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Rebels Against The Future

A discussion of the book "Rebels Against The Future" by Kirkpatric Sale

Tracy Reed
CS 440
3/10/96

A discussion of the book "Rebels Against The Future" by Kirkpatric Sale


This book describes the battle between economic forces which drive society
towards the most profitable and efficient way of getting things done and
those who oppose it. The books main focus is on the Luddite. This is the
self ascribed name of those who actively protested the industrial
revolution in England. The name is derived from a fictional character of
unknown origin who was their symbolic leader and figure head. They were
working class citizens who saw their jobs being taken away by machinery
and decided to take action. The first chapter of the book describes
several violent attacks on automated factories and mills. In addition to
all of the weaving and milling equipment destroyed d, people were killed
during the attack by the factory owners and the troops stationed in the
area by the government. Many of the artisans whose jobs were being phased
out by steam powered looms and other devices felt betrayed by society and
their own government. The government advocated the use of machinery and
supported the factories by placing troops at key locations to fend off
attackers. The word Luddite has been used to describe those who resist
change ever since.

Sale's position on technology becomes quite obvious early in the book. He
strongly sympathizes with the Luddites and feels that mankind should turn
back to nature before it is too late. However, he seems to present a very
one-sided view of the situation. He often talks about the dehumanizing
effects of technology and the hardship it brings to those it displaces,
and dismisses any perceived benefits as insignificant. While it does
indeed put some people out of work, it also greatly reduces the cost of
manufacturing those goods. A few people were put out of work, but many
more people could now afford the goods they needed. Given the luxury of
hind site, I don't understand how anyone could say that the industrial
revolution was a bad thing. We are far healthier, live longer, and in
general have a much higher standard of living than the Luddites could have
ever dreamed of. Sale would say that this has been at the cost of the
planet, and perhaps even our own humanity. But the planet has not yet been
destroyed (and may never be), and humanity is very subjective. I think I
am at least as human as any Luddite, despite the fact that I happen to
love working with computers and other sorts of machinery.

Sale also misuses the example of the Luddite. While it is true that they
attacked factories and opposed mechanization, it was not at all because
they felt it was dehumanizing or destroying the biosphere. They did it for
entirely different reasons. The Luddites acted for purely selfish ecomic
reasons. The very same selfish economic reasons which spurred on the
industrial revolution in the first place. Nobody likes to be put out of
work, especially by a machine. While one can certainly sympathize with the
plight of the Luddite, their actions do not appear to have much to do with
the authors cause. However, some authors of the early 1800's felt
similarly to Sale. This is shown quite well through the use of poetry and
comments from authors such as Wordsworth, Bronte, and Mary Shelley.
Shelley's novel, Frankenstein, is especially representative due to it's
theme of technology enslaving it's inventor.

Human beings are made out to be slaves to the machines. Having to run them
and tend them. Sale describes the horrendous working conditions, the long
hours, the beatings, practically slave labor. But this is not necessarily
the fault of technology. This was the fault of fellow human beings and the
laissez faire attitude of the government.

The focus of the book eventually moves from the Luddites of the early
1800's to the Neo-Luddites of the 1980's and 90's. Sale describes the
efforts of the Neo-Luddites and exposes Neo-Luddite overtones in modern
society.  Examples given are modern movies such as "Return Of The Jedi" 
where a young boy from a farm on a desert planet runs off to defeat the
"Evil Empire" and ends up in the Ewok village among the trees. While this
is somewhat similar to the Luddite view, I'm really not sure it's what
writers of this movie had in mind nor do I think it really has much to do
with how society feels. It seems rather contrived.

A few ideas to improve society are also given. One of these is cited from
a paper written by Chellis Glendinning, a psychologist in New Mexico. She
envisions a future where all nuclear, chemical, biogenetic,
electromagnetic, television, and computer technologies are abandoned and
new technologies are created. She says, "We have nothing to lose except a
way of living that leads to the destruction of all life. We have a world
to gain. She is making some very large claims here. It's not at all clear
what these claims are based on. And since Sale cites this work, one can
only assume that he agrees with it.  The reality is that this is
completely impractical. If it were possible to create these new
technologies, they would be created. If we could invent alternative
technologies that would solve all of these problems, it would be done. The
fact is that it is simply beyond the currently known laws of universe to
do this. And she feels that by abandoning what we already know we will be
able to do this?  The ancient Egyptians could not do it, and that is
precisely the situation we would be in if we took her advice.  They took
the only options which were available to them which led us to where we are
today. The only way to those environmentally friendly technologies is to
move forward with current knowledge.

Sale then goes on to cite many modern examples of Luddite thinking,
movements, and victories over technology. Usually involving the
obstruction of learning. He then claims that computers have two fatal
flaws apart from the "fact" that a great deal of pollution and sweatshop
labor go into producing them and that considerable deskilling result from
their corporate use. It seems doubtful that the author has even seen a
computer assembly plant, but from personal experience I can say that it is
highly automated and the people who do work there are skilled individuals
who are not slave labor. Although there are many chemicals used in the
production of computers, environmental damage can be minimized with proper
recycling and disposal techniques. And operating a computer requires
additional skills, not fewer skills. 


The first of the two actual fatal flaws are that computers are "steering
the world toward social inequity and disintegration and toward
environmental stability and collapse. On the contrary, they appear to be
doing just the opposite. Flow of information is every totalitarian
governments worst enemy. China is afraid of the Internet and have begun
regulating it. By allowing people to easily exchange political ideas and
other information, they are being freed. The environmental problems are
solved by recycling and proper waste management. The second is that
computers separate people from the natural world. Aside from the fact that
many people sit in their rooms for hours on end playing the latest video
game instead of enjoying the outdoors, I don't see how this is true.
Computers have helped us to understand the natural world much better than
we would have otherwise. There's much more to the natural world than flora
and fauna. Chemistry and physics and all of the other things which make
modern technology possible are all part of the natural world. 

The book chronicles the Luddite movement and the Neo-Luddite movement quite
well. It even cites the sources used and has a handy time line in the back. 
It shows that Luddites have been around ever since the very beginning of
rapid acceleration of technology . While their movement is not very
strong, they have been quite consistent over the years. I feel that Sale
lacks some fundamental knowledge to speak on this subject. The first is a
knowledge of science. All too often, people who speak against technology
do not understand exactly what it is they are speaking about because they
feel it is bad and have never explored it. The second thing Sale is
lacking is an understanding of Darwinism. It is a natural property of all
living things to do whatever is required of them to survive. Our lifespans
are increased by technology. It is unnatural for us as a species to go
back to the old ways. This Darwinism is what actually drives the economy. 
We all want a roof over our head and food on the table so we do whatever
is necessary. Even if it is at the expense of the Earth, up to the point
where a poor environment becomes a threat and then we will naturally begin
to react to remedy that situation. The Luddite movement seems to be
advocating ignorance and a step backward for mankind.
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