LONDON — Ned Ludd was the leader of a mob, circa 1815, who went around smashing up new textile machinery in factories. Ludd calculated, correctly, that traditional jobs would be lost and familiar ways of life destroyed for thousands, even millions of British workers if the machines prevailed.
And of course, within the narrow limits of his world, he was right. The argument that new technology would open up new jobs and better living standards on an unimaginable scale cut no ice with the Luddites. Others might benefit, but their particular lives and livelihoods were being destroyed.
For the governments of the time, the Luddite tendency caused enormous political problems — not just in Britain, although the first wave began there. All around the industrializing world, riots ensued and political stability was undermined. Powerful interests who felt threatened organized disruption and political opposition. In some countries, revolutions followed and rulers were overthrown. In other cases, including Britain, ruthless measures crushed opposition and protest in the name of inevitable progress.
It is just beginning to dawn on policymakers and governments worldwide that we could now be heading rapidly into the same situation — but on a vastly greater scale. Here at the end of the second millennium of the Christian era, a new mode of development and a new kind of capitalism, utterly transformed by information technology, is hustling humanity into a pattern of work, and a new social landscape, as radically different and disturbing as those that accompanied the onset of the steam-machinery age or the arrival of the railway or electricity.
Now, as then, the governing classes and their acolytes have been almost the last to perceive that they, too, are caught up in the sea change and that terrifying new political pressures are building up, challenging the very process of governance at its roots.
Some examples: As the World Trade Organization starts its latest ministerial meeting in Seattle, every kind of protesting and protectionist lobby is being mobilized to contain the liberalizing, deregulating, transparency-creating pressures that globalism is forcing upon us all. The emerging global marketplace is depicted as a threat to jobs, human rights and cultures around the planet. The official plan may be to open the WTO door to China, but the unofficial resistance is going to be formidable.
Or take farmers everywhere — those timeless protectors of ancient landscapes who have lived in most parts of the world by state protection. As the food market goes global, the countryside and its dwellers rise up in fury as their way of life is undermined.
Then there are the retailers, the shopkeepers of the world, who see electronic commerce removing their very purpose, forcing them to change from suppliers to collection points, or close down completely. There are the car dealers who are being bypassed; the travel agents who now find tickets and packages being sold on the Internet over their heads; the high-street banks that no one visits any more; the bookstores where people come to browse but then go home and buy cheaper through the World Wide Web; the commodity markets that have gone online:, the newspapers who are losing their advertising: The list its endless.
At every point in the human chain of exchange and contact, the relationship is being transformed and the former middle men replaced.
Consumers want to move up the supply chain to the very point of production, ordering, even designing, the product they want directly. Investors want to brush aside intermediaries and old-fashioned bankers and pension-fund managers, and have direct access to the new products from the capital market and the decision-makers in industry and commerce.
Voters also want to use their newfound empowerment and knowledge to gain direct access and input to policies and measures affecting them, pushing aside the political middlemen with their fixes and fudges.
For many professional administrators and public servants, this new interactivity and intimacy with the public has come as a rude and disorienting shock. What part is the state now supposed to play in handling this new revolution? Should it facilitate the new technology even more, or should it stand up for the dispossessed? Should it back the winners or the losers in the information revolution?
Of course, there are some historical models in history to consult. The most obvious is the 14th-century Chinese policy that simply closed down advanced technology and foreign contact, with devastating eventual results. Japan went even deeper into isolationist, antitechnological denial and then swung round completely with the Meiji revolution, with the state becoming the main driving force for change.
In 17th- and 18th-century Europe, weak and quarrelsome governments and states were swept aside by the fantastic power of innovation and commerce. But what do they do now? Do they listen to the lobbyists? For instance, at the European Commission in Brussels, ideas have been circulating about ways to regulate and control e-commerce — ideas of a kind that would in fact strangle such commerce at birth — all in the name of protecting the consumer.
Meanwhile, the mighty new European Central Bank, along with other central banking authorities, has been trying to put the brakes on the growth of electronic cash and credit issuance by unapproved agencies, all of which would undermine the central control of money, and the rationale of central banking itself.
Every interest, large and small, seeks to defend itself against the swelling tide, and it is quite natural that they should, as they always have. In the meantime, governments are bombarded with contradictory advice about which way to turn, the bombardment now being direct, interactive and constant.
As in the industrial and technical revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, the bureaucrats’ peaceful life and the safe, cozy existence of the politicians has gone, blown away by the new technology with a suddenness that is hard to comprehend.
The new global Luddites are now coming out in force, and it will take all the mental agility, patience and foresight that public men and women can muster to ensure that their concerns, often wholly legitimate, are contained in proper balance with the march of the information age. Somehow the civic order must be held in harmony with ultrarevolutionary technological trends. It is an awesome task and a very deep challenge to familiar forms of democracy.
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