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Your digital detox isn’t as radical as you think

What nineteenth-century Luddites tell us about unplugging

Unplugging might make you feel better. It doesn’t make you a Luddite. (iStock)

If you know someone who eschews smartphones, steers clear of Facebook and regards postcards as an on-the-fly communication technology, then you probably know someone who claims the deliberately old-fashioned label of “Luddite.” At once self-deprecating and proud, modern Luddites resist the onrushing tide of 24/7 digital connectivity.

But in using the word to refer to a carefully cultivated technophobia, the 21st-century Luddite is repeating propaganda and distorting history. The term itself is borrowed from the past, referring to a group of 19th-century English laborers famous for breaking thousands of pieces of state-of-the-art factory equipment. Those Luddites were involved in a far more controversial project than technological resistance: They were fighting against the push to prioritize profits over the quality of products and the well-being of workers. Understanding their work, and the propaganda against it, reveals how resistance to technology continues to be invoked to preserve — not overthrow — an economic system that values efficiency over human labor.

Nineteenth-century Luddites were not anti-technology — in fact, they were quite skilled in the technologies of their trade. But when factory owners began replacing these higher-paid skilled workers with unskilled laborers who only had to run automated machines, skilled workers began protesting: marching on factory owners’ houses, threatening violence and, most famously, smashing the new machinery. Factory owners appealed for government support, and military intervention quickly quashed the uprisings. Key Luddite leaders were executed.

Luddite protests were not voluntary abdications of technology but rather high-stakes negotiations of its role in their livelihoods. Yet instead of recognizing machine-smashing as part of a labor dispute, opponents framed the Luddite protests as a misguided fear of technology. In a public “Letter to the Luddites,” Member of Parliament William Cobbett diagnosed the Luddites’ “error” as misunderstanding the economic structure in which they worked and, as a result, blaming their dissatisfactions on technology. He instructed the working classes to recognize that industrial technology was in their own best interests. Without it, he wrote, the English would revert to being “savages” or “barbarians.”

But Luddites weren’t protesting technology or progress. They were protesting a capitalist system that valued efficiency over quality of life and quality of product. The new steam-powered looms could create fabric more cheaply, but they could not match the quality of the fabric made with traditional methods by skilled artisans.

Today’s Luddites, too, often see themselves as resisting a system that values productivity over human experience. Yet the modern adoption of this term shows us how technophobia is shifting from a term of derision to something even more complex: a badge of resistance that is also a sign of economic power.

The ability to unplug is increasingly a privilege rather than a rebellion. Discussions of digital detoxes — which, of course, often take place online — frequently feature the word “connection.” Feeling too “connected” to email, social media or other online networks? Unplugging offers a chance to create “real” connections instead, often figured sentimentally as face-to-face conversations, moments with children or experiences in nature.

These are worthy activities, certainly. But in the context of the digital detox, they function less like an antidote to over-connection and more like its extension. A company called Digital Detox exists to help consumers manage the process of unplugging. Their tagline reads, “Disconnect to reconnect.” “Reconnect” here may promise device-free experiences, but a digital detox — like the crash diet it invokes — offers a vision of improvement that is premised on regression. Ultimately the goal is to plug back in, better than before — to return to, rather than to smash, the machines.

Indeed, choosing to unplug is its own form of purchasing power, as indicated by the title of a recent documentary, “Offline is the New Luxury.” With more and more demands being placed on workers, unplugging is quickly becoming a commodity. Luxury hotels already offer to hold and monitor smartphones for guests (for a fee). Refusing to be ceaselessly on-call may increasingly become the province of the wealthy and powerful, a return to an era when recreational time was a luxury of the elites rather than a social right for the masses.

If this comes to pass — if unplugging becomes a luxury good — then “Luddite” may no longer refer to disgruntled, radical and ultimately powerless workers, but to those in command, consumed by the very forces that the original Luddites fought so hard to stop. If only the wealthy, self-proclaimed Luddites can truly unplug, then they replicate the same power structure the original Luddites fought against. The authority to replace skilled artisans with machines becomes the authority to preserve face-to-face “real” interactions as the province of the wealthy. In both cases, technophobia obscures rather than unsettles the maintenance of power.

Remembering how the term Luddite came to be associated with technophobia can help us remember that profit, not machines, powers not only our digital binges but our detoxes as well. While being too connected may seem like a uniquely modern problem, it is actually part of a larger historical dilemma: Who determines your relationship to technology?