Editor’s note: The controversial Digital Economy Bill returns to the House of Commons today, taking it closer to being made law. This guest post looks back at another time when people desperately clung onto an old way of life, just like the big media corporations pushing the Digital Economy Bill through.
Luddites were 19th Century protesters who objected to their jobs being replaced by machines. They smashed up the mechanised looms that were rendering their skills obsolete.
Although that seems like distant history, the Digital Economy Bill fiasco shows that things haven’t really changed as much as we might think…
Luddites past and present
The small town of Marsden at the head of West Yorkshire’s Colne Valley is the place to understand Luddism; a working community of woollen manufacturers in which one or two of the more wealthy invested in new technology which reduced the earnings of their neighbours.
Although it seems more likely that the neighbours were protesting not at new technology but at the ending of customary wage systems. These poor men wanted to maintain their revenue stream in order to keep their families alive.
But that was in 1812…….
Still it does seem curiously contemporary except for the “poor” bit. The new luddites are media corporations desperate to cling onto a business model that they know.
The New Luddites are corporations
In a much-discussed recent article, Clay Shirky draws attention to the collapse of complex social systems. Sometimes when complex, sophisticated systems reach a impasse their complex sophisticated political systems cannot produce a solution and system-collapse is the simplest even if not sophisticated, option. This he suggests is what is happening to large corporate business strategies in the world of the internet.
Jeff Jarvis talking about the News Corporation paywall said “Rupert Murdoch has surrendered. The future defeated him…(he) has not used the internet..so he cannot understand the dynamics, demands opportunities of our digital media economy…to try to transpose old business models to the new business reality is insane”
This ignorance seems to be behind the Digital Economy Bill. It is a complex and multifaceted piece of legislation which appears to be based at least in part on ignorance of exactly what is is going on in a world changed by the fact that everything is being – potentially – linked to everything else.
At the same time as the BBC’s Super Power series revealed a world in which a Kenyan farmer cycles 10km to check on the net what is wrong with his potatoes, returns with a simple, locally available, solution and later uses the net to find the best price for his crop; the British Parliament is about to pass this bill into law without proper examination. It should be obvious why Tom Watson MP described the Bill as “Technically futile, politically ignorant and electorally inept”.
We’ve been here before
The last change as great as the Internet was the introduction of steam power at the end of the 18th Century and it is both amusing and instructive to see how the British Political system coped with that.
Watt’s fundamental patent was granted by Act of Parliament in 1775 over the next few decades improvements were made and more patents issued. In 1800 however Watt retired and his patent lapsed. Now anyone could build steam engines.
The increased productivity enabled by this new source of power needed markets to exploit, and Britain had exactly the right combination of circumstances to provide them.
By the end of the wars with France when Britain was the last superpower standing, the country was on the verge of take-off into a new Capitalist world. It even had, in Political Economy, a new way of thinking about what was going on and which was supported by the government.
Yet in even this most favourable of situations, the political system took time to adapt. From the 1783 election of Pitt as reforming Prime Minister it was something like eight decades before the modern party system was formed. So it shouldn’t surprise us that British parties have yet to understand ongoing developments which started only 20 years ago in a period not of only expansion but of secular decline.
And that makes the political system vulnerable to lobbyists.
Which brings us back to the Luddites.
According historian Frank Peel in his book ‘The risings of the Luddites, Chartists and Plug-drawers‘, the original Luddites met at the humble Shears Inn pub. The present day Luddites meet at hedge fund manager Nathanial Rothschild’s Corfu villa although like the original ones they do all know one another and can trust each other’s discretion.
However there is a curious link between the 1812 (poor) and the current (rich) ones. The army which was sent to patrol the Woollen District was commanded by Sir Thomas Maitland. He had failed to conquer the liberated slaves of Haiti, he had been Governor of Ceylon he was about to become Governor of Malta. Some years later he was given an additional task – Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands which, of course, include Corfu.
The Digital Economy Bill truly does echo through history.
Derek Bryant is an antiquarian book dealer and bus driver with an MSc in Social Sciences. He’s also the long-suffering father of The Next Web UK editor Martin Bryant.