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Benjamin Franklin’s views on Luddites. October 27, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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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?



1. Lzyjo - October 27, 2009

Hmmm, what an interesting point to ponder. Certainly, Old Ben invented so many things because he enjoyed it, in addition to benefiting the public. Generally, we’re all (as a society) are in favor of progress (except perhaps some radical fundamentalists and creationists here and abroad.) especially in his time, a lot of things were very primitive. Perhaps the industrial revolution wasn’t in full effect for him to have seen the harsh realities.

One of my most favorite volunteer jobs at the museum I learned about the aesthetic movement of the late 1800s, I really understood why all the craftspersons responded to mass produced furniture by producing their own pieces that were even more ornate and unique those those mass produced. Much like handmade pottery today. I think there still is an aesthetic movement.

I never realized but my DH and I are totally Luddites, his “membership” is official because he has smashed modern equipment! LOL! Crappy Food processor, a cordless drill (?) and at least 1 cell phone. (We don’t bother with them anymore) LOL!

Progress is a double edged sword, for instance outsourcing (love that stupidly funny movie btw!) is progress in some direction.

Oh, and I totally love the simple machines. I have a print out of them above my monitor. I always use the simplest tool for the job.

Ha!!! Love that your DH is an “official” Luddite, Lzyjo! And yes, surely human-scale machines are the best. Do you know Dougie Maclean’s music? He has several songs about working the farm fields of the Scottish Highlands as a boy and learning to use a scythe at the knee of an expert. Much as I hate machine-made noise, I wouldn’t want to have to scythe our yard! But what struck me about Dougie’s songs (besides, of course, their beauty) was their emphasis on the communal aspect of farming. The thought of a team of men and boys in the field with their scythes, talking and laughing and singing as they worked, versus a man alone in his weatherproof enclosed tractor, alone in ALL his farm work, battling debt and solitude without so much as ever touching his land with his two hands—yow! The old ways were certainly harder, but at least there were compensations.

2. Alan from Roberts Roost - October 27, 2009

I love good tools. I even love my IPod, but I think you hit on a key point with your statement that technology should serve us rather than the other way around. There is nothing more satisfying than the right tool for the job you need to do. Things come together properly, you get to enjoy the creative process rather than fighting the elements of creation. But it is a very slippery slope. My old truck (more than 20 years old, rusted, paid for, reliable) does everything we need a farm vehicle to do. But I often get asked when we’ll be getting a new one. A bigger, shinier, F450 super cab, turbo-diesel monster truck that costs more than my whole farm. Not in this lifetime I say, laughing. I already have the right tool. Does that make me a want-to-be Luddite?

Sounds like it puts you squarely in line with old Ben, Alan! I know he’d agree with you!

3. nancybond - October 27, 2009

Yah, what Alan said. 😉 Progress and advancement is always push-and-pull. I’m not sure what old Ben would truly think, but this was a most interesting post!

Thanks, Nancy!

4. Barbee' - October 27, 2009

Here! Here! I very much agree… interesting post!

Thanks, Barbee’!

5. Heather - October 28, 2009

I say any man credited with the invention of the catheter would surely be impressed with this take on life.

Ha! Ben’s inventions knew no end, Heather! One of the reasons we love him is that everything interested him. Did you know he introduced rhubarb to the Colonies? We’re still discovering stuff we owe to him.

6. edhird - November 10, 2009

Benjamin Franklin had a remarkable impact in so many ways, including technological innovations and science. A Benjamin Franklin article just received the ‘Top 100 Electricity Blogs’ Award http://bit.ly/z8Ckp

7. Tyler Landis - May 6, 2010

A great example of Luddite Philosopy and “technology replacing human skill” is the internet replacing Print News, like “Poor Ricard’s Almanac”. Yet, for some reason, those of you here at PRA, who consider themselves Luddites are posting this blog on the internet.

If you were true Luddites, wouldn’t you smash internet servers because it limits jobs for those who operate and distribute Print News? Wow! I think you would. You know since the Internet IS Technology. I guess that makes On-Line Luddites “hypocrites”. Now, doesn’t it?

If you are true Luddites, and believe as they do, you would smash your computer, get in your horse drawn buggie and go live On Walden like Henry David Theroux. Instead, you will turn on your TV, make a MICROWAVE dinner using food from your REFRIGERATOR, blog on your COMPUTER, before wasing your dishes in the DISHWASHER. This is not to mention other technologies whic put people out of work, like CLOTHES WASHER & DRYER, CARS, The LIGHTBULB, RADIOS, MOVIE THEATERS, and AIRCRAFT.

You are about as much a Luddite and WalMart is “technology”. Pathetic losers!

Hi Tyler! Your point is well taken. We do in fact live a fairly simplistic lifestyle compared to most Americans—no TV, dishwasher, central heat or air conditioning, microwave, riding mower, etc. No vacations, new cars, new clothes, new anything. We’re making a huge effort to grow our own food and live as simply and locally as possible. But we’re not Amish, riding in a horse and buggy and using a wood cookstove and outhouse. (Not that we wouldn’t love to have an outhouse, if only it was legal in this area.) If we had the money, we’d install a windmill and solar panels and go off-grid, but we don’t. Maybe someday! Instead, we consider ourselves Luddites because we’re technologically inept, and avoid technology as much as is humanly possible. (No texting, iPods, iPads, Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, YouTube, and etc. for us!) We use computers as word processors and to give us access to the wider world that, without TV, we’d otherwise be without. And we make a point of subscribing to our local newspaper to show our support for print media. After all, we love reading and writing, or we wouldn’t have started this blog!

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