Learning From the Luddites

REVIEW: ‘Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech’ by Brian Merchant

December 17, 2023

Everyone knows about the Luddites. They hated technology; they hated progress; they hated happiness. And what’s more, they were fools, thinking that technology would ruin everything, when it obviously improves all of our lots.

In the tech bro equivalent of "They hate us for our freedom," Microsoft’s attorney perfected the caricature during the company’s 1998 antitrust hearings: "The 19th-century reactionaries … fearful of competition, went around smashing machines with sledgehammers to arrest the march of progress driven by science and technology." Few of us know more than Bill Gates’s lawyer about the movement, but that hasn’t stopped people from brandishing the term against anyone who dares to think about technology before using it—or, scandalously, not using it.

Brian Merchant’s Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech should do something to correct our collective ignorance. The book offers a rapid-fire history of the movement’s origins, motivations, and eventual defeat, with a heavy emphasis on the similarities between the Luddites’ times and our own. This is no disinterested survey, for those readers looking to bone up on their British labor movements. Merchant’s mission is rather to draw explicit connections between the Luddites and us, so that we can apply their insights, strategies, and inspiration to our own rage against the machine.

Still, the history must be told before we can draw any lessons from it. During the Industrial Revolution, British textile workers found themselves threatened by the new "wide frame," a device that could boost garment production and, they feared, reduce wages. As shop owners began to do just that, workers in Nottingham saw that the government would side with capital rather than labor in any disputes and so elected to engage in a bit of their own creative destruction, sneaking into a textile factory in 1811 to break the hated machines. They took as their inspiration the Robin Hood-like folk hero Ned Ludd, supposedly an apprentice who smashed his own knitting frame in retaliation against an overbearing master.

From there, the movement against automation took off, as the newly dubbed Luddites, by sabotaging factories, facing off against their employers, and agitating for political reform, won the support of both fellow laborers and an impressive roster of artists. Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley were champions of the cause, and Percy’s wife Mary, in her Frankenstein, would give voice to the new anxieties over man’s relationship to his inventions. Perhaps the best summary of the strange fears of the age, though, was given by one textile worker, anticipating the dread that this reviewer, at least, experiences when faced with an imminent software update: "There’s a conspiracy on foot to improve and improve till the working man that has nothing but his hands and his craft to feed him and his children will be improved off the face of creation."

Alas, Blood in the Machine is no Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. The story is told rather breathlessly, with many one-sentence paragraphs and rarely a pause for commentary or summary. By focusing on the perspectives of discrete individuals, often not particularly important themselves, Merchant tends to lose the forest for the trees, only to then zoom out to the scale of the biome for a sweeping claim about the workings of capitalism. Still, one argument comes through clearly: In Merchant’s telling, the Luddites weren’t really anti-technology at all, or at least not anti-technology tout court. On the contrary, they were astute observers of how one innovation could promote their well-being, while another could hinder it: "Luddism can and certainly did coexist with technology, and even a love of technology. The handloom, for example, made the Luddites’ way of life possible, long before they became Luddites."

Rather, Merchant insists, the Luddites were anti-boss—the Man who found in new technologies a means of enriching himself at his employees’ expense. Smashing machines was just the best way of striking at the machines’ owners and their attempts at automation, whether by replacing workers with machines or by turning workers into machines. Merchant thus sees "King Ludd" as a kind of proto-Dilbert, embracing technology but hating his servitude under the Pointy-haired Boss. Depicting Luddism as driven by anti-technological ire, Merchant suggests, might be not just a matter of innocent ignorance, but part of a strategy to bully skeptics into accepting the machinations of the "entrepreneurial elite"—an elite that, if you can believe it, stands to earn a pretty penny from our acquiescence.

It’s therefore ultimately toward the modern equivalent of the factory owners—Amazon warehouse managers, gig app CEOs, and the like—that, Merchant concludes, we should be directing our hammers. "As long as we’re in thrall to the same basic economic preconditions, attitudes toward technology and entrepreneurship, and business-first policies that were inaugurated in the age of the Luddites, it will all happen again. … If the Luddites have taught us anything, it’s that robots aren’t taking our jobs. Our bosses are." Merchant is right to insist that reports of robo-unemployment are highly exaggerated, but his call for a new "Luddite-style uprising" does not sound promising, either. Is seizing the means of production really a better plan than destroying them?

What’s more, even if one does hope for a new "rebellion against Big Tech," it’s not obvious that the Luddites offer a good model to follow. After all, they lost handily: The British government eventually sent thousands of troops to quell the unrest, and after a series of swift and prominent trials in 1813, which sent the guilty Luddites to the gallows or to the Australian penal colonies, the movement quickly flickered out like a dying lightbulb. In light of their failures, what lessons do the Luddites really have to teach us today?

Perhaps it is in their very defeat that we can gleam an insight. Counterintuitively, the Luddites’ loss gives the lie to the narrative that there’s no sense trying to stop technology’s ineluctable progression—a "march," as Microsoft’s attorney put it. In this contradictory myth, technology’s unstoppable, intrinsic nature has already settled how we will use it; but somehow we also have a duty to welcome every new technology immediately and maximally incorporate it into our lives. Consider venture capitalist Marc Andreessen’s recent "Techno-Optimist Manifesto," which praises the "techno-capital machine" that "has been running for hundreds of years, despite continuous howling from Communists and Luddites." (Never mind that communists have been ardent champions of technology: Lenin, a great admirer of American industry, insisted that the "Soviet Republic must at all costs adopt all that is valuable in the achievements of science and technology.")

This is a masterclass in owning the Ludds, but the truth is more complicated. It wasn’t anything about the stocking frame and the spinning jenny themselves, after all, that settled the struggle between the Luddites and the factory-owners, but rather the state’s willingness to intervene and decide which side would win, and therefore which direction the technology would take. Who knows who might have won in a fair fight? One might think, like Merchant, that Parliament aided the wrong side, or be glad that the upstarts were put in their place; either way, there was no neutral domain in which the technology was free to simply work out its own magic.

It’s no different today. For better or worse, technological innovation is a matter, not just of following the mysterious guidance of the invisible hand, and certainly not of coaxing into being technology’s inner destiny, but of consciously deliberating over how, and whether, a given tool should be used, in what circumstances, and toward what ends. This is more difficult than both the kneejerk rejection of the techno-skeptic, and the blind embrace of the techno-optimist—more difficult, but for that reason all the more vital.

Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech
by Brian Merchant
Little, Brown, 496 pp., $30

Robert Bellafiore is research manager at the Foundation for American Innovation.