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The Neo-Luddite Movement

For the last few weeks, I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Brian Merchant’s history of the Luddite movement, Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech. In it, Merchant argues the Luddites were at their core a labor movement against capitalism and compares them to contemporary movements against big tech and media companies. Merchant writes in the Atlantic:

The first Luddites were artisans and cloth workers in England who, at the onset of the Industrial Revolution, protested the way factory owners used machinery to undercut their status and wages. Contrary to popular belief, they did not dislike technology; most were skilled technicians.

At the time, some entrepreneurs had started to deploy automated machines that unskilled workers โ€” many of them children โ€” could use to churn out cheap, low-quality goods. And while the price of garments fell and the industrial economy boomed, hundreds of thousands of working people fell into poverty. When petitioning Parliament and appealing to the industrialists for minimum wages and basic protections failed, many organized under the banner of a Robin Hood-like figure, Ned Ludd, and took up hammers to smash the industrialists’ machines. They became the Luddites.

He goes on to compare their actions to tech publication writers’ strikes, the SAG-AFTRA & WGA strikes, the Authors Guild lawsuit against AI companies, and a group of masked activists “coning” self-driving cars. All this reminds me of Ted Chiang’s quote about AI:

I tend to think that most fears about A.I. are best understood as fears about capitalism. And I think that this is actually true of most fears of technology, too. Most of our fears or anxieties about technology are best understood as fears or anxiety about how capitalism will use technology against us. And technology and capitalism have been so closely intertwined that it’s hard to distinguish the two.

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