The Dangers of Cultural Change


Ned Ludd, says the legend, wasn’t too bright but he knew what he liked and didn’t like. And he didn’t like those new-fangled machines that made socks. So he broke into someone’s house and broke two of them, thus making a statement against the replacement of humans by machines. That was near the end of the 18th century.

His was not the first rejection of the machines that eventually tooled the Industrial Revolution. That knitting machine had been invented as early as 1589 by a British fellow named William Lee. He tried to get it patented but Queen Elizabeth I refused, thinking it would destroy the whole industry of hand knitting. The Queen was the first Luddite!

It was not until 1811, however, when the Industrial Revolution was in high gear, that opposition to the new machines in a variety of fields became an organized movement. By then it was unmistakably clear that the Queen had been right: Machines were supplanting humans. Following the example and taking the name of Ned Ludd, the Luddites began demonstrating against the transition from hand work to machine work.

Luddites still exist, of course, though no longer as an organized movement. The year that I was on my school’s debate team, the question we were assigned to debate was whether the railroads had the right the lay off the coal stokers when they shifted from steam to diesel-electric locomotives. By that time – 1960 – there were very few steam engines left but the unions were fighting hard to protect the employment of the men who actually had no work left to do. Before long we’ll have the same sorts of struggles with the US Postal Service.

Cultural transitions, whether industrial or electronic as in our day, are difficult because there are always people who are so invested in the past and present that they experience change as real loss. Buggy whip makers by the hundreds lost their jobs when the automobile came along but the auto industry employed thousands. So the whip makers paid the price for society as a whole to make a substantial gain.

I would suggest that there is another and much more subtle way to measure the effects of technology. When we “light” the fireplace by flicking a switch, rather than by carefully arranging the wood we cut last summer, something personal is lost. When we send an email rather than a handwritten letter, something personal is lost. When we buy a sweater rather than knitting it, something personal is lost.

No one of these losses is fatal to personhood but taken together with hundreds of such losses, we find ourselves disoriented, lonely, powerless, insubstantial. For some this is a problem that cannot be overcome and we read the results in the headlines. . .or hear them on the news. . .or, to be more modern, read them on our smartphones.

The human heart remains unchanged, it seems, throughout the centuries and all the changes that have come since that fellow put his handprint on the wall of the cave more than 300 centuries ago. He wanted to make his mark, to say to the world “Here I am.” He wanted to matter, just like we do.

If our personhood is not grounded in loving relationships, especially with our Lord, we are vulnerable. Buying more gadgets is like drinking salt water, leaving us unsatisfied and thirsty for more. Giving ourselves to others in loving, trusting relationships is the only way to be the persons our Lord has created us to be. The love and trustworthiness of Jesus Christ is our sure foundation.


About mthayes42

I am a retired pastor, interested in the Bible, cross-cultural ministries, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the current and past history of western civilization.
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