Benjamin Franklin’s views on Luddites. October 27, 2009Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
Tags: Ben Franklin, Benjamin Franklin, Luddites, Ned Ludd
Our friend Ben was first amused, then intrigued, to see that a reader had come on our blog, Poor Richard’s Almanac, this morning searching for “Benjamin Franklin’s views on Luddites.” The great Doctor Franklin is our hero and blog mentor here at PRA. And we identify ourselves as Luddites. Our friend Ben had never considered the two as fundamentally opposed, but when I read this query, my first thought was “Well, of course old Ben wouldn’t have thought much of them.”
After all, Ben Franklin devoted a good part of his formidable skills to developing inventions that would make life easier for everyone, from the lightning rod to the Franklin stove, rocking chair, bifocals, and even the catheter. And while we moderns tend to use the word “Luddite” to symbolize those of us who are either technologically incompetent and thus incapable of using high-tech stuff, or who choose to avoid it for the sake of leading a more simple, human-scale lifestyle, this was not its original meaning. (An example of a modern Luddite would be someone who used a paring knife rather than a food processor to chop vegetables.)
The original Luddites arose in the early 1800s as a response to the Industrial Revolution. They’re named after Ned Ludd, an Englishman who in 1779—during Ben Franklin’s lifetime—smashed knitting machines to protest technology replacing human skill, so actual ability no longer counted for anything and literally anyone could do the same job for the least possible pay, as opposed to fine craftsmen and women being paid according to their abilities. Today’s equivalent would be huge agribusinesses shipping tasteless but long-keeping produce to Wal-Marts for super-cheap prices versus small family farms lovingly growing the most flavorful varieties organically and selling through CSAs (subscription-supported farms) and farm stands.
Then as now, people’s wallets often trump their appreciation of skill, their desire to support their communities, or their concern for their own longterm health and their sense of connectedness to the land and all life on earth. The Industrial Revolution swept through Europe and America in the 1800s, and machines and factories replaced cottage industries. The Luddites’ protests were rewarded with jailings and executions. Mechanization in the name of progress was the watchword of the day, as consolidation and uniformity in the name of progress have become the watchwords of our own.
We modern Luddites refuse to get sucked in. We resist the allure of cable and satellite TV, of microwave ovens and food processors and innumerable other gadgets, of iPods and BlackBerries and texting and Twitter, of Facebook and MySpace and YouTube. But that doesn’t mean we reject technology per se. We have a blog, we get e-mail and voice mail, we have our laptop computer and docking port and subscribe to Netflix. It’s more a question of our technological limitations and our evaluation of the usefulness of these various gadgets than a rejection of technology itself.
Which brings us back to Dr. Franklin and our reader’s query. Ben Franklin was all about building community. It was, ultimately, his highest goal, and his greatest legacy to us all, through his establishment of fire companies and public libraries and universities and medical schools and on and on. We certainly believe that old Ben supported progress, but only insofar as progress supported the community. We think he’d agree that every technological advance should be easily accessible, affordable, and understandable to the general public—that technology should support us, rather than that we should have to spend untold hours trying to figure out how to use the technology. And we’re utterly convinced that Benjamin Franklin would consider it a sin for the self-styled “titans of industry” (or technology) to profit at the expense of the individual.
So, hmmm. What, ultimately, would Ben Franklin’s views on Luddites, ancient or modern, be? Gee, we wish we could ask him. We’d love to hear his answer. Meanwhile, we’re going to climb out on a limb and say that we think Ben would support the advances that support all of us, and oppose so-called advances that destroy us. What do you think?