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The New Ludditism

February 10, 2012

True Ludditism may be defined as a rebellion against the technological implements of industry. The original Luddites smashed mechanized looms and other textile manufacturing equipment. They believed that these tools were putting them out of a job.

Smash those looms!

Fast forward a few hundred years. Short of taking the lives of two-thirds of the world population, there is very little that any modern-day Luddite can do to destroy the “tools” of modern industry and get his job back. When Obama once asked Steve Jobs if Apple could start manufacturing the iPhone in the United States, Jobs replied: “Those jobs aren’t coming back.” Cheap labor, not technology, has taken America’s manufacturing jobs.

This raises two interesting points:

1. Why have America’s major corporations moved their manufacturing, customer service, and IT overseas? It is not simply that corporations can turn a bigger profit by moving to cheaper labor overseas, although that is true.

No. We are the reason. Our rampant consumerism guarantees that manufacturing jobs move overseas. It’s simple: the more products in demand, the more you need to make. The more new customers you have, the more customer service you need to accommodate them. The numbers don’t lie: it’s far more profitable for a company like Apple to manufacture its iPhones in Shenzhen then it is for them to do that same work in America. It’s not just that the labor is cheap, but that the labor is more productive. Let me put it this way: if you want that new product – shiny, gleaming, and perfect – just in time for Christmas, then it must be made in China.

This could be you. Or not.

Or, let me put it another way: how many Americans do you know who’d be willing to live in a crowded dormitory, eat mass-produced company food, and wipe an iPhone screen on a towel, non-stop, twelve hours a day, every day?1 You don’t know anyone like that? Neither do I. Yet, everyone still wants the iPhone and the job. Sorry, you can’t have both.

2. Does technology benefit modern workers? Yes. Never before in history has technology been so beneficial to the average worker. If you have a good idea (or if you think you have a good idea), it’s almost ridiculously easy to find people willing to help you.

You could, for example: create an app, design a new website, use existing technologies to help people, design and implement new software, etc. The possibilities are almost endless.

But there’ s a catch. This new era rewards innovation. It rewards intelligence. It does not reward unthinking automatons who clock in at nine, clock out at five, and leave work at the office. Modern connectivity (which we’ve defined on this blog as being “wired in”) means that you must take your work home with you.

The scariest aspect of all of this isn’t the sudden blurring between home and office (more on this another time), but the cruel reality that most Americans are not prepared to operate within this new workplace paradigm. Our education system was designed specifically to turn most of our young learners into unthinking automatons.2 Reversing hundreds of years of bad education ought to be our first task as citizens and policy makers. But take a look around: is it?

This brings us to the new Ludditism (or is it New Ludditism?). Rather than smashing the tools of the New Economy (or worse, attacking the people who are “stealing” our jobs), the new Luddites ought to be smashing tablets, iPhones, and flat screen televisions. In a symbolic gesture, they ought to destroy the consumer products that have driven our multinational corporations to move jobs overseas in their ever-increasing bid to make more high-quality products faster and more profitably.

The new Luddites should be burning down Walmart stores and sabotaging the long queues for the latest Apple products. They should be forcing Americans to sit up and think hard about where their rampant, unchecked consumerism is taking them.

Or they can keep on railing against outsourcing and continue blaming the big, bad corporations that make the very products that fuel their crippling addictions.

1 This is a real job in a Shenzhen factory.
2 President Woodrow Wilson: “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”

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