Plain and Simple

The Luddite Congress

The unadorned and determinedly plain setting of the Stillwater Friends Meeting House in Barnesville, Ohio proved to be an ideal setting for the Second Luddite Congress, a gathering for people to whom the computer—and the rest of technological society—is anathema. Though little sympathy was expressed for the Unabomber, who’s singlehandedly given technophobes a bad name, there was some support for his basic message of rejecting industrial “progress” and embracing “wild nature.”

What is a Luddite Congress? In 1812, a group from Manchester, England, led by the self-styled General Ned Ludd, revolted against the machines of the newly invented factory system. Fearing loss of jobs (a well-founded fear), their response was violent. Machines were smashed and factories burned. British troops crushed the incipient rebellion and hanged the ringleaders. The Second Congress, scheduled on the same date 183 years ago, was never held.

Most Luddites don’t go as far as the Amish in rejecting the high-tech present. Most drove to the Congress. Some live in cities and have computer-based careers; others run World Wide Web sites. But others are “homesteading” and live in land-based communities and home-school their children. They agreed, though, that the brakes to stop society’s headlong technological momentum have failed.

At times the Congress resembled an AA meeting, with much testimony about withdrawing from the metal monster. “We should not be judged by where we are [in our machine dependence], but by where we have come from and where we are headed,” says Scott Savage, who leads the sponsoring Center for Plain Living and publishes Plain magazine. David Kline, an Amish farmer who plows with a team of horses, says he relies on nature, not battery-powered clocks, to know when to get to work. “I plow when the redwing returns and when my body says `plow,’” he says.

Coming up with a “statement of means” proved problematic. The Congress rejected the original Luddites’ violent response. But one delegate asked, “Can nonviolence include vandalizing the machines which clear-cut the remaining virgin forest?” There are no plans for a third Congress, but the questions raised at this one may linger. Meanwhile, Luddites have their critics. “It’s the power concentrated in transnational corporations and their linkages with government and utilities that we should be opposing, not technology,” says Nancy Jack Todd, vice president of the ecological design firm Ocean Arks International.

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