Being called a Luddite is insulting. It suggests you’re afraid of technology and ignorant of basic truths. Among them: Technology is the engine of progress; innovation can’t be stopped; stifling technology goes against our national interests and is a gift to countries that don’t share our values, like China and Russia.
When giving talks about technology, I’ve prefaced my remarks with “I’m going to say critical things. But don’t worry, I’m not a Luddite.” The approach puts people at ease.
But maybe I am a Luddite. Perhaps you are too. In Brian Merchant’s “Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech,” he shows that the Luddites — artisanal workers who rebelled against mechanized textile production in Britain more than 200 years ago — weren’t against technology. They resisted entrepreneurs’ use of automation to destroy their livelihoods and rob them of a hopeful future. Their plight resonates in today’s conversations about companies using AI to displace workers and downgrade their jobs.
Merchant is the technology columnist at the Los Angeles Times and has extensively covered tech’s effects on labor. “Blood in the Machine” bears the imprint of his reporting but goes beyond it by drawing from archival research and interviews with scholars.
My interview with him has been edited and condensed.
What was the Luddite rebellion?
The Luddite rebellion began in 1811. Britain’s largest industrial base of workers — cloth, lace, wool, and cotton workers — had been using looms in a system that endured for centuries. But then industrialists started using some of the early automated machinery to move production into the factory system. Being disrupted ruthlessly and undemocratically resulted in dramatic wage loss, fewer jobs, poorer working conditions, and lower-quality garments in the early years. It left these cloth workers with little choice but to protest, then lobby Parliament, and, finally, rise up and push back against these machines in what today we might describe as a guerrilla-style rebellion.
Why were they called Luddites?
The Luddites used a sort of avatar or meme, a Robin Hood-type figure largely believed to be apocryphal. Ned Ludd, as legend has it, was a young cloth worker’s apprentice who did not like sitting at the machine for eight hours a day. Ludd refused to work as productively as his master wanted, and his master had him taken to the magistrate. Ludd was whipped for his intransigence, and he responded by smashing the machines with a great hammer and fleeing into Sherwood Forest.
To demonstrate solidarity, the Luddites would send letters to factory workers around 1811-1812 using the name Ned Ludd or variations like General Ludd and King Ludd. The notes would say [essentially], “Take down the machines that are stealing our bread and de-skilling us. If you take them down, you’ll be fine. If you don’t, you’ll get a visit from Ned’s army.” If they didn’t comply, the Luddites would invade the factories, having organized themselves in an almost militaristic fashion. They would hold the owner up at gunpoint while smashing the offending machines. Or they would slip in under the cover of night.
Did the Luddites accomplish anything significant?
From the headline-writing perspective of the victors who created history, the Luddites lost. Work left the domestic system, or cottage industry, where you could enjoy working with your family, singing songs, and walking in the garden. It moved into factories that imposed relentless labor under poor conditions.
Still, the Luddites accomplished a lot. When the first round of Nottingham Luddites rose up, some factories raised the white flag and agreed to pay them what they were earning before their wages became depressed. While this was a short-term solution, the short-term gains were helpful.
Furthermore, the Luddite protests injected a powerful idea into mainstream consciousness: The industrialists and their machines are coming for your way of life. By articulating the costs of industrialization, the Luddites provided compelling reasons to oppose it. People all over England were debating the machinery question — which, incidentally, looks a lot like today’s question of whether robots are coming for our jobs.
The Luddites also inspired successor movements. For example, impoverished agricultural workers invented Captain Swing, a Ned Ludd-like figure, when they saw the threshing machine starting to automate their jobs.
Why is the Luddite movement so misunderstood?
It is in the interest of the elites for the Luddites to be misunderstood. If you’re always pushing forward, especially in the name of profit, if you want carte blanche to develop technology that will impact many people, you don’t want people to question it. If they do, you need a bogeyman. You need somebody to point to and say, “They’re anti-progress and you don’t want to be like them.” This straw man sprang up almost immediately in the words used by the prosecutors in the Luddite trials. As government propaganda, it helped give entrepreneurs license to shoot and kill Luddite protesters. This image of Luddites as out of touch has endured for 200 years.
How do the Luddites’ concerns compare with our current fears about automation?
They’re extremely similar. Especially with AI, people are worried about losing their jobs or being required to use AI in ways that make their jobs worse. Creative workers know that technology can’t do a good job of replacing their work. But they also know that employers and businesses might try to make the case that it can or use it as leverage to push down their wages. That’s almost exactly what was happening in both eras. And in both eras, the workers were 100 percent correct to stand up and protest.
You write about technology for a major newspaper. Are you a Luddite?
Yes, I may be the only Luddite technology columnist — at least, the only one willing to proclaim it. Being a Luddite and being interested in or even loving technology are not incompatible. The Luddites were technologists. They had complex machinery, knew how to repair it, and constantly “modded” it.
I enjoy staying on top of technological trends. But I think about how technology is developed, thrust upon us, and positioned so we feel forced to adopt it. I see my job as looking at the social and economic effects that are downstream of technology because not enough people are paying attention to them. For example, it’s crucial to ask Uber drivers how they feel about Uber and warehouse workers about their take on same-day delivery.
Do you think today’s Luddites will be successful?
I think they already are. I would count today’s Luddites as artists and illustrators who are starting to draw red lines, like calling on newsrooms and media outlets to ban generative AI when it’s being used for clearly exploitative purposes.
The writers and actors who are striking are doing Luddism. The writers are upset that the studios want their contracts to reserve the right to have AI write scripts. Everybody knows that the technology isn’t good enough — that they will still have to call in the writers. But guess what happens if they do that? They can charge a less-valuable rewrite fee, not the fee for writing an original script. The writers aren’t anti-technological. Most would be fine saying “Give us the power to decide how we want to use ChatGPT.”
Evan Selinger is a professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology and an affiliate scholar at Northeastern University’s Center for Law, Innovation, and Creativity.