WASHINGTON – Their name is synonymous with futile attempts to roll back technology — and with fuddy-duddies who can’t figure out how to use the iPhone.
The Luddites were British textile artisans who 200 years ago smashed the mechanized looms they thought threatened their jobs.
They weren’t the first to attack machines. They are named after a man who probably didn’t exist. And their grievances weren’t even with the looms themselves; they were enraged at the business owners who hired unskilled laborers to use the machines and turn out shoddy products that ruined the artisans’ reputation for quality.
An outraged Parliament passed a law imposing the death penalty on machine wreckers — a draconian move opposed by the poet Lord Byron, who said the Luddites deserved pity, not punishment.
Historians aren’t sure where the name came from. Years earlier, by one account, a young apprentice named Ned Ludd had smashed the machine he was working on after being punished by his master. But in other accounts, the boy’s name is Ludlum.
And in his book on the Luddites, “Rebels Against the Future,” author Kirkpatrick Sale suggests the term may have come from an expression used then in parts of England — “sent all of a lud,” which meant ruined.
Whatever its origins, the name stuck.
The Luddite label has been applied to everyone from anti-technology extremists — such as the “Unabomber,” Ted Kaczynski — to those who merely struggle with technology or don’t want to bother with it.
“I’m a Luddite,” pop star Elton John told Britain’s The Telegraph newspaper in 2011.
“I don’t have a phone. I don’t have a computer. I don’t have an iPad. And I don’t have an iPod.”
Sometimes the Luddite label serves as an all-purpose epithet for someone who’s not with the times.
When University of Chicago economist Raghuram Rajan raised unwelcome questions about the stability of the world financial system in 2005, for instance, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers dismissed his argument as “slightly Luddite.”
Three years later, investment bank Lehman Bros. collapsed, and the global economy toppled into the deepest recession since the 1930s.
For once, at least, the Luddite was right.