Waiting for the Luddite Club
Reading Time: 4 minutes
I sat in the dirt next to the steps of the Brooklyn Public Library last weekend, waiting for a horde of teenagers with pink hair and flip phones to come ambling through Prospect Park and cure my digital addictions. I was waiting for the Luddite Club—I planned to attend one of their famed meetings.
During quarantine, Edward R. Murrow High School student Logan Lane felt she was losing control over the amount of time and energy she spent curating a social media presence. So she “self-liberated” from technology by removing herself from social media entirely and trading her iPhone for a flip phone. Though she didn’t know it, she was on her way to becoming the leader of a wave of teenage protest against the tyranny of the digital world. Lane gathered her friend group and they started to meet weekly in Prospect Park to socialize, make art, and discuss books and music in a tech-free environment. These casual weekly meet-ups evolved into the Luddite Club.
The club is named after Ned Ludd; according to urban legend, the 18th-century textile worker took a hammer and smashed a mechanical loom in response to the abusive demands of his 10-hour industrial workday. The story was propagated throughout 18th-century England as “Luddites” politicized his act of rebellion. Restless workers took Ludd as their symbolic leader and began smashing their machines as a way of rioting against the rapid rise of industry. Perhaps because of their distinctive protest style or their role in an epochal point in history, the Luddites are stuck in the collective memory as notable defenders of pre-technological life. Ludd’s story may be folkloric, but it gave a real voice to working-class dissatisfaction and skepticism toward technology. Luddite influence can be traced through many counterculture movements in modern history. The anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1970s, for example, targeted the ways that new technology enabled mass killings. They also promoted more general abstinence from consumerism and late-stage industry, fueling a counterculture characterized by the replacement of mindless technological consumption with a vibrant world of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. The more recent Just Stop Oil protests, in which activists strapped themselves to famous paintings in Brighton and France, is another strain of Luddism that pins climate change on the excesses of industrial capitalism. Naturally, it follows that the new threats of unregulated social media algorithms, the economic implications of an exclusively digital world, and the most recent questions of how AI spreads misinformation all call for a Luddite interrogation of our relationship with the digital world.
Being a Luddite is often associated with a naïve opposition to technology. But historically, Luddites were trying to preserve the rights given to them as skilled workers before the advancement of new technologies. Now, the Luddite Club applies the concept of “smashing the machine” similarly: not because they dislike iPhones, but because they want to lead more full social, academic, and artistic lives. An anonymous Luddite Club member said “For me, technology makes it a lot easier to be disconnected from reality. You’re numbing your brain. You’re not really processing anything. You’re just entertaining yourself.”
Alex Vadukul of The New York Times published an article last December about the club, titled “‘Luddite’ Teens Don’t Want Your Likes,” discussing how the club was a success—for example how, in their free time, the members naturally embraced literary icons like Jack Kerouac, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. But when Vadukul followed founder Lane into her luxurious Brooklyn brownstone duplex and made an offhand comment about being greeted by Lane’s IT executive father and goldendoodle at the door, it became clear that the Luddite Club was founded from a place of extreme privilege. The article sparked hundreds of response editorials online and became a focal point of discourse among kids in New York. Subreddits and Mom-blogs quickly attacked the club for their fake-grunge fashion, Che-Guevara-wannabe complexes, and supposed “moral high ground.”
Of course, as a privileged young woman, Lane had an easier time making the “enlightened” decision to ditch her phone; an upper-class white girl in an art-focused high school, she occupies a different sphere than most of the kids in New York. At Stuyvesant, for example, it would be extremely challenging—if not impossible—to be so isolated and simultaneously stay on track academically, socially, and financially (I refused to download Facebook in my freshman year, and found myself out-of-the-loop and missing important events). Navigating New York, networking for internships, or looking for jobs without a phone is a significant disability in such a competitive environment. That is part of why real radical Luddism will likely never gain traction in a rigorous and tech-reliant public school like Stuyvesant.
I sat on the steps of the library for a while, waiting, reading, and self-consciously checking Messenger for updates. The Luddites never showed up. Because I had very shaky correspondence with my contact via her flip phone, I never found out why.
I felt like I was in a Samuel Beckett play, waiting for a hoped-for salvation that never arrived. Waiting for the Luddites gave me time to contemplate what made the movement feel important in our cultural moment. Media critic Yaiza Berrocal writes that “Cultural Luddism […] is brought into play every time we ask ourselves about sabotage, about refusal, about the strategies through which we can not just appropriate the means of production of the culture industry in capitalism but destroy its machinery.” It is a powerful tool for our thinking.