Technology and Those That Control Its Use
In present day situations it is often difficult to easily understand complex social issues. Additionally, we often do not get to see the results of social processes which can take a century to unfold and for the results to become apparent. Thus it is perhaps useful to look at well known past examples of the introduction and development of new technologies into real communities. One such well known example was the Luddite rebellion in England in the early 19th century. An analysis of this period of history demonstrates how technologies were created, and why their introduction was received so negatively. It also provides insight into how modern-day development processes with social intent might actually be received in a similar situation.
Frank Darvall wrote a book titled ‘Popular Disturbances and Public Order in Regency England’, originally published in 1932, which forms the basis of much of the following account of the Luddites (Darvall, 1969). The Luddite rebellion occurred during the early Industrial Revolution when machinery was being introduced which changed existing work processes. Much of the English working class at this time had large families who were often living in poverty. One of the primary trades for these people was in textile production. Stockingers, croppers, hand-loom weavers, spinners, knitters and shearmen formed the primary roles within the trade. The work was hard and repetitive, and was often done for long hours in small country workshops or occasionally small factories. Professional stockingers had long constructed hosiery using a technology called a ‘stocking frame
’, which was a partially mechanised tool to perform knitting. Ironically, a patent for the invention of the stocking frame in the 16th century had been repeatedly turned down by English rulers partially on the premise that it would harm the then-dominant hand-knitting trade; however, the frames eventually saw widespread usage. The frames were owned by the workers themselves; otherwise they were rented from the factory owner, which reduced the workers’ pay. A number of factors including poor agricultural harvests, fluctuating overseas trade (due to war and legislation), and employers increasing frame rental rates, made for hard times for the workers. Additionally, employers were abusing established traditions by training too many apprentices at once, and inferior ‘cut-up’ products were being produced which eroded customer trust. Moreover, there was a high rate of inflation, and some employers paid in-kind; this meant that workers could only buy products at extravagant prices from a company store. Attempts had been made for many years by the local population to seek a legal solution to the problem, but all of these efforts to seek government assistance had failed. All of this added up to workers who were unable to feed their families, unable to get work or welfare, and who saw no signs of the situation getting better. It was in this climate of poverty, desperation and exploitation that new technologies were introduced.
Some factory owners were looking for ways to compete more effectively in a poor market by producing cheaper or more numerous products. Newer automated technologies such as steam-looms, gig-mills, dressing machines and shearing frames theoretically had the potential to reduce the number of workers that were needed. In practice, some of these technologies such as steam looms did not actually replace workers because the new technologies enabled more production while using the same number of workers (Darvall, 1969, p.57). Similarly, gig mills and shearing frames still required workers, but the work transitioned to a partially automated activity which Darvall indicates was “easier, quicker, and less painful than the hand operation.” (Darvall, 1969, p.61) However, much of the working class were unemployed and desperate, and they already had a long history of disagreements with factory owners over high frame rental rates, in-kind payment, and the other abuses mentioned above. The direct visual threat of new machinery was more tangible than the remote and complex causes such as trade embargoes with the USA, the Napoleonic wars, changes in markets, inflation, and a labour surplus. Darvall indicates that it was a “…natural delusion on the part of the distressed weavers to think that their recent sufferings were due to this new method of production.” (Darvall, 1969, p.58) However, adding technologies which further increased profits for owners was not a politically popular move, particularly at a time when workers’ quality of life was threatened and unemployment was high.
From 1811 to 1817 a group which came to be known as ‘Luddites’ (after an early leader Ned Ludd), began attacking factories and machinery in a number of counties across England. The attacks had some localised coordination and were distributed deliberate responses to individual situations in different counties. In many cases it was the older frames which were destroyed, and sometimes a different kind of wide-frame associated with manufacturer of inferior quality products. In other districts the newer shearing-frames and other automated tools were targeted. In many cases it was hosiers and factory owners who had simply been exploiting workers who were targeted, instead of those using newer technologies. There was also a series of food riots around the same time which were related to the larger issues of inflation, lack of welfare, lack of foreign trade, and poor crops.
The English government reacted strongly to the attacks. Over the course of three years it brought in several thousand British soldiers, hired spies, imposed curfews and imprisoned Luddites. The Luddite violence did eventually encourage factory owners to make concessions which helped improve relations, and the workers began to create a union to protect and regulate the profession. However, the government continued to do little to force improvements in the industry or relieve suffering amongst the population. The use of force by the government did stop property damage by the Luddites, but did nothing to solve the underlying social plight.
Contrary to modern popular perception Luddites were not anti-technology. Many of them had been happily using the frame system (as opposed to doing it entirely by hand) for a long time, and various improvements to frame technologies had been supported by workers. Frame technology helped them work faster and still produce quality clothes. It was the introduction of another new technology which could potentially displace workers, without retraining programs or welfare in place beforehand, which understandably produced a problem. It was also the timing of the introduction which was an issue. Workers could not understand “the value of new machinery economizing labour at a time when goods were a glut upon the market and when there was, in any case, a surplus of labour available.” (Darvall, 1969, p.62) Some of these workers may have simply wanted to maintain existing work roles and job security, but in a time of decreasing agricultural work, decreasing land availability, changing economic climates and changing technologies, this was unlikely to be realistic.
What the Luddites did not understand (which is reasonable given the immediacy of their plight) was that markets are not static. The introduction of more efficient technologies results in an increase in the number of products produced, which means the demand of a larger market can be met. This in turn can produce more employment maintaining machinery and coping with the increased demand for products, as occurred with the steam loom. It is also often the jobs which are most dangerous, repetitive and mundane which are automated, which potentially leaves more humane and interesting work to humans. However, this process of worker retraining, unemployment and development of industries is rarely easy. As the Luddites demonstrate, without due attention from management and government it has the potential of creating inhumane and stressful situations for workers.Next Post: The Effect of Choosing Design Theories