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Roman Mars [00:01:31] This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. Brian Merchant is a tech reporter. And he’d been covering the industry for years when he started to notice this term that kept coming up.
Brian Merchant [00:01:44] Especially when we would report something critical about technology, we would get charges of being Luddites.
Roman Mars [00:01:51] Like most people, Brian knew at least vaguely what this term “Luddite” meant.
Brian Merchant [00:01:56] If we know them at all, we usually know them by this derogatory light. We usually understand the Luddites to be technophobes or people who hate technology. It had always been this kind of term that had just sort of lodged itself into the general consciousness.
Roman Mars [00:02:11] But as time went on and as Brian watched tech grow into the disruptive behemoth it is today, he started to get more curious about the actual Luddites. Who were these people whose name gets thrown around so often today in our conversations about new technology? And what did they actually believe?
Brian Merchant [00:02:29] One day I just sort of decided to dig into the term. And very quickly I stumbled upon an academic paper about how they weren’t dolts or just confused malcontents. They were a powerful organization with some very, very good points about why they were upset about technology. And they had a very good case to make against how technology was exploiting them. The story is so much more complex–so much more nuanced. And if anything, we should be sympathetic to the Luddites, especially given all the lessons that we can learn about them and how they sort of illuminate a lot of the crises still ongoing today.
Roman Mars [00:03:09] Brian has a new book out about the Luddites with a very metal title. It’s called Blood in the Machine, and it explores how English textile workers in the 19th century rose up against the growing trend of automation and the machines that were threatening their livelihoods. The history feels honestly a little too relevant today, and so we wanted to have Brian on the show to tell us what we can learn from the original Luddites. So, let’s set the scene. In your book, you say that the textile industry was sort of the first to be automated. So, could you describe what was textile work like before automated machines?
Brian Merchant [00:03:48] So it varied a lot, but textile work was often sort of what today we would kind of understand to be good sort of middle-class work. A lot of times the cloth workers would work at home. They were some of the first work from home proponents in that sense. They would usually work about 30 hours a week. They could take breaks when they wanted. They could walk in their gardens. A lot of them had little farms to provide a little extra subsistence or a little extra value. The children would help spin the yarn. It was a family affair. They would sing. You know, it was hard work. It wasn’t always, you know, totally great. You know, they would haggle with the merchants who had come to buy the cloth, but they could work on their own terms. And they really built these communities. It was this way for 200 years, and it had really sort of, you know, brought together a bunch of traditions and norms and standards that until sort of the late 1700s, when you started to see some new trends begin to impinge on that, they had a very well-established sort of nice lifestyle.
Roman Mars [00:04:56] And those trends that you’re talking about–they involved the introduction of a bunch of new machines that automated the weaving work that humans have been doing for hundreds of years. And perhaps the most significant of those machines was the power loom. Could you tell us about it?
Brian Merchant [00:05:11] Yeah, it’s a device that automates the process of weaving itself–something that a lot of people thought was impossible for a long time because weaving was such skilled work. But the power loom–once connected to a power source like water or steam–it could automate the process of weaving and just producing the goods in the first place. And that is a big deal. There are hundreds of thousands of weavers–more than any and any of these other trades–the biggest sort of industrial workforce in England at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. So a huge, huge number of jobs tend to be automated. And when people start to get angry about this, there aren’t even that many power looms in operation. It’s the idea. It’s the fact that they’re there–that entrepreneurs are beginning to use them and promising to use them. It’s the long shadow that these things cast that really irks people.
Roman Mars [00:06:06] So you describe these technological innovations that led to increasing automation. But there was also the rise of just the factory as a space where production happens. So, can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Brian Merchant [00:06:19] So the factory was still kind of a novel concept at the time–that you could organize labor more efficiently if you gathered it all under one roof, under one overseer, and just start lining the place with machines. And this had not been done before the 1700s in a meaningful way. So, when it started happening, it immediately caused alarm bells to ring among cloth workers everywhere who saw pretty viscerally what their lives were going to look like in the future if this mode of work took over their industry.
Roman Mars [00:06:56] I mean, it sounds like the factory itself is almost as important as any one of these new machines, like, when it comes to changing the dynamics of work at the time.
Brian Merchant [00:07:07] 100%, yeah. In fact, the Luddites and the people who would become Luddites had a saying. And that was what they hated most of all was to, quote unquote, “stand at their command.” They hated this idea of becoming subservient to anyone–to an overseer–to a factory boss when they’d live their whole lives with autonomy, you know, working hard but with flexibility and with dignity. If they had to stand at the command of somebody else, all that was out the window. It’s the difference between working at home with your family, with your friends, taking breaks to walk in the garden and sitting in a six-story building with whirring machinery and cloth fiber choking your lungs and somebody telling you when you can and cannot stand up to take a break.
Roman Mars [00:07:56] One of things I was really surprised by in your book is the role that automation played in creating child labor. Could you talk about that and why one led to the other?
Brian Merchant [00:08:07] Yeah. So, you don’t need as much skill to run these new machines. And so, one thing you could do is you can hire children, women, hard up weavers who used to be more gainfully employed. And in these conditions that are sort of out of the public eye–they’re these great big buildings, and they were purposefully built outside of major towns and cities because they knew people would both protest the jobs that they were taking, and soon enough, they knew that they would protest the conditions inside. And it’s truly dangerous, brutal work. Limbs are lost frequently. Children are pulled into the machines. Disease would spread through the dormitories. And so many children died that they had to ship them out of town and distribute them to different unmarked gravesites because they were afraid they would attract too much attention if they started filling in these mass graves right next to it. Truly awful. Truly awful, disturbing stuff. And that is one thing that cloth workers–the middle class–everywhere is seeing. And they’re saying, “This is what the factory does. This is what automated machinery is leading us to. It’s doing this to the most vulnerable of us, but we’re all vulnerable here.”
Roman Mars [00:09:23] So we see this rising discontent about automation. So, from there, how did the Luddite movement begin? And, you know, when does it start to coalesce?
Brian Merchant [00:09:31] So at the end of the 1700s, in response to the French Revolution, a lot of the British working class start to build a class consciousness and start to sort of agitate for reform and better conditions. The Crown responds in quite an authoritarian manner. And one important thing that they do is they ban the act of combining or organizing or forming a union, as we would understand it today. So that option is off the table. Workers cannot agitate collectively for change. That is illegal. They can be brought in and arrested if they do that. So, as we enter the first decade of the 1800s and we start to see those big factories spring up, buying machinery, the workers don’t have that option of, you know, coming together and saying, “Hey, how are we going to deal with this?” They try to anyways. So, they form this nebulous trade organization, they go to parliament, and they say, “Hey, these entrepreneurs are wrecking our trade. They are ignoring laws that are on the books. Can we deal with this? Can we deal with this in a democratic way so that we all benefit a little bit from this new, immense economic boom that’s happening, so it doesn’t just get concentrated all at the top and we’re just all at their whims?” And they get denied. And finally, the British parliament at the time just says, “We’ve had enough of this.” They wipe all those regulations off the books. So now they don’t even have nominal regulations or laws to appeal to. They go to their employers. They say, “Hey, let’s work out some deals. Let’s find a way that we can sort of introduce this technology more gradually so it’s not so sudden.” They get rebuffed there, too.
Roman Mars [00:11:16] So it sounds like workers are trying to stay ahead of this trend towards automation–they’re trying to push back–but they’re just not having much success.
Brian Merchant [00:11:25] Yeah. And then finally, at the end of the decade, around 1809 or 1810, we have this sort of crisis point when the entrepreneur class recognizes that they have an advantage, and they can sweep in and they begin introducing this automated machinery. And that is the final spark that lights this big flame.
Roman Mars [00:11:48] So let’s talk about the name Luddite. It comes from this character named Ned Ludd. Who is he?
Brian Merchant [00:11:53] Ned Ludd was a mythic and probably apocryphal figure. It’s unclear where the name sort of came from first, although there’s been a lot of speculation. If you say “Ned Ludd. Robin Hood. Ned Ludd. Robin Hood.” It’s kind of in the same vein. And Ned Ludd originates in Nottingham, right next to Sherwood Forest, so there’s a spirit of rebellion. But the first time that Ned Ludd appears is in a newspaper article that sort of details this back story of an apprentice named Ned Ludd who was a boy forced to work on a machine. He didn’t want to do his work because he’s a boy. But the magistrate demands that he be whipped because he’s not being productive enough. So, the factory owner who’s overseeing him whips him. Ned Ludd revolts, smashes the machine with a hammer, and flees into the forest. This is the legend of Ned Ludd, and it’s either created or adopted by the cloth workers who in 1811 finally decide that they’ve had enough, and they organize a rebellion against the factory owners.
Roman Mars [00:12:59] So this marks the beginning of the Luddite movement. And their hallmark becomes that they destroy machines in the same way the mythical Ned Ludd did.
Brian Merchant [00:13:08] Exactly. Their campaign is very organized, very pointed, very specific. First, what these followers of Ludd would do is they would send a letter–a threatening letter–to a local entrepreneur or factory owner, and they would say, “If you don’t take down these machines that you are using in this way, you’re going to get a visit from Ned Ludd’s army.” And it would be signed by Ned Ludd or General Ludd or King Ludd. And sure enough, if the entrepreneur didn’t take down the machines, they would be targeted by a nighttime raid. They would either slip in through the windows and smash the machines that were doing the automation. And it’s important to point out that they would only smash those machines. There were a number of machines that had been used for a long time. Those machines would not be broken–hand looms not broken. They would smash the wide frames. They would smash the gig mills and the shearing frames, not those that had been used for hundreds of years. And then they would file out under the darkness of night. They were famous for brandishing the great blacksmith’s hammer, and they would call it “Enoch.” The Hammers themselves were made by James and Enoch Taylor, who were blacksmiths that were also building automating machinery. So, they had a saying and that saying would go, “Enoch made them. Enoch shall break them.” And it was this great giant hammer.
Roman Mars [00:14:36] So this first Luddite raid happens in Nottingham in 1811. How does the movement spread from there?
Brian Merchant [00:14:43] Yeah, I think one of the most interesting things about the Luddite movement is that it is a truly decentralized movement. It’s an early sort of innovation really in this mode of sort of cell-based organizing. There was a well-organized sort of network of Luddites in and around Nottingham. That came first. And they met with fairly astonishing success. So, they would sneak into the factories, break the machines, and people cheered. Once they saw that public reaction was so good, they would do it again. And they got increasingly brazen. Soon there were raids in broad daylight as the crowds of the city would come out and cheer. So, it’s clear pretty early on that there’s a lot of popular sentiment in favor of Luddism. And so, you see Luddite cells start to crop up in various places, even where it’s not clear that they were, you know, in touch. In the beginning, it really was truly a decentralized movement–something like Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter. It might be analogous to that today.
Roman Mars [00:15:45] So who are some of the most important Luddite leaders who emerge during this time? What drove them to the movement?
Brian Merchant [00:15:51] So the interesting thing about Luddites is that they left very little trace. What we know about Luddites is largely through the letters they sent, the complaints and descriptions passed down through the magistrates that fought them, the newspaper writers of the day, and, you know, what was passed down through oral tradition. We do know a handful of the Luddite leadership, and the most famous is George Mellor. George Mellor had recently finished his apprenticeship as a cloth finisher or a cropper at the time that the entrepreneurs were starting to use automated machinery. So, you can kind of imagine a young man going, “Ah, I finished my apprenticeship, now I can sort of embark on the world,” and then seeing a factory spring up outside town and say, “Actually, we’re going to we’re going to do that work for you, and you’re not going to get paid anything anymore.” So, he is particularly incensed by all of this. So, he agitates for this organized rebellion after Nottingham. So, Nottingham comes first. It’s an inspiration to cloth workers everywhere. And George Mellor is reading these accounts in the newspaper and saying, “We need to do this here.”
Roman Mars [00:17:02] And so what was the government’s reaction to the Luddites? So, they’re getting this popularity, they’re becoming heroes, and people are cheering them on even in broad daylight. What happens in terms of parliament?
Brian Merchant [00:17:12] So the government is not pleased. Their response is swift, and it is increasingly punitive–increasingly brutal. First, they just send troops. After there’s an outbreak in Nottingham–the first Luddite uprising–they just send troops to occupy any of the villages or towns where these disturbances are going on. And the funny thing is that it doesn’t matter. The Luddites continue their campaigns, and they slip right past these troops. Nobody is informing on the Luddites. The state puts huge rewards out there if anyone will come forward and inform on them, and nobody does. And when that doesn’t work, they take the final step. And that is making it a crime punishable by death to break a machine.
Roman Mars [00:17:59] So it gets the point where breaking a loom could have you put to death. So, things are really escalating between the Luddites and the government. When does it all come to a head?
Brian Merchant [00:18:08] So the Luddites had been rising up for months, and they had become very good at striking small to medium sized operations and factories. There was a period where there were machine raids almost every day and hundreds and then thousands of machines were smashed–just huge sums in that day of damage being done to the industrial state. But they felt–and specifically George Mellor felt–that it was time to strike a bigger blow. And so, this is probably the most famous battle in Luddite lore. But he gathers scores of men–there’s over a hundred–and they attack what is then one of the biggest factories in the West Riding, a stone, giant, monolithic building. And kind of unbeknownst to them, it has been built up like a fortress inside. It turns into this huge melee where the Luddites are taking turns smashing this hammer and trying to shoot through the windows to try to gain entry so they can break the machines. But there are soldiers and mercenaries inside all shooting back at them. In the end, it’s believed four–but two for sure–Luddites are shot and killed and they have to retreat. The attack at Rawfolds Mill was really the Luddites first major defeat, and it was a huge turning point. It showed the factory owners that the Luddites could be turned back by force, that they could be crushed in this way, and that maybe the answer wasn’t, you know, bounties or trying to ratchet up the penal code, but to simply encourage factory owners to defend their businesses with guns if necessary.
Roman Mars [00:20:12] So could you tell us how the Luddite movement eventually ended? Like, what led to their defeat?
Brian Merchant [00:20:19] So after the defeat at Rawfolds, George Mellor kind of goes off the deep end. One of his close friends who he had personally convinced to become a Luddite, John Booth, was among the dead. And he becomes pretty deeply unwell. And he quickly resolves he needs to take more direct action. So, he enlists a few of his colleagues, and they set out to attack the other major factory owner in town, a man named Horsfall. And they ambush him on his ride home and assassinate him in cold blood. So, it becomes clear both by the body count and sort of by the way the winds are blowing that the Luddites are losing. And after George and the other croppers assassinate Horsfall, they also begin to lose public sentiment. So, all of this leads this most sort of explosive outburst of Luddism to peter out. Really, the core Luddite uprising that we think about when we think about Luddites happened from 1811 to 1813, and it dies out by the end of the decade.
Roman Mars [00:21:30] And ultimately, George Mellor, the Luddite leader, and his friends were put to death for their role in the assassination, right?
Brian Merchant [00:21:38] Yeah. Yeah. It was a big dramatic trial. Courtroom was packed. It was written about in the papers. And, you know, they never admitted to the assassination, but they were convicted pretty quickly. And they were hung outside York Castle. And then just days later, there was a trial for all of those who had been participating in the movement otherwise–just for machine breaking, not for assassinating Horsfall. And they were all put to death as well. It was a public affair. It was meant to send a signal to workers everywhere because, again, Luddites had become quite popular. Their movement was joined not just by cloth workers, but by shoemakers, by coal workers, by people of every stripe. Working people understood the structures that were taking shape and that this mode of factory work, especially, and having to tend to the machines owned by somebody else was so onerous that it was worth fighting to preserve their way of life–to preserve their freedom, basically.
Roman Mars [00:22:44] So how did the defeat of the Luddites represent a new template for labor relations and also just, you know, the way we make and build things going forward?
Brian Merchant [00:22:57] The defeat of the Luddites meant that the factory owners won and that this mode of production gets replicated everywhere. We get the industrial revolution, and it’s largely a factory revolution. So, when the Luddites lost, on the one hand, this particular mode of work became ascendant, and on the other hand, it became taboo to question how technology was used and how it was used in your workplace–how it was used against you if it was going to be used against you. Technology became synonymous with progress. And to say otherwise could get you labeled backwards thinking or just sort of ignorant. And this was also very intentional. And we see that when the prosecutor is prosecuting George Mellor and the Luddites, he’s using these terms. He’s decrying that men like George Mellor have led other men under this delusion that machinery is not progress. So, we see this equation early on begin to be formulated by those who it stands to benefit.
Roman Mars [00:24:05] Coming up after the break, we’ll talk more with Brian Merchant about the ways that the Luddite movement still echoes today and whether we might see another Luddite uprising. Did you know that if you’re an employer who’s hiring, the average cost per hire is $4,700? If you’re investing that much money into each new hire, you want to get it right. So, what’s the most effective way to find the best people for your roles? ZipRecruiter. See for yourself. Right now, you can try it for free at ziprecruiter.com/99 and experience the value ZipRecruiter brings to hiring. ZipRecruiter lets you try before you commit. There’s no cost to try ZipRecruiter. You can post jobs for free so you can see for yourself how effective ZipRecruiter is at helping you hire. ZipRecruiter finds you more qualified candidates faster. Once you post your job, ZipRecruiter’s Smart Technology works quickly to identify people whose skills and experience match it. It’s simple. ZipRecruiter helps you get hiring right. Four out of five employers who post on ZipRecruiter get a quality candidate within the first day. See for yourself. Go to this exclusive web address to try ZipRecruiter for free before you commit. It’s ziprecruiter.com/99. Again, that ziprecruiter.com/99. ZipRecruiter–the smartest way to hire.
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Brian Merchant [00:28:30] Yeah, it really is. There’s a scholar, Theodore Roszak, who once said about the Luddites–and I love this–he said, “If the Luddites didn’t exist, then the tech industry would have to invent them.” I think it’s been very intentional on some level by, you know, the people who stand to benefit most from a lot of these technologies that we would do very well to question to have us not question them. It serves that bottom line. You know, if we’re not asking questions about how Amazon gets us our products so cheaply and so quickly, and then to say, you know, maybe it’s not worth the cost if we understand what’s going on behind the scenes–if that is backwards looking–then Amazon wins. If we say that maybe there should be safeguards or rules about how AI is used or situations where it should not be used at all in the workplace–if saying things like that makes us look sort of foolish–that serves companies like OpenAI that stand to make enormous profits from selling these tools to other enterprises. So, it does make a certain level of sense that the Luddite term has been captured so thoroughly by, I guess you could say, its opponents.
Roman Mars [00:29:46] Do you think we might see a new kind of Luddite uprising in reaction to developments in automation today?
Brian Merchant [00:29:52] I do think we’ll see some new threads of Luddism being woven, so to speak. I think we already are. So again, the Luddites did not have the tools that we have available to us. We do have the ability to organize our workplaces and to sort of confront AI or automation if it’s being used in ways that can cause us harms. And we are finally seeing that. And I think that is Luddism. And that is something that we haven’t seen for decades now. And I’m talking about the actors in the screenwriters’ strike, which is predicated in large part over grievances about AI and sort of the gigification of their work. It’s very much explicit. Both the screenwriters and the writers are drawing a red line in the way that we might imagine the Luddites drawing that line and saying, “No, you cannot use ChatGPT or an AI service to create an original script because we know that what you want to do is have the AI churn out an original script and then to pay us less money to edit it.” And that’s exactly what was happening 200 years ago. You know, they couldn’t get rid of the person altogether, but they could make sort of a shoddy substitute. And it’s that saying “no” that just resonates so deeply with what Luddism is all about. A lot of what the Luddites were fighting against is so timeless because the way that we develop technology and the way it’s imposed on our economy is so much the same to the extent that if you look back 200 years and you look at some of the solutions Luddites were proposing. They were proposing things that today look an awful lot like a robot tax that would be proposed by someone like Andrew Yang or Michael Bloomberg, where if you’re using automated machinery, then some portion of that cloth that you would not otherwise be able to produce–you should tax that and then use that to fund worker programs–this is something that they suggested 200 years ago, and they saw the way that tech titans and entrepreneurs were using the idea of technology to get around regulations in much the same way that 200 years later, Uber and Lyft and the gig economy companies would be using to say, “Oh, we’re a technology company. We don’t have to play by the municipal tax code rules or anything like that. So, this playbook has remained the same for so long. And it’s going to be the same unless we really sort of take major strides to address it.
Roman Mars [00:32:26] Would you like to see people use the word “Luddite” today in the proper way? Like, is this a mission of yours?
Brian Merchant [00:32:33] It is a mission. I have become very pro-Luddite. I will fight this battle any day of the week. I think the time is ripe to reclaim the term. And I think we would all benefit greatly if we succeed.
Roman Mars [00:32:58] 99% Invisible was produced this week by Delaney Hall. Sound Mixed by Dara Hirsch. Original Music by Swan Real. Kathy Tu is our executive producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The team includes Martín Gonzalez, Chris Berube, Jayson De Leon, Emmet FitzGerald, Christopher Johnson, Vivien Le, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado Medina, Kelly Prime, Joe Rosenberg, and me, Roman Mars. Brian Merchant’s book will be available for purchase on September 26th. It’s called Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech. There was so much detail we couldn’t get into bloody detail–incredible characters–so much going on. If you want to learn more about the Luddites, you definitely have to check it out. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stephan Lawrence. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast Family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora building in beautiful uptown Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram, Reddit, and TikTok too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99PI at 99pi.org.
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