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What Today’s Workers Can Learn From Machine-Breaking Luddites

“The Luddites get a bad rap,” says author Brian Merchant.

Part of the Series

The Luddites, who smashed machines in the 19th century, in an organized effort to resist automation, are often portrayed as uneducated opponents of technology. But according to Blood in the Machine author Brian Merchant, “The Luddites were incredibly educated as to the harms of technology. They were very skilled technologists. So they understood exactly how new developments in machinery would affect the workplace, their industry, and their identities.” In this episode of “Movement Memos,” host Kelly Hayes talks with Merchant about the history and legacy of the Luddite movement, and what workers who are being oppressed by the tech titans of our time can learn from the era of machine-breakers.

Music by Son Monarcas & David Celeste

TRANSCRIPT

Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.

Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about organizing, solidarity and the work of making change. I’m your host, writer and organizer Kelly Hayes. As Big Tech continues to devour industries and devalue human labor, we are going to take a look back at some of the earliest worker struggles against automation, and talk about what we can learn from the machine breakers of the 19th century known as the Luddites. We will be hearing from Brian Merchant, author of Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech. His latest book shows us that we have a lot to learn from the Luddites, who banded together to commit acts of sabotage in defense of their lives and livelihoods.

If you appreciate this episode, and you would like to support “Movement Memos,” you can subscribe to Truthout’s newsletter or make a donation at truthout.org. You can also support the show by subscribing to the podcast on Apple or Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts, or by leaving a positive review on those platforms. Sharing episodes on social media is also a huge help. As a union shop with the best family and sick leave policies in the industry, we could not do this work without the support of readers and listeners like you, so thanks for believing in us and for all that you do. And with that, I hope you enjoy the show.

[musical interlude]

KH: Brian Merchant, welcome to the show.

Brian Merchant: Thanks so much for having me, Kelly.

KH: Can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your work?

BM: Yes. I am a tech journalist and author of some books generally in the orbit of technology, most recently of Blood in the Machine, which is a book about the Luddite uprising of the early 1800s, when workers struck back against entrepreneurs and factory owners who were using machinery to degrade their jobs and exploit their labor. So the book’s about that and what might be relevant today from that happening. And until recently, I was the tech columnist of the LA Times, and now I have a newsletter also called Blood in the Machine, where I do some of this work online.

KH: Well, I love your newsletter.

BM: Oh, thank you. I’ve been trying to keep it… a newsletter, it’s all sort of self-motivating. So you do your best to keep it going without somebody saying, “Okay, you got to get it, you have a deadline.” I’m used to that for most of my career, the nagging editor. I am grateful for that nagging. But yeah, it’s a whole different beast being out in the wilderness, but in some ways better, right? Freedom.

KH: That’s one word for it. And I feel you, I also really miss having an editor around when I work on my newsletter. That dialogue and collaboration can be so important. With a newsletter, your only dialogue is with your readers, so I am always grateful when people want to engage with the work or talk about it, because we’re out here on our own and we need the feedback.

BM: Yeah, and you had a great newsletter too.

KH: Thank you. I really appreciate that.

I am excited to talk about your book, Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech, which tells the story of another era in which business titans used machines to replace human workers or to place workers in more dangerous, precarious and low-paying jobs. You chronicle the Luddite movement and discuss what we can learn from their rebellion against the automation of their work. The history you explore in the book is just fascinating, and I was really grateful to have the opportunity to read it. So as a jumping off point for our listeners, can you tell us a bit about the history of the Luddite movement and why you wanted to write a book connecting their history to the struggles of workers today?

BM: Yeah. I’ll start with the second part of that question because I found my way into it sort unexpectedly, and I was just blown away by how relevant a lot of what happened 200 years ago was to what happened now, and at many other junctures in our history of labor and technology. I came up as a tech journalist in the late aughts and 2010s, and as a tech journalist, you hear this term bandied about now and again, the term “Luddite,” and what that means when it’s used usually by a tech company, a PR person, or somebody who’s an ally of the tech industry or is in Silicon Valley, and they mean it as a derogatory term. It’s like, “Oh, this Luddite doesn’t get Uber.” Or, “Oh, this Luddite is just against any progress, has this knee-jerk reaction to any technological development.”

And I was hearing it in the context of Uber specifically. There were people early on raising alarm bells saying, “Well, if this takes root, it could have a bunch of disastrous social and economic consequences.” And they were going, “Oh, you Luddites.” You’re hearing all these tech executives and PR people and allies and boosters of the industry constantly denigrating the Luddites and using it as an insult and calling anybody who is even remotely critical of technology, a Luddite, as a means of just waving away any of the very legitimate concerns that they might have, and especially as it pertained to the rise of the gig app algorithm and this new way of breaking down standards of work and “disrupting” that profession. And what disrupting means, of course, is to hollow out any protections or norms or standards that may have served as a bulwark for workers for a long time, and making that kind of work, in this case, taxi driving and anything else that could be organized through a gig app that we’ve seen, food delivery, handyman tasks, carpentry, whatever. It’d all been hollowed out by this structure of work.

Anyways, anybody who’s protesting any of that stuff, they can just be called a Luddite and have all of those legitimate concerns about worker dignity or health kind of waved away. Same goes for any number of other conditions that people might have opposed these new technologies creating. And it just has served for a long time as this very convenient epithet, to just minimize and box people out of the debate and allow the owner and entrepreneurial elite class the power to dictate where technology is going to go, who it’s going to serve. And when I started looking into the real history for VICE, where I was working at the time, it became quite clear that it was anything but. This was almost the opposite of what Luddites actually were.

The Luddites were incredibly educated as to the harms of technology. They were technologists themselves. They used this stuff in their homes and in their workshops every day. They were very skilled technologists. So they understood exactly how new ways of organizing machinery, new developments in machinery would affect the workplace, their industry, and their identities. So the Luddites fought back in this intensely organized and deliberate and tactical manner. Before they became Luddites, clothworkers of England, who were being squeezed by conditions of the emerging industrial revolution, and by these factory owners who were hoping to profit off of it in particular, they first, for a decade before they became Luddites, they went to Parliament. They did things “the right way.” They said, “Hey, give us minimum wages. Hey, give us some protections. Hey, protect us from fraud.”

A lot of these machines are being used just to create subpar, even fraudulent goods that don’t meet the standards of the industry, and sometimes the legal standards of the industry. They’re using it to get rid of apprentices, which is illegal by the code of law that we’ve been operating according to for many decades. And they tried to get the British Parliament to uphold these laws, and they were essentially laughed out of town, even though this was the biggest industry in Britain, apart from agriculture, the cloth industry, where all these proto-Luddites were working. It didn’t matter to the elites who had become quite enamored of new laissez-faire ideologies and letting the market work and letting the factory owners profit from these new machines. So after 10 years of really protesting, doing things “the right way,” getting laughed out of town and seeing their working conditions just steamrolled, the wages fell by 50% in just like a 10- to 15-year period for a lot of these weavers.

A lot of them couldn’t feed their families anymore. They tried protests, they tried negotiation. They tried approaching Parliament and going the legislative route, but there’s no democracy. There were no unions at the time. It was illegal to organize officially. So they didn’t have a lot of tools. And then finally, they had to rise up and become Luddites for again, very justified reasons. And one telling thing is that the Luddites were extremely popular when they first arose. They are cheered in the streets. They’re folk heroes. They’re like the new Robin Hood.

They organized under the banner of Ned Ludd, who’s this apocryphal Robin Hood-like figure who was an apprentice, who was exploited. So he smashed his master’s machine and fled into Sherwood Forest just like Robin Hood before him, and organized this mighty rebellion. So yeah, that’s the real Luddite movement, a group of workers who had real and resonant grievances with the machine-owning class, and struck back powerfully at the time, much to the chagrin of the elites and the capitalist class of the day.

KH: Reading about the central role that sabotage played in this movement was so interesting to me. I found myself thinking a lot about the tensions that exist today around violence and nonviolence, and debates about whether property destruction is violent or inherently immoral. Can you say a bit about the role of property destruction in the Luddite movement and why their destructive actions were viewed in a positive light by so many people?

BM: It was extremely central to the Luddite movement, and I should maybe note that it wasn’t brand new. The Luddites are probably the group that’s best remembered for instigating sabotage against machinery used for automation, but they weren’t the first. It was a fairly notable means of protest, and it happened before in pockets over the decades past before the Luddites arose, because in working environments where unionizing was outlawed specifically, most recently by the Combination Acts of the late 1790s, you were not given a lot of actual opportunities to negotiate or build worker power in a legal venue. So the historian Eric Hobsbawm calls it “collective bargaining by riot.” And that means it’s just a way of workers to organize sublegally and it demonstrates a show of power that’s not necessarily intended to be violent towards any individual. It is property damage, but it’s also more than vandalism.

It’s not just a reactionary backlash. It is registering a protest against machinery that in their view is being used to exploit them. This is the tool, this is the capital equipment that is being used to exploit them. So by striking against that, it both serves a tactical purpose and sends this symbolic message that, “We won’t be put under the thumb of this machinery.” And so, the Luddites found great purchase with this message among the emergent working classes in England. One thing that historians like E.P. Thompson point to, as this Luddite movement and this means of protest, casting such a wide net and registering so resonantly with so many people, that it actually helps catalyze the very concept of class consciousness itself in England. His book, The Making of the English Working Class, which is this great history of how the working class was born and came to see itself as a working class in England.

It devotes probably the bulk of the pages to the Luddite uprising because it was such a seminal moment, and epoch in that history because so many other workers, not just clothworkers, but steelworkers, artisans, shoemakers, all different kinds of workers are seeing this mode of protest and saying their grievances, an elite or a monied class using their power. And whether it’s automating machinery or not, for the sole purpose of exploitation, to set their interests against ours, to try to take work from ours by tearing up the social contract by using this new machinery, whether it’s actual technical machinery or ideological machinery. So workers whose industries would stand to benefit from the industrial revolution, like colliers, coal workers, steelworkers, they came out and joined the Luddites in the streets because they were against this mode of exploitation. And it was demonstrated by this willingness to destroy the property of the elites, of the factory owners, which really clarified the stakes and again, serve this immediate tactical advantage, because it’s even more damaging than a strike.

If you walk off the job, then you’re withholding labor, then the factory owner can’t produce any goods, but if you’re actually destroying the capital equipment, then he has to replace that. It’s even more of an investment. Then work really does stop. So it’s even more of a powerful strike in a lot of ways. And at the time, it really wasn’t seen as immoral by the working people, at all. It wasn’t really controversial. That is, until the Luddites faced some setbacks, the state really mobilizes against them and deploys tens of thousands of troops to fight the Luddites. The movement becomes more violent in many ways. There are actual battles with guns and skirmishes, and the Luddites try to take on this major factory that had been mobilized like a fortress and a bunch of Luddites get killed, and the leaders of that Luddite movement despair and then cross a line and they assassinate a factory owner in cold blood.

And that becomes too much to bear for most working people. And that’s when you start to see the Luddite movement lose its esteem. So there are clear limits, and I think that limit is violence done to property, versus violence done to people. And that’s really a red line, even then. And it is interesting, and I’m glad you raised this question, because you can see maybe even more clearly back then in the 1800s, the work that the state had to do to draw these lines and to say, “If you break a machine, that’s a crime punishable by death,” which is what they do. That’s how they respond legislatively to the Luddite uprising. And famously, this is where Lord Byron, who’s from the same district around Nottingham, where the Luddite activity really begins in earnest. So he sympathizes with the Luddites and he gives his first speech in Parliament as the thundering defense of the Luddites against this law that would make breaking machinery a capital crime.

He doesn’t find many allies, and it becomes a law. But you really see one of these early instances where the state has to say, “Breaking machinery is so bad that if you do it, we can hang you.” And it was of course, widely perceived as this monstrous reaction, but it doesn’t stop the state, and they do it. They hang dozens of Luddites for breaking machinery owned by these factory owners. And it’s a harrowing and influential development in the history of how the state, especially in a capitalist society is going to treat property, and that it’s going to [prefer] the interests and the capital interests of those factory owners, of the corporation, of the business over the very lives of workers. It really is that stark and that clear.

KH: It’s so important to emphasize those stakes. As we have seen with the rise of critical infrastructure laws, and the assassinations of activists like Tortuguita, the state is willing to escalate by killing people, or through heavy-handed criminalization, when property and profits are threatened. And sadly, capitalism has come a long way, in terms of legitimizing violence against protesters who destroy property or disrupt profits.

The extremity of the repression that you describe in the book is quite harrowing. As you mentioned, there were dozens of executions, some Luddites were gunned down, and many were sent to Australia as convict laborers. But you emphasize that we shouldn’t think about the Luddites as simply having been crushed or defeated because their legacy is much more complex than that. Can you talk about some of what the Luddites gave us, and how we can benefit from understanding their struggle today?

BM: The Luddites get a bad rap, for a lot of reasons. And one of the biggest reasons is that they’re getting a bad rap as we talked about a little bit earlier, is that it serves the interests of elites and the ruling class and the people who are hoping to profit from building new technology. So if anybody who protests any of that can be wiped away as a Luddite, then that’s extremely convenient for them. So they have a vested interest in trying to perpetuate this mischaracterization, and they do so fairly consistently, most obviously in the continued existence of this epithet, just the fact that 200 years later we have this warped understanding of what a Luddite is, is a testament to their success and the elite’s interest in wielding this term.

But it covers up only so successfully because once in a while somebody will come along, I’m not the first to try to re-characterize the Luddites and rehabilitate their image more truthfully. And every time somebody does, we can recognize that they did actually give us a whole lot, not only in inaugurating this organized method of sabotage that will prove more successful in future worker movements. The Luddites were followed by a movement called Captain Swing, that took on automated threshing machines in agriculture, and they won a lot of those battles. And ever since, there have been at least those interested in using the threat of sabotage as a potential leverage against employers who are being especially obstinate. So it does inaugurate some tactics, but more than that, it crystallizes this movement, this pro-worker movement, again, that I’ve mentioned earlier, and it gets folks into the same rooms and on the same page in various reform struggles.

So you can link what happened in the Luddite movement, and a lot of the seeds planted there to organizing and to often some of the very same people, Gravener Henson, who was one of the probably central Nottingham Luddites. He’s involved in a lot of the work of lobbying Parliament to try to get worker conditions improved on a policy level. And in fact, some people call him the first workers’ lobbyist or the first union lobbyist, even though unions were illegal because he was being paid a small amount to go down to London and fight on behalf of workers.

He was also probably out smashing machines when he wasn’t doing that, because he was involved in the Nottingham cloth trade and was a tactician as well. So he was a Luddite and an example of somebody that had feet on both sides of the strategy aisle there, one on this movement to actually bring power to bear against the factory owners who were crushing workers by driving wages down, and then the other, by going to London and trying to get signatures for petitions and appealing directly to the lords and Parliamentarians.

And he eventually helps succeed in a reform movement that winds up overturning those Combination Acts and allowing unionization to be legalized in small steps at first, but real strides. And then this breaks open into a wider era of worker struggle and reform, where actual concrete policies are made that actually do benefit workers. It’s a long road, but I think a lot of the early steps are set out in the Luddite movement. And then finally, and maybe most influentially, it’s a big cultural moment. The Luddites are widely talked about, and the level of resistance that they strike against the industrial factory-owning class that is widely despised at the time, is inspiring and interesting to many. And it lays out this way of talking about advancing technology.

It opens it up for criticality. It lets people know that there is this resistance out there, that there are people who are not willing to just accept a technological fate and that they’re going to strike back, and here’s why. There’s all of these very real grievances that they can help articulate. And that translates into a lot of the romantic poets taking their side, memorializing that struggle, broadcasting that struggle in many ways. A lot of the language used by Lord Byron, for instance, is then picked up later in the abolition movement in the U.S., and it’s picked up by Mary Shelley, who writes Frankenstein, a lot of scholars argue in large part inspired by the Luddites.

So this very enduring framework we have for criticizing technology, for thinking about the future in ways that are critical of how technology develops, especially casting people who would recklessly try to profit at the expense of others, like Dr. Frankenstein, in unleashing technologies, as being the go-to knee-jerk skepticism and criticism. I think we have the Luddites, at least in some part to thank for that. So the Luddites actually did a great deal and they won more than anybody, most of all Silicon Valley elites, want to give them credit for.

KH: I was especially interested in your description of the Luddites as having pioneered meme-based organizing strategies. Can you say more about that?

BM: Yeah, I thought that was really interesting when I was first uncovering or researching a lot of this stuff. They couldn’t organize out in the open because very quickly, any public display of doing Luddism would be punishable by death. So it’s a tricky thing to research for that reason, especially there’s not a lot of letters or communiqués between the actual Luddites left because they couldn’t, they had to have extreme secrecy. And so, this mode of organizing, where they would invoke a leader like Ned Ludd, or General Ludd, or King Ludd, he took on all different kinds of names and shapes and sizes. There was a Lady Ludd, and then Eliza Ludd. It was pretty all-encompassing, and they would send a letter to a factory owner. This was their primary mode of putting a local entrepreneur on notice. They would send a letter to a factory that was using automating machinery, that had been putting the local workers out of a job, and they would be quite specific.

They would say, “Dear Dr. X, or Mr. X,” or whoever they were addressing it to. “We know that your operation contains 300 looms, or the obnoxious machinery.” They called it the obnoxious machinery. “And it has taken the bread of 800 of our brothers. And if you do not take them down, you will get a visit from General Ludd or Ned Ludd’s Army.” Or whoever. And if the factory owner complied, then they would do good by their word. They would leave the factory owner alone.

If he kept the machinery up, and a lot of times you could hear the machinery rumbling out from the street. So it was always clear who was using the machines and who wasn’t, even if they tried to be discreet, then the Luddites would show up and either put the overseer, hold them up at gunpoint and slip in with a giant hammer… they called it Enoch’s Hammer after the blacksmith who built them. And they would smash those machines, and only those machines that were being used to automate their jobs, not any of the other machinery that had long existed within the social contract that the community had tacitly agreed upon.

And then they would leave and they’d say, “If you bring them back, the machines, we’ll return and we’ll do the whole place.” So this was a very effective way of just communicating grievances but also being replicable. So you didn’t need to have a central organizing committee, anybody from any of the cloth districts that were being impacted by industrialization or where factory owners had moved because they felt like they could get a little capital and start automating work at the expense of the local workers, they could invoke Ned Ludd. And Ned Ludd, or General Ludd, or Ned Ludd’s Army, it contained multitudes. And elites never really quite had a great idea of who might have been General Ludd or whether he was real, or how many people were out there following him.

They were really, really afraid of the power of the Luddites for this reason, in large part. There were a lot of Luddites, but probably not as many as the factory bosses thought there were. And they became very paranoid. They suspected everybody of being Luddites, they were constantly trying to hire spies to infiltrate the Luddites, which is very difficult because these men, and sometimes women knew each other quite well because they’d grown up in the same cloth-making district in the same towns, working side-by-side. So it was very easy to spot a spy a lot of the times, and it was a really powerful organizing tool because anybody could do it.

You didn’t have to get the stamp of approval. Ned Ludd stood for the same thing, generally everywhere. You could invoke your own specific grievances. If you had a particular concern about, for instance, if your boss was starting to pay you in truck or pay you in goods that you then had to barter to actually make a wage, if that was what was going on in your town, then General Ludd could be against that too. But by and large, General Ludd was against the “machinery hurtful to commonality.” So this is found in some of the Luddite letters, and that’s been one of its most enduring kind of, I think, ideological planks, and I think it’s a good one. So any of the ways that machinery is being used by bosses to exploit workers to concentrate wealth at their expense, to steal their bread, as they put it at the time, General Ludd would fight those men, those factory owners. And if you wanted to be a General Ludd and organize some workers in your district, then you could do it too. You could invoke it, you could become it.

KH: I find that kind of engagement with an apocryphal character so fascinating. The Luddites created Ned Ludd so that everyday people could imagine themselves as part of a different story, where workers were fighting back. Every fight for social change is a narrative battle, and that’s true for the oppressor and the oppressed.

You mentioned Frankenstein earlier, and we talk a lot about sci-fi on this show, especially when we discuss Silicon Valley, because today’s tech titans really love to leverage the public’s relationship with science fiction to manipulate the popular imagination. These billionaires understand that science fiction frames and informs our impressions of technology, so they try to co-opt those themes. You have discussed this in your newsletter in a piece called, “For Tech CEOs: The Dystopia is the Point.” In that essay, you talk about the now routine practice of reminding tech titans that the movies and books they attempt to link their products to are dystopian cautionary tales. You also emphasize that these tech billionaires are invoking these stories because dystopias are narratively useful to them. I think this is such an important point. From Mark Zuckerberg’s obsession with Ready Player One, to Sam Altman’s fixation with Her, there is a reason that these men are leaning into visions of a broken world rather than promising us a utopia. Can you talk a bit about your thinking around that?

BM: Yeah, happily. It became a punchline a few years ago, especially around Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse idea, which you mentioned, which was pulled from a ’90s cyberpunk novel called, Snow Crash, and then from a book called Ready Player One that’s basically a reiteration with more pop culture references of the same idea. But the commonality in both those books and movies are that the world is a hellscape, that you escape by putting on virtual reality goggles. And you go into the Metaverse, which was actually called the Metaverse, to get out of the real world because it’s just a world that’s riven by income inequality. There’s just violence going on at all times. It was a horrible place to live, and same in Ready Player One. So people were like, “Oh, did you even read the book, guys? Did you even think about the ramifications of pitching your tech product as something that’s named explicitly after that?” And people made fun of them, and that was it.

But then it keeps happening. Elon Musk says his Cybertruck is designed to look like something out of Blade Runner, yet another dystopian hellscape. And then most recently, OpenAI pitched its voice-activated chatbot as something that was supposed to be right out of Her, the dystopian science fiction movie from 10 years ago, where Scarlett Johansson plays an operating system that keeps a very lonely man company. And it became clear, at least to me, that this wasn’t a misreading of these texts. It wasn’t like, “Whoops, we forgot about how bad the world is in these fictions, and we just chose to focus on the happy part.” But no, it is actually explicitly part of the message that they’re sending. Like with Elon Musk’s Cybertruck, this is a vehicle that’s designed to be anti-social, it’s designed to help you conquer the world, it’s designed to keep the world out.

Metaverse too, it’s designed to minimize human interaction, designed to let you have an escape valve from all the messy business of being a human. That’s part of it. It positions you as somebody who is a protagonist. Somebody who is against the world, that it validates this idea that we should view the world as a dystopia, and that with the help of these products, we can triumph over all the rabble and the wreckage of what stands in our way. And it’s just a really sour and dark and depressing vision, and it tracks with everything else. Elon Musk’s biggest goal is to move to Mars, to get humanity on Mars, so we don’t have to think about fixing this planet anymore.

They’re all obsessed with space travel or other worlds and they have no interest at all in building a world that’s improved in any way, or even making products that would improve our lives in a way that’s beneficial to all of us equally. We’ve just entered a new era where I think they just think this is one of the surest bets in the ways that they can appeal to tech users and customers, through cynicism, through dystopian cynicism.

KH: I agree, and I think cynicism is really the key there. They have to sell us cynicism. They can’t sell us hope, because realistically, hope would look like the unraveling of everything they represent. Hope would be the de-consolidation of their wealth, in order to feed and house people, and the destruction of their water and energy devouring data centers. Hope would mean the total reorientation of how things work, and the dismantling of capitalism. There is no place for billionaires in a hopeful future. So, their best narrative move is to take hope for the future off the table. Billionaires have to make themselves and capitalism seem inevitable. Cynicism is an easy sell in these times, so marketing that, and telling people that the goal isn’t to avoid or undo dystopias, but to be a cool guy on the dystopian landscape, with your dystopian car, and your dystopian goggles, and your AI assistant, or even ditch this dystopia and make a new one on Mars–

BM: Yeah, so you can win dystopia, you can win this.

KH: Right, you can win the dystopia. You can be a well-equipped protagonist in an apocalyptic hellscape–which all goes back to this sort of tech bro idea that life is a video game. It’s about getting people to function that way, and to disavow each other, our future and our potential to that degree. Really, our tendency to say, “Hey, you billionaire clown, don’t you realize that’s a dystopian story?” is not dissimilar from our tendency to call rightwingers out on their hypocrisy. People say, “Look at this argument they made. What a hypocrite.” Of course they’re hypocrites, but what’s at the heart of these hypocritical statements? Hierarchy is always the real issue, and when it comes to the right, hierarchy is a consistent theme. Conservative rules about who deserves to live, or die, or experience state violence, or have food or clean water–all of that is consistent. So what are we building against narratively? Are we trying to build a movement against hypocrisy, or a movement about properly interpreting books and novels, or are we going to examine what these people are really about, and tell stories that invite people to challenge and upend those ideas? Because when we focus on how they supposedly misconstrue things, or how they’re hypocrites, we’re not talking about what they are actually doing to us and how we ought to stop them.

And on the subject of stopping them, you emphasize in your book that we shouldn’t frame the current moment as one where AI or robots are threatening our jobs, but as one where people are destroying our jobs. Can you talk a bit about the importance of that framing?

BM: Yes. This is how it’s always framed in the media. “Will the robots kill our jobs? Will AI take everyone’s jobs? And will the future be job…” It’s a framework that completely absolves management, that absolves executives, absolves power from actually making the decision to eliminate jobs. This is always a choice. There’s no sentient AGI or AI or all-powerful robot that is pressing a button and saying, “Okay, X number of jobs are gone from marketing, because I decree it to be so.” As much as Silicon Valley would love this fiction of an AGI, of an all-powerful AI to be true today, to be real, it is not. It is really just a science fictionalized way for the McKinsey’s of the world, for the bosses of the world to slink into the background.

Because right now, especially given with the current state of the art, AI, if it’s going to “take a job,” it is going to be because some middle manager believes that he can get away with replacing enough tasks that somebody currently working in the organization can do with generative AI. And we’re seeing already that that’s rarely the case. Generative AI is unreliable. It spews out a bunch of misinformation. It can’t really actually replace people in any meaningful way. But if you’re looking at a balance sheet and a manager needs an excuse to do some layoffs, he can invoke AI and say, “Well, AI can do it now.” And this penchant that has been pushed by interested parties of AI having this ominous power, or the robots having this ominous unattached power makes it easier for them to do that.

It just makes the whole process more seamless. They can just point to, “Well, this is the new reality. AI is here and you have to get with it or ship out.” And it’s handing over forces that again, are just a series of human decisions to technological determinism. Once again, it’s another tool in the toolkit of Silicon Valley elites in this case, or the management firms who are publishing these reports that say, “AI will take 40% jobs.” They would love it if that happened, because they can get a big contract with Unilever and then say, “You can use AI to take this many jobs, save this number in labor costs.” And then Unilever can take it or leave it.

And nobody is the bad guy in this scenario, except for AI, the murky AI, the disembodied AI, and I think we really, really need to think about that, that AI is not coming for your job, your boss is. If you lose your job to AI, it’s because your boss or his superior has issued a directive to do that. There is somebody who is interested in profiting at your expense, and that is why this is happening, not because of some faceless technological phenomenon.

KH: Kind of similar to how AI is not going to kill us all, but rich people might.

BM: Exactly. You don’t need to worry about the AI arming the nukes, but there’s a lot of people that maybe we do want to be worried about doing that.

KH: And on that note…

BM: And we’ll leave it at that.

KH: So, where can people find your work?

BM: Yes, bloodinthemachine.com is the newsletter, and the book is out there of the same name. That’s wherever books are sold. I’m on Twitter, @bcmerchant because I can’t stop yelling about everything, I guess. Hopefully not too much longer on that cursed platform. But yeah, there I am.

KH: As someone who is likewise still on that cursed platform, you have my sympathy.

Friends, please sign up for my newsletter so I can reach you without using Twitter. I hate it there and want to escape.

But on a happier note, this has been a great conversation. Brian, I want to thank you so much for making time to talk. I always learn so much from you and your work.

BM: Oh, it was my absolute pleasure. Thanks so much.

[musical interlude]

I really appreciated this opportunity to reflect on the history of the Luddite movement, and to think about what lessons we might draw from that history. I am grateful for everyone who is organizing against Big Tech, and for activists across the course of history who have broken things that needed to be broken, in defense of life, liberty and dignity. This is a time to resist domination by the owners of “obnoxious machinery” and defend our collective humanity. If you’re unsure what that looks like, I think finding other people to think, learn and organize alongside is a good start.

I especially appreciated Brian’s point about how tech titans weaponize dystopias, and I want us to be cognizant of those narrative moves. Because we won’t beat them by pointing out that they are invoking stories that are the stuff of nightmares. In fact, their invocations have potential because those nightmares resonate with people. Young people today are inheriting a world on fire. They know it. Normalcy, as we experience it, is dependent on our willingness to accept massive amounts of harm as inevitable. From prisons to the people who make our clothing and electronics, we are conditioned to accept dystopian conditions as an acceptable part of the landscape. Billionaires are countering our calls for transformative change by telling people that cynicism is realistic. They are encouraging people to give up on each other and the world and to consider the horrors of Late Capitalism inevitable. To them, a dystopia is acceptable because it’s a game with winners and losers, and they are dangling the hope of being a winner in front of you. They are marketing collapse because it’s all they have to offer.

I think we have a lot to learn from the narrative work of the Luddites, who used characters like Ned and Eliza Ludd to help everyday people imagine themselves as being part of a different story – a story in which people were willing to take drastic action in the name of collective survival. The Luddites found power in solidarity. That power made them a threat to the tech titans of their time, and many were killed or otherwise punished for their efforts. If we want to oppose the tech titans of our time, I think it’s important that we reclaim this history, and that we think deeply about why many people once cheered the destruction of “obnoxious” machines.

I hope you’ll all check out Brian’s book, Blood in the Machine. It’s a beautifully written, essential history of a movement that deserves to be understood.

I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.

Show Notes

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