Am I A Luddite

Some Thoughts On Where We Are And Where We’re Going

     On a recent trip across the country by train, I fell into conversation with a man who owns a vacation cabin powered by solar panels.  The remote setting of this cabin made living off the grid a practical choice for him.  As our conversation continued, he realized that my wife and I have chosen to live off the grid in an area where power is readily available.  We have also embraced the concept of voluntary simplicity and find that is a comforting guide in a world where faster and more seem to be the operative words.  At one point my new acquaintance asked me if I was a Luddite.  I replied that I was not, according to the commonly accepted definition of that term.  The dictionary defines Luddite as one who is opposed to technological change. 

     I would probably not be writing this essay if I did not accept some level of technological change.  Certainly I would not be enlisting the aid of a word processor.  I accept the ballpoint pen with which I write, rather than use the nibbed pen and inkwell of my grade school years.   The tools and techniques used during my bypass surgery, unavailable to previous generations, may be responsible for my being alive at all

   So, if I am not a Luddite rejecting change, yet am critical of much modern technology, can I define my stance?  To do so, it may help to look at combinations of acceptance and rejection. 

Position #1.   Total rejection of technological change.  This would be Luddism as commonly defined.  We would revert to the technology of a selected point of an earlier age, say pre-automobile or pre-electricity.

Position #2.  This would accept some technologies of the past, recognizing their good parts and modifying them with new discoveries.  New discoveries will always be sought, but their acceptance will depend on an evaluation of their merits compared with what they are replacing.

Position #3.  Accepting the latest technology as an improvement on the old (the old being rejected), and believing that problems will be solved by technologies yet to come. 


    I believe first of all, that no matter how we define progress, it is based on the contributions of those who have gone before us.  Any thought that we are smarter than previous generations can only be remotely true if we define intelligence in a narrow sense as having access to a greater number of facts.  If we do not take the time to critically examine new discoveries and convert them to wisdom there can be no direction to what we call progress.  To accept new ideas because they are new and reject old ideas because they are old provides no stability for our culture. 

     There is nothing to say that an old idea cannot be better than a new idea, and that a technology from an earlier time cannot be better for the earth and those living on it than a newly developed technology, often measured against the old only by standards of speed or a narrow definition of the economic bottom line. 

     The relationship of power tools to production helps to show the direction craftsmanship (and indeed our whole culture) is headed.  In past writing, I have used a comparison of an air nailer to a hammer to illustrate the argument of new not being necessarily better than old.  The air nailer may be faster, but not anywhere near as fast as suggested by the number of nails that it is possible to drive in a unit of time.  From this must be subtracted the time to set up equipment and to service the compressor, nail gun, and often a generator.  There is also time spent in earning the money to buy the tools, fuel for a generator, and the increased cost of the fasteners.  We take for granted the ability to get power by simply pushing a plug into a receptacle.  At one level, at least, it is a rather bizarre thought to enlist thousands of miles of transmission lines from a hydroelectric site or other power plant to drive a nail that could be driven by a weight on the end of a stick.

     For all power tools it will be important to modify expectations of time saved as well as to assess possible degradation of the working environment with increased dust, noise, and danger.  The precision of mechanical equipment can be impressive but, just as the calculator can atrophy the skills of mental calculation, so too can the power tool work against the learning and retention of hand skills. 

     We ought now to consider whether hand skills are important.  Let us use the construction of a plain, dovetailed chest as an example.  Starting with rough-sawn boards and nails as the only materials, let us (for argument’s sake) say that the chest can be completed considerably faster with power tools than with hand tools.  The power tools used will be a thickness planer, table saw, dovetail jig, and router.  Fastenings will be driven by an air nailer.  The hand tool equivalent will use smooth plane, rip and crosscut saws, coping saw, chisel and hammer. 

     The time needed to become proficient in the use of each hand tool will almost always be greater than required for its power equivalent.  Which method is better, the new faster technology or the old?  This is not an easy question to answer.  It has much to do with why we make things and our relation to the materials that we work with. 

     If our sole reason for making a chest is to have a chest, then it should be just as good to purchase a chest of equal quality as to make our own.  Also, the common perception is that the faster the job can be completed the better, as we can use the “saved” time to build more chests, or to fit something else into our busy lives. 

     On the other hand, if we make a chest not only to have a chest, but to experience the satisfaction of a well-honed chisel making the final cuts on a dovetail pin, or to watch each stroke of the plane gradually reveal the pattern of grain under the rough-sawn surface of the boards, that is a far different thing.  In this case we have developed a closer relationship with the wood because we need to know its grain structure intimately in order to select the proper tool or technique for the work at hand.  Furthermore, the look and feel of a surface created with hand tools is subtly different from that created with machines.  Although I strongly disagree with any intentional marring of a surface to give it a “hand-made look”, a few hand plane marks showing through the final finish would not detract from the feel of the chest as much as the precise print of planer knives

      The direction of power tool development has worked against our closeness to the materials we work with while allowing the craftsman to use the most material in the shortest time. If the boards used in our hypothetical chest are ten inches wide, it will most likely have taken over 50 years for nature to grow the wood.  Should we not ask, “How can this piece of wood, that took so long to grow, produce the maximum amount of human well-being?” 

     When we shape a piece of wood with hand tools, the skills we are using are those of every woodworker who has gone before us and the tools we use are often ones that have been held by craftsmen who have enjoyed the same work.  If the modern power tool is chosen because it does the work better, quieter, safer, or with and actual saving in time and money over the hand tool, then that choice may be considered progress.  However, few power tools can claim these advantages.  Their principal promise is to have greater speed and accuracy with less skill.

     `      The total rejection of power tools in favor of hand tools is not the goal of this essay.  Rather it is to point out that, as absurd as nothing but hand tools may sound to most modern craftsmen, it is equally absurd to embrace each new power tool as progress, abandoning the tradition and skills that the new tool replaces. 

     With the CNC router, we can sit at our computer, design a chest, press enter, and then go to the cutting room to collect the cut out pieces.  The 3D printer promises even more.  With this tool we will be able to, in theory, push a button marked “chest”, and produce the entire product.  What then is the value of craftsmanship?  Is it important that we know how to make anything at all?

    I believe that the ability to push a button to produce a desired item should be a wakeup call that at some point the ability of power tool technology can go too far and we must face the realization that human involvement with the process of creation is critically important.  If human beings are defined as being tool using animals, we may be jeopardizing our humanity as we become more and more separated from production.

    Surely the best course is to use power for avoiding drudgery while being aware that human involvement in the creative process is essential.  Most of us will not want to revert to total hand tool use, from the cutting of the tree to the finished chest, but I firmly believe that we can go too far in rejecting the old in favor of the new.  I feel that before deciding to acquire a woodworking machine, we should assess its relationship with the hand tool it will replace. We should ask:  How much energy it uses.  What skills will be lost by it use.  How much will its use change the work environment, and what is the net “saving” in time using the power tool? 

     Finally, because most hand tools require more physical output than their power equivalent, we often find ourselves using a power tool, not to save time, but because we are just being easy on ourselves. This is analogous to driving to the corner store when we could have walked or ridden a bicycle.   Taking the easy way out becomes a kind of moral battleground for each of us, a front that will shift with our mood and our evolving sense of time and what is best for the world.  Although I have used the quote before, it seems appropriate to re-state what E.F.Schumacher, writing in Small Is Beautiful, was tempted to call his first law of economics.  “The amount of real leisure a society enjoys tends to be in inverse proportion to the amount of labour saving machinery it employs”.

     In order to stop and reverse overcrowding, overconsumption , and the ever increasing stress of modern life, we will each have to decide what is enough, because having more than enough is unacceptable.  Our economic system does not recognize the concept of more than enough, and there lies the problem.  We are herded like sheep toward a largely unplanned whirlwind of a future.  We forget that we invented the economy.  It is not an unalterable necessity like air, water or gravity.  It can be changed to better serve all life, not by politicians or economists, but only by each one of us.

Harry Bryan  2017 Originally published on Off Center Habor