One of the more eye-opening narratives in the story arc of my presentation is the comparison of our current era to the 1920s. Given the catastrophic period that followed, lessons can be learned. A great period of invention ran in parallel, helping to establish our modern standard of living. But there was another period of invention that is also very instructive. That period dates to the early 19th century and is closely associated with the Luddite movement and the birth of the factory system. In a book released this September, Brian Merchant explores this period in history and its similarities to our current era. If the 1920s sowed the seeds of the conflicts that followed, the early 19th century sowed the seeds of labor movements, the modern welfare state, and of all things, science fiction.
Blood in the Machine is described as a “gripping” (New Yorker) and “eye-opening” (New Scientist) true story of the first time machines came for human jobs-and how the Luddite uprising explains the power, threat, and toll of big tech and AI today. The storytelling is fascinating, as are the people that played roles on both sides of the labor-machine divide.
The Industrial Revolution transformed modern life, and the factory became the predominant engine of production the world over, providing the basic template of work to be followed for the next two centuries
Brian Merchant — Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech
Brian Merchant focused on a story of the Industrial Revolution that often goes untold: alongside every major labor-saving innovation, a spasm of protest burst out from the workers whose lives it disrupted. We get a view of the times through the eyes of those who fought against the machines, and those that tried to protect them and the factory system they enabled. As Mr. Merchant describes, it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution, when automation began to intrude on livelihoods, that automation was seen as a threat to our humanity. Enter the Luddites. Most view the Luddites through the derogatory narrative that was created: a person opposed to new technology or ways of working. Yet, it’s difficult to walk away from this historical review of the facts without a different perspective.
The Luddite movement emerged in the early 19th century as a response to the rapid industrialization and mechanization of the textile industry in England. Named after a mythical figure, Ned Ludd, who was believed to have destroyed weaving machinery in a fit of rage, the Luddites were primarily skilled textile workers who feared that the introduction of automated machinery would threaten their livelihoods. The movement gained momentum around 1811, with protesters targeting factories and destroying machinery they believed was responsible for unemployment and declining wages. The Luddites’ actions were characterized by machine-breaking and acts of sabotage against the technological advancements that they perceived as a threat to their traditional craftsmanship.
The peak of the Luddite movement occurred between 1811 and 1816, marked by widespread protests and government suppression. The British government responded to the unrest with harsh measures, deploying troops to protect factories and passing legislation that made machine-breaking a capital offense. By the mid-1810s, the Luddite movement began to wane, as government crackdowns and economic changes took their toll. The last significant act of Luddite violence occurred in 1816. Although the Luddites did not achieve their goal of preventing technological progress, their movement highlighted the social and economic tensions arising from the rapid changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution.
The Luddite movement of the early 19th century, despite its historical context, draws intriguing parallels with contemporary concerns in our technologically advanced society. Much like the Luddites’ apprehensions about the impact of machinery on traditional livelihoods, today’s workforce expresses anxiety about automation and artificial intelligence affecting job security. Just as the Luddites faced challenges adapting to the Industrial Revolution, the modern era grapples with the transformative effects of the digital age. The fear of unemployment and economic inequality persists, as certain jobs become obsolete due to automation, mirroring the Luddites’ worries about the displacement of skilled workers by machinery.
Moreover, the tension between technological progress and societal well-being remains relevant. Privacy concerns, the ethical implications of artificial intelligence, and debates over the proper regulation of technology echo the Luddites’ skepticism about unchecked industrialization. While the Luddite movement unfolded in a vastly different historical and economic context, the shared themes of technological disruption and its societal repercussions provide a thought-provoking lens through which to examine the challenges and opportunities presented by our rapidly evolving technological landscape.
While the industrial revolution ultimately ushered in a period of great human advancement, it was preceded by a period of human suffering. The term “Engels’ Pause” refers to a period in the mid-19th century during which real wages in industrialized nations experienced stagnation or slowdown in growth. Named after Friedrich Engels, who, along with Karl Marx, extensively studied the social and economic changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution, Engels’ Pause occurred roughly between 1790 and 1840.
During this period, despite significant advancements in industrial productivity, wages for the working class did not see substantial improvement. The causes of Engels’ Pause are complex and multifaceted, encompassing factors such as technological shifts and the dynamics of labor and capital. One significant factor was the rapid population growth during that period, which increased the supply of labor and placed downward pressure on wages. Additionally, advancements in technology and industrialization led to a shift in the demand for certain skills, often leaving traditional craftsmen, much like the Luddites, facing unemployment and declining wages.
The Pause highlights a disconnect between economic progress and the well-being of the working class during a specific phase of industrial development. It serves as a historical marker for analyzing the distribution of benefits and challenges associated with industrialization, offering insights into the social and economic implications of rapid technological change. This concept remains relevant for contemporary discussions on income inequality, labor markets, and the broader impacts of technological advancements on society.
The causes that fueled the Luddite movement, such as the fear of job displacement due to technological innovation, played a role in shaping the conditions that contributed to Engels’ Pause. The Luddites, who protested the mechanization of the textile industry, highlighted concerns about the impact of machinery on skilled labor. The widespread destruction of machinery by the Luddites was, in essence, a response to the economic insecurities arising from the rapid industrialization of their time.
Engels’ Pause, while influenced by a broader set of economic factors, reflects the ongoing tension between technological progress and its effects on labor markets. The concerns voiced by the Luddites regarding unemployment and wage stagnation resonate within the context of Engels’ Pause, illustrating a historical continuum of challenges associated with technological change and its repercussions on the working class. Analyzing these historical phenomena together provides valuable insights into the persistent dynamics of technological disruption and its impact on societal well-being.
Throughout the book, comparisons are made to our current era. The author sees a similar seismic shift unfolding again, this time from secure, salaried jobs based on the factory-influenced office model, to contract and gig work, often orchestrated by algorithms, AI services, and on-demand app companies. He added that the Luddite rebellion came at a time when the working class was beset by a confluence of crises that today, along with current economic conditions, seem all too familiar to historians of the Industrial Revolution.
The reason that there are so many similarities between today and the time of the Luddites is that little has fundamentally changed about our attitudes toward entrepreneurs and innovation, how our economies are organized, or the means through which technologies are introduced into our lives and societies.
Brian Merchant — Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech
Books like these reach the top of my recommendations list because they are rich in signals. This look at a similar period in history is very instructive. The analysis exposes the general perception of Luddites as technology averse terrorists. It mirrors the story told by Carl Benedikt Frey in his outstanding book The Technology Trap. I find the corollary that both authors make compelling. Frey takes us on a journey from pre-industrial times to current day. Innovation flourished in pre-industrial times — but labor-replacing technology was blocked by the ruling class to avoid societal unrest. It took a competitive trade environment to shift that prevailing view of technology. The shift referenced by Frey is clearly articulated by Brian Merchant. This visual depicts the period that both authors wrote about.
Regarding the birth of science fiction, a bit of trivia. Mary Shelley is one of the historical figures of the era described by Brian Merchant. She was an English novelist who wrote the Gothic novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, which is considered an early example of science fiction. The author states that it’s easy to see the Luddites as a driving inspiration, and scholars of the period have argued that Dr. Frankenstein’s monster is a symbolic stand-in for the machine breakers. I highly recommend Blood in the Machine and have added it to my library.