Chapter 51 ~ “Luddism as Epistemology” by Langdon Winner (1977)
Winner begins his piece with a brief discussion of various suggestions (from Goodman, Bookchin, Marcuse, and Ellul) on how we can eliminate the problems that technology has brought (“brought” being a weak work in that we actually brought the technology into existence) into our lives.
Winner’s proposal contains the following suggestions:
Winner immediately offers up faults that might be seen in the suggestions, such as utopianism and unreality. Two barriers he sees with this notion are those people who ignore problems by not focusing on the problems with the system but by adding new features to the existing system and the fact that no one truly knows how to actually create a new system because no knowledge is present to do this.
He uses the example of the counterculture of the 60s to show how we can change the outward appearance of a problem, but it doesn’t eliminate the problem.
For Winner, the question of “means” must be examined for true change to take place, and here, he brings up the idea of dismantling systems in order to understand. However, this is not the breaking off machines or the smashing of machines and some believe Luddites to do. This is more self-reflection and examination because “the most interesting parts of the technological order in this regard are not those found in the structure of physical apparatus anyway. I have tried to suggest that the technologies of concern are actually forms of life – patterns of human consciousness and behavior adapted to a rational productive design” (608-9).
Luddism, in Winner’s mind, calls for using self as research. Disconnecting one’s self from technology and noting the needs, habits, or discomforts that arise because of the disconnection is important to understand how much we need a particular form of technology in our life and if there are other, more effective, less obtrusive forms of technology that can be built to blend better with our lives.
The most significant alternative in Luddism is not this, however. It is simply not fixing technological systems as they break down. To Winner, society seems to see this “fixing” as “growth,” but if we actually refused to fix these systems, we could possibly develop new technologies that benefit us.
Winner concludes his essay by taking us back 2,500 years to Aeschylus’ “Prometheus Bound,” to illustrate that these problems are not new. We just find new ways to reinvent the problems, or to escalate them. And perhaps it’s time to truly think about what we can do to help ourselves. “Perhaps means can be found to rid the human world of our self-made afflictions” (610).
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