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Lionel Basney

Questioning Progress

The Second Luddite Congress met for three days, in April 1996, in Barnesville, Ohio.

It was convened by the conservative Quaker Center for Plain Living, but the 250 "citizen delegates" represented many faiths, and none, as well as most of the states and many slots in the economy. At one point, someone stood and said, "I'm one of the enemy: I work for an engineering firm." No one took him for an enemy but for someone, like the rest of the delegates, skeptical of unrestrained technology and looking for a just response.

There never was a First Luddite Congress, though perhaps a thousand people gathered on April 15, 1812, in Stockport, Cheshire, and made plans to meet again more formally. Nor did the Luddites have a national organization, though the British government acted on the presumption that they had. The Luddite machine smashings of 1811-13 were local and populist, and left behind them no ongoing movement or official creed. For 180 years, Luddite remained on the fringes of common usage as a word for an irrational and violent fear of machines.

Especially violent: even after Luddite was formally resurrected by Chellis Glendinning in a 1990 manifesto published in the Utne Reader, it has been hard to free the name from the aura of lynchings and midnight havoc. Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine opened an interview with Kirkpatrick Sale by asking, "Other than arson and a lot of vandalism, what did the Luddites accomplish in the long run?" Sale—whose history of the Luddites, Rebels Against the Future, was one of the congress's occasions—answered that the Luddites had raised the question of industrial culture itself, of its meanings and costs. This is what Glendinning meant by Luddite: someone sharply awake to the ways "mass technological society" threatens family, community, and health; someone willing to dissent from the robot enthusiasm with which new technology is adopted.

The congress was conscious of both implications of Luddite—of the loyalties and militancy ...

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