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Who’s a Luddite?

May 23, 2012

"The Leader of the Luddites," from Wikimedia Commons.

As with many innovations, those raising critical questions about new educational technologies, such as massive open online courses or MOOCs, risk being called “Luddites.” (See the reader comments on this story about “MOOCs and the Professoriate,” which quotes me expressing some concerns about MOOCs.)

The original Luddites were skilled weavers and knitters who smashed textile machines in early-nineteenth-century England to protect their jobs and livelihoods. They were not opposed to technology as such, but to the specific social consequences they associated with specific technologies.

Moreover, the technologies they destroyed were not new. As Thomas Pynchon explains in “Is it O.K. to be a Luddite?” the stocking-frames destroyed by Ned Ludd in 1779 had been in use since Rev. William Lee invented it in 1589. According to folklore, Rev. Lee loved a woman who kept declining his advances by saying she had knitting to do, so he invented a machine to make hand-knitting obsolete.

Pynchon writes, “The knitting machines which provoked the first Luddite disturbances had been putting people out of work for well over two centuries. Everybody saw this happening — it became part of daily life. They also saw the machines coming more and more to be the property of men who did not work, only owned and hired.”

The point is not that MOOCs will put faculty out of work — they may, but it’s probably too early to say — but that public discussion needs to focus on the various social and economic contexts of online courses, and not merely the wonders or horrors of the technology itself.

Pynchon also notes that the Luddites enjoyed the support of Lord Byron, and his friend Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein could be called a “Luddite novel” — not because it’s anti-technology or anti-modern, but because it warns readers to take good care of their inventions.

Or as Bruno Latour puts it, “Love Your Monsters.” When Dr. Frankenstein meets his creation in the Alps, Latour points out, the monster says he was not born a monster, but only became one after Frankenstein abandoned him.

“Remember, I am thy creature,” the monster protests, “I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed… I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.”

Dr. Frankenstein’s mistake was not to create a new technology, but to assume that its qualities were fixed and its consequences inevitable.

It’s silly to argue either “for” or “against” MOOCs without considering their specific features, how they are socially organized, and how they relate to educational goals and aspirations in specific contexts. And it’s no better to avoid any normative judgment and announce that, like it or not, we must simply “adapt” to the inevitable. Technologies make history, but not as they please.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Bob Friedman permalink
    May 23, 2012 1:58 PM

    This was a terrific post. I was really enlightened by the Frankenstein analogy. I had never thought of the story in that fashion.

    The anecdotal information about the Luddites was entertaining. I had always heard that they subscribed to the fallacy of the “fixed quantity of work” theory. My suspicion is that some of faculty opposition to online education derives out of this fallacy.

    I could not agree with Mark more in his denial of the assertion that “like it or not, we must simply adapt to the inevitable.” While complete rejection of online education is a dead-end road, in my opinion, acceptance of the technology will permit faculty to work to shape it in ways that benefit the educational process.

    I think that the rejectionists (for want of a better label) are fearful that online education has an inevitable and inexorable path which leads to cheap, impersonal and uniform education which does not need the services of educated professionals. Working with new technologies and integrating them into our pedagogy has the potential to raise the quality of what we do. In fact, one common result of technological progress is often the creation of new demand that leads to even more opportunities for employment.

    Because online technology does not have just one path that it can travel, it becomes imperative that faculty engage rather than just rail against it.

  2. May 24, 2012 12:20 PM

    thanks for the short, but very sweet, post.

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