Rage against the machine owners: Brian Merchant on Luddite lessons for 21st-century technology

By Sara Goudarzi | October 16, 2023

Luddites marching into the future
Illustration by Thomas Gaulkin

A little more than two centuries ago in the English city of Nottingham, groups of cloth workers began destroying knitting frames and power looms. Manufacturers were using these machines to replace the skilled humans who had for generations made their living in the trade and were facing destitution. Soon, the breaking of machines spread to other parts of England, and the Luddite uprising became a cornerstone of the early Industrial Revolution, enraging the Crown and some of the elites.

Although the term “Luddite” has erroneously become a derogatory one to indicate a person against technology, those textile craftspeople were merely fighting for workers’ rights and livelihoods. It was an uprising not against progress but “against the first tech titans,” writes the Los Angeles Times’ technology columnist Brian Merchant in his new book Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech.

With a historical narrative that draws parallels to our current time, Merchant sets the record straight on a largely misunderstood group whose struggle can help us better understand how wealth and power can become concentrated in the hands of a few at the expense of many. And while the hostility might no longer be against the use of machines in the textile industry, the spirit of Luddism is alive and well with people fighting for the rights and protections of workers in the gig sector, individuals who are or stand to be affected by generative artificial intelligence, and those working under strict—and often questionable—management practices in factories, among others.

I spoke with Merchant about the power and influence of the original and current tech titans and what we can learn from the Luddite uprising regarding responsible deployment of technology.

Editor’s note: The resulting discussion has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Sara Goudarzi: In Blood in the Machine, you wrote that in the 18th century industrialists and business owners started investing in machines that were automated—and within a century that power and wealth became concentrated in the hands of a few. How did that happen, and has that power continued to stay in the hands of their heirs through the years?

Brian Merchant: There are a few cases like Richard Arkwright [an entrepreneur dubbed “father of the factory”] who started his operation and found such wild success that it drove others to emulate his models of factorization. He started out very much middle class, a story that fits the entrepreneur mold today. He was a barber, invested in machinery, and was interested in those early rumblings of the Industrial Revolution. By the time he was done, he had factories and was wealthy. Then his son took over, expanded the empire, and became the wealthiest common-born person in all of England, and that wealth did persist.

Maybe even more important than identifying specific Arkwrights or Rockefellers—where the wealth concentrates and persists for generations, many times enshrining itself into a sort of aristocracy—is this model encouraging that kind of technological development which also is enshrined.

How this happened was through the elites of the day, starting with William Pitt the Younger. He was a young prime minister, a Tory, very conservative and importantly a vocal proponent of Adam Smith and the ideas of division of labor and the invisible hand—but taking them to extremes very early on. He used those principles, which were very controversial, especially among the working classes, to justify wiping away all regulations or standards.

Those ideas were very unpopular among even a lot of the upper classes, but there was a very influential faction that won Parliament for a while. Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was an acolyte of Pitt the Younger and they embraced what we would call radically free market before we realized even if you’re going to be a free market fundamentalist, you still want some guardrails.

Once people saw successful entrepreneurs use that model, more started founding their businesses that way—with less regard for norms and standards or communities and more for maximizing profits. Then that model was emulated, with a bunch of mini-Arkwrights who emerged victorious and concentrated their wealth and power.

Goudarzi: Speaking of emulating that model: The same thing, as you noted, is happening today with Amazon, Uber, Google, Facebook, and now OpenAI. In the book, you mention that power and wealth is in even fewer hands now. What is currently happening, and how is that concentration of power problematic?

Merchant: We have, just in dollar value, some of the richest men in history, with $200 billion to wield as they see fit. Most of that wild, very rapid wealth and concentration of power comes from tech companies.

The way that the current tech titans accumulated that wealth is different than the original titans in a lot of ways. You look at Elon Musk, for example: A lot of that wealth is bound up in the companies he owns, which are publicly traded, and there’s a lot of other reasons that the stock price is so high. But there are also a lot of similarities between how the current tech titans accumulated this wealth and those in the past. For example, in a Tesla factory or an Amazon warehouse they’re relentlessly dividing labor to produce a futuristic electric car or to get products from a warehouse arranged and out the door as fast as possible. In principle, it’s not that much different than the factories of Richard Arkwright. He amassed his wealth through old fashioned labor exploitation and children working in his factories.

It’s an alarming moment because that’s creeping back in again. Is it a coincidence that power and wealth have concentrated to such levels that we’re again seeing some of these social protections break down, and some of the things we would never have imagined 20 years ago, like child labor in United States factories, coming back? I absolutely think there’s a correlation, and technology has allowed the acceleration of that accumulation of wealth and power in a way that is larger in scale but similar in principle to how it’s been for 200 years.

Today, we have tools that allow the facilitation of huge transfers of wealth. Venture capitalists can decide which projects they want to fund and can direct hundreds of millions of dollars to that initiative in the snap of a finger. We’ve gotten accustomed to the structure it’s part of. But it’s such a profoundly undemocratic way to develop technologies and introduce them into communities and societies at large.

For example, Uber never had to prove it was a viable business before it put together a profitable business model showing a system that worked for both consumers and its drivers. It just got a war chest of venture capital. It plowed through city after city and got to ignore those pleas and entreaties from officials, because it just was so big. Soon it was too big to fail, and people liked it.

Ten years later, we see the effect of that: We see how it has driven down wages for cab drivers, made medallions worthless, and driven lots of people to despair. Then on the other side, it’s ticked down the pay rates for drivers who are struggling and have been for years. That’s a good analogy of what happened with a lot of the entrepreneurs 200 years ago. Those entrepreneurs bought automating machinery, organized it into factory formations, and argued that the regulations didn’t apply to them because they’re using machines. They didn’t have to apprentice workers for several years because they were using machines; they didn’t have to adhere to certain statutes, or play by the same rules because they were a technology company.

At least in those historical cases, there was a market. They had to sell their stuff. There was a lot of problematic things about the way they did it in the early 1800s, but they weren’t afloat on hundreds of millions of dollars, or the equivalent, investment. Today, that’s not even the case. Uber had their first profitable quarter after over a decade in existence. They were propped up and able to exist as an entity. We’re seeing similar things with OpenAI that got $10 billion from Microsoft. Well, does anybody want this stuff? Does it work? Does it make society better?

Goudarzi: Today’s tech titans have accumulated quite a bit of influence as well, such as in politics. Is this different from the first tech titans of the 18th century? Or did they similarly have as much political, and societal, influence?

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Merchant: An interesting thing about the Luddite moment is that it’s one of the first times when that bond between the elites and the state really gets forged. The Crown at the time was conservative, but it was predisposed to being pro- law and order. So, when the Luddites were out there breaking things in protest, the Crown sided with the business owners who were at times more violent than the Luddites in the way they dealt with these protests. The state supplied soldiers, support, and arms to the entrepreneurs and industrialists to safeguard their factories, basically forging that bond we see over the next 200 years.

These factories were making England wealthy, producing cloth for export and spurring economic development. A lot of that was happening on the lords’ lands. So, on the elite level, the state sided with who had the capital, and that was a little uncertain before the Luddite uprising forced the issue of how it would all play out.

But it ended up with some very pronounced examples, like the state organizing the whipping of a soldier for not firing at the Luddites who were aiming to break machines. The soldier was court-martialed on behalf of a factory owner who ordered him to fire. The factory owner eventually realizes it is going to be bad PR if the state executes somebody on his behalf. So, he intervened successfully.

But that moment, and then the Luddite trials—where several of them are condemned and executed for just breaking capital equipment—crystallizes a lot of things about how the state was going to deal with things that threatened the entrepreneurial class. A lot of that ethos remains basically intact today, if not as ferocious.

Goudarzi: You are setting the record straight in terms of how we think of the Luddites and the definition of the term. You tweeted at Stephen King about his misuse of the word because we tend to use “Luddite” to describe people who are against technology, which is a myth, as you write, created by their critics. The Luddites actually understood technology. They weren’t worried that machines would become too powerful, but that the machines would be used against them, to rob them of their agency, and to degrade them. Why is it important that we understand this so many years later?

Merchant: It really serves the interests of those who benefit from not having a lot of questions asked about how they’re developing, deploying, or making a lot of money off technology, to call anyone who might question or resist certain parts of it backwards-looking, Luddites. One of the most difficult parts of this project was to try to dislodge that derogatory stigma that surrounds the Luddites. The people who favor having venture capitalists give money to entrepreneurs to do what they want and allowing the market to decide who wins and who loses (even though we know that not to be the case) can say, “Technological progress has been amazing; we have the automobiles, planes, computers, the internet, AI; we have all these amazing things. And if the Luddites had their way, then progress would have stopped.”

It’s inconvenient to argue with that because that’s such an elegant and simple—and wrong—way of looking at the world. Technology can be developed democratically. It could be developed in a way that puts more checks on the potential social impacts. We’ve seen other examples of technological development throughout history where it’s done by people working cooperatively, or how certain things are abandoned, checked, or even refused outright by decree. When it was realized that there was a threat posed to the ozone layer, we acted decisively to ban a certain chemical that was part of a technology, and that was pretty effective.

The Luddites did lose their battle; they were crushed by the state. Then, the victors got to write the history books. But I think it’s so important right now that we say the Luddites weren’t wrong. They didn’t hate technology. If anything, they can teach us that there are so many more ways that we might go about developing technology, ensuring that the gains are more evenly distributed and that more people benefit from it. That’s the lesson we must keep in mind today, as we look at what’s going on with generative AI, these gig work companies, or Amazon. There are other ways than just rushing headlong, giving people bundles of cash, developing what they want and then seeing what happens—and then trying to push back after the fact.

Rainbow of Ned Ludds
Illustration by Erik English

Goudarzi: Who was the Ned Ludd that the Luddite movement was name after? Can you talk about how the different groups used the name to sign notices, make calls to action—and control the narrative?

Merchant: Ned Ludd was basically an avatar, like an early meme. He was apocryphal—a legend about a boy who smashed his boss’s machine after his boss had him whipped for being unproductive. The Luddites adopted this as their organizing figure. They would send a letter to a factory owner who they knew was using automated machineries, and it’d say: “Take down your machines; they’ve stolen this many jobs; and if you don’t, you’re going to get a visit from Ned Ludd’s army.” This sort of distributed force allowed the Luddites to seem more populous, threatening, and powerful. And it allowed groups with different grievances, usually all within the cloth manufacturing industry, to follow suit and say, “we can be Ned Ludd, too.” Without having a central organizing committee of Luddites, they could have all these actions taking place, and that’s exactly what happened. It allowed for this distributed structure, like Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter, where the important thing was the overarching animating mission—which was recognizing that technology is being used to exploit people, to drive down wages, cause immiseration, and pave the way for unpleasant factories where workers would have to stand at the command of somebody else.

Goudarzi: In the book you mention the presence of the smallpox virus during the 18th century, which like today’s COVID-19 virus, increased inequalities and widened the class divide. Those who were well-off had better survival rates. Can you talk about the parallels between these two viruses and times?

Merchant: By the time the Luddites were rising up, vaccines had only been around for 10 or 15 years. So, the structure and systems of getting vaccines in people’s arms wasn’t as well developed, but it is also very immediately clear who got them and who didn’t.

I just wanted to draw the linkage between the two times in yet another way, in that we are at another moment where we have regressed to a formation that was not unlike the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, where you’ve also had very clear winners and losers. It’s just another way that inequality manifests. Today it’s complicated: There’s a lot of reasons why people might not get vaccinated against COVID-19 for instance—but that also, in many cases, falls along class lines and another way that we could do a lot better about developing our systems to deploy vaccines and certainly healthcare more equitably than we do.

Goudarzi: The book says Richard Arkwright wanted workers to work to the rhythms of the machine, which is a model that seems to have been emulated since. Now, for example, Amazon workers face a hyper Taylorism if you will. How did that start and how is it continuing in our world today?

Merchant: That’s another one of those cases where you see this evolution of a particular trend, a business owner trying to use a technology to extract the maximum productivity out of their workers. You can see it if you were to plot that on a graph over the last 200 years: from Arkwright getting the first crude water frames, to Taylor using the stopwatch along the assembly line and trying to get workers to maximize the efficiency of their movements, to today where you have surveillance in an Amazon warehouse, where you can get penalized if you take too long going to the bathroom because the systems are tracking your movements and forcing you to act like robots.

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Arkwright was convinced in the model of getting people organized in a factory system, working as machines, and training people for the first time to exist in a factory. He became fabulously wealthy, and automation dominated the Industrial Revolution for the next 100 years.

Early business futurist Andrew Ure and Charles Babbage, the inventor of the first computer, both thought this was all great and that eventually the whole thing would be automated. So, the factory and this ratcheting up of efficiency, of mechanization, of robotization took hold. That’s where we are today, where we’re just squeezing it for every drop, using every surveillance and productivity technology to do factory work more efficiently. People are still trying to crystallize the ethos put forward by Arkwright and then described by Ure.

Goudarzi: In the book, you mention writers and poets, such as Lord Byron and Mary Shelley, who were either influential or inspired by the Luddite struggle. Can you talk about their roles in that society and the roles of writers and artists in today’s struggles for workers’ rights?

Merchant: The biggest cultural figure that the Luddites had in their corner was Lord Byron, who took up his duties as a lord when the Luddites were rising up and gave his first big thundering speech before Parliament in their defense.

The poets and the writers, especially the younger ones, were very sympathetic to the Luddites. They saw a freedom struggle. They saw oppressed people getting pushed around and beaten down and they saw with a moral clarity what was going on, that a handful of business owners were moving work into their own factories at the expense of workers who had lived and worked a certain way for hundreds of years. They saw the Luddites say the industrialists are “taking their bread.” So, it really did get stamped into the cultural firmament.

Lord Byron wrote about the Luddites for the rest of his life—on and off—in poems and his letters. Percy B. Shelley was rebelling against his dad who was a wealthy aristocrat, and he was even more radical than Byron. He even sent money to the families of the Luddites after they were hung and went on to marry Mary Godwin. It all culminated in the biggest cultural product that is birthed out of the Luddite moment: Frankenstein. This story was read, quite literally, when you had all these people messing around with technology, shepherding people into the factories, working them to the bone, and then giving them nothing else.

Some 200 years later Frankenstein is used as a template, like our Skynet, where they create something with AI. And now the writers and artists and filmmakers who would be writing those updates on this theme are coming face-to-face firsthand with their own concerns about AI. Today, artists and writers are again at the forefront of new ways of telling the world all about the nature of the challenges, and threats of AI. They are confronting it on very personal and material terms because studios, streaming companies, and the film industry want to use AI in a lot of cases to degrade their standard of living and work—just like the entrepreneurs and industrialists of 200 years ago wanted to degrade the Luddites’ work.

Before, the Luddites found support from the writers and poets; and today, the Luddites are the writers and the poets in a lot of cases.

Goudarzi: You wrote that “If the Luddites have taught us anything, it’s that robots aren’t taking our jobs. Our bosses are. Robots are not sentient—they do not have the capacity to be coming for or stealing or killing or threatening to take away our jobs. Management does. Consulting firms and corporate leadership do. Gig company and tech executives do.” So why is the narrative of the robots are coming for our jobs continually repeated in the media and popular culture?

Merchant: I think it’s scarier. The media likes to use headlines that kind of hand over the agency to the “robots.” Mary Shelley came up with Frankenstein to be a vehicle for all the concerns of the underclass being trampled by reckless innovators and industrialists, and it became this story of runaway dangerous technology over the years. It became that Frankenstein’s monster is just something that was created and that we can’t control anymore. A lot of the class politics involved were whittled away. Because that Frankenstein story looms so large, a lot of these headlines try to tap into that. “Are the robots coming for our jobs?” feels vaguely science fictional, and there doesn’t have to be a bad guy in that, and it caters to headline writers’ and journalists’ and editors’ desire for sort of both-sidesisms. It’s both those things: It fits the sci-fi trope and eliminates the need for a bad guy in any given story.

Every time that a robot takes a job, there’s a decision being made by a human to have the robot take that job. It’s bosses and managers who are choosing where to deploy the technology and where to eliminate jobs. So, like the propagation of the Luddite myth itself, it removes the onus from management, executives, and companies, and puts it onto some ambiguous notion of the robot or AI that’s going to be doing the job-taking. It does management and elites a big favor in relieving them of any possible blame or accountability from making that decision.

Goudarzi: What is the modern-day version of breaking the machines? What are effective ways to fight? And how can we deploy technology responsibly?

Merchant: I think where the fights stand to have the biggest chances of victory on the granular level are where workers are organized. There’s a reason that the writers and the actors are able to stage such a powerful resistance, and that’s because they are an incredibly organized industry and have real power. They have leverage for a lot of reasons, but I think the biggest one is simply union density. The best way to protect your material interests is to build worker power and workers’ rights however you can in your communities, groups, and industry. Even if you’re atomized like so many workers are these days, it’s about finding ways to collectively push back.

There are also interesting guerrilla tactics being used. One is spamming websites with decoy content. There’s a funny one where contributors on a game forum knew that it was being ingested for AI. So, they made up a fake video game and a fake conversation around it. They were having some fun with it, but also doing a bit of culture jamming.

Another one is the self-driving car protesters in San Francisco. Some safe street advocates are putting traffic cones on the hood of cars. That confuses the sensors and stops the car dead in its tracks. It’s not vandalism, but it does send a message that they are rejecting this technology, and they’re organizing their efforts. It’s one of the more elegant, safe, and harmless forms of protest that is nonetheless legitimate. There are all these valid tactics of just saying “No”—right on down to outcry in public forums and anger on social media. We can refuse a technology. We don’t have to accept anything that the tech giants throw at us.

Right now, with the venture capital investment-led model of technological development, we’re constantly responding to everything and fighting back against the things we don’t like, instead of establishing a way where there are more inputs along the way. In an ideal world, the people doing the work would be able to negotiate those terms with their employer, management, and the others standing to profit from the technology.

Of course, tech companies and giants hate this stuff because it slows them down. But over the last 10 years we’ve seen many examples of what happens when there is nothing to slow them down. We get immiserated gig workers and toxicity on social platforms.

If we didn’t move fast and break things, if we moved more slowly and democratically, maybe we could avoid a lot of these pitfalls. Maybe we wouldn’t have people worth $250 billion running around, and maybe that’s okay, too.

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J.J. Fox
J.J. Fox
8 months ago

Kudo’s for writing this objective and accurate synopsis of Luddism throughout history. I will be forwarding a link for this page to my fellow Nuevo-Luddites and Bladerunners. Early on in the Chat GPT rollout I had a “conversation” with the BardBot where it became obvious to me that the device had no data on Luddism. I rarely interact with AI and when I do my cynicism is palpable. My behavior stems from a recent interaction I had while trolling the billing bot at my electric company. A supervisor got on the line demanding I show their “digital associate” some respect.… Read more »

tom coonen
tom coonen
8 months ago

Thank you for the non-clownish introduction to Luddite inspirations and ways and taking each into the present day. Contemporary “Luddites” would have a lot more to say, especially about the huge, nation-sized customer bases unchecked tech development gave rise to and that are presently and belligerently drawing battle lines. Sometimes machined people are just cannon fodder.


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