Discover more from The Future, Now and Then
We should all be Luddites now
A review of Brian Merchant's "Blood in the Machine"
“If the Luddites had never existed, their critics would have to invent them,” Theodore Roszak wrote in the 1990s. the most ardent champions of the tech industry, the most zealous entrepreneurs and executives, need a bogeyman; a means of positioning the notion of opposing new technologies, products, and services as perennially ridiculous. This is as true for water-powered cotton mills in the 1810s as it is for, say, automated assembly lines in the 1950s, software monopolies in the 1990s, or artificial intelligence startups in the 2020s.
“Luddite” has been shoehorned into history as shorthand for someone who blindly opposes technology and importantly, is doomed and at least a little dumb. (Not, notably, someone who is methodologically and strategically gathering and manufacturing arms for an uprising.) If you knew the word “Luddite” before reading this book, you likely knew it as an insult. Even when the word itself is not on our lips, the ethos it embodies, breathed into us from our earliest engagements with technology, always seems to be there: that to oppose technology is to oppose the future, and prosperity; that questioning technology can only point us backward. But, as Roszak noted, “the Luddites are held in such contempt that their critics have never felt the least need to find out who they really were and what they wanted.” - Brian Merchant, Blood in the Machine, page 305
Brian Merchant’s new book, Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion against Big Tech is phenomenal. It is both a rousing, meticulously-researched history and an insightful, timely argument about the present state of technology. It’s one of those books that sticks with you. I finished reading it two weeks ago, and have bringing up incessantly in conversations ever since. It will likely be my pick for book of the year. (And I read a lot of books.)
You should buy it. You should read it. There is no time like the present to talk about the Luddites.
Over 200 years ago, at the dawn of the industrial revolution, a group of weavers assembled in the dead of night to smash power looms and burn down the factories that were poised to render their profession irrelevant. They called themselves “the Luddites.” For fifteen months, they organized mass resistance. Eventually the British army was mobilized to protect wealthy industrialists and their investments. The Luddites were routed. Many were hanged, leaving a trail of destitute widows and orphans in their wake. And the wheels of history then began seriously to turn.
For my entire adult life, “Luddite” has been tossed around as an accusation. To be a Luddite is to be reflexively anti-technology — to stand athwart history and technological progress and yell “stop.” The Luddites, in this frame, are remembered as cranks and malcontents — destined for irrelevance, but potentially dangerous along the way.
That’s an entirely unfair rendering of the actual Luddite rebellion — what motivated them, what their aims were, and what they ultimately achieved. It’s also a version of events that fits perfectly into the broader tech narrative, where the results of technological and industrial “innovation” are treated as inherently positive and above reproach.
In Blood in the Machine, Brian Merchant cracks this facade and reveals what was hiding underneath all along. From Merchant, we learn that the Luddite rebellion was, first and foremost, about labor power. The Luddites were not reflexively anti-technology. They were skilled artisans who had a history of incorporating new technologies into their profession. The specific technology they opposed (the power loom) was poised to wreck their industry and replace them with factories filled with child laborers, who would flood the market with lower-priced, lower-quality goods. This technology stood to make a few businessmen fabulously wealthy, while immiserating an entire skilled profession.
Labor organizing was illegal in the early 1800s. The weavers’ demands — fair wages for an honest day’s work, protections for the existing professional industry, revenue sharing of the expected profits these new technologies could generate — were ignored by the state. When all legitimate pathways for voicing resistance and dissent are foreclosed, people turn to illegitimate tactics. So the weavers targeted the machines themselves. They smashed power looms. They burned factories. They imposed direct cost upon the industrialists, in an effort to attain better working conditions.
The Luddite resistance was massive in scale. But it was also ultimately futile — not because they were standing athwart inevitable innovation, but because the State was captured by the wealthy, and would continue to ratchet up surveil and suppress the populace until they interests of wealth and property were protected.
But that does not mean the Luddite resistance made no difference. In the decade after the rebellion was put down, England repealed the Combination Act, marking one of the first important steps toward the formation of the working class and the modern labor movement. The specter of Luddite resistance also influenced popular culture, particularly Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein.
The Luddites, in other words, were struggling with many of the same questions that we face today. Who should reap the rewards of technological innovations? Whose interests should government represent, promote, and protect? What sort of society do we want to build?
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. Blood in the Machine brings that rhyme scheme into stark relief, to great effect.
It is, today, pretty uncontroversial to believe (1) that the industrial revolution was good, and (2) that child labor in sweatshop conditions was atrocious.
If we could run history twice, I would like to think we could have had the benefits of the former with much less of the latter. The industrial revolution could have occurred, I suspect, without all that child labor: The engine of history does not run exclusively on cruelty and exploitation… that just happens to be the cheapest abundantly-available fuel source.
The “Luddite” epitaph is a means of obscuring this contradiction. It reinforces a broader outlook on technologists, engineers, investors, and inventors as heroic forces for change — builders of a future that everyone benefits from, beset on all sides by stodgy critics clinging to the past. (As historian Theodore Roszak put it, “If the Luddites had never existed, their critics would have to invent them.”)
Merchant’s book recasts the Luddites as tragic heroes — outgunned, outmanned, mounting a resistance that will ultimately be doomed, but fighting with their last breath because they can see that the only available alternative is misery and poverty. In one particularly resonant passage (page 295), he writes:
To argue that a weaver is delusional for recognizing that a machine destroys his job is “inimical” to his interests seems the eclipsing delusion. If a person must work to survive, and their job becomes automated, you would have to be either deluded or willfully disingenuous to be surprised when they fight to keep it. As the historian Frank Peel quipped, these workers “did not understand it was their duty to lay down and die” because they were no longer useful to the industry and the state.
As this passage makes clear, Merchant is not the first person to cover this ground. He draws both upon a mix of archival sources and academic historical studies of the Luddite rebellion. The story he is telling here is uncontroversial among academic specialists. His unique contribution is in the way he deftly uses this history to unseat the broader narrative of technological progress.
Twenty-eight years ago, Kirkpatrick Sale attempted a similar feat. Sale was the author of Rebels against the Future, a self-styled “neo-Luddite” text. Sale’s book struck a nerve among WIRED magazine’s tech evangelists — Culture critic Jon Katz penned a scathing book review, dismissing the Luddite rebellion as having “lasted all of 15 months, went down to utter defeat, and accomplished absolutely nothing,” and insisting that the failed rebellion was proof that “neither technology nor the essential human desire for change can be suppressed.” (This was also the book that prompted Kevin to “plan an ambush” and goad Kirkpatrick Sale into the ill-fated bet that I wrote about last month.)
Kirkpatrick Sale is the type of polemicist that did himself few favors though. Rebels against the Future landed with a thud, and that was at least partially because of the book’s own flaws. (I read it in college, but do not recall finding it particularly memorable.) Sale himself was reflexively anti-technology — a pastoralist Cassandra, insisting that humanity was simply doomed if we did not learn to live simply. And he was arguing this in 1995, when the biggest impacts of “Big Tech” were Windows 95, AOL, and the Netscape browser. The Luddites deserved a better standard-bearer than they got in 1995.
By comparison, what makes Blood in the Machine so effective is the sheer timeliness of Merchant’s argument. He has an artisan’s touch, interlacing contemporary controversies with his historical narrative, drawing parallels between Luddite weavers and Amazon warehouse workers.
It is remarkable how well he weaves these narrative strands together. It is not easy to maintain a rhythm where you keep the reader engaged with a historical episode while also making plain the parallels to present-day controversies. I say this as someone who has spent years grappling with a similar challenge (“how do I write about this episode of 1994 tech futurism in a way that takes the history seriously and draws out contemporary lessons without being too boring or too polemical?”). Blood in the Machine pulls off this delicate balancing act better than any book I have seen.
The craftsmanship of the book animates his discussion of the modern-day Luddites. Instead of Kirkpatrick Sale’s apocalyptic warnings, Merchant urges us to think seriously about power and inequality today. The modern-day Luddites aren’t rejecting technology and living simply, off-the-grid. They’re people like Chris Smalls and Timnit Gebru, organizing resistance and demanding that the gains from technology ought to benefit workers and communities.
The modern-day Luddites, in other words, are critical technologists. For the most part, they make use of legitimate outlets for resistance (ones that were not available 200+ years ago). They are not opposed to technological progress; they are challenging lazy, self-serving definitions of technological progress.
Merchant urges his readers to celebrate these efforts and to take up their cause. He equates the Luddites not with their iconic tactic (swinging a hammer at a machine), but with the claims they were trying to make upon society.
I can only wish that Kirkpatrick Sale had made such a compelling argument back in 1995. We could have used such an argument back then. But also, it might have been an argument too ahead of its time. Silicon Valley had world-conquering ambitions back then, but software had not yet eaten the world.
Blood in the Machine is an argument for today. It’s steeped in history, but squarely pointed at the present.
You don’t have to reject technology to be a Luddite. That was always a bait-and-switch.
Merchant convincingly demonstrates that a Luddite is someone who thinks about power, and who demands that we build a digital future where we take seriously how the increases in wealth and prosperity will be distributed.
Take it as a call-to-arms: We should all be Luddites now.