Technological Progress

David Noble writing about technological progress in the first industrial revolution, taken from his book Progress Without People: New Technology, Unemployment, and the Message of Resistance:

With regard to technological change, [leaders of labour] adopted an official posture of encouragement, accommodation, and acceptance. They were, after all, progressive, and no progressive is against progress. Besides, “You can’t stop progress.” So, boasting of their maturity and responsibility, they embraced this progress as their own and, in boom times, bellowed of its abundant beneficence.

This is not to say that everyone now actually believed in progress. People still continued to have their doubts about this peculiar and alien notion, and subtly expressed it whenever they talked about such change: “That’s progress, I suppose (isn’t it?)” “Well, I guess that’s progress (isn’t it?)” “You can’t stand in the way of progress, anyhow (can you?)” The elliptical questions could still be heard, addressed to some absent authority who presumably knew about such things. Yet, even with their barely audible doubts, and even when progress looked pretty grim in the present tense, people were encouraged by social pressure to be respectable, to try to be taken seriously, to look progressive. Those who were not disciplined by their superiors in the ways of progress learned to discipline themselves. For even displaced workers want to be taken seriously and want to make a contribution to society. Thus they must believe that their own sacrifices are suffered for a larger good — how else suffer them with dignity?

And so the Luddites were forgotten, their distant distress recalled only to affirm the primitiveness of their struggle and the insanity of those who dare to repeat it. The term “Luddite” became an epithet, a convenient device for disparaging and isolating the occasional opponent to progress and a charge to be avoided at all costs by thoughtful people. For to be called a luddite meant that you were not really serious. It meant that you believed you could stop progress. It meant that you were crazy.

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