The Luddites arrived on the streets of San Francisco much as they did in the English factories two centuries ago: under cover of darkness and with iconic weapons in hand. In this case, traffic cones. An enterprising activist had observed (or perhaps gotten an insider tip) that placing an object on the hood of a self-driving car blocks the sensors it uses to see the road. The car freezes. Many objects would do, but cones were handy, undamaging, and happened to transform Cruise’s robotaxis into four-wheeled unicorns. Unless it happens to be carrying a sympathetic passenger, the simple remedy of removing the cone is unavailable to the car. For weeks this summer, ahead of a state regulator’s decision to expand their reign, the city’s AV fleet was stricken by merry nocturnal raids.
The pranksters were first branded as “Luddites” by online critics. Ignorant vandals, they meant. Tantruming technophobes who were attacking the very notion of progress. Somehow the activists had missed the memo about how electric robotaxis would cut carbon emissions and vastly improve road safety.
The rebels embraced the label. In a response posted on social media, they offered up a quick history lesson, explaining that the original Luddites, the cottage workers of the early 19th century who took hammers to mechanized looms and knitting frames, weren’t actually tech haters. They were simply citizens pushing back on an exploitative system—in their case, mass production—that threatened to swallow them whole. The cone-toting activists saw their own ambushes of the machines as a strike in favor of a better society, cured of “car brain” and more invested in bike lanes and mass transit. Luddites indeed, proudly.
They’re not the only ones to recently swear fealty to King Ludd. After abbreviated glory in the 1810s, the Luddite brand has been revived in podcasts, TikToks, books, and picket line slogans. It has required rescue, the new Luddites say, from malign usage in popular speech. For the capitalists who crushed the original machine-breakers, and their successors in Silicon Valley C-suites of today, the Luddite became the perfect foil and eponymous epithet because he did not exist to defend himself, explains Brian Merchant in Blood in the Machine, a history of the movement published last month. The Luddites’ apparent extremism—smashing technology whose only crime was being productive—made the name a “pejorative figment of the entrepreneurial imagination,” Merchant writes, lobbed at anyone who stood in your technocratic path.
This label is as relevant now as ever, he argues. Like the Luddites who struck against machine-spun fabric and factory life, workers today are rising up against automated warehouses and gig work and AI-generated content. Behind them stand the same old merchants of progress: the likes of Marc Andreessen, cofounder of the a16z venture capital firm, who earlier this week published a “techno-optimist manifesto” labeling any and all questioners of progress as “liars.”
Merchant, a tech columnist at The Los Angeles Times who previously reviewed iPhones, joins others in arguing that Luddism is not just for loom-smashers, but for those uncomfortable with such blind faith. If you have ever wondered if the new technology arriving on your doorstep is not actually designed for the common benefit, then perhaps you too are carrying Ned Ludd’s flame.
Merchant’s retelling of the Luddite cause is a gripping and detailed romp. He follows cat-and-mouse games between hammer-wielding worker-leaders like George Mellor, a “cropper” trained in cutting fabric with enormous shears by hand, and mill-owning capitalists and inventors such as William Cartwright, whose factory Mellor raids. Around them buzzes a motley chorus of hapless government agents, spies, and literary gadflies like Frankenstein author Mary Shelley and Lord Byron, who in his attempts to defend the Luddites in the halls of power, spends a lot of time getting twisted up in his own poetry.
The violence itself starts slowly. It’s a time of widespread hardship in England, with trade conditions tough in the final years of the Napoleonic Wars. The machines offer an efficient way of doing business, albeit at the human cost of stuffing deskilled workers into windowless factories. The cottage workers demand help to ease the transition to automation, proposing taxes on machinery-produced wares and pushing for the enforcement of laws on matters like fabric quality. These appeals are ignored, and so they come for the machines. “They did not hate the machines, though they did not hold any undue respect for them, either,” Merchant writes—realists forged by circumstance into revolutionaries.
As the smashing ramps up, the Luddites’ rhetoric grows more universal, winning broad support from other workers. They claim to speak for the worker and against any “machinery hurtful to the commonality,” as they put it in a famous 1812 letter to Parliament. Meanwhile, the factory bosses and their establishment lackeys cultivate their own utopian ideals centered on the divinity of technological progress and economic competition. The show must go on—or else. If that sounds familiar to the present, it should. Except this story winds up with the army crushing the protesting workers and a lot of hangings. That’s where Merchant’s narrative, as a work of history, largely ends, moving on to the Luddites’ modern relevance.
What happens to the Luddites in the interim is murky. Merchant argues that the true history was “papered over,” allowing the industrial victors to shape the Luddites’ image. Perhaps that’s self-evident from how the term is used today, shorthand for “reactionary technophobe” or simply “bad at computers.” That image took root, fast. A few decades later, even Karl Marx found the image of the machine-phobic Luddite a useful foil, urging his readers to see the capitalists as villains instead.
There have also been attempts to rehab the Luddites’ image, as people troubled by technology looked to history for inspiration. In 1972, a glossarist at the US Congress listed two entries for Luddite: The historical term from that 19th century labor struggle, and modern day “Neo-Luddites,” who were taking a stand against technology on “moral grounds.” That mostly meant the atom bomb and, later, fossil fuels. Some preached primitivism, arguing that although computers weren’t replacing workers like steam looms did, they had done a number on the human mind and were obviously bad for “the commonality.”
Instead of muskets, some of these new Luddites were met with parody. In 1995, Kirkpatrick Sale, a prominent neo-Luddite, was on a promotional tour for his own Luddite history book in which he would smash televisions and computers onstage. He took a break to sit down for an interview with WIRED editor Kevin Kelly, where he started off by laying out a cogent argument: that Luddites were about “whether machinery was simply to be for greater production by the industrialists, regardless of its consequences, or whether the people who were affected by these machines had some say in the matter of how they were to be used.”
But Kelly was spoiling for a fight. He puts Sale’s back to the wall with a question about how to draw the line of the common good. Soon Sale is arguing that humanity would be better off returning to tribal societies, and winds up making a bet that technology would drive societal collapse within a quarter century.
Twenty-five years later, WIRED’s Steven Levy revisited that wager and discovered that society appeared to have survived. Sale fought over technicalities before admitting defeat. He had kind of handed it to the techno-optimists. A mission to dismantle the blind worship of technological progress and reclaim the Luddite mantle ended up portraying technology as the determinant of a bad future or a good one.
Merchant is a better spokesperson for modern Luddism. He’s most convincing when pointing out the parallels between the 19th-century factory system and the gig economy, primarily Uber. Like the frame-installing industrialists, the company presents a “novel configuration” of technology that is not especially scary or difficult to understand. The taxi or ride-hail driver’s beef is not with the smartphone or with GPS, but with the ruse it supports: allowing Uber to declare that the basic rules of the taxi business no longer apply. A steady job becomes an unreliable gig—until workers start fighting back.
Merchant observes similar dynamics within Amazon warehouses, focusing on labor organizer Chris Smalls, a George Mellor of his time, and, in his more recent writing (the long lead of book publishing being what it is), the striking workers of Hollywood, who demanded protections against AI-generated content. These workers, like the historical Luddites, are wise to how technology could make conditions better, and speak out against its use to do the opposite.
These are useful ways to think about Luddism, if not particularly surprising. Many people are likely Luddites by this standard, seeking to negotiate the terms of life and work amidst technological wonder in a time of yawning inequality. The kooky and increasingly desperate techno-optimist propaganda from certain Silicon Valley elites suggests this sort of skepticism is increasingly mainstream. As Merchant writes, presentday pushback on technology is more diffuse than that led by Mellor, both widespread and scattered across industries and employing methods—labor organizing, political outreach—that did not exist for early-19th-century workers.
One limitation of this modern-day resistance spread across a globalized system is that its wins can feel like pacifications. The effects of automation are managed piecemeal, and continuing harms pushed out of sight or displaced to somewhere else. Merchant holds the weapon just out of our view—suggesting that workers “might just reach, once again, for the hammers”—but leaving us in suspense. Which raises an age-old question: Can you be a Luddite without smashing anything?
The novelist Thomas Pynchon wondered this too. In 1984, writing in The New York Times, he asked if it was OK to be a Luddite—by which he meant, what was a Luddite, anyway? Nuclear dread and resistance was being replaced by passive acceptance of potential atomic holocaust. Memory of the automated death of World War II fading as the “Computer Age” came into focus. Pynchon doubted anyone would try to smash the mainframes. Computers were far too charming, he argued, and their social benefits too obviously democratic. (He did not anticipate Sale’s demolition demo a decade later; or perhaps he foresaw how foolish it would look.)
Pynchon was a realist about the ability of government and industrial elites to pacify workers. He reasoned that only a shift so radical as to catch the elites themselves off-guard would spark some real smashing. Some combination of AI and biotechnology and robotics might do it, he imagined, without getting into specifics.
Merchant’s history makes clear that Regency England was indeed caught flatfooted. The capitalists had been building their looms and expanding the factory system for decades, powered mostly by the labor of agrarian women and children, until the conditions arose to suck in more skilled cottage workers too. The Luddites were created by a special brew of new technology, but also economic chaos, incompetent leadership—and automation claiming a higher status of victim. Hammers flew and a folk-hero archetype was born.
The book eventually gets to some modern smashing. Merchant mentions Andreas Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline, which holds that fossil fuel technology is beyond criticism and should be destroyed. As Merchant puts it, “It’s climate Luddism, essentially.”
A contemporary echo of the concept’s original ferocity is invigorating, but after chapters of careful history explaining the subtlety of the original Luddites’ critique, it’s jarring too. You may start to wonder what really connects the diverse cast of Captain Ludds, from protesters coning self-driving cars to anti-nuclear advocates chaining themselves to fences. Are those who quarrel with AI’s infringement of their jobs and intellectual property the same as those who think it’s here to kill us all? Are they united with those like Sale, tapping visions of primitivist futures into their typewriters?
Luddites, all? At this point, probably. After two centuries, the meaning has been broadened by all the insults and attempts at rehab. Even armed with the proper history, it can be hard to know what it means to be a Luddite today. Not all of these presumed Luddites are bound to enjoy each others’ company, or to appear sympathetic. They may define the common good in ways you find unsavory, or use methods you do not like. They may prove to be terrible spokespeople for their cause. You might just call them a Luddite and mean technophobe.
The original Luddites might find that amusing. They weren’t originals, either, taking their name from an earlier mythical loom-smasher named Ned Ludd who lived decades before their time, if he lived it all. Legend has it he destroyed machines with no particular agenda, just infantile rage. They reclaimed his image so that we might try again and again to do the same.