Progress Without People

by David Noble (1992)


I was hoping for a more in-depth look at the actual Luddite movement, but I’m pleased with what I got nonetheless.  This is a short and somewhat dry collection of essays that nevertheless presents a vital and under-represented viewpoint: that despite our collected wisdom, technological progress is not “inevitable,” and that we commoners should and can have a say in how and when such progress takes place.

Noble opens the book jarringly, coming out right away with what amounts to an extremely radical, anarchist assertion about the way technology displaces workers and should be either controlled or dismantled. Most of the first section is not only dated but also tediously one-note. However, there is enough of value in the 2nd half — involving him fleshing out his original assertion in clear and logical terms — to make the entire book recommendable.

There are several memorable passages. His well-supported argument for how the desire for control is at the heart of all technological engineering (chiefly control by managers and owners, but also by the very engineers), and his systematic dismantling of free market theory are my two favorites.

He also importantly notes that purchasing more technology in order to “streamline” production very frequently results in higher costs for the owner and no appreciable reduction in prices for the consumer. According to Noble the only rational reason for owners to pursue technology is to subjugate and/or eliminate the bothersome workforce. Again, this is well beyond Marx in extremity, but it is well argued and certainly gives food for thought if nothing else.

I would definitely recommend this to anyone interested in economics or political theory, especially if you identify as socialist or anarcho-syndicalist. I myself came to it through Chomsky (who I think is pretty great), so I already had a taste of fairly radical thought. Noble provides a nice progression from Chomsky IMO.


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