Rage against machine learning: Lessons from the Luddites in an era of exploitative technology

Brian Merchant's new book "Blood in the Machine" traces Luddite history to our modern day tech and labor woes

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published October 3, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Luddite Frame-breaker wielding a hammer | Automated car building factory robots (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Wiki Commons)
Luddite Frame-breaker wielding a hammer | Automated car building factory robots (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Wiki Commons)

The dictionary definition of "Luddite" broadly refers to "one who is opposed to especially technological change." Although the dictionary also mentions that Luddites were a real 19th Century movement, this is not the main way in which people use the term. If a person is a Luddite in the modern age, that supposedly means they are a hard-headed reactionary irrationally frightened by technology. While the rest of the world enjoys computers, smart phones, televisions and the other benefits of technological progress, the Luddite is stereotyped as a grouchy stick in the mud, equivalent to someone's grandpa complaining about TikTok and kids these days.

"Yes, I am a Luddite. I am a proud Luddite."

Yet who were those real-life 19th Century Luddites? It turns out, they weren't fatuous technophobes, as the pejorative insult "Luddite" would lead us to believe, but keen observers of the labor trends of their time, which has interesting implications for our current moment of ChatGPT bots that can write complex prose with the push of a button and artificial intelligence (AI) being injected into everything possible, often with mixed results.

The history of the Luddites and its relevancy to the present is expounded in "Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech," a new book by Los Angeles Times tech columnist Brian Merchant. He proudly refers to himself as a Luddite because, as "Blood in the Machine" makes clear, the actual Luddites were intelligent activists seeking a better life for the working class against the greed of the super-rich.

Luddites objected to technology that, as they saw it, stole from the poor and cheated consumers, while enriching the wealthy.

Named after the legendary weaver Ned Ludd, who was said to have destroyed two stocking machines in 1779 in a fit of rage, the Luddites were English textile workers in Nottingham, North West and Yorkshire between 1811 and 1816. Observing that industrialists were replacing workers with automated machines, they rejected the arguments that this constituted "progress." After all, machines usually produced inferior products and threw thousands of men out of work; they harmed consumers and workers alike. The only beneficiaries of automation were the handful of businessmen at the very top of the socioeconomic pyramid.

Luddites had no problem with technology for its own sake. They objected to technology that, as they saw it, stole from the poor and cheated consumers, while enriching the wealthy. Sound familiar?

Their solution goes a long way to explaining why the term "Luddite" is now an insult: They rode around England destroying machines that industrialists were using to throw working class people out of their jobs. In the process, they incurred the wrath of the most powerful men in England's business and political classes, all of whom were determined to make an example out of the Luddites so that others in the working class wouldn't emulate their example.

They rode around England destroying machines that industrialists were using to throw working class people out of their jobs.

It was not enough to merely arrest the Luddites. After four of them – led by a man named George Mellor — ambushed and assassinated mill owner William Horsfall, the hammer came down hard. Luddites were rounded up, shipped off to penal colonies and, in many cases, executed. All of this was done publicly. Before long, members of the public got the message: The Luddite movement was dead, resistance to automation was taboo (at least for now) and the name of the Luddites was forever dragged through the mud.

As AI threatens to put millions out of work and automation continues to take away jobs, the Luddites' ideas are more relevant than ever. Perhaps just as importantly, the original Luddites are more deserving than ever of historical rehabilitation. In a sense, Merchant's book is therefore a three-pronged endeavor: It is primarily a fascinating step into England as it existed two centuries ago, one that is immense fun for fans of history; afterward it is a cry of protest of contemporary conditions, echoing the themes of the Luddites themselves; and finally it is an attempt to do justice to the destroyed reputations of impoverished, decent people who were not backward technophobes. The actual Luddites were, if anything, ahead of their time.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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"Their plight is our plight to some extent."

Would you self-describe as a Luddite? 

Yes, I am a Luddite. I am a proud Luddite. I do not see any tension between calling myself a Luddite and being a tech columnist by trade, for example. I think that if we understood what a Luddite was truly about, then a great many of us would be Luddites, in fact.

I agree. You profile many individual stories in this book. Did you feel a sense of obligation to the original and now deceased Luddites, to rehabilitate their image after they've been effectively defamed for the last two centuries? 

Absolutely. In fact, the road to this book was through a piece I wrote for Vice in 2014 called "You've Got Luddites All Wrong." When I first started digging into the story, what really struck me was just how we have completely mischaracterized their struggle. Their identities and what they were fighting for had been all condensed into this derogatory epithet that just lingers on as kind of a bad word in modern times.

"Their identities and what they were fighting for had been all condensed into this derogatory epithet."

So I would say yes, one of my animating goals was to really offer a window into the travails, insecurities, anxieties and economic plight that these cloth workers, these proud, skilled workers were facing. I did that by going up close and personal with them as much as I could, trying to relay their very resonant anxieties about the future, when someone like George Mellor — who we follow as kind of the lead Luddite throughout the book — hearing him talk about his concerns about the way technology is being used against him, about the way that the future is being shaped by interests that do not have him in mind, by seeing the rise of inequality and enclosure of common lands, all of these things just have such direct resonance today. 

So I really, really put front and center this aim to rehabilitate the Luddites. Not only that, but also to remind everybody that their plight is our plight to some extent.

In many ways, Mellor seemed like a prophet. What are your thoughts on the relevance of his observations on contemporary conditions? There is one quote that stands out: "Unless the toilers of England rise and strike for their rights, there'll soon be neither rights nor toilers. I've looked into this thing further nor you, an' I can see the signs o' the times. The tendency's all one way."

Yes, Especially that last part. It is something that is constantly echoing in my own skull. The tendency is all one way, and what he means by that is he has seen exactly the manner to which automated machinery is being put to use, who it's being used by. And that is by factory owners who are using automated machinery to chiefly maximize profits for their own gain at the expense of others. One of the important things to know about about the time that this was taking place, and one of the reasons that it works so well as a means of understanding the way a lot of these different forces of technological development and capitalism and social struggle all intersect, is that in the Luddites' time, it was a lot clearer. 

"Luddites may have been the last group to see technology in the present tense."

They had not been taught for decades and decades that technology equals progress, that innovation is inherently good, or any of these things. David Noble, the historian of automation, says that the Luddites may have been the last group to see technology in the present tense. What they saw was a small elite group of people using the capital that they had access to, the power that they had access to through connections from building factories, and organizing labor in a way that seemed grim, to say the least. They were basically organizing the first factories and using those machines to push down wages, to generate profits that would be only enjoyed by that relatively few group of people, and ruin the reputation of their trade by churning out shoddier and cheaper goods.

And it was something that was happening on a local scale that was very obvious, right? If you had a smallish town that the main industry is cloth production, and you've done your job just like your father's done it, and your grandfather's done it, and your grandfather's father always — you get the point — and all of a sudden somebody says, "Well, you know what? I can use this machine to stack six stories, one to top another, fill it with these machines, and if I maximize this production using these machines, then no one else is going to be able to compete. They're going to have to offer lower and lower wages."

And that's exactly what happens. And to the Luddites, they were looking at the moral dimension of this as well, saying, "What is happening? They're stealing our bread." And it wasn't for the greater benefit of the community. It was so one person could enjoy more profits, and they saw that as a moral violation.

It wasn't like, "Oh, look at that innovator down the road." It was like, "That person took my work. That person that I can point to is using these machines and child labor and unskilled labor to run them." And the machines still need people, but they don't need a skilled operator, perhaps.

So what George is talking about when he says "the tendency is all one way," he's identifying the victors of that equation if there's no contestation, if there's no protest to it, so those factory owners, are they going to be the ones who profit mightily at the expense of everybody else? It's going to create a gulf of inequality. People are going to be made to suffer. There's going to be a lot less of a premium on community life, on having taken pride in work, in craftsmanship, and all of these things, and basically one class is going to get crushed by another.

And since then, if you're talking about automating machinery, the tendency has absolutely all been one way. And we've seen this from the Industrial Revolution on through Taylorism at Ford, when they found new ways to increase the production at the expense of workers, on through today, where our tech titans today are some of the richest people that have ever lived. So yes, George Mellor was right. The tendency was all one way.

I would like to segue to artificial intelligence and what that means for workers. I'm thinking about the writers strikes in Hollywood, which recently protested in part to limit the use of AI in Hollywood. (Disclosure: Salon's unionized employees are represented by the WGA East.) Is there a message there from the Luddites? And what about other unions, like the ones you described that are concerned not just about automation, but for instance, with COVID-19 at Amazon Warehouses?

Yes, the Luddites provide a tactic and they provide a way of rethinking the moral dimensions to technological development. The writers' strike is really interesting. This is, honestly, this is such a great week for the book to come out, because a lot of the book is about a lot of the misery caused by the early automation and the factory bosses who wielded it against workers and the people who kind of got ground up in the gears.

The Luddites' battle, while powerful and popular and illuminating, was ultimately unsuccessful. So to have the book come out on a week when the Writer's Guild has emerged victorious in many ways with their new contract that has strong protections against AI, it's really great to see this positive note and this positive demonstration of what is essentially modern-day Luddism.

"That refusal, that sort of aggressive denunciation of this particular use of AI, was basically Luddism."

I'll explain why I think that's the case. When the writers sat down at the bargaining table, many months ago at this point, it was a sort of a tossed off demand that they thought the studios were going to accept immediately that they don't use AI to create original scripts. When the studios balked at that and said, "No, no, no, how about we just meet every once in a while to discuss technology, we're not going to commit to this," they realized that that's what the studios at least wanted, to be able to have hold the threat of doing this. They wanted not necessarily to replace scriptwriters with generative AI, but they wanted the option to do so. They wanted the leverage. They wanted maybe to generate scripts and then pay writers a lesser fee to sort of cut costs or to break down the writer's power.

The Hollywood studios are always looking for ways to do that, and often technological disruption is used as an excuse to lessen wages, to break down power. So when the writers said, "No," they drew a red line, and they said, "No, you the studio, we will not accept the studios using AI to create scripts on their own terms," that refusal, that sort of aggressive denunciation of this particular use of AI, was basically Luddism.

And then we saw how popular and inspiring that tactic proved. It rallied not only SAG-AFTRA – who was also worried about AI being used to create replicas of the actors to be used in perpetuity and things like that — but I think everyone around the country who's feeling this anxiety, that AI's going to creep up on them, and managers are going to introduce it into their workplaces, whether to replace them or to sort of diminish their jobs or degrade their conditions, there is this real anxiety, and then you see these, the polling around the writers' strike, and it's like 72% supported the writers over the studios, according to Gallup. I think that that's a big reason why they were so successful. It is because they were fighting a proxy battle, basically. Luddites on one end and sort of the modern day factory bosses who wanted to use automating technology against them [on the other].

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And by doing Luddism, they not only won important protections, but they illuminated this struggle in a way. They painted a way forward, a way they made it okay to protest technology, in a way that's not always the case especially in this country where we do value innovation so much. I think they made it clear that technology is something we can navigate the use of in our workplace. We can be democratic about it. We can refuse exploitative uses while embracing others.

Because that's the other part, the contract they won, they said, if anyone's going to use the AI, then it's the writers themselves. They get to decide on what terms and how they use it. That keeps the studios from being able to use it as an exploitative tool, and it puts it in their hands and makes it one that is potentially good and useful and creative. Just like the Luddites, the writers did not hate the technology. They were familiar with the technology. They knew how it would be used, and now they've won the right to use it in a way that benefits them.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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