Between 1811 and 1813, English textile workers and weavers conducted a campaign of protests, sabotage and occasional rioting against the spread of new technology that threatened their livelihoods during the Industrial Revolution. At times they also tried to prevent lower-paid immigrants from taking their jobs.
Their actions were in part provoked by the difficult economic climate caused by Britain’s involvement in the war against Napoleon. In the end, their movement was put down by a combination of the British army and show trials that often led to execution or being sent to the colonies.
The protesters came to be known as the Luddites, a term we are familiar with these days, and which is often used to describe anyone attempting to slow or stop the march of the digital revolution. Technologies may have changed in the past 200 years, but many people will recognise the obvious parallels.
There is, though, one insidious difference. In the digital revolution, governments aren’t turning to armies or judges to put down today’s Luddites, they’re turning those digital technologies back on them.
Look at Turkey, where a new data protection law has seen opponents claim that citizens will be “stripped naked” by the degree of surveillance the new law enshrines.
Look in the UK, at the ongoing debate about the Investigatory Powers Bill, and the degree of mass data collection the government seeks to legitimise.
Look also in the US, where the FBI finally backed down in its attempt to force Apple to create a backdoor into the iPhone, although that battle of privacy versus security has only been delayed and not yet won.
So how are today’s common folk striking back? Well, digital technologies are proving very useful. The Panama Papers revealed by national newspapers around the world to expose the murky world of offshore finance saw advanced data visualisation software used to analyse 11.5 million documents amounting to 2.6TB of data. It’s also rumoured those files were stolen by well-meaning hackers.
The results are showing the degree to which many of the so-called elites – often the ones turning digital tech back on the rest of us – are hiding their cash in tax havens.
The digital revolution is proving to be a huge democratising force, breaking down old hierarchies in favour of a networked, globalised society. Much like the Industrial Revolution, that process is – barring catastrophe – unstoppable and inevitable.
But those at the top of the hierarchies are increasingly realising how technology can be used in an attempt to protect what they see as the established order.
Historians remember the Industrial Revolution as a time of great social unrest, but ultimately leading to huge economic, social and cultural progress that benefited everyone.
Fortunately we’ve not seen serious social unrest in the digital revolution – although there are commentators around who think we yet might. We can see, though, the enormous opportunity for everyone.
But the real difference between now and events 200 years ago, is that this time the Luddites are the ones in charge.