Most of us think of a Luddite as someone who is anti-technology or fearful of it, but as LA Times tech columnist Brian Merchant points out in his new book Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech, they were technologists themselves who simply questioned the ways it was being used against them.
“History misremembers them and a lot of that was intentional because those in power had a real interest in sort of casting aspersions against them and painting them as anti-technology, deluded, backwards-looking, anti-progress,” he tells The New Abnormal co-host Andy Levy. “But no, they were really on a campaign to improve working conditions. They were only against what they called the machinery hurtful to commonality. That is—technologies that were being used to tear up longstanding social contracts, to undercut wages and to sort of speed the rise of the factory system, which they saw as exploitative and opening the door to things like child labor and long working days.”
Merchant says there are parallels today in the way big companies like Uber and Amazon treat their workers.
“It’s like what happened with Uber when they said, ‘We’re not a taxi company, we are a software platform. We are just connecting people peer-to-peer. We’re connecting independent contractors to drivers using our sophisticated new technology’. Well, at the end of the day, you’re still just calling a cab,” he says. “It’s really not all that revolutionary, but it is this positioning and context that let’s them tear up all these rules and standards that had governed the taxi trade for a long time.”
“In Amazon’s case, they were basically sort of using technology as this excuse to just kind of make their workers work harder. The big complaint that many Amazon warehouse workers have these days is that they are treated like robots. You know, they are expected to be working as fast as a robot and following all these intense productivity goals… it’s really just about squeezing as much human labor using these kind of new technologies on the side,” Merchant says. “That was the story also in the Industrial Revolution too of these big factories using new technologies as a means of getting workers to work longer hours, work harder and be more productive.”
Merchant says he proudly calls himself both a tech columnist and a Luddite.
“I don’t think that those things are incompatible at all. Just like the Luddites used tech and were technologists themselves, their core mission was to question who technology served and in my eyes, that is something that in 2023 we absolutely need to be doing now more than ever.”