lines of code, genes that is. And with the removal of the long standing right to common land that is a matter of survival for the population, one successful strategy, agriculture, gives way to another, industrial production. Darwin in building his paradigm was careful to include group selection with individual selection as a driver (and result) of evolution. It’s important also to remember that access to common land was, I believe, a key part of the Magna Carts, basically our foundation of the western concept of Rule of Law, right? I expect you to correct me if I’m off base here, as I assume that as the Brit you are so much more knowledgeable than I about these things!

John: I wouldn’t use the Magna Carta in any defence of the peasantry and the commons, or indeed, any kind of political democracy at all. This was all about the aristocracy sticking it to the king - he was asking far too much in taxes, basically. Getting rid of the feudal system wasn’t on the agenda for some time yet.

Clifton: Well then I stand corrected as expected, thank you. I’ve been thinking about the Magna Carta recently, as it’s the what, 800th anniversary? One of the key things about it as I understand though was its codification of private property as the basis for law, am I correct here? Earlier forms of social organization such as tribes typically don’t recognize the concept of private property, they don’t need it. If the Magna Carta provided a precedent to challenge the omnipotent and eminently fallible concentration of power in one King or despotic ruler, even if the power only transferred to the aristocracy, perhaps for this reason it marks an important tipping point. And I believe the U.S. system was largely modeled on the Magna Carta, because we seem to value property above all else, except perhaps free speech, and you can’t go to the bank with that. That was all lovely, but when we proclaimed equality for all, we had not worked out one nasty detail: equality was not for people who actually WERE private property – slaves. So the lofty sentiments only went so far. Strange thing about lofty sentiments about equal rights and free speech and such, because corporations in the U.S. used them to declare that corporations were people too and therefore should enjoy freedom of expression. We legislated something to this effect early in the 20th century, and the recent Citizens United ruling is the continuing legacy of that.

And to tie it back to Luddism, we would not necessarily think of the South in the Civil War as being Luddite, but a friend recently made a case to me that I found intriguing, that the Civil War was not about slavery but about industrialization. The North had the energy sources and the technology to industrialize while the South was dependent on its cheap slave labor force that like it or not, was the economic engine for the whole shootin’ match - our country is built upon the bones of slaves. So the South was anti-industrialist and by extension, probably anti-technology too. Marx described the Civil War as a battle between feudalism and capitalism.

John: Anyway, back to Luddism: perhaps the topic raises an issue that is associated with taking a 'Luddite' view - that we're denying the 'disruptive' aspect of technological advance.

Here’s my take on disruptive activity. For the most part it’s a bunch of shysters hiding behind a genuine developmental movement, but one which denies any critical rigour. When global capital is in free-flow, through crowd-sourcing or tech companies wanting to buy up anything that might have a useful angle for them, the last thing any of these guys would want would be someone else saying that their ideas are rubbish. They are just chasing the cash.

But Luddism can be seen as a necessary, public, critical examination of what’s worthwhile or worthless, so we must come into conflict with the pseudo-disruptors. Does that make any sense?

Clifton: Quite. I’m very interested in “disrupting” “disruption.” I was fascinated to see Jill Lepore, a historian no less, well known for her (to me) wonderful writing on U.S. history and published often in New Yorker, deliver what by all accounts seemed to be a body blow to Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruption, which has become the raison d’etre of the new tech economy. I have read Christensen, a Big Deal at Harvard Business School, a place that puts out a lot of stuff that looks pretty rigorous and useful to me- the Harvard Business review, for instance, usually has pieces that seem to approach business seriously from an academic standpoint and favor evidence driven approaches, a very difficult task, especially in the U.S. From what I could tell, Christensen has yet to issue a convincing rebuttal to her attack, and the Battle of the Titans went past its 1 or 2 day media spotlight moment. I have been wanting to do a more thorough critical examination of all the issues, but as I understand it, Christensen’s theory turned out to be nowhere near as rigorous as it was cracked up to be, has no predictive power, and is simply masquerading as a theory that looks for instances that explain and validate it rather than those that disprove it, which is how valid theories become valid.

At any rate, the damage to our culture and economy from the “permanent disruption” meme appears to be pretty significant, as in the Bay Area where I live, status accrues rapidly to those who “disrupt” entire industries, like, before breakfast – taxis, laundries, public transportation, the post office, on and on, relentlessly. Marc Andressen is really the Prince of this line of thinking, (it’s hard to even call it a philosophy, other than Techism perhaps- maybe Disruptivism, hmmm, you can quote me on that!) and the dude with the cash to back up his idiosyncratic futuristic obsessions. The staggering, almost incomprehensible amount of highly concentrated, restless, rapidly accumulating wealth in Silicon Valley today has to be reckoned with as a force of nature, and the often quixotic visions of the top 1% of the top 1% can probably only be said to factor in the unintended social and economic consequences of anything they create if there’s money to be made in an app for dealing with them, or more accurately, to be perceived as dealing with them in a vaguely philanthropic way. For me, “disruption” can be healthy; many things like, say the taxi economy or the sclerotic post office bureaucracy, probably totally deserve to die. But it is also almost always destructive and impacts a huge swath of the population to the gain of a very few, witness what happened with the last “depression.” Luddism is a natural and necessary social reaction to Disruptivism.

Somewhere in the course of arguing back and forth on various Linked In groups, John Bullock and I decided to “take it outside” as it were, or maybe offline, or at any rate away from the fray so we could do a deeper dive into things that bother us, fascinate us, and get us to rattle on forcefully. We hit upon the format of a “blogversation,” whereby we are free to trade thought in a somewhat free form way rather than concocting set pieces in a traditional literary sense. Also, we’re both rather too loquacious and irrepressible on our own, so we thought that forcing ourselves into something that resembled a format may bear fruit. You be the judge of that, dear readers, we only mean to entertain, inform, and above all, to critically examine, well, pretty much everything! Here’ s our first installment, a riff on Luddism. (Look for this theme to resurface in later dialogs).

John: I read two things recently: the first from Care Leah: "Can anyone really be defined as merely a Luddite if they happen to intuit where all of this is leading" and this from Clive James: "Common sense and a sense of humour are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humour is common-sense dancing." Let's conflate those two and suggest that a Luddite with a sense of humour is a dangerous thing - and that's probably why I believe that two of the wisest writers in my lifetime also happened to be two of the funniest: Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams. And they had quite a bit to say about the Onwards March of Technology. 

Clifton: Well we do need a sense of humor ( I’m using American spelling to remind people that I’m the Yank) to countenance the folly that arises daily out of our technocracy, typified nicely by things like the Smart Cup. The humor does go along with common sense, it’s kind of like country wisdom vs city puffery, a solid theme throughout history, eh? The thing is that these days, soon the entire world will be city slickers so to speak, and what then?

Part of what we wanted to do with this particular chat is to take a closer look at Luddism, about which you have been quite informative, piquant, and eloquent in THIS post, and of course to make it relevant to our world today. And who better to tell a detailed and colorful story perhaps not quite told so well recently than an ornery Englishman like yourself, who knows a thing or two about stuff that happened, well, just down the lane from you I suppose? So there are many strong threads here to pick up on ( pun intended, thinking of the weaver people ). One of the first that jumps out at me is that it had a lot to do with the Inclosures Act & such. And here we see a tipping point for industrial capitalism and much else.

One of my favorite themes lately is sort of along the lines of biological determinism – bear with me here, this will come up a lot when you talk to me. And the case for that in these historical political machinations I will explain by saying that evolution almost guarantees that different strategies for furthering the genes (Dawkins’ Selfish ones, yes) diverge and come into conflict with each other – it’s an eternal Battle of the Titans, where the Titans are basically lines of code, genes that is. And with the removal of the long standing right to common land that is a matter of survival for the population, one successful strategy, agriculture, gives way to another, industrial production. Darwin in building his paradigm was careful to include group selection with individual selection as a driver (and result) of evolution. It’s important also to remember that access to common land was, I believe, a key part of the Magna Carts, basically our foundation of the western concept of Rule of Law, right? I expect you to correct me if I’m off base here, as I assume that as the Brit you are so much more knowledgeable than I about these things!

John: I wouldn’t use the Magna Carta in any defence of the peasantry and the commons, or indeed, any kind of political democracy at all. This was all about the aristocracy sticking it to the king - he was asking far too much in taxes, basically. Getting rid of the feudal system wasn’t on the agenda for some time yet.

Clifton: Well then I stand corrected as expected, thank you. I’ve been thinking about the Magna Carta recently, as it’s the what, 800th anniversary? One of the key things about it as I understand though was its codification of private property as the basis for law, am I correct here? Earlier forms of social organization such as tribes typically don’t recognize the concept of private property, they don’t need it. If the Magna Carta provided a precedent to challenge the omnipotent and eminently fallible concentration of power in one King or despotic ruler, even if the power only transferred to the aristocracy, perhaps for this reason it marks an important tipping point. And I believe the U.S. system was largely modeled on the Magna Carta, because we seem to value property above all else, except perhaps free speech, and you can’t go to the bank with that. That was all lovely, but when we proclaimed equality for all, we had not worked out one nasty detail: equality was not for people who actually WERE private property – slaves. So the lofty sentiments only went so far. Strange thing about lofty sentiments about equal rights and free speech and such, because corporations in the U.S. used them to declare that corporations were people too and therefore should enjoy freedom of expression. We legislated something to this effect early in the 20th century, and the recent Citizens United ruling is the continuing legacy of that.

And to tie it back to Luddism, we would not necessarily think of the South in the Civil War as being Luddite, but a friend recently made a case to me that I found intriguing, that the Civil War was not about slavery but about industrialization. The North had the energy sources and the technology to industrialize while the South was dependent on its cheap slave labor force that like it or not, was the economic engine for the whole shootin’ match - our country is built upon the bones of slaves. So the South was anti-industrialist and by extension, probably anti-technology too. Marx described the Civil War as a battle between feudalism and capitalism.

John: Anyway, back to Luddism: perhaps the topic raises an issue that is associated with taking a 'Luddite' view - that we're denying the 'disruptive' aspect of technological advance.

Here’s my take on disruptive activity. For the most part it’s a bunch of shysters hiding behind a genuine developmental movement, but one which denies any critical rigour. When global capital is in free-flow, through crowd-sourcing or tech companies wanting to buy up anything that might have a useful angle for them, the last thing any of these guys would want would be someone else saying that their ideas are rubbish. They are just chasing the cash.

But Luddism can be seen as a necessary, public, critical examination of what’s worthwhile or worthless, so we must come into conflict with the pseudo-disruptors. Does that make any sense?

Clifton: Quite. I’m very interested in “disrupting” “disruption.” I was fascinated to see Jill Lepore, a historian no less, well known for her (to me) wonderful writing on U.S. history and published often in New Yorker, deliver what by all accounts seemed to be a body blow to Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruption, which has become the raison d’etre of the new tech economy. I have read Christensen, a Big Deal at Harvard Business School, a place that puts out a lot of stuff that looks pretty rigorous and useful to me- the Harvard Business review, for instance, usually has pieces that seem to approach business seriously from an academic standpoint and favor evidence driven approaches, a very difficult task, especially in the U.S. From what I could tell, Christensen has yet to issue a convincing rebuttal to her attack, and the Battle of the Titans went past its 1 or 2 day media spotlight moment. I have been wanting to do a more thorough critical examination of all the issues, but as I understand it, Christensen’s theory turned out to be nowhere near as rigorous as it was cracked up to be, has no predictive power, and is simply masquerading as a theory that looks for instances that explain and validate it rather than those that disprove it, which is how valid theories become valid.

At any rate, the damage to our culture and economy from the “permanent disruption” meme appears to be pretty significant, as in the Bay Area where I live, status accrues rapidly to those who “disrupt” entire industries, like, before breakfast – taxis, laundries, public transportation, the post office, on and on, relentlessly. Marc Andressen is really the Prince of this line of thinking, (it’s hard to even call it a philosophy, other than Techism perhaps- maybe Disruptivism, hmmm, you can quote me on that!) and the dude with the cash to back up his idiosyncratic futuristic obsessions. The staggering, almost incomprehensible amount of highly concentrated, restless, rapidly accumulating wealth in Silicon Valley today has to be reckoned with as a force of nature, and the often quixotic visions of the top 1% of the top 1% can probably only be said to factor in the unintended social and economic consequences of anything they create if there’s money to be made in an app for dealing with them, or more accurately, to be perceived as dealing with them in a vaguely philanthropic way. For me, “disruption” can be healthy; many things like, say the taxi economy or the sclerotic post office bureaucracy, probably totally deserve to die. But it is also almost always destructive and impacts a huge swath of the population to the gain of a very few, witness what happened with the last “depression.” Luddism is a natural and necessary social reaction to Disruptivism.

John: Yes, and regarding 'worthwhile/worthless' and our tendency to quickly get to the 'end of work' discussion, William Morris wrote a piece called "Useful Work versus Useless Toil" - 1884)- here’s a quote from that:

"They are called "labour-saving" machines - a commonly used phrase which implies what we expect of them; but we do not get what we expect. What they really do is to reduce the skilled labourer to the ranks of the unskilled, to increase the number of the "reserve army of labour" - that is, to increase the precariousness of life among the workers and to intensify the labour of those who serve the machines (as slaves their masters). All this they do by the way, while they pile up the profits of the employers of labour, or force them to expend those profits in bitter commercial war with each other. In a true society these miracles of ingenuity would be for the first time used for minimizing the amount of time spent in unattractive labour, which by their means might be so reduced as to be but a very light burden on each individual. All the more as these machines would most certainly be very much improved when it was no longer a question as to whether their improvement would "pay" the individual, but rather whether it would benefit the community."

Clifton: Right, William Morris, the Marxist, Bloomsburian, Victorian weirdo ( well that’s a bit redundant, right?)– I always associate him with Grammar of Ornament. So in the Victorian era, an aesthetic was formed that fetishized handmade goods that were becoming rare because they were all being produced by machines. And then that all blew up after WW1 with the advent of modernism, which we’re still living with today. Decorative detail became verboten, although upon closer inspection it just assumed another shape. My favorite example of that is Mies bolting decorative I-beams to the façade of the Seagrams building in New York to make it look more “modern.” And now of course we’re still addicted to glass towers, pretty much my favorite topic to rant about.

John: Hang on! William Morris was a middle-class mercantile socialist  - if you can imagine such a thing. He was a utopian and believed absolutely in the creativity of the human spirit. In 1884 he formed The Socialist League and in June 1889, he traveled to Paris as the League's delegate to the International Socialist Working Men's Congress. The Bloomsbury set were another fifty years after Morris died (d.1896) – so, he had nothing to do with them. Most relevant of his works: News from Nowhere (in praise of anarchism – Morris was a friend of Peter Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist.

My favourite Mies architectural detail is in a housing development in Stuttgart where he put the ‘cold rooms’ – those larders where food was kept as cool as possible, on the SOUTH side of the houses – duh.

And a bit more about disruption: I suspect that ‘disruption’ is the single most important thing in western technological development, but the reason that we can raise statues to the guys concerned Is because true disruption only happens rarely, but it has catastrophically huge consequences. The current chatter about disruption is adolescent wishful thinking that every geek on the street can become a disruptive pioneer. That’s not how it happens. The now-settled pioneers of Silicon Valley were true disruptors because they have overseen a revolution on the way that has influenced almost every person on this planet –and I’ll include the lost tribes in the Amazon forest in that. Most self-claimed ‘disruptors’ are actually only acting parasitically on that true revolution; and like most parasites, they just want to feed off it.

Clifton: Please forgive my laziness in letting you do all the heavy lifting on English history - I am proven correct in every case in assuming your knowledge far outpaces mine in this respect however. It’s interesting to see how our different interpretations of important historical facts has different shades of meaning. I can’t quite imaging a middle-class mercantile socialist actually, and I might attribute that to an American frame of mind that puts the stain of pariah on anything socialist, etc. This is the brainwashing I was referring to, which applied to so many things in our collective histories.

So to finish up on Luddism…I would say that you and I are calling for a reexamination of the fundamental impulse to question the current overwhelming relentless explosion of technology, that we’re largely unaware of all of its unintended consequences and mostly don’t care, and that we can learn from history, and that in order to do so we first have to know what it is. I do believe that those who are unaware of history are doomed to repeat it, but that there’s more to the story than that – that you also have to examine the history from the standpoint of the political imperatives in its retelling ( they are always there) and that simply understanding history does not guarantee that we’ll know what to do with it to avoid the same mistakes in the future. We also have to fully embrace that we’ll never predict the future, but that knowing that the same kinds of patterns emerge consistently can help us put a pattern on the present and deal with it.