To cast someone as a Luddite today is to do so with bemusement, to suggest they’re small-minded, a bit quaint, or fearful of technology. A Luddite cold-shoulders not only new tech, but of all the progress and potential it hastens forward.
That’s where journalist Brian Merchant would object. His new book, Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech, surfaces the forgotten story of the original Luddites—and why it should be recalled today. These industrial-era clothworkers were perhaps the first people to see machines come for their jobs. But rather than let the machines change their livelihoods, the workers staged a clandestine rebellion.
As we watch the ascent of artificial intelligence and automation, where Silicon Valley monopolies increasingly dictate the confines in which we live and work, it’s worth reexamining the story of the Luddites: the original anticipators of how technology can inflict harm, and whose response may point the way through a new machine age.
Textile work, as Merchant tells it, was the first corner of the modern labor market to be automated. In nineteenth-century rural England, weaving was a skilled, secure craft. Clothmakers worked in their homes, able to dictate their hours (generally about thirty a week) and their breaks (often); they earned middle-class wages and worked alongside their families. But by 1810, a new device would change everything—the power loom.
The steaming, spinning mechanism could perform the skilled work of weaving much more efficiently than human hands—and to the clothworkers’ alarm, wealthy factory owners began installing the machines in their communities. No longer could clothworkers weave in their homes among loved ones: if they wanted to stay employed, they’d get a job in a factory building, where they would operate dangerous devices, inhale flying fibers, and submit to a boss who determined when and where and how they worked. Wages went down. Children were hired. Class chasms widened.
A factory-running elite, the clothworkers recognized, would use the machines to undercut their craft—and enrich themselves in the process. But rather than submit, the workers took up arms. [Continue reading…]