King Ludd, Flow States, and Bill Russell

Leave a comment

February 3, 2023 by libroshombre

            Flow states, switch-cost effect, and ludditeism have been worrisome lately; it started with a thought-terminating cliché, which is also known as “a semantic stop-sign,” “a thought-stopper,” and “bumper sticker logic.”  It’s “a form of loaded language, often passing as folk wisdom, intended to end an argument and quell cognitive dissonance. Its function is to stop an argument from proceeding further, ending the debate with a cliché rather than a point,” according to Wikipedia, who added that the “term was popularized by Robert Jay Lifton in his 1961 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, who referred to the use of the cliché, along with ‘loading the language’, as ‘the language of non-thought.’”   Examples include “It is what it is,” “Now is not the time,” and “Let’s agree to disagree.”

            It’s true that I don’t own a smartphone and regularly revel in not spending as much of my life online than I probably would otherwise.  I also espouse the fact that reading screens involves a different set of brain paths and is considerably slower and far less comprehensive compared with reading hard print.  However, when discussing such tech-related topics with those more inclined towards social media (especially my devotion to flip phones), conversation often seems to devolve into “You’re such a luddite!” rather than exploring the possibilities of both viewpoints and other considerations, like what exactly is a luddite?

            Merriam-Webster’s correctly defines Luddite as “one of a group of early 19th century English workmen destroying laborsaving machinery as a protest,” adding that currently it means “one who is opposed to especially technological change.”  The common misconception is mirrored by the Collins Dictionary, that claims the Luddites were “any of the textile workers opposed to mechanization who rioted and organized machine-breaking between 1811 and 1816,” but the underlying reasons for the upheaval were far more complex.  “Despite their modern reputation, the original Luddites were neither opposed to technology nor inept at using it,” according to Smithsonian Magazine.  “Many were highly skilled machine operators in the textile industry. Nor was the technology they attacked particularly new … As the Industrial Revolution began, workers naturally worried about being displaced by increasingly efficient machines. But the Luddites themselves ‘were totally fine with machines,’ says Kevin Binfield, editor of the 2004 collection Writings of the Luddites. They confined their attacks to manufacturers who used machines in what they called ‘a fraudulent and deceitful manner’ to get around standard labor practices. ‘They just wanted machines that made high-quality goods,’ says Binfield, ‘and they wanted these machines to be run by workers who had gone through an apprenticeship and got paid decent wages. Those were their only concerns.’”  But a bunch of them were hung.

            The Luddites’ desperation was illuminated in “Luddites and Protests,” a chapter in a highly regarded 2015 book by Jenny Uglow, “In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars.”  Britain had been fighting France for decades, its economy was in a shambles, unemployment was rampant, and food prices soared.  And fabric-making machinery – steam-powered looms, wider-weaving machines, shearing frames, that trimmed the fuzz from the cloth, etc. – threatened to make things worse for them.  A government select committee in London suggested the workers accept lower wages, change jobs, or “practice patience and endurance.”  In Nottinghamshire, Robin Hood’s old stomping grounds, knitters complained that they were being ruined by “speculating, unprincipled individuals that have made fraudulent goods to cheat and rob the public.”  “Fraudulent” to them meant fabric sold as handmade that was actually made on the new wider looms by “colts,” workers who hadn’t served an apprenticeship.  They weren’t opposed to technology, but to starvation.  On March 11, 1811, the Nottingham knitters began smashing the new machinery.  So, Parliament passed the Destruction of Stocking Frames Act which made that sort of vandalism a capital offense, spurring Lord Byron to rise in the House of Lords to condemn it vehemently.  He described the Luddites as “meagre with famine, sullen with despair, careless of a life which your lordships are perhaps about to value at something less that the price of a stocking frame.”  A week later he published a poem that read, “Those villains, the weavers, are all grown refractory,/ Asking some succor for charity’s sake -/ So hang them in clusters round each Manufactory,/ That will at once put an end to mistake.”  Many were hung, and things didn’t improve for the British working class for another 50 years.  Who was Ned Ludd, the Luddites’ leader?  Stories in the press reported him first in one part of the country, then another, raising and training a clandestine army, and so on.  The Smithsonian noted that “no such person existed. Ludd was a fiction concocted from an incident that supposedly had taken place 22 years earlier in the city of Leicester [where] a young apprentice named Ludd or Ludham was working at a stocking frame when a superior admonished him for knitting too loosely. Ordered to ‘square his needles,” the enraged apprentice instead grabbed a hammer and flattened the entire mechanism. The story eventually made its way to Nottingham, where protesters turned Ned Ludd into their symbolic leader.”

            The first time I was called a luddite was in the mid-90s when I wrote a library column about the latest new Internet phenomenon: blogs.  I explained what they are and pointed out that they are often an individual’s perspective, and, if the information is to be taken seriously, it should be crosschecked for validity.  An Australian blogger took umbrage and spread the word about the “luddite running a two-bit library somewhere in Alaska,” and that’s when I learned about internet trolling, which Webster’s defines as “to harass, criticize, or antagonize (someone) especially by provocatively disparaging or mocking public statements, postings, or acts.”  I was showered with dozens of very hateful emails, and their bleak ugliness was startling.  To some people, as author John Connolly said, “Anyone who wants bookstores to survive is portrayed as a Luddite who goes around smashing up Kindles.” 

            I fall in with another author, Neil Postman, who wrote, “I am not a Luddite.  I am suspicious of technology.  I am perfectly aware of its benefits, but I also try to pay attention to some of its negative effects.”  In “Your Attention Didn’t Collapse. It Was Stolen,” a recent article in The Guardian, Johann Hari described how “Social media and many other facets of modern life are destroying our ability to concentrate.”  He described studies showing that the average office worker can focus their attention for only three minutes, and many college students can focus for only 65 seconds.  Hari interviewed many leading researchers including Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT, who said our brains “can only produce one or two thoughts” in our conscious minds at once, while “the average teenager now believes they can follow six forms of media at the same time.”   Neuroscientists have “found that when people believe they are doing several things at once, they are actually juggling. They’re switching back and forth [and] that comes with a cost … When this happens, the evidence shows that ‘your performance drops … This is called the ‘switch-cost effect.’”  This slows overall efficiency by 20 percent.  Fortunately for me, writing a column enters me into a “flow state” which is “when you are doing something meaningful to you, and you really get into it, and time falls away, and your ego seems to vanish, and you find yourself focusing deeply and effortlessly. Flow is the deepest form of attention human beings can offer.”  There are “three key factors” according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the leading expert on flow states: choose a single goal that’s truly meaningful to you, and push yourself since “it helps if what you are doing is at the edge of your abilities.”  As NBA great Bill Russell noted, “Concentration and mental toughness are the margins of victory.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: