Science Fiction Is a Luddite Literature
It’s not what technology does that matters, but who it does it for and who it does it to
From 1811–1816, a secret society styling themselves “the Luddites” smashed textile machinery in the mills of England. Today, we use “Luddite” as a pejorative referring to backwards, anti-technology reactionaries.
Proving that history really is written by the winners.
In truth, the Luddites’ cause wasn’t the destruction of technology — no more than the Boston Tea Party’s cause was the elimination of tea, or Al Qaeda’s cause was the end of civilian aviation. Smashing looms and stocking frames was the Luddites’ tactic, not their goal.
In truth, their goal was something closely related to science fiction: to challenge not the technology itself, but rather the social relations that governed its use.
The critique of Luddism as anti-technology is as shallow a reading of the Luddites as the critique of science fiction as nothing more than speculation about the design of gadgets of varying degrees of plausibility.
In truth, Luddism and science fiction concern themselves with the same questions: not merely what the technology does, but who it does it for and who it does it to.
The Luddites were textile workers — skilled tradespeople who enjoyed comfortable lifestyles because they commanded a hefty portion of the money generated by the product of their labor. What’s more, it took a lot of labor to weave fabric, and as a result, cloth was incredibly expensive, as were clothes, naturally.
The advent of textile automation upended everything. It didn’t just reduce the amount of labor that went into a yard of cloth — it also created unprecedented demand for wool (leading to the mass eviction of the tenant farmers to make way for sheep) and cotton (supercharging global slavery).
Textile automation also produced a lot of textiles (obviously). These were cheaper and often finer than the textiles they replaced, and transformed ready access to clothing of all sorts from a luxury for elites into something working people came to expect.