Machine Smashing Ain't What it Used To Be

No one knows whether John Henry ever lived. People’s heroes like Robin Hood, Captain Swing or Joe Hill have a way of remaining shadowy despite the enormous amount of research focussed on them. Some, of course, definitely did live. Hill did – Joseph Hilstrom, Swedish longshoreman and Wobbly, who probably wasn’t as lily white as labour myth paints him. Others probably didn’t live at all. John Henry may have. If so he was black, born into slavery, maybe in Alabama, and he took on the new technology of his day, the steam drill.

When John Henry was a little baby
Sitting on his Daddy’s knee
He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel
Saying: hammer’s gonna be the death of me
Lawd lawd
Hammer’s gonna be the death of me

Where documented history allows only conjecture, folk ballads offer delightful certainty. John Henry was a steel drivin’ man. He was born with a hammer in his hand. He told his Daddy that the hammer would be the “death o’ me”. He worked on the C & O railroad (Chesapeake and Ohio), digging tunnels into the rock. A workmate, called a “shaker”, held a long steel chisel against the rock face while the man with the hammer swung hard, driving the steel into the rock. John Henry swung his hammer so hard that in some versions of the song he tells his shaker to pray because if he misses “it’s gonna be your burying day”. In another version the shaker wonders whether there’s a storm a-brewing. John Henry replies that “it ain’t nothin’ but my hammer suckin’ wind, lawd lawd, nothin’ but my hammer suckin’ wind”.

When working on the Big Bend Tunnel, West Virginia, the Captain of the work gang announced that he was bringing an up-to-the-minute steam drill into the job. John Henry, keen class sensibilities to the fore, seems to have grasped the labour implications. He takes on the steam drill. As one of the most resonant verses has it:

John Henry said to his Captain
“Now a man ain’t nothin’ but a man
But before I’ll let your steam drill beat me down
I’m gonna die with my hammer in my hand
Lawd Lawd
Die with my hammer in my hand

Which, in due course he does. In some versions, however, the story isn’t quite over. John Henry’s wife, Pollyann, carries on the good work and “drives steel like a man”. There’s a statue of John Henry just outside Talcott, Summers County, West Virginia. There he is, the classic “handsome negro”, stripped to the waist, hammer in his hands, a model of proletarian dignity, a son of toil who shifts tons of soil. In nearly all versions the poetry has that fabulous resonance of singing rhythm and clangourous hyperbole typical of the best oral ballads.

“John Henry” has been recorded many hundreds of times and exists in multiple versions as is the way with oral traditions. Despite being black, and a strong element in black folklore, the tale of John Henry has always had a working class, rather than purely racial, edge to it. There’s a special kind of defeat for the man who saw it all coming – the new technology, redundancies, the coming of an age when a man’s muscles will count for nothing. On one level a parallel might be drawn with that 1970s slogan, often heard off stage left on unemployment rallies: “Give us back our shitty jobs”. There must be better things in life than banging steel into rocks, but in the practical realm of realpolitick it was clear to the railroad construction workers that no boss was going to pay them for doing nothing. A shitty job was better than none. Dignity was better than starvation. It’s the classic dilemma when you have nothing to sell but your labour.

The Dark Thud
History suggests a few such heroes. Ned Ludd, half man half myth, used a hammer somewhat differently to John Henry. He smashed up a couple of new fangled stocking frames in 1782. A few years later, however, selected Nottingham stocking manufacturers began to receive letters from General Ludd, Ned Ludd, or Captain Ludd. The hammer became symbolic and was known as “Great Enoch”.

Great Enoch still shall lead the van
Stop him who dare, stop him who can
Press forward every gallant man
With hatchet, pike and gun

Luddites were a secret society. Rewards were offered for information about them. The death penalty was brought in for frame breaking. The troops were called in. In the manner of twentieth guerrillas and peoples’ bandits, they were clandestinely known and protected by the local population. Open disapproval went hand in hand with support and admiration.

Perhaps the greatest historical function of Ned Ludd was to bestow his name on all forms of opposition to new technologies. The real reasons for the Luddite rebellion, magnificently sullen, underground and darkly threatening, were the John Henry ones: jobs threatened, a traditional skill scuppered, wages reduced. The new frames, like the steam drill, could be operated by unskilled (or less skilled) workers unconcerned with minor matters of solidarity.

I’m reminded of the fracas at Wapping in 1986. The Thatcher-backed anti-Trade Union movement had its tail up, having already crushed the miners and Arthur Scargill. The Australian business baron Rupert Murdoch, driven by the smell of money from British newspapers, took on the long established employment practices in the printing industry, including the closed shop and a somewhat traditional willingness to strike. Murdoch demanded the abolition of the lot, including a “no strike” clause. After negotiations broke down the unions called a strike, Murdoch sacked the strikers, six thousand of them, and relocated to the plant at Wapping where a spanking new technology awaited a much reduced and more docile workforce. The protracted strike was nasty, violent and unsuccessful. John Henry died once again. New technology smashed old work patterns.

And so the history of technology may be told. Something new fangled is invented. Someone in power wants to use it. Resistance flares up. When that resistance comes from the left heroes are made; heroic battles are fought. From the right comes moral panic: people are spending their wages on fruit machines, children are going square-eyed with too much telly, amplified music is making teenagers deaf.

Sex and the Keyboard
The strange thing about the popularisation of the new technologies of the past fifteen to twenty years – internet, emails, on-screen recording studios you can use in your bedroom, mobile phones that do everything but make the tea, social networks like MySpace - is that there has barely been a serious whimper about them. Not even the dire warnings that there might be sex maniacs in chat rooms match the apocalyptic tone of the too-much-telly lobby of the 1960s and ‘70s. Tabloids and academic papers alike used to give horrified statistics showing how much TV the average teenager watched in a day, a week or a year, and therefore how the brains of the youth of the nation were being stunted. You still get some of this. TV in the 21st century is different from back in the benign days before there was too much swearing, violence and soaps with dialogues about shagging and that – not to mention sex itself. There’s some complaint about that, true, but very little about new technology.

You can find some. On the Insurgent Desire website, a home from home for green anarchists, and under the title of Ned Ludd Was Right, you can read a magnificent old style fulmination against machines. It’s like a sort of inverted Futurist Manifesto. Whereas the Futurist Marinetti, in 1909, was driven to poetic heights by the beauty of speed, racing cars, locomotives and “the nocturnal vibration of the arsenals and the workshops beneath their violent electric moons”, the twenty-first century insurgent spits his venom at “huge tarmac pathways”, “speeding metal machines”, and the like. His only specific mention of computers, however, is in the loudly clashing climax:

“Can't you see? Each little machine -- each car, each computer, each factory, each worker -- is not a separate entity, a mere individual tool. NO! They are all cogs in one vast machine, the machine of social reproduction -- and if we let them be, we too are cogs, the gears that manufacture society. Will you be a mere cog, a gear, a tool of social order?”

The answer? Chuck them all out. Machines are not neutral. Technology does not exist to help or empower you. Ned Ludd was right! And there is a point here. After all, how many factory machines were designed to enhance the workers’ life or experience of work? Pretty well without exception they were designed to speed up and streamline production. This, in itself, is a statement of values: speed and efficiency are more important than quality of life. You can’t blame the workers for their alienation. That is, if Marx was right.

Nerds has absolutely no fucking life
You can type in something like “anti computers” into Google and, with lavish irony, find a good rant or two. One particularly violent piece of bluster takes well aimed pops at “Those nerds, programmers, engineers, who has (sic) absolutely no fucking life works on the computers all day long”. Apparently they have no social life. They don’t have friends – only fellow slaves to the flickering screen. It makes them feel powerful when in fact they’re just pathetic weeds caught up in the "cheesy Virtual World and Augmented Reality shit”.

The real difference between these diatribes and John Henry or Ned Ludd is that the heroic quality is replaced by sheer irritation, and the serious implications of the new are obscured by sheer rage at the fact that I wasn’t asked. There is no militant action, no contest against the new technology, no clandestine pact to mess things up, and no massed demonstrations, strikes or conflicts with the law. In fact, no real protest, just a sense of impotent bad humour. Whereas the introduction of the steam drill spawned a folk hero who still lives on in ballad form, and violent opposition to stocking frames gave the English language the word and concept “Luddite”, opposition to late twentieth century/early twenty-first century new technologies has been feeble. I did once hear of a group of people somewhere in France who smashed up computers in a town square but, unlike John Henry or the Luddites who were folk heroes, these French anti-nerds, alas, came over as nerds none the less.

Where Have All The Heroes Gone

Why has there been so little opposition to new technologies in the last twenty years, and especially, now that the post-feminist world and its partner is on email and the web, in the last ten years? I’m discounting the somewhat mechanical panics along the lines that social networks such as MySpace discourage real live human interaction therefore we’re all heading over a cliff like lemmings. Partly because we’ve heard them all before – and the feared cultural Gotterdammerungs have not resulted - such cries are simply not convincing. They even sound diminutively quaint in a way that the Church of England’s portentous fulminations against sexual permissiveness in the 1960s, good laugh though they were, certainly didn’t.

New technologies affect the workplace and the domestic environment. Machines to do things faster and more efficiently can destroy jobs, as Ned Ludd knew, but they can also enhance the domestic sphere as is the case with washing machines, electric ovens, dishwashers, electric irons, and the panoply of twentieth century labour saving devices which transformed industrial woman into modern woman, and thus paved the way for feminism. So in terms of positive and negative interventions into the human world, work and home, we’re about Even-Stevens here.

However, the new technologies I’m really thinking of are the pervasive ones, and they all derive from the computerisation of all spheres of living, information and communication. That includes conversation, sex, dating, research of all kinds, socialising, playing games and sport, sending cards and letters, remembering birthdays, music and the arts, banking, shopping, and finding a partner and even getting married. As I look through this list I realise that I’ve actually done all of the above with the exception of games. I dislike computer games, but I actually dislike games full stop – which explains everything.

Reality is a Projection of Your Imagination

The reason there has been no John Henry of the computer is not only that computers present themselves as incredibly friendly, gadgety things that can swallow up swathes of time without us noticing that the pubs are already shut, but also that they connect with and extend something fundamental to the fact of human beings being human. The 1960s media guru Marshall McLuhan saw the wheel as an extension of the foot, the book an extension of the eye, clothes an extension of the skin and so on. Electric circuitry, in his formulation, was an extension of the central nervous system. The new stocking frames likewise messed up everything for the Nottingham stocking workers of the early nineteenth century. The machine, as an extension of arms, hands, fingers and muscles displaced the human worker. The computer, however, is neither concerned with muscle power, employment, food on the table, methods of manufacture or anything else of such a fundamentally material nature. Rather, continuing McLuhan’s line of thought, computers are extensions of the individual and collective psyche. However, it’s more complex than that.

The computerised life has been popularly read as improvement all round. On one level this is simply because these wonder gadgets offer us opportunities for endless play. The cyber world, virtual reality, consists of elaborate games – simulacra, to use the Baudrillardian term, emulating life. Cybersex is not real sex. Its cybersex – sex without sex (sort of). And what makes it cyber as opposed to real is that the sensations, smells, sights, presence, and responsibility of relating to another are absent. Into the gap left by these essentials the imagination gushes forth. (I’ll leave aside the case of those couples who have real sex while stimulating themselves jointly with cybersex or erotic webcams. Exciting though this sounds I suspect that even the late Mr. Baudrillard might have found himself searching for words, if not concepts too.) Yet the proximity to the real is startlingly convincing. You can have all the things your psyche needs in life at the click of a mouse. The screen in front of you makes the psychological concept of “projection” a reality rather than a vague, unprovable idea. The psyche, therefore, has an actual arena, a screen upon which it can realise itself and project its images (or find the very images it wants to project), in a virtual setting. What are we dealing with here – the psyche? Or could it be a cyber-psyche? As that familiar rhetorical colloquialism has it: how weird is that?

This hot-line to the psyche (cyber or otherwise) surely begins to account for the compulsiveness and pervasiveness of the computer and the world wide web. Our most complete, integrated and (that unfashionable word) primitive being finds itself willingly intruded upon, unearthed, winkled out and activated by a technology that even allows us to feel in control. You don’t have to allow anyone into your MySpace unless you invite them – that kind of control, not much more.

Time disappears when the mythic is fully operational. When such levels of the psyche are involved we detach ourselves from everyday time, clocks and watches, timetables, appointments even, tasks to be done to a deadline, because there is nothing more compelling than the exploration of the psyche. At its most intense it induces a form of absorbed, inspired oblivion. Dreams, prayer, the sacred, meaningful ritual, good sex (often), music (occasionally), a compelling narrative (novel, movie, soap), the world wide web, email checking and writing – all are forms of what Mircea Eliade referred to as the “Great Time, the sacred time”. Now, perhaps, we begin to see why a computer smashing Captain Ludd would be an unwelcome, if rather pointless, intruder. He could, in theory, have smashed up enough stocking frames to temporarily put the kibosh on production of stockings. How many computers would he need to smash up to sink the world wide web? Exactly. And, in any case, we would not want him to interfere with one of our few chances in at least a century of living mythically in the Great Time. Hollywood, pop demigods, then what…?

The God In The Machine

When we place ourselves into cyber reality, whether shopping online, engaged in research, conversing on IRC, emailing, protesting an injustice, making friends, having cybersex, planning a menu, or experiencing art, we are, to use Eliade’s phrase, contemporary with myth. We and it are congruent. We rarely, if ever, pause at the time to consider what might be really happening. We are not cyber-shopping. We are shopping. We are not cyber-chatting. We are chatting. In other words, we don’t think its happening – whatever it is. It is happening, even though a moment’s thought would remind us that it is in a parallel and incomplete form. As Eliade writes:

“A Christian is not taking part in a commemoration of the Passion of Christ…He has not commemorating an event but re-actualising a mystery. For the Christian, Jesus dies and resurrects before him hic et nunc. Through the mystery of the Passion or the Resurrection, the Christian dispels profane time and is integrated into time primordial and holy” - Eliade: Myths Dreams & Mysteries, Chapter 1, The Myths of the Modern World

The reason for the lack of a heroic folk myth becomes clearer. John Henry, as the mythic figure that he soon became (if he lived at all), was opposing the secularisation of work. This is not to romanticise hard, muscular labour of the kind required to dig railroad tunnels. It is, however, to see the resistance implied by the myth in more than a purely pragmatic (give us back our shitty jobs) light. The folk ballad pins its colours squarely to the mast: the steam drill – bad; John Henry – good. The hard labour of John Henry is thus not only a means of earning a living. It is romanticised and mythologized into a parable of dignity. This is not simply the dignity of labour. Few manual labourers in my experience have much truck with this bourgeois idea. It is, rather, a sense that displacement at the hands of new technology not only robs a man of his job, therefore his income, therefore his role in life. The main point looks into the future. If the steam drill is to be the way of the world what does that imply about work, the relationship to work, the elements, manliness and so on. A sailor I knew in Braunton, North Devon, in the 1980s had worked on sailing ships, taking cargoes round the south and southwest of England, sometimes to France, and couple of times to Newfoundland. The work was hard, the hours were long, and the life could be hazardous. But when engine driven steam ships came along he jacked it in and went on building sites. “Factories afloat” he called them. The routinization and secularization of work could not be better illustrated.

The computerisation of life moves on from this secularisation, but retrieves – only in virtual form – some of the sense of involvement in depth, of the pre-industrial world. Its activation of the cyber-psyche is what makes it compelling. It is its great strength and its terrible weakness.

Perhaps we know enough to not need its strengths pointing out. One might add that the by-now conventional criticisms often only need turning on their head to gain some semblance of reality. Do chat rooms and IRC distract people from real social interaction? I have heard it argued that what amounts to a rehearsal for speaking to strangers can lead to lessened inhibition when it comes to the real thing. Furthermore, many people actually meet their online friends and some, as in my case, marry them. How stable or long lasting are such relationships? I have no statistics but my hunch is that the success rate is probably no more or less than relationships which start at work, out dancing, or in an interest group. As for the fear that your thirteen year old daughter may meet a fifty year old rapist, although it has happened, I’d put more down to urban legend or panic than frequent reality. Like terrorism.

The Light and the Dark

The weaknesses are evident too. The Baudrillardian fear that the distinctions between real and virtual are irretrievably blurred, that the virtual now sets the pace for reality to keep up with if it can run that fast. These are fair points, but they seem to rest on assumptions about authenticity and authentic living which could perhaps be dated back to the invention of fire. Rubbing two sticks together: does it produce real light as from the sun, or virtual light, and do I really know the difference?

One weakness is that of the hubris which, if we are not careful, makes the everyday world seem somewhat mundane. Visiting the subtropical savannahs of the world may seem just a little disappointing without the dinosaurs. But the major challenge of computerised, virtual life, surprisingly, may be the same one that came in the wake of John Henry type legends. If John Henry did it for us, then all we need to do is sing or listen to his song to invoke the spirit of resistance. If the cyber world does it all for us, likewise, all the cyber-psyche needs to do is to keep on cybering, rather than to actually do anything in the real world.

The extremes of positive and negative suggest the familiar dimensions of good and evil which are fought out, in a triangular relationship, through human beings – the God-Satan-Man syndrome. There is, of course, always a fourth force – chaos, darkest anarchy. As ever, one suspects that it will be this which determines all. Most likely humans will do what they have always done: despite both false optimism and prophets of extreme doom, Utopia and Dystopia, we muddle through. They may be a new set of problems, but we muddle through. Somehow.

Sam Richards


You incorrectly construe the

You incorrectly construe the word "labour" to mean "manual labor" throughout this essay.

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