Can a New Generation of Luddites Take Down A.I.?

A blend of pacy
narrative history and contemporary reportage, Blood in the Machine sees a
fresh relevance in the struggles of these misunderstood rebels. The weavers’ combat
against “machinery hurtful to commonality” was, in Merchant’s view, the
earliest resistance to the destructive tactics of “big tech.” “Move fast, break
things” operators like Musk, Thiel, and Bezos are “using a new version of the
same concept” as the earliest factory owners, when they wield technology to
upset established methods of production. Just as the clothworkers were the
first to experience the full force of the Industrial Revolution, so we too find
ourselves in a similar position at the (alleged) dawn of a Second Industrial
Revolution—in an upheaval driven not by the brute force of the iron smelter,
the railway locomotive, and the power loom but the more subtle advances of
robotics, microchips, and artificial intelligence.

The Luddites were
smarter, better organized, more popular, and more violent than the limp
caricature handed down to us might imply. Stretching from Nottingham to York to
Manchester, the Luddites’ machine-breaking campaign at its height in 1811 and
1812 looked very much like an industrial civil war. Each regional clique had its
own character and methods, yet they all pursued a common goal and were,
Merchant argues, “organized, strategic, and intentional in their displays of

In their silent
midnight raids, their faces smeared with coal soot, Luddites smashed only looms
and machines that threatened their livelihoods directly and left others alone.
They also had a sense of humor. During a raid on the house of a master cloth
dresser named Samuel Swallow, the West Riding Luddites barged in, took sledges
to his machines, trashed his workshop, threatened to blow the place up if he
ever introduced a machine again, and as they left, suggested he lock the door
behind him. As their operations became larger and more complex—culminating in
the Battle of Rawfolds Mill in April 1812—the Luddites’ struggle took on a more
direct political color. Many railed against the monarchy and called for a
republic. During one Luddite riot in Leeds, a standard bearer was seen to wave
“a sort of red flag.” As E.P. Thompson put it in his classic The
Making of the English Working Class
the weavers “trembled on the edge of ulterior revolutionary objectives.”