The New Luddites Will Not Back Down

When Molly Crabapple touched down in Italy last year for the International Journalism Festival, she expected the usual. The annual conference bills itself as Europe’s largest media event, and Crabapple had planned to give a talk about her career as an artist and writer reporting from the front lines of conflict zones. But as she took in some of the panels, she felt herself growing uneasy.

Sprinkled among the journalists discussing topics such as the war in Ukraine and the state of podcasting, some of the speakers were promoting the use of generative AI. She overheard someone say that journalists write too much, that much of their work could be automated. “I was like, this is disgusting,” she told me. “Why isn’t anyone going to challenge this?” When it came time for her own panel, she decided to do just that, saying onstage, “The use of generative AI is not only going to destroy my industry—it is going to destroy all of yours, if you’re anyone who creates anything … If you’re anyone here who creates, it is in your interest to fight these generative-AI platforms.”

Crabapple then released an open letter with the Center for Artistic Inquiry and Reporting, calling on publishers to ban generative AI from replacing human art and writing in their operations. Nearly 4,000 signatories added their name over the course of the year, including the MSNBC host Chris Hayes, the author Naomi Klein, and the actor John Cusack. But though Crabapple has found her supporters, she noted a particular kind of backlash as well: “Anyone who is critical of the tech industry always has someone yell at them ‘Luddite! Luddite!’ and I was no exception,” she told me. It was meant as an insult, but Crabapple embraced the term. Like many others, she came to self-identify as part of a new generation of Luddites. “Tech is not supposed to be a master tool to colonize every aspect of our being. We need to reevaluate how it serves us.”

In 2023, the biggest story in tech was the rise of OpenAI and Silicon Valley’s embrace of generative AI. This year, the technology may grow only further entrenched: OpenAI is attempting to make its flagship product, ChatGPT, a stickier part of daily life with the launch of a new app store, and the company has inked deals with institutions such as Axel Springer and Arizona State University to broaden its reach. But in contrast to many previous tech trends, this story includes a grassroots movement amassing to resist the change. Like Crabapple, many of those who have joined proudly embrace the mantle of Luddite. Yes, the industry continues on its march, collecting huge investments to rapidly accelerate the development of this controversial technology. But the events of the past several months have demonstrated that, on some key fronts, the Luddites are winning.

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—many of them children—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.

The government mobilized what was then the largest-ever domestic military occupation of England to crush the uprising—the Luddites had won the approval of the working class, and were celebrated in popular songs and poems—and then passed a law that made machine-breaking a capital offense. They painted Luddites as “deluded” and backward. Ever since, Luddite has been a derogatory word—shorthand for one who blindly hates or doesn’t understand technology.

That’s starting to change. When I began researching the Luddites back in 2014, first for an article and then for my book Blood in the Machine, any defenders of the old machine breakers seemed limited to a few scattered voices in academia and around the web. Now, with nearly half of Americans worried about how AI will affect jobs, Luddism has blossomed. The new Luddites—a growing contingent of workers, critics, academics, organizers, and writers—say that too much power has been concentrated in the hands of the tech titans, that tech is too often used to help corporations slash pay and squeeze workers, and that certain technologies must not merely be criticized but resisted outright.

Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech

By Brian Merchant

I’ve been a tech journalist for a decade and a half; I did not begin my career as a critic. But what I’ve seen over the past 10 years—the rise of gig-app companies that have left workers precarious and even impoverished; the punishing, gamified productivity regimes put in place by giants such as Amazon; the conquering of public life by private tech platforms and the explosion of screen addiction; and the new epidemic of AI plagiarism—has left me sympathizing with tech’s discontents. After years of workers and citizens serving as Silicon Valley’s subjects, a movement is now under way to wrest back control. I consider myself a Luddite not because I want to halt progress or reject technology itself. But I believe, as the original Luddites argued in a particularly influential letter threatening the industrialists, that we must consider whether a technology is “hurtful to commonality”—whether it causes many to suffer for the benefit of a few—and oppose it when necessary.

Last summer, journalists at Business Insider went on strike over layoffs and increased health-care costs. Also of concern to union members: Management’s announcement that it would be experimenting with generative AI in the newsroom. (The company has since entered into an official partnership with OpenAI.)  Insider’s senior tech correspondent saw robotic replacement around the corner, writing, “Am I a Luddite for worrying about AI chatbots taking my job? Maybe, but only because Luddites were awesome.” The union soon won its contract. At around the same time, a Fast Company story proclaimed that Hollywood actors “are recasting Luddites as heroes.”

“It’s not a primitivism: We don’t reject all technology, but we reject the technology that is foisted on us,” Jathan Sadowski, a social scientist at Monash University, in Australia, told me. He’s a co-host, with the journalist Ed Ongweso Jr., of This Machine Kills, an explicitly pro-Luddite podcast. Ongweso is also a technology reporter who has called for, among other things, the abolition of venture capital. The science-fiction author Cory Doctorow has declared all of sci-fi a Luddite literature, writing that “Luddism and science fiction concern themselves with the same questions: not merely what the technology does, but who it does it for and who it does it to.” The New York Times has profiled a hip cadre of self-proclaimed “‘Luddite’ teens.” As the headline explained, they “don’t want your likes.”

The term has come into vogue. It’s also become an explicit rallying cry for some of those taking direct action. Consider, for example, last year’s historic strikes in Hollywood. “If you want to know how to fix the problems we face from AI and other technology,” the actor Alex Winter wrote in an op-ed last September, “become genuinely and deeply involved. Become a Luddite.” (He told me that he sees the modern labor movement as “really a Luddite movement.”) Both SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America (WGA) took issue with studio executives pushing to use AI to produce creative work; they rejected the use of a technology that they believed would degrade their working conditions. They wanted contract language that stipulated that management could not use AI to generate scripts and that would require informed, written consent prior to the use of synthetic replicas of actors.

By drawing a red line against letting studios control AI, the WGA essentially waged the first proxy battle between human workers and AI. It drew attention to the fight, resonated with the public, and, after a 148-day strike, helped the guild attain a contract that banned studios from dictating the use of AI. You could call this a new-Luddite victory. SAG-AFTRA then won a contract of its own, also with language designed to protect actors from exploitative uses of AI.

Meanwhile, the Authors Guild followed Crabapple’s lead and published a letter, signed by 15,000 authors, including James Patterson, Roxane Gay, and Margaret Atwood, calling on AI companies not to use their work without permission and compensation. Next, it filed a class-action lawsuit against the tech companies that had ingested authors’ work to train AI models, alongside illustrators who claimed that their works have been used in the same way for the image generators.

Echoes of new Luddism were heard elsewhere, even when the term was not explicitly invoked. In Nevada, the state’s largest union, the Culinary Union, authorized a strike last fall in part over the use of technology, as casino owners seek to use AI and robotics to automate service jobs. Workers have organized at Amazon, where the warehouse-injury rate was found in a 2022 study to be twice that of its competitors. In California, Amazon delivery drivers officially formed their first union, a year after the Amazon Labor Union in Staten Island’s JFK8 facility—the first Amazon warehouse to be organized on U.S. soil—was certified by the National Labor Relations Board. And, in protest of deteriorating wages and unassailable deactivations, Uber and Lyft drivers staged strikes and protests in New York, Florida, and Las Vegas.

Of course, these are society-scale issues, and unions represent only a little more than 10 percent of the American workforce. There have been other efforts, too, such as the movement to quite literally stop self-driving cars in their tracks. An anonymous Bay Area group calling itself Safe Street Rebel discovered that placing a traffic cone atop a self-driving car caused it to shut down, and used the tactic to protest the proliferation of self-driving vehicles owned by Cruise and Waymo in San Francisco.

The rebels began their “coning” campaign in the weeks before California regulators were set to vote on whether to allow the expansion of autonomous fleets. Like the first Luddites, they operated anonymously. They donned masks to protect their identity, and they spread their message through social media. Also like the old Luddites, the new ones are not anti-tech. “I’m a tech worker myself,” Aditya Bhumbla, one of the Safe Street activists, told me. “But I don’t want to blindly cheerlead all of it.” The campaign went viral, drawing coverage from NPR, The Guardian, and the BBC. Following these protests and a number of other incidents—including one in which a Cruise self-driving car hit a pedestrian and dragged them 20 feet—the company suspended all of its driverless operations.

Past neo-Luddite movements have, it should be noted, come and gone. In the 1990s, activist writers such as Kirkpatrick Sale called for a neo-Luddism that rejected the computer age altogether, arguing that “a world dominated by the technologies of industrial society is fundamentally more detrimental than beneficial to human happiness and survival.” Other efforts to revive Luddism were more confined to academia or labor studies. Today’s new Luddites grasp the chief concern of the original movement: opposing machinery that advantages few while harming many—not machinery, period. And their causes are popular too.

The original Luddites were hailed as folk heroes—they were cheered in the streets as they smashed machinery, and they were championed by Lord Byron. Today, at a time when a majority of Americans are in favor of stronger tech regulation, workers like the writers and actors pushing for protections against AI are popular too. In one Gallup poll, Americans sympathized with the writers over the studios by 72 to 19 percent.

In our many conversations, those who view themselves as new Luddites made clear to me that they do not want to reject the many technologies that have improved our lives, or send anyone back to the Stone Age. They know that above all, the first Luddites wanted a seat at the table, a say in how technologies were used to facilitate activities foundational to the human experience, such as work. If they had shared in the gains instead of being left to starve, if they had been given agency over their technological destinies, they would not have taken up their hammers.

The New Luddites see a moment rife with exploitation and challenges, in which tech is used to oppress, squeeze, or surveil. Yet that moment is also rife with hope for a future in which technologies are not “foisted” upon ordinary people; one in which more of us have a stake in how that future is made. Silicon Valley often talks about how its products will democratize this or that experience—a misdirection that the new Luddites seek to correct, even when faced with monumental challenges. (These companies have immense capital and few legal roadblocks.) “We need to be critical and thoughtful about how we use machines to forge futures,” Veena Dubal, a law professor at UC Irvine who’s spent the past decade studying the gig economy and its impact on drivers, told me.

“I very much identify as a Luddite,” Dubal said. “This doesn’t mean I am against technology. It means I am against dispossession.”

One way to consider the Luddites, new and old, is as a movement seeking to widen the scope of who gets to participate in technological development. To more radically democratize the creation of technologies, in a manner that Silicon Valley pays only lip service to. And if the Luddites continue apace, encouraging more of us to participate, to become Luddites too—to not merely be consumers or users of technology, but shapers—they might not even need the hammers.

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