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February 1998

Commentary by Gary Lawrence Murphy                         

Are We the Neo-Luddites?

"Each day, I have my breakfast with the family, see the children off to school and greet my neighbours on my morning walk. I sit down at my machine at about 10 and work until noon. At noon, I take a walk to the village, do some errands and stop by the bakery, the grocers and pop into the pub.


"In the afternoon, I tend my garden, take care of other yard and home chores and sit down again at my machine to concentrate a few hours before the children get home. When school is out, I meet them at the gate, we talk about their day, and play in the yard or walk to the park until dinner. After dinner, I sometimes read or just sit in the living room and be a family together. Once the children are in bed, if there is rush work to be done, I might sit at my machine a few more hours, or walk down to the village pub to hear the local news"


Does the above describe your day, the lifestyle of a modern teleworker? Or does it come nearly verbatim from the testimony of a Luddite, the infamous followers of the mythical Ned Ludd who opposed the Industrial Revolution with their mallets and lives in the early 19th century? A recent CBC "Ideas" program on Luddites, compiled by Paul Kennedy, left me wondering if the great paradigm shift to telework is nothing more than Nature reclaiming humanity.


Who were the Luddites? Weavers mostly. Were they anti-progress? Each had the very latest 'Pentium' loom at home, and like us, always interested in innovation and technical improvements to make their work easier. So why did they smash machines? Why were they so dedicated to the Luddite cause that they would pay with their lives?


Luddism was born two centuries ago, in 1796, in reaction not to progress, but to industrialism. At the turn of that century, factory looms were the latest innovation, and a factory job meant arriving at dawn for a 15 to 18 hour working day, and the door was locked behind you in the morning and not opened until the end of the shift. To the Luddites, the factory looms spelled the end of a way of life, of craftsmanship, of community and of family.


In 1997, the Spearman, Texas, Chamber of Commerce Web page starts with:

 "We're looking for telecommuters and small business owners who would like to live and conduct their businesses where.... 


the crime rate is so low it is not even a topic for discussion.


children can SAFELY play outside or walk downtown for a soda.


there is only one traffic signal in town.


you can drive to work in five minutes or less.


the keys to your potential are more important than the keys to your house.


you can participate in your children's school activities during your lunch or coffee break."


"We've always been alarmed at the tendency to containerize people," says 75-year-old Bob Propst. Bob who? In the middle '60s, Bob and his partner Herman Miller developed the "Action Office," a partial enclosure we now affectionately call the "cubicle."


Luddites attacked the factory looms with sledgehammers. The industrial barons (the government by extension) had just seen the French and then the American revolutions, and feared the worst. With a tremendous show of strength, the Luddite 'uprising' was smashed in 1812, and anyone since who opposed "progress" has been honoured with their name. In the wake of the recent Ontario Teachers' Strike, the largest such strike in North American history, and in light of the government and labour union media campaigns, perhaps there is another angle to telework: "For the children" ... The popular notion in the Telework lobby (IVC and AT&T) equates telework with the social benefit of reduced auto emissions, and then move directly to 'business case' issues of increased productivity, reduced overhead and other gains for the modern share-holders.


Thinking back to Ned Ludd, I wonder if the stakes are not considerably higher.


Gary Lawrence Murphy




Ballad of Ned Ludd (links page)


Balancing Work and Family Issues: More a Concern for Small Business Owners than Corporate America, PRNewswire, Nov. 18, 1997


What's the next cubicle?, Metropolis 'zine, November 1997




AT&T Telework America Research


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