The Real History of the Luddites
Paris Marx is joined by Brian Merchant to discuss the history of the Luddites, why we have their story all wrong, and what we can learn from them today.
Brian Merchant is the technology columnist at the LA Times and the author of Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech.
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Paris Marx: Brian, welcome back to Tech Won’t Save Us, once again.
Brian Merchant: Paris, always a pleasure. My favorite podcast. Well, I guess, one of my favorite podcasts. I love a lot of podcasts, but special place in my heart.
PM: Thanks, I would hope so, given that I believe you still hold the record for a person who’s appeared on the show the most amount of times.
BM: That’s right. And here we are, making that bar even even even harder to clear, yet again.
PM: Exactly. There was that kind of dearth of Brian content earlier in the year and so we’re making up for it now by having you back on again.
BM: All right. Well, I hope your listeners aren’t tired on me yet.
PM: I don’t think they are and especially with the topic that we’re discussing today, I think that there’ll be really excited for this one. And so you have this new book that’s out this week called “Blood Blood in the Machine,” that digs into the history of the Luddites and how that relates to today. And I think that many of the listeners of the show will be quite familiar with the Luddites and who they are, because this is a historical tale that we talked about on the show before. And it also comes up a lot in some of these conversations that we’re having because of the inspiration that we’re pulling from, these people who really had the first opposition to machines. And so what I really want to ask to start off is why did you want to write this book? Why of all the different things that you could have approached that you could have spent your time into researching and writing about? Why did you want to go back and explore this history of the Luddites and learn more about these people in the early 1800s, who started smashing machines, and who we hear a lot about today, but often we don’t hear about their story very accurately?
BM: I think that was it. First it began with this allure of looking at a term, or a group, that conventional wisdom has miscast so strongly. When I first stumbled upon the true story of the Luddites, almost 10 years ago at this point. I didn’t start writing the book that long ago, but I wrote a piece for VICE, when I first went down the rabbit hole, learning about the Luddites in about 2014. That piece was called “You’ve Got Luddites All Wrong,” because it was just at a moment, I’ve been a tech journalist for a number of years already, maybe five years or so. And I was never one of those journalists that was very pro-industry, or boosterish or anything. But coming up in that ecosystem, and in that environment, you sort of accept certain tenets, like the tech industry is generally a force for progress. It may have some bad actors, it may seek to maximize progress.
But by and large, it was kind of accepted that Google was trying to do the right thing, Apple was doing the world a service by building the iPhone, and Amazon was one of the first to sour in public opinion, along with maybe Uber and the rideshare app companies. But it was a long time that those deeper sort of fundamentals of what tech giants were actually doing, were kind of getting a pass and it was at a moment — I’m certainly not going to credit myself with turning that tide — but people started looking more closely, listening more carefully to the critics who had been speaking out about it for longer before it breached the mainstream media. But as you started to see a lot of these stories make headlines about real labor or exploitation in Amazon warehouses, problems with the gig economy after that initial boom of of venture capital ran out, and they started to decrease wages and rely on algorithmic gamesmanship. There was the suicide epidemic at the Foxconn plants in Apple.
So, all of these things started happening, and yet, you’d still hear the word Luddite used as this derogatory term for anybody who was criticizing tech companies. They’re saying: I don’t know about that. They were lumping people who are most invested in seeing technology and the tech companies advance at the fastest pace, would we use this as a word to cast dispersions on the critics. Or lump them all together as people who don’t understand what’s going on. They’re behind the times, they’re backwards looking. So drilling into that term for me, at first there was the editorial angle where it’s like: Well, you didn’t know this about the Luddites and in fact, you’ve got it all wrong. But pretty quickly, to me, it seemed to contain a skeleton key to understanding the very real grievances, the very relevant grievances that people still have, with the way that they experience technology and how it’s imposed on them, how it’s imposed on their workplaces, how it’s used as a tool against them in a lot of cases.
So once I started understanding that, and at the time I was writing, AI replacing jobs was more ambiguous. There was a lot of automation theorists who were saying: Oh, it’s going to take this, we need a UBI or something. But it was before the generative AI boom really drove home a lot of those connections and made it real. So I’m looking a lot in the book at the rise of gig work, which I also argue in the book sort of pairs with new AI service providers to break down working standards, to exploit workers at an even more accelerated rate. So now they’re really facing two fronts, the precarity-based model of the algorithmic gig work economy, combined with this onslaught of generative AI services and tools that managers and corporations are embracing as another way of mostly squeezing, as we’ll talk about, I’m sure they’re doing less one-to-one replacing work than using it as a tool as leverage to squeeze workers and say: Well, we do have this AI. So we’d normally pay you this much, but now that we could use AI if we wanted to, so now we have an excuse to pay you less, it’s a threat. It’s a way to sort of breakworker power.
PM: Absolutely. I think that many people will be aware of those connections, and will be making those connections themselves. I want to return to what we’re seeing today, and how that harkens back to what the Luddites were talking about over 200 years ago. But I feel like the story that you told having this moment of evolution, whether people are not journalists and have been in other fields, or have felt these technologies affecting their work themselves. I think that’s a story that many people will relate to, feeling a lot of hope around the tech industry and around these technologies, and then seeing the actual way that these things have been implemented. And the really negative consequences that have come of a lot of these technologies, and had that moment, like you had in 2014, where you were like: Hold on, wait a second, this isn’t really working out. And there’s the story of people who in the past recognize this as well, and actually, we’re not really hearing about them. For people who might not be aware of who the Luddites are. How would you briefly describe them, before we go into the deeper history. This book is filled with really detailed stories and a really detailed history of these people and the people around them. Where did you find all of this material to fill out this very in depth history that you’ve put together?
BM: The Luddites were mostly cloth workers in industrializing England. They were the largest industrial base of workers at the time. England’s economy was highly dependent on cloth production, and it’s what really kick starts the Industrial Revolution, because there’s so many people working in this industry. So, the Luddites were cloth workers in different regions. They’re making wool products; they’re making lace and knit products; they’re making cotton products. They recognize changes in the industry coming. So these are people who had worked for literally generations, about 200 years, in more or less the same kind of arrangement. It was called the domestic system where they would work out of literal cottages. it was a literal cottage industry — which was named after the way that they worked. Where you would have a loom in your house, maybe multiple looms, you would maybe employ a journeyman, weaver, but you’d work at home with your family. You’d have a lot of autonomy over your life, you’d buy the raw materials, and you’d sell it to a merchant, and you’d expect a fair price was the term.
So everybody agreed upon these fair prices. It wasn’t perfect, obviously, there is a lot of room for the frictions that go about in daily life. But, by and large, you had a lot of control, a lot of freedom. And even if you weren’t super prosperous, you could have a lot of dignity and pride in your craft, in your skilled work. This group saw the emergence of the factory system, guided by both fraction of the elites really embracing Adam Smith’s teachings at the time, and the things like the division of labor, and then applying that to what would become the factory system. This was dividing labor, organizing it under one roof, and using machinery. In some cases, it had been around in some cases, it was new. But the thing that clothworkers started protesting was the way it was organized under one roof and all of a sudden there was one person who was going to profit. You would be laboring for them, you would be standing “at their command.” That’s what the Luddites hated most of all, losing that autonomy, losing the ability to set fair prices, to recognize those fair prices, and watching the whole world of work and the community as they knew it being changed against their will.
Starting at the very beginning of the 18th century, the clothworkers recognizing the ways that this factory production and these new automated machinery, and the old machines being put to use doing automation, they started organizing. But organizing wasn’t legal officially, so they started doing, I guess you could call it, soft organizing where they would just petition parliament to say: Hey, we see what’s coming. Our wages are going down. our quality of life is going down. There are hundreds of thousands of us. Let’s figure this out. So they went to Parliament asking for things like minimum wage protections; they asked for some support enforcing regulations that were on the books. So that’s another important point. There were a lot of regulations and charters that govern these traits, and some of them were very old and some people considered them a little outmoded. And the entrepreneurs, just like you might imagine Uber or Lyft or somebody doing today, took advantage of that and said: Oh, well, we’re using the new machines, and we don’t have to play by all these old rules. We don’t need to have an apprentice learn the trade for seven years before he can be employed. We don’t have to follow this cloth count that only applied to the old way of doing things.
Well, all those regulations had held the trade together in some pretty important ways. People could predict how much money they could expect to earn. They could sort of build their lives around certain assurances, and even if they weren’t perfect, it allowed for a way of life that was very important to thousands and thousands of people. After the clothworkers petitioned Parliament over and over to uphold the regulation, some basic protections, some welfare benefits in times that of economic distress, and they just got completely rebuffed time and again. Until in 1809, Parliament just wiped away all those regulations and said: We’re siding with industry, basically, industry is generating a lot of money and power for England. And in a sense it was it was generating a lot of money for the Lords whose land these factory operations were on and who got the taxes and stuff like that. But it was completely crushing the working class.
So after going through all these channels after really pushing for democratic and peaceful change in a fiercely undemocratic very conservative era. Historians that have said that it’s the most fiercely conservative period in British politics. No protections, no nothing for working people. So in 1811, after push comes to shove, the Luddite rebellion rises up, led by the mythical figure, General Ludd, or Ned Ludd. Based on an apocryphal story of an apprentice weaver, who smashed his machine after his master had him whipped for not working hard enough. And they target the factory owners who have begun using automated machinery to displace jobs specifically, to use it to justify lowering wages, who are also turning out shoddy goods, and ruining the reputation and standards in the regions that are affected. The Luddites begin this campaign where first they’ll send a letter to a factory owner and say: We know you’ve got these machines, take down these offending machines — they called them the obnoxious machines — or you’ll get a visit from General Ludd and Ludd’s army.
If they took down the machines, great, the Luddites would leave them alone. If they didn’t, they would slip into the factory under the cover of night at first, and increasingly emboldened as it became pretty clear how popular and how cheered they were by most British working class people. And they would break the machines, they would break the machines, just those machines that were obnoxious to them. old machines that were used in a way that wasn’t creating a disparity, or leading to a skewing of the balance of power or accelerating inequality. they would leave those alone. They would leave a note, usually, they would say: Okay, if you bring back the automated machinery, if you try it again, we will return and we’ll burn the whole thing to the ground. But it was a very clear message and it was very effective. It soon swept the cloth producing regions of England like wildfire. We can talk about how that happened more. But it was a mass movement. Every day there were huge operations. Frames being broken, hundreds of frames every week, hundreds of machines shattered by the giant sledgehammer they called Enoch. It was quite a rebellion.
PM: It’s such a fascinating story. You talk about it in such detail, but I think what you outline right there is really important because it goes against this general story that we have about the Luddites. When we hear the Luddites in common conversation today, or when it’s deployed out there, the idea is like: Oh, the Luddites, they’re just anti-technology. They saw these technologies and then smashed them because they hated them. And what you’re describing is actually a much more complex, a much more nuanced approach that. Over the course of many years, they’re campaigning to say: Parliament, we see something happening here, it’s affecting us directly. Can you please step in and do something? And then after being ignored for so many years, they’re forced to take that action into their own hands to try to force some sort of change to try to protect themselves. Because, as you say, the combination acts were passed, they were not allowed to unionize, they were not allowed to organize officially. And so they had to find ways to get around that and smashing the machines, and particularly the machines that were going to really damage their livelihoods, was the way to do that.
BM: I mean, they were like Robin Hood. They also hailed from the same region. The first outbreak of Luddism was in Nottingham, or the towns around Nottingham. And Ned Ludd, and Robin Hood, and Ned Ludd Robin Hood, you can see maybe some of the similarities there that may have inspired them. So, there is a tradition of dissent and there is a tradition of speaking out or pushing back against conditions that they find onerous. And they really tapped into that. And absolutely, the biggest myth about the Luddites is that they wanted to stop progress, or that they hated machinery. They were, as I often say, technicians themselves or technologists, even we might say. They had their machinery at home, a lot of them would mod it, or try to develop it, try to improve it. But on their own terms, not so it could profit a boss, and that they would be forced to just work away like a drone in a factory. That was their fear. They did all of these amazing things with technology that has completely been wiped away.
One of my favorite examples is that they developed a technology that could determine the cloth count, and therefore give a good indication of how valuable a piece of cloth was. They brought it to the bosses, to the merchants, and some of the folks who were becoming factory owners, and said: Hey, what if we use this to determine how much you should pay us for extra fine work, because this is extra high quality? What do you think happened? It was rejected, because it would have lost the entrepreneurs money. So they did come up with a bunch of really interesting technology. In fact, he was never officially confirmed to be a Luddite, but almost everybody thinks that he was. Gravener Henson — one of the characters we follow in the book — who both was assumed was organizing these raids, and was a very popular figure. He was really smart and literate, a good writer at a time when not a lot of working people were educated or good writers, and good thinkers. He became a leader of the Nottingham cloth trade.
During the Luddite uprisings, he was also trying to petition parliament, again, for some protections for the trade that they could meet halfway with the factory owners and the hosiers they would call them at the time, and the bosses. Also, one of the things he did was write this Encyclopedia of Technology of all of the things that working people did to improve the technology over the years, all of the amazing inventions that are mostly lost to history, because they weren’t commandeered by a factory owner who got fabulously wealthy. Someone like Richard Arkwright, who became the “father of the factory.” I write about in the book that he’s kind of this weird composite of Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos in that he, as Steve Jobs said: Good artists borrow, but great artists steal (that Picasso quote that Steve Jobs embraced as an ethos). Well, Arkwight beat him to the punch by 200 years lifting patents and technologies into his own amalgam to make the water frame. In fact, the courts later invalidated his patent. But he became known as this sort of great entrepreneur who built technology, put it in a factory and was producing a bunch of cloth.
Also written out of a lot of the history is that he was using tons of child labor, so it was less his ingenuity. Rather it was his relentless dedication to organizing labor to attend to that technology and then exploiting it using children. It was really grim. And he was able to become fabulously wealthy in the process. He ends up being kind of the guy, above all, that the entrepreneurs of the early Industrial Revolution emulate. I say he’s half Jeff Bezos and half Steve Jobs because he lifted the technology on one end, and then does this relentless pursuit of technologizing labor in the way that that Bezos has done with Amazon. So, those are the guys that they’re up against. Those are the guys that the Luddites are really looking at and saying: This is going to be bad for society. This is going to be not just for us, but for the way that we live in general. And again, it was not the technology, it was the way that it was being used. It was the use to which it was being put, and it was the exploitation that it enabled. That’s what the Luddites were railing against, they saw that it came as a package and that’s what they were fighting.
PM: Exactly, and just to backup what you’re saying. You quote a source in the book that says weaver’s wages were 25 shillings in 1800, and had declined to 14 shillings by 1811. Just to illustrate how people were having their day-to-day lives affected by the way that these technologies were being deployed into their communities and into their workplaces, basically. And I feel like one of the points that really stands out for me, as I was reading your book, was how one of the things that are quite distinct from today versus back then, is that you write that automation was not a given at the time. That technology didn’t inherently mean progress and capitalism itself was not fully formed, let alone accepted or celebrated. We were in this very different period where these things were still very nascent, these ideas were still being created and being formed. Whereas today, they’re much more integrated into our society and into our ideas of how society should work. How important was that to shaping what the Luddites were doing and the conversations that were happening in that time?
BM: It was called the machinery question at the time. It was the sort of “are robots coming to take our jobs” of today. But again, with a different set of assumptions and a different context. People would debate in pubs is the machine a good thing for society? And I illustrate that by calling back to a conversation that was recorded by an oral historian who has some of the best textual representation of the Luddites — a Frank Peel oral history that’s really great, if flawed. Historians find it flawed just because it was recorded after the fact, this was an intensively secretive movement. You could be hanged for being a Luddite, so they didn’t leave a lot of documentation around. But there’s this great conversation between one of the clothworkers, who winds up becoming a leading Luddite, and one of his friends who’s who’s also a laborer, but is also a disciple of Robert Owens, who was advocating a different path for technology. And they have this debate what rhymes just so perfectly to the debates that we’re having now. Where John Booth, the the proponent of developing technology, but then letting everybody share the benefits is saying: Well, look, if society were differently constituted machinery could be a great boom, we could build all of this great infrastructure, it could save a lot of toil, and everybody could benefit.
I just always think of this moment, in my mind, it always comes back because George Miller, who ends up becoming his local general lead, responds by going: If! If! If! If society were differently constituted, but it’s not. And what makes you think that at this moment it’s going to change or anytime soon. So you have this almost this debate between today which would be fully automated luxury communism or something, and modern Luddism, which is: Do we sort of legislate and organize to try to claw back some of the economic gains that are currently being enjoyed by an elite few who own all the machinery, and we have to work at their whims for now? Or do we resist right now, because we can see the ways that these technologies are being used to exploit us, to extract from us, to tear apart our communities? That was the debate at the time and it was intensely important. One thing that Luddism did, in fact, was just clarify for a lot of people in England, just how much anger there was, at the way machinery was being used. When you could have a polite debate about the pros and cons of machinery.
But when you look out your window, and there’s a troop of masked men who are smashing machinery, because they can no longer afford to feed their families — because work has been consolidated under a factory owner who’s profiting at their direct expense — it sort of clarifies the equation for you. It’s not just an abstract, it’s not just: Well, one day machinery could be great. Well, in the short term, it’s really being used in a way that’s destroying people’s lives. So, I think that that has a lot of ramifications for how we talk about it again today. And that said, I don’t think anybody necessarily disagreed completely with John Booth or thought the things that Robert Owens, in some contexts, were trying to pursue were a bad thing. It’s just that allowing that to just be a latent hope and to have that be put on the backburner was not acceptable. I think that today we see echoes of this too, with a lot of AI proponents saying: Well, one day, we’ll have an AGI that will be benevolent, and it will organize our economy in more efficient ways than we can ever dream of. It’ll solve climate change, it’ll reduce inequality. But the people in the trenches, who are seeing the way that AI is being introduced into their workplaces, they’re saying: Hold on a minute, that’s not how it’s affecting my life at all in the short-term. To give too much credence to that idea is going to do us a lot of harm in the short term, if we don’t push back.
PM: You can see how these same conversations are still so relevant today, happening over 200 years ago, and still being debated in the moment. And I feel like in the past two answers that you’ve given, where you’ve talked about how these workers were developing technologies, but we’re not in the interest of capital, so we’re just discarded and not adopted. Then at the same time, being very clear eyed about the effects of technology on them in the moment, it really brings to mind the work of David Noble and how he was focused on both of those things. Calling for the need to focus on technology in the present tense, instead of just always talking about this future possibility that technology offered. But also how capital shaped the development of technology in such a way to always push aside the technologies or the innovations that would empower workers, instead to adopt those ones that empower bosses and management, even if they’re less efficient and more expensive, and all this kind of stuff.
BM: David Noble, I think he says, even, that the Luddites may have been the last group that could really, fully, and effectively see that technology in the present tense. Again, as you mentioned earlier, all of these expectations and assumptions and norms about technology being this inexorable, progressive force that that was not there yet for all the similarities, that wasn’t there yet. So the Luddites could look and it wasn’t just like: Oh, is this piece of machinery going to be more productive and produce more pieces of cloth per input than the previous version, and could that increase Britain’s GDP if we use it? That wasn’t the question. It was: How is it going to disrupt their very own livelihood? How was it going to affect the way that people lived? It wasn’t an abstraction; it was completely real. And it was completely well understood. Nobody knew better than the Luddites what technology was capable of, and what would happen if it were organized in a way to oppose their interests.
So David Noble’s work is really great, and was an inspiration for this book. And I think what he did a lot to keep the Luddite torch alive in his time whe the winds were blowing even more strongly against them, in the 80s, and 90s. Especially the big first Silicon Valley boom, happened. And if we had listened and looked more critically, at some of these tendencies that were taking shape, I think we could have prevented a number of the jams that we’re in today. But here we are and now it is much more roundly understood that technology can be a force for exploitation and force for ill in very specific ways, not abstract ways. I think that the so-called “techlash” primed the pump a little bit. It was clearly not enough. But now we’re seeing people organize, pushback, articulate grievances with technology in a way that was not happening 10 years ago. I think ultimately, society will be better for it for all this, especially if those voices can win some of these battles and gain power and make their way up the chain.
PM: It’s really exciting to see that development, and to see the rejuvenation of the Luddites over that period to such a degree that there’s a huge book like yours coming out right now that is receiving a bunch of attention. And I think it will be very positive attention. We’re early right now, but I have high hopes for it. Before we talk about those kinds of modern similarities to what’s going on, I want to ask one more question about that history. Because one of the things that you have talked about is how they were pushing back, they were going in and smashing these machines to let these industrialists know: This was not acceptable. Because Parliament had kind of left them hanging, the political system had not worked for them, because it was really not concerned with the interests of the poor and the working class in England. Especially outside of London in that moment. And so as they were breaking these machines what successes did they have, but also what was kind of the end result of this? Like, how did their campaign ultimately end?
BM: So, the Luddites saw short-term successes through their tactic, which has been famously called collective bargaining by riot. I think that was Hobsbawm that coined that term. But they were able to get a number of the bosses to restore wages to the levels previous to the use of automation. They were able to get certain assurances, and protections. They saw a lot of entrepreneurs — who, quite frankly, had felt their hands forced into this new regime as well — a lot of the businessmen and the merchants, and those hoosiers, whose job was to sell finished cloth goods or finished knit goods, I would say the majority of them were happy with the old arrangement too. They were members of the community, they had good relationships with these workers, with these people, they were all pretty tightly knit in this ecosystem together. But when a handful of those entrepreneurs — nascent entrepreneurs, this was really the first decade that the word was even in use — decided that they could make a lot of money by basically tearing up all those social contracts, all those standards and norms that had governed these communities for hundreds of years.
Only then did a lot of the other entrepreneurs feel forced to follow suit, otherwise, they felt like they would have their lunch eaten, they would lose money, they would go out of business. And in a lot of cases, there was some truth to that. So, it was a really difficult decision for a lot of people in the position to either become small factory owners, and join this reorganization of work, or this move to reorganize work. Or to sort of resist it and try to help maintain the domestic system, or to try to maintain good relationships with these workers and men, they’d known all their lives. And it wasn’t always an easy decision. I think in the book I document one case, from a different sort of oral history, in which the master weaver decides not to buy more automated machinery, he decides to stick with the workers because his pastor warns him and says: You’re basically giving into greed, and that is making your fellow man go hungry, and is ungodly, basically. And so he agrees not to a lot didn’t.
Those people, when Luddism first erupts, the people who are sympathetic to the workers, a lot of them just said: Okay, okay, you’ve given us a reason. Great, we’ll raise prices, hopefully everyone else will, too. So that works for a while. But it doesn’t last, of course, because there are these bigger factories staffed by less sympathetic, more aggressive figures who have either bought the Adam Smith line, that it’s a virtue to make as much money as possible to throw everybody else to the whims of the invisible hand of the market, and it really embraced the division of labor. Those guys, again — whether it’s just adopting that for greed, or because they believed it or whatever — they are the ones that are ultimately hitting the gas on the Industrial Revolution, in general, and towards factorization. And ultimately, the other merchants and bosses have to compete with them. So they draw the line, of course, a lot of them refuse to negotiate with the Luddites. They refuse to make any concessions, and in fact, they call in the army, they call on the state.
The second part of the question was how this ends, and well, it ends with force. So first, the state decides that they’re going to side with the industrialists and their line is that they’re deluded; they don’t understand, they’re breaking the machines, the hand that feeds them. And we see some of the first deliberate misunderstandings, or propaganda, I guess, against the Luddites emerge at this stage. Casting them as backward looking dummies. They’ve been like hypnotized by some malign influence or something. And they use that as an excuse to pass into law, the Framework bill, which says it’s a capital offense to break a machine. And so that goes on the books, so being a Luddite, breaking a machine is now punishable by death. Meanwhile, they’re sending thousands of troops to occupy the industrial districts where the lead raids are going on. They’re basically lending state power to the factories, to the factory owner, instead of doing what the Luddites, or the cloth workers asked, which is giving them minimum wages, giving them, some basic means of subsistence, some government support at all.
They deploy the troops to fight against them, to crush them, basically. And we see, for one of the first times, this alliance of State and industry banded together with a common goal of crushing the worker movement that is a threat to this new organization. And they want to demonstrate that they have sided with the mode of factorization. They’ve sided with this very top-down, laissez-faire, regime of production. And they wind up gunning down dozens of Luddites. They wind up hanging dozens of Luddites in a show trial that is meant to demonstrate the cost of rising against machinery or the factory or the crown. And the Luddites, also, become desperate and there is an episode where they assassinate a factory owner in cold blood, when this particular Luddite feels like his options have run out. And that causes popular opinion to move against them as well. The combination of the loss of popular support driven by State power and the relentlessness of the most ambitious tech titans of the day, basically, snuffs the Luddites out.
PM: It’s a really significant story in development. It shows, if we’re thinking about today, as well, how those long-standing relationships between industry and the state have always been there, even as we’ve had this narrative over the past couple of decades that: The tech companies were really separate from the state and even pushing back on the state to protect individual rights, and all this kind of stuff. When really those relationships were always there and we see them really reemerging in this moment. But I feel like, as I was reading through the book, one of the things that really stood out to me was one of these parallels between the Luddites and the workers, trying to get the State, trying to get the government to pay attention to their demands, to what was happening to them as a result of how capitalists were rolling out these technologies, in the first decade of the 1800s. The Luddite movement of smashing the machines really emerging after a decade of doing that in 1811, because they felt like that was the only option left to them.
Then when I’m thinking about what has happened more recently, in our times, through the 2010s. We had the emergence of the gig economy, the kind of proliferation of a lot of these digital technologies in a really novel way. And the kind of common narrative that we had about this was really hype-filled, and boosterish, and as you were talking about the sentiment of: This is all positive, this is progress, blah, blah, blah. And now, it seems after a decade of that, after not responding to the early concerns and criticisms of gig workers — Amazon factory workers, things like that — in that earlier period, it seems like we’ve reached a moment about a decade into that shift, where the workers, once again, are demanding that something be done. Maybe they haven’t gone as far as smashing the machines, but there does seem to be kind of a tangible shift that’s occurring there?
BM: They’re not smashing machines because they don’t have to. The most effective and most well-known battles against AI right now are taking place in union shops, where SAG and WGA are drawing a red line in a contract. And I think it’s a Luddite tactic to say: No, you cannot use this to generate a script. You cannot use AI to replicate my likeness. That’s just a hard no. And we’re leaving it at that. It still remains to be seen whether that will be effective. Again, it’s extremely popular, the support of the writers and the actors, vis a vis the studios, is just immense. So, I think that it has that in common, as well. We also have a democracy, for the most part, but they had a completely authoritarian government, in the Luddite time. They could basically write letters, show up, sign petitions, try to track down a lord and make your case, but they weren’t elected. They didn’t get thrown out of office if they didn’t listen to you. So it was a lot steeper hill to climb. And you can see why Luddism would be more like something of a tactic of last resort. But I think you’re completely correct, the spiritual linkage is there for sure.
PM: I wonder, what you see in what is going on now that seems to be learning from the Luddites, or what you see as their lasting impact at being. And what people can learn from them today, as we look back at that history, as we all read your book to figure out more of that.
BM: I mean, I think there’s a number of things. I’ll start really good with the biggest picture. To me, we’re running into a lot of the same problems over and over again, and the nature of these problems is so similar 200 years later, right down to the way that the arguments on both sides are formulated. The grievances are so similar. Because number one, we just still have this mode of top down technological development, wherein an entity that has access to resources, access to capital, access to power, gets to build the technology, and then dictate how it’s used. That at the the most basic level is the crux of this issue. Back in their day, it was people who could get investment or saddle up to the lords and and curry favor with the magistrates, and then build these giant factories. And then as we just saw, get that backed by state power. Today, it’s somebody who can go to Silicon Valley and get hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital, that they then get to build whatever product that they see fit, and then unleash it onto the public, without the public getting any real modicum of input on to how it’s going to affect their life or their working life.
The common pushback to that is that: Well, the market decides. Except no, it doesn’t, especially not with enterprise software, stuff that’s being used by businesses, stuff that if you want to keep your job, you don’t have a lot of say about how it’s going to be used. And that’s how the bulk of generative AI is going to be used. That’s how we’re going to interact with it. I mean, people might mess around with ChatGPT, or be wild with it, or have fun with it. And that’s all great. But we’ve already seen the consumer tier use of ChatGPT, decline month on month for the last three months. No, it’s gonna get injected into workplaces where managers think that it can streamline a process, replace a task, eliminate a job, maybe a whole department, if they can get away with it. And again, this is a company that was founded in part by Elon Musk — with some of the other biggest, most well heeled tech giants of our time — that then our funding, incubating, and deciding how this technology gets used. We got to change that. That’s number one.
A friend of the show Ed Ongweso Jr. had a piece and has been sort of following, or pulling out this thread of the need to sort of rein in venture capital or as he puts it: Abolish it all together. That’s one way that we can limit that in the near-term is find ways to rein in venture capital to prevent those pools of resources from getting so gargantuan. But there’s a lot that we can do. The bottom line is we need more democratic inputs on how technology is developed and deployed, especially with regards to our working lives. Beyond that the lessons of the Luddites are numerous and the Luddites showed that you can be incredibly effective in tight knit groups of people, with a lot of solidarity, and a smart media campaign. Basically, that’s what it was, Ned Ludd was basically a meme. The Luddites of the different regions didn’t know each other, they didn’t have a central organizing committee. They just saw how effective it was to take on the nom de plume of general Ludd, send that letter to a factory owner, get results. And if not, do an action that rouses the public to your side as the new Robin Hood.
It started in Nottingham, well, then people in the West riding of York said: Oh, this is a good idea. Let’s do it. And they had formed their own General Ludd-driven sort of cells. And then in Manchester, wherever there was cloth production, basically. So that’s one of the fascinating things about the Luddite movement is it really sprung up powerfully and organically, and they rarely used an interesting use of media technologies to do so. That needs to be paired with a more sustained, organized effort to also push for more durable legislative and institutional change, as well. And they tried, just no matter what they did at the time, the odds were so stacked against them that I do think that they were doomed to fail. But again, as folks like E. P. Thompson, the great historian — “The Making of the English Working Class,” great book, everybody should read it. It’s long, but it’s wonderful. The Luddites were instrumental in building this moment of class consciousness. Where the Luddites, I mentioned earlier how they articulated this grievance against machinery and the way it was gang used to exploit them.
They also articulated this broader grievance against bosses and made it very clear that there was one class that was exploiting another and E. P. Thompson dedicates over 100 pages to the Luddites, in making his case that they were an instrumental part of the very formation of the working class. And some of the Luddites adjacent groups went on to agitate for, and successfully finally, get some level of reform in Parliament. They convinced the parliamentarians to finally roll back the combination acts allow unionization, and so made inroads to more durable forms of worker power. So I think that’s another really good lesson. And, finally, we can take the lesson of what was basically their philosophy, which is that sometimes it is not just okay, but morally just, to resist a technology, an exploitative technology. And we’re seeing a lot of that today, we’re seeing the use of generative AI, in our workplaces, in our working lives being foisted upon us. A lot of times, a lot of people are gig workers out there, and they know what it’s like to have your algorithm be a boss. We’ve seen worker surveillance in places like Amazon factories and delivery drivers.
So, what the Luddites teach us is that it is one hundred percent okay, and even morally just, as I said, to oppose a technology that’s exploiting you. Just to say no, that’s such a powerful thing that we didn’t really have in our arsenal over the last number of years, as the most recent tech regime has come to power, just saying no has immense power. And we’re seeing, with examples like the writer strike, or the Open Letter from Molly Crabapple, but there’s a lot of support behind it. The Author’s Guild saying no to author’s work being subsumed by machine learning programs, unless they’re compensated, and they consent to it, and that kind of thing. These are all tactics that are very reminiscent of Luddism, if not outright Luddism themselves, and just remembering that we can resist technology at this time, and we can improve our lives, demonstrably, if we do so, is something we should take away from the Luddite struggle.
PM: Those are all great points for people to keep in mind. And I feel like throughout this conversation, you’ve given us so many insights into this history and what we can learn from it. I wonder why you think that this is a history that we don’t know very much about when it is so pression, for what we’re dealing with today, and such an important piece of the history of what the working class have the history of technology and all these sorts of things. Why don’t we know this as well as we should?
BM: This is one of those cases where you can sound conspiratorial if you say it in the wrong way. But it’s: They don’t want you to know, man [Paris laughs]. But they really don’t! So, we talked a lot about the way that state power put down the Luddites, but, at the same time, that was paired with this campaign from the highest rungs of power. It was in proclamations issued by the Prince Regent, who was ruling England at the time. It’s in the trial of the Luddites, the prosecutors are using this language, painting them as backwards looking — they know not what they do. They’re predators. They’ve fallen under the malign influence of deluded men or whatever. It is a construct that has proven so useful to the leaders of industry, to the State, to the tech titans of whatever era that they are in to discard. They need this. There’s a great quote from Theodore Roszak, who wrote about the Luddites back in the 90s, I believe, and it’s: That if the Luddites didn’t exist, their critics would have to invent them. They need this Boogeyman. In fact, as I point out in the chapter that examines this very issue, the critics did basically invent the Luddites. They use the word and a real historical episode, but they completely miscast it. They completely misrepresented, so it serves their interests.
That’s why we think of Luddites as opposing progress, as not understanding technology, or just hating it like simpletons. Because you need something to position as a boogeyman in opposition to whatever tech product — or service or new technological regime that you want to sell on mass — anything that you want to go through. If somebody says: Well, wait a minute, that’s a bad idea. It’s sure handy to be able to slander them by calling them a Luddite. Since the Luddites lostviolently, and quite publicly, they look, from the eyes of history, like losers, and nobody wants to be a loser. Nobody wants to be backwards looking. It’s a way to cow people into not resisting and to not speaking up. You’ll see it today.Just yesterday, I have been arguing with some of the free market fundamentalist guys at the CATO Institute, with President Trump’s Chief Technologist of the FTC, who just so stubbornly adopt this cartoonish version of the Luddites because it serves their interests. It needs to be known that that is not the truth, and there’s so much more to the Luddites and knowing the truth about the Luddites can really help us navigate this very complex and difficult, but also promising technological moment.
PM: I completely agree with you on that. I think you’ve nailed it in not sounding too conspiratorial, but still laying out the reality of how that works for us. There were so many insights in this conversation. But there’s so much more I could have asked you about because there are so many fascinating details in this book that you’ve put together that really goes through the history, that has so many intriguing characters among the Luddites and the workers themselves. But among the higher society, even Mary Shelley makes an appearance.
BM: I know, we didn’t even talk much about Lord Byron, who’s becoming famous at this moment. He’s a big Luddite defender. That’s why it’s kind of interesting. I hope you’ll all read the book, of course, but a lot of people are surprised to find that I structured it like a narrative, where we follow the Luddites, and we see what they were dealing with in their daily live. Why they became Luddites? Why the factory owners became factory owners, how they oppose them. And it really turned out to be such a dramatic story that I just wanted to tell it at that level, where I felt like it might resonate most, if you can really relate to. George Miller could be living today, a lot of the things that he says, are just as true today as they were 200 years ago. Well, thank you for all the kind words about the book. I hope people can learn from it and enjoy it, and so on and so forth. In this new moment rife with Luddism, I hope it does its part.
PM: Absolutely. And I’m excited you came on this Luddite podcast to talk about it.
BM: We didn’t even mention how you’re in the book! [Paris laughs]. There is a section on new Luddites, and that’s where your host, Paris, makes an appearance as a standard bearer for Luddism. You can see some familiar faces. And it is really important, I want to say, that this podcast has done such an important job and has had such an important role in bringing a more critical view of tech to more and more people. And it just blows me away every time I see it on the top tech podcast list, like in between TED Talk Tech,or something or other, just climbing. So you are a part of the Luddite vanguard, and I think ultimately, we’re all better for that. So thanks for that, too.
PM: Thanks so much, man. I don’t like to make the story about me. But I appreciate you bringing it up and saying some nice things about the show.
BM: Well, you’re in this story, so no way around it.
PM: I would say everyone needs to go pick up the book, to learn about all the things that we weren’t able to talk about, because this is such a fascinating history. And if this is a podcast that you enjoy, if you enjoy these critical conversations, this is absolutely a book that you’re going to enjoy as well. Sure, it might take you a little while to get through it, it’s a little long, but it’s worth it. You’re going to enjoy it. On that note, Brian, we also have something exciting coming up in October. Do you want to inform the listeners about that?
BM: Yes, another Luddite Dream Team has been assembled. So if you’re in New York City on October 12th, that is a Thursday, come to Star Bar. The details are online and I’m sure you can throw it in the show notes. But we’re convening a Luddite tribunal, where Paris myself, and Ongweso Jr. from This Machine Kills, Molly Crabapple, great, wonderful artist and modern day Luddite herself, and the Jacobin labor reporter Alex Press is going to convene. We’re going to discuss this resurgence of modern Luddism, and we’re going to subject modern technologies to the Luddite tribunals. So, say, a ring camera or a ring doorbell. Is this a technology that serves society or does the exploitation and harm it cause outweigh the justification for its existence? So, we will debate each piece of technology and if it does not meet the threshold, if it is found to be exploitative, by the tribunal, then, like a good old-fashioned Luddite, we shall smash it with a sledgehammer. We’re just going to have some fun with it. If you’re in New York City, bring a piece of technology, bring a piece of tech, a product, something that you would like to subject and don’t mind having obliterated, it should be a great time. And I hope to see you all there. Cheers.
PM: I was so excited when you suggested it. And it’s going to be a lot of fun. If you’re in New York City, feel free to come out and join us. I’ll have the information in the show notes where you can find it. And of course, Brian, thanks again, so much for taking the time to come on the show. Thanks for writing this brilliant, fantastic book that everyone should buy. I always love chatting with you, especially when it’s about the Luddites.
BM: Always my pleasure. Well meet again soon in New York, but I’m sure I’ll be back you can’t get rid of me. But I always love it. Thanks so much Paris.