Preview: Am I A Luddite?

Am I A Luddite?
Some Thoughts On Where We Are And Where We’re Going

On a recent trip across the country by train, I fell into conversation with a man who owns a vacation cabin powered by solar panels. The remote setting of this cabin made living off the grid a practical choice for him. But as our conversation continued, he realized that my wife nd I have chosen to live off the grid even though we live in an area where power is readily available. We have also embraced the concept of voluntary simplicity and find this a comforting guide in a world where faster and more seem to be the operative words. At one point my new acquaintance asked me if I was a Luddite. I replied that I was not, at least according to the commonly accepted definition of that term which the dictionary defines as one who is opposed to technological change.

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29 Responses So Far to “Am I A Luddite?

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    Lawrence mitchell says:

    I often find that it is just easier and less complicated to reach for a powerless hand tool or garden rake to get the job done. It all seems to work out in the end. It just takes a bit longer. We’re always on such a rush to get to the end these days. I think we just miss the point of human endeavour more often than not. It’s all relative within a context such as this subject. We are all on the same journey. How we decide to move through is a unique, individual imperative that nurtures purpose and character. Perhaps our high production modernity could benefit somewhat with a gentle pressure on the brake pedal now and then. Just saying. If course we’ll never put humans into space using a hammer and chisel……… All the best to you and your endeavours Mr. Bryan. For some of us fellow travellers you are an inspiration. Thankyou.

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    Philip Myer says:

    A wonderful thoughtful article, thank you Harry
    Philip Myer- Tasmania

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    Cap'n Rick Urban says:

    Laughter is the most healing thing to do. You didn’t stop laughing because you grew old, you grew old because you stopped laughing ! On the Coast of Delawre

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    andy anderson says:

    Thanks for the essay Harry! What you’re exploring has to do with the relatively new field of happiness economics. The basic concept there is measuring people’s overall satisfaction with their lives rather than just what is in their pocketbooks.

    I’ve built a few small boats (stitch & glue and skin-on-frame). I carve paddles, decoy ducks, weathervanes, and so forth. A common question from others about any handmade item is “how long did it take.” I’ll usually reply that I worked on it over the winter or something equally vague. Then I’ll ask if they keep track of the time they spend watching TV.

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    Rick B says:

    This is a topic dear to me.
    Harry’s position number 2 more accurately describes an authentic Luddite than does position 1 or 3. Why?…
    The common definition of Luddite as technology hater is a mis-characterization.
    What were Ned’s motivations? His circumstances? What, exactly, were his behaviors?…
    Recent introduction of automated machinery was rapidly replacing the worker. Human lives were diminishing on a vast scale. As I understand it, Ned objected to a particular application of a particular technology, at a specific time and place–because he saw its affects as detrimental to the lives of workers in his community. I am not asking others to agree with his perspective–only to recognize it for what it was. Ned is positioned, squarely within Harry’s position number 2, as written. This is the true Luddite.

    The more common parlance for Luddite–as broad and sweeping, anti-technology–is an ignorant misuse of the term (and, interestingly enough, probably requires the least amount of thought). Language is constantly changing; and definitions to words, also… I get that. But, this is just a simple case of misunderstanding. I think Harry’s self-characterization probably also best describes Ned Ludd.

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    Andrew Newton says:

    Excellent essay Harry. You echo much I what I contemplate everyday while trying to cope with the constant struggle of old and new.

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    Lorentz Ottzen says:

    The Luddites were a group inspired by Ned Ludd, who were opposed to the mining of coal in Britain during the seventeenth century.
    Lorentz Ottzen

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    michael magee says:

    Yes , beautiful thoughtful words. There is nothing better for me than using my chisel to mortise in a but hinge on an old growth piece of eastern pine. And nothing worse than trying to do the same operation on that fast grown Radiata pine all finger jointed together. Different times different values. For me it’s no not a Luddite, just an old Hippie trying to enjoy some quiet time.

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    Conbert Benneck says:

    Harry thanks for a beautiful piece of writing and for sharing your philosophy of life. Learning to make something by hand gives you immense power. You are Master of your Universe, and with woodworking knowledge or metal working knowledge you can create what you need, or want. I have learned that by making modifications to my old 29 foot boat; the mahogany cockpit table that stows easily required a lot of head scratching / planning / and design before it could be created and put to use. Every time we used it we had the pleasure of having something that was unique – a one of a kind – and I made it all with hand tools. The process also broadened my woodworking knowledge and allowed me to undertake more complex projects; like building my own dinghies.

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    Christopher O'brien says:

    At some point many of us with a bit of grey hair have an impetus to “go Walden” as it becomes increasingly apparent that the impetus to change may be inexorable but is not always optimal

    Having insight into how things work and how it used to be done is always valuable-even as we install solar panels on the roof. Indeed, gives a good understanding of what we trade away by “upgrading” to the next innovation…

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    Norman NOLAN says:

    Thank you Harry! An excellent exposition of “Position #2”. I’m circulating it to all of my woodworking friends and a few owners of “tupperware” boats.

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    Jim Tolpin says:

    “The more power you apply to the process, the further you get from the product”

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    Peter Gossell says:

    Very well written Harry, and the comments as well. Issues we need to think about.
    Thank you.

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    Wayne Mueller says:

    Years ago, Harry, you showed me the joy of using hand tools. Thank you. Well written.

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    George Blaisdell says:

    True Luddites are hard to find, and especially those who are voluntarily so:
    Here are a bunch of them, but theirs is not what anyone would call simply philosophical or sentimental Luddites, yet they seem to find a kind of primitive ‘schmee’ not all that commonly found in the world… Some might argue not found in the world at all…
    I remember reading L. Francis’ descriptions of the men working in Herreshoff Mfg Co, how these were old men, often missing a finger or three, working with primitive measurements to come up with an “about right” piece of wood that turned out to be almost an exactly correct fit for, say, an angled corner post that required very little final fitting… How these old guys wore pretty much the same dark clothes winter and summer, not paying all that much attention to their dress… Indulging the Boss’s kid’s curiosity… An idyllic time no question…

    And later I became an Orthodox Christian, and remembered these guys, and the fact that Herreshoff is a Russian name, and Russians of that time were Orthodox Christians, and that the workers were probably Russians in large part, and that their described behavior was very monastic and Orthodox in its ‘schmee’…

    Is it true?

    I never asked Halsey – Don’t know him… Don’t know if he would know…
    But it is a structural feature even if not a predication of that Faith…
    Common sense, simplicity, and integrity…

    And in that Tradition, a simple, basic and genuine relationship with fundamental human needs and with reality itself is fundamental… In it, we find a peace and joy that is not all that much of a consequence of the world in which we now live… IF we pay its dues…

    And some do pay these dues… No small matter…

    Forgive the length of this post…


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    George Hume says:

    Thank you, Harry. I live part of the year in an off-grid cottage partly inspired by a visit to Harry Bryan over 20 years ago. There I indulge in “bush” carpentry, painting and writing. I have a partly built Bryan “Thistle” fin-boat. I face a lack of confidence in achieving the perfection that I envision by building the boat. I hope this essay will inspire me to complete it even if the rough “bush” finish might embarrass Harry.

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    Steve Proudfoot says:

    Very well put Harry.
    Just 2 days ago I had an almost identical discussion with my wife after seeing a reference to Ned Ludd on TV.
    This also reminded me of the Caledonia yawl built by Geoff Kerr and named “Ned Ludd”. I would be interested in hearing Geoff’s thoughts on the naming of his boat.

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    Jack Green says:

    Harry, you are a gem and an inspiration. I’ve watched all your videos on the OCH site and I must say your musings are as compelling as your videos; maybe more so!

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    Gerry Lavoie says:

    This may not be a part of this morning’s reading of Harry’s essay on tools. Yesterday was sunny and warm up here in Campbell River. I decided my new kayak was finished enough for its first trip to the lake. I built this model because it is more like a decked canoe than a kayak. I wanted more room, more comfort and stability than I was getting from my typical single ocean kayak. Once I was settled in the cockpit, I think I made a mistake. I turned on the GPS. Despite the features I was looking for, I was gloomy because I could not get that boat to go as fast as my other kayak. Next trip to the lake, I need to take Harry’s philosophy and leave the GPS at home.

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    Conbert Benneck says:

    A great piece of writing Harry. A fellow practitioner of simpler is better is Roy Underhill who has a TV program called the Woodwright’s shop on PBS, and who demonstrates how woodworking was done since ancient times. If you aren’t familiar with Roy, he might show you a few additional woodworking techniques that you can add to your repertoire.

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    Bruce Brown says:

    If you go to Wikipedia, you will discover that a Luddite was really a proto-labor revolutionary drawn from the working class who had been impoverished by the demands of the Napoleonic War and the rapacious policies of the industrialists who controlled British culture and politics. Perhaps, here, there is a lesson in history for us although I speak only of the US and not of Canada where Harry lives and where I often wish I had been born. Our country is currently dominated by a conservative culture where meanness is defined as autonomy and characterological insecurity is medicated by romancing guns and the military. Working in wood and having the occasional epiphany by creating something beautiful is my personal antidote… at the moment.

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    Steve Buck says:

    “At one level, at least, it is rather bizarre that thousands of miles of transmission lines from a distant power plant have been enlisted in order to drive a nail that could be driven by a weight on the end of a stick.” That is simply great writing!

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    William Sanchez says:

    Thank you, Harry, for your wise and perceptive words.
    Unfortunately I started woodworking late in life and made the mistake thinking that the the more power tools I had, the more I could create. My father in law was a woodworker using a crosscut saw, a chisel, hand planers, hammer, etc. He created items that we and his grandchildren are enjoying to this very day. And quite frankly, his work is more beautiful than any thing I can make with the “modern” tools, plus we know that his work took time and love to make it. Time has proven to me that less is more, that simple is better, and good is good enough. Hopefully, I can incorporate these thoughts into my woodworking and more importantly, into the rest of my days.

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    Alan Bright says:

    How true are Harry’s comments. I have been an amateur boat builder for the past 50 years and find that many power tools I have purchased over the years are now collecting dust on shelves, my first instinct now is to use hand tools not only is there greater satisfaction but the mere fact it takes longer in many cases to complete a job, gives more thinking time and thereby reduces any errors!

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    edward mcmahon says:

    As someone that works in renewable energy I have always admired Mr Bryan. Some of his tools are amazing like his treadle band saw. I don’t know him but from what I’ve read and the videos I’ve seen he and his family sure don’t seem to be lacking anything in his voluntary simplicity but rather he shows how a quality life can be built too. Great piece. Thank you.

  • Richard Greenway

    Richard Greenway says:

    As you state we are not looking at the true cost of this so called progress. Everything now needs a supporting infrastructure if it is mechanized or electronic.
    Having learned a craft and made a living at it. Including embracing CNC technology from the beginning, I could very easily let it all go, as now the minutia of the world lands at my doorstep as if I am interested.
    Where is the progress and qualityy in that?

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    joe milligan says:

    Harry Bryan…a delightful read, thank you. I’m reminded of Thoreau’s “…I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Now I’m going back to my easel to paint.

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    Jim Russo says:

    Thoughtful words. If we could all change one thing in this economy it should be the fundamental concept that growth is good. Why is that? What’s wrong with reaching a stable plateau and enjoying it? knowing when enough is enough, taking the time to enjoy it, and having that recognized as good and positive.
    And then there’s greed, the root of many many evils. Think for a bit about how many horrific acts, business failures, and scandals have as their root cause simple greed. It just reinforces that less is more, simple is better, and good is good enough.