On my office door is a cartoon showing a bus with an ad on it proclaiming, "Tired of all the technology? Visit our website: www.luddites.com." While the cartoon is humorous, what’s not funny is the extent to which the digital revolution has sparked a neo-Luddite backlash from a broad spectrum of ideological and economic interests. Whether from companies seeking government protection from more nimble e-commerce competitors or political advocates decrying new IT applications as a threat to jobs, civil liberties and privacy, CIOs seeking to implement new systems may find themselves facing unexpected and sometimes powerful opposition.
Luddites are hardly new. (They got their name from Englishman Ned Ludd, whose followers sabotaged textile factories at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.) What is new is how well-organized these neo-Luddites are, how seriously they are taken by the media and how effectively they use the political system to advance their agendas.
This growing array of neo-Luddites views new technology as a threat to basic values and lifestyles. Groups from the liberal ACLU to the conservative Eagle Forum are quick to oppose IT innovations, especially those that might be perceived as threatening civil liberties.
What is especially troubling is that in contrast to the past, when Luddites were often consigned to the fringes of political debate, today they enjoy widespread legitimacy. Twenty years ago a person who would write that the government plans to forcibly implant radio frequency identification (RFID) chips in Americans, akin to the mark of the beast as prophesied in the Book of Revelation, would be dismissed as a fanatic. Yet the person who makes this claim, Katherine Albrecht, is quoted by the media and invited to testify at government hearings.
The Campaign Against IT
Not all the efforts to stifle new IT succeed. When advocacy groups decried Google’s Gmail system (through which consumers get free e-mail in exchange for viewing ads based on their message content) as a threat to privacy, Gmail users ignored the alarm because they recognized Gmail poses little risk.
But on other issues, the digital Luddites are having more success. In particular, a major reason the U.S. government does not require driver’s licenses to be secured against fraud using a smart chip (which could incorporate biometric data such as a fingerprint) is that privacy extremists have engaged in a campaign of deception to convince policy-makers, the press and the public that this would turn America into a "show us your papers" state.