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.

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.

You really couldn’t ask for a more science-fictional setup: someone invents a couple of gadgets and everything changes. A whole industry of skilled workers is threatened. Ancient settlements are razed and replaced by sheep, their residents turned into internal refugees, wandering the land. Slavers sail around the world, murdering and enslaving distant strangers to feed the machine. The entire material culture of a nation is transformed. Guerilla warfare breaks out. Machines are smashed. Factories are put to the torch. Guerrillas are captured and publicly executed. Blood runs through the streets.

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