Luddite, and proud

I’m an enterprise-architect, deeply engaged in every aspect of technology and more. Which means that at times, yes, I’m also an active Luddite – and proud of it, too.

Luddites? Aren’t they those crazy technophobes who go around smashing machines because they’re afraid of technology?

Uh… no. That’s a fundamental mistake – much like how some people mistakenly assume that my half-joking self-description as a business-anarchist means that I go around breaking things…

(Well, okay, I admit it, sometimes I do “go around breaking things” 🙂 – but only in the sense of an intentional and constructive antifragility response to Schumpeter-style ‘creative destruction‘ in a business context.)

But to get there, we perhaps need to step back a bit. And where this one started was with a Tweet from Graham Hill, via Bob Marshall:

  • GrahamHill: The Ludites at the @designcouncil on Will the Internet of Things set family life back 100 years?

…to which I replied:

  • tetradian: disappointing to see someone dismiss as ‘Luddites’ those doing serious social-critique of #IoT impact… #doesntgetit

To illustrate that point about ‘serious social-critique’, here’s one segment from the Design Council article:

“Technology has very successfully integrated into people’s lives in the entertainment sphere. But less so in the home productivity area.” [Richard Banks, Microsoft Research] gives the example of the paper family calendar on the kitchen wall. Much work has been done by tech companies, including Banks’ own research group, to explore alternative home scheduling systems – yet the kitchen planner endures.

However, Banks’ team has explored with more success a different IoT-enabled technology: Whereabouts Clock, a prototyped device for display in the home that shows whether family members are in the vicinity of work, at home or travelling.

Unlike the unease experienced by the Fitbit displays in Brown’s experiment, Whereabouts Clock proved popular among families. Banks credits this with the balance between a useful level of information with sufficient ambiguity.

“We found that individuals didn’t feel it was invasive. There is a fine line between what families need from a reassurance point of view versus the level of detail which is necessary for privacy. It’s a fine line but I think you can ride that,” says Banks.

But Graham Hill was still far from happy:

  • GrahamHill: It was not a serious social critique… it was the usual @designCouncil rubric about empathetic design // #IoT changes the game. Effects will emerge from realignment around a new attractor. The @DesignCouncil post was reactionary

And in turn I still disagreed – particularly since his description of the Design Council as ‘reactionary’ seems a bit odd, to say the least. To which Graham replied:

  • GrahamHill: We don’t need to agree. The value is often in the creative tension, no matter how it arises

To both of which assertions I would agree, of course – though I don’t see how denigrating others as ‘Luddites’ actually helps in maintaining that much-needed creative tension…

And it also got me thinking again about the Luddites themselves: in particular, that the term should not be used merely as a dismissive epithet against supposed technophobia, but actually relates to something much more complex and nuanced. Stuart Boardman likewise indicated this in another item within that Twitterstream:

  • ArtBourbon: @tetradian @GrahamHill Nonetheless the accusation Luddite is frequently used by people who don’t understand what the Luddites were about.

Yes, it’s true that there was a lot of anger behind the original Luddites:

And yes, a lot of that anger was seemingly focussed on new technologies, as the Wikipedia article on the Luddites explains:

The movement can be seen as part of a rising tide of English working-class discontent in the late 18th and early 19th century. An agricultural variant of Luddism, centering on the breaking of threshing machines, occurred during the widespread Swing Riots of 1830 in southern and eastern England.

So far, so anti-technology, it might seem. But some of the technologies in question – such as the stocking-frame – had already been in use for centuries by then: so it was not merely simple technophobia. Instead, as the Wikipedia article continues:

The Luddites’ goal was to gain a better bargaining position with their employers. They were not afraid of technology per se, but were “labour strategists”.

In that sense, it’s not about technology as such, but the social impact of technology. And, in particular, about the ways in which technologies are (mis)used in new ways to benefit the few at the expense of the many – a point that might sound all to familiar to modern ears…

So instead of throwing around half-understood epithets, it’s probably wise to go back and look at the actual history – such as described in the Smithsonian article on ‘What the Luddites Really Fought Against‘:

Despite their modern reputation, the original Luddites were neither opposed to technology nor inept at using it. Many were highly skilled machine operators in the textile industry.

Which suggests that one of their core concerns was deskilling – a concern likewise worrying for many folks today, and one with hidden impacts about which we do need to be wary in enterprise-architecture and the like. But again, the Luddites’ concerns were not just about technology:

They confined their attacks to manufacturers who used machines in what they called “a fraudulent and deceitful manner” to get around standard labor practices. “They [the Luddites] just wanted machines that made high-quality goods,” says Binfield, “and they wanted these machines to be run by workers who had gone through an apprenticeship and got paid decent wages. Those were their only concerns.”

And that concern about “a fraudulent and deceitful manner” was not only about the dysfunctions of the possession-economy, but also because of the way in which, so often, technology acts as an amplifier of social-inequalities – as Kentaro Toyama warns in his book ‘Geek Heresy‘.

So perhaps we should be less worried about technophobia, than about technophilia, whose narcissistic extremes often lead to myths of ‘technological determinism‘ that – as the Smithsonian article indicates – can take on overtones more reminiscent of a messianic religion:

Technology is everywhere, knows all our thoughts and, in the words of the technology utopian Kevin Kelly, is even “a divine phenomenon that is a reflection of God.” Who are we to resist?

Who are we to resist? Well, perhaps we should. As the infamous Hype Cycle warns only too well, much of technophilia is driven by sensemaking-failures – the ‘sins of dubious discipline‘ such as the Hype Hubris and the Golden-Age Game. And there are real dangers from excessive technophilia, too: to give one well-documented example, other sensemaking-‘sins’ such as the Reality Risk and the Meaning Mistake combined together in the early hype around X-rays in ways that turned out to be not merely dangerous but deadly. Not A Good Idea…

That’s why many ‘traditionalist’ cultures take active measure to mitigate against those risks, insisting on a careful appraisal of cultural impacts and appropriateness of any new technology. There are well-known examples, such as the Shakers – who limited their general use of technology but were also technological innovators in their own right – or the Amish, whose views could be summarised as:

“If it enhances the welfare of the community, new technology is welcomed. Only when it peels away community cohesion does technology face the frown of the church.”

Yet every type of culture, every type of context, needs to do its own ‘careful appraisal of cultural impacts and appropriateness’. Hence Schumacher‘s concept of ‘appropriate technology‘, for example, and Victor Papanek‘s mix of real-world wisdom and acerbic warning in his classic book Design for the Real World. Or, to bring this back to the Luddites again, we could repeat and extend that previous quote from the Smithsonian article:

Technology is everywhere, knows all our thoughts and, in the words of the technology utopian Kevin Kelly, is even “a divine phenomenon that is a reflection of God.” Who are we to resist?

The original Luddites would answer that we are human. Getting past the myth and seeing their protest more clearly is a reminder that it’s possible to live well with technology – but only if we continually question the ways it shapes our lives.

And for enterprise-architecture, that’s a necessary reminder that ‘enterprise’ is about being human, in a very literal sense: as Chris Potts would put it, “the animal spirits of the entrepreneur”. Enterprise is ‘a bold endeavour’ – which, on its own, no technology could be (as yet, anyway). So whilst an enterprise may well use a wide variety of technologies, it also needs to be careful not to be used by those technologies, or for those technologies’ sake alone. That distinction may seem kinda subtle, yet crucially important too…

Which suggests that, for enterprise-architecture and beyond, the greater risk is not so much from Luddite doubts, but far more from technophiliac delusions of deus ex machina. Literally, ‘the god out of the machine’, technology not as tool but as cargo-cult religion – with all that that implies…

And hence, in turn, the real urgency of the Luddites’ warning that the social impact of technology is more important than the technology itself – and that we need to develop and design our architectures in accordance with that fact. If not, bluntly, what’s the point of doing it at all?

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