Tom Hodgkinson: 'Technology is giving me indigestion'

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The Independent Online

I blame the Beatles. They plundered the natural world when choosing a name for their record label, Apple, which was, of course, later adopted by the computer company Apple. Other tech companies thought this was a great wheeze. They also took names from nature in their efforts to create brands that would deliver profits to their shareholders. We have Orange, the mobile-phone company, and also O2, with its hubristic implication that their network is as important to humans as air.

Worst of all is BlackBerry. I remember being called by the BBC and asked to appear on a programme to talk about blackberries. It was September. I had just been down the lanes collecting a basketful of this most delicious free fruit of the hedgerows, and I thought: what a lovely subject for prime-time radio. It didn't take long for it to dawn on me they were talking about the portable telephone and email device which is used to extend the working day into previously work-free areas such as the home, the pub or the aimless stroll around town.

The latest of nature's gifts to become commodified is the humble cloud. No longer a constantly changing display of water in the sky, it is now used to mean a shared computer. I wonder what will be next? Lemons and bananas are probably safe, as they are the kinds of fruit that lend their names to small comedy clubs rather than global corporations. Smaller companies are also trying to get in on the act: Grape, far from being the fruit of the vine and main constituent of wine, is, it seems, a brand name for "a visual and spatial way to organize temporary files"; while Cucumber "lets software development teams describe how software should behave in plain text", whatever that may mean. Then there's "Peach", an "independent employment consultancy, specialising in clerical, administrative and telesales".

Objections to this sort of theft from nature will tend to get you branded an enemy of progress, nostalgic, reactionary and Luddite. Well, that's all right because the Luddites are a much-misunderstood group. I have learnt a great deal about them from the latest issue of The Land magazine, a Luddite special, edited by the brilliant journalist and scythe-seller Simon Fairlie. This year sees the 200th anniversary of the Luddite uprisings, which terrified the government to the extent that breaking frames (automated looms) was made a capital offence: 24 Luddites were hanged in 1813.

The Luddites were self-employed weavers whose way of life was being attacked by the new technology. A contemporary account says that before the advent of the new machines and manufactories, "each had a garden, a barrel of home-brewed ale, a weekday suit of clothes and one for Sunday, and plenty of leisure". The new factory system removed their pride in handiwork and also their autonomy. They therefore gathered under the banner of the mythical King Ludd to defend the old ways and break the machines: "These Engines of mischief were sentenced to die/ By unanimous vote of the trade," went the song General Ludd's Triumph.

The violence was roundly condemned by both MPs and Lords, with one exception, and that was Lord Byron, who defended the Luddites in an 1812 speech in the House of Lords: "Whilst these outrages must be admitted to exist to an alarming extent, it cannot be denied that they have arisen from circumstances of... unparalleled distress: the perseverance of these miserable men in their proceedings tends to prove that nothing but absolute want could have driven a large, and once honest and industrious, body of the people, into the commission of excesses so hazardous to themselves, their families, and the community."

Such hazardous excesses included a raid on a Sheffield arms depot, the burning of mills in Nottingham and attacks on steam-powered factories in Stockport and Manchester. Noble attempts have been made in our own time to replicate the Luddites' brave resistance to technological slavery. The American writer Kirkpatrick Sale founded the neo-Luddite movement around 15 years ago and smashed up computers on stage. More recently, the journalist Neil Boorman took a hammer to his BlackBerry in another symbolic act.

History shows, however, that resistance to the twin forces of the mill owners and the government is pretty futile. And in any case, we all love technology: last Sunday I visited the Apple store in London's Westfield mega-arcade. It was packed – and much busier, I am afraid to say, than my second-hand bookshop.

Tom Hodgkinson is the editor of 'The Idler'