People often think that the Luddites were merely anti-technology because they opposed automation during the Industrial Revolution (1760–1840). The story is more complex. As we face increasing automation today, we might want to see what we can learn from their history:
Popular lore about the Luddites is somewhat inaccurate. They were not actually anti-technology or automation per se. Indeed, they were workers who had trained on the first generation of automated textile machines. They had spent years honing their craft. However, the second generation of automated textile manufacturing made their skills obsolescent. Instead of requiring an operator with years of experience, these machines took only a few months of training.
So the Luddites protested because they were skilled workers who, thanks to new technology, were being replaced by unskilled workers. We should have some sympathy for them. At the same time, unskilled workers could be paid less which meant that more goods were available more cheaply to everyone, thanks to machines.
A bit of the history of the Luddites movement might help us see some of today’s issues more clearly:
First, the small number of desperate skilled workers who broke into factories and smashed machines, starting in 1811, took their name from a man who may never have existed:
They called themselves “Luddites” after Ned Ludd, a young apprentice who was rumored to have wrecked a textile apparatus in the late-18th century. There’s no evidence Ludd actually existed — like Robin Hood, he was said to reside in Sherwood Forest — but he eventually became the mythical leader of the movement. The vandals claimed to be following orders from “General Ludd,” and they even issued manifestoes and threatening letters under his name. Evan Andrews, “Who were the Luddites?” at History
It’s not clear that the Luddites thought technology, as such, was their enemy. One historian writes, “Despite their modern reputation, the original Luddites were neither opposed to technology nor inept at using it.” They were just not sure whether technology, as it was being implemented, would help them survive:
British working families at the start of the 19th century were enduring economic upheaval and widespread unemployment. A seemingly endless war against Napoleon’s France had brought “the hard pinch of poverty,” wrote Yorkshire historian Frank Peel, to homes “where it had hitherto been a stranger.” Food was scarce and rapidly becoming more costly. Then, on March 11, 1811, in Nottingham, a textile manufacturing center, British troops broke up a crowd of protesters demanding more work and better wages. Richard Conniff, “What the Luddites Really Fought Against” at Smithsonian Magazine (2011)
The protests spread but were quickly contained. Parliament passed a law to make machine destruction a death penalty offense. By 1812–13, Luddites were being gunned down, hanged at show trials, or transported to Australia. As Conniff puts it, “In truth, they inflicted less violence than they encountered.”
Their main concern appeared to have been the use of machines to destroy the centuries-old apprenticeship system by which a working-class child who went through an apprenticeship in a skilled trade could expect socially appropriate compensation later, as opposed to starvation wages. Only much later, in the 20th century, did the Luddites’ name become a popular term for a “technophobe,” someone who fears new technology.
A science writer notes the irony: “History, in one of its callous twists, recast their story from a workers’ revolt for fair treatment to a short-sighted war against technology and progress”:
The truth is that the Luddites were the skilled, middle-class workers of their time. After centuries on more-or-less good terms with merchants who sold their goods, their lives were upended by machines replacing them with low-skilled, low-wage laborers in dismal factories. To ease the transition, the Luddites sought to negotiate conditions similar to those underlying capitalist democracies today: taxes to fund workers’ pensions, a minimum wage, and adherence to minimum labor standards. Michael J. Coren, “Luddites have been getting a bad rap for 200 years. But, turns out, they were right” at Quartz
Factory owners of the day often thought that they could treat the workers like machines too and the defeat of the Luddites was a prelude to the horrific working and living conditions of 19th-century workers. Undernourished and unschooled children were often the minders of the machines.
Reforms, including free, compulsory schooling, were hard-fought over many subsequent decades. Eventually, of course, rising living standards created new jobs but it took a long time for the economy to adjust. Many wonder whether we live in similar times today:
That economic and political question is hanging over western democracies coping with a wave of populism seemingly tracking a widening gap between stagnant wages and ballooning wealth at the top. While automation eventually tends to create new jobs even after it destroys old ones, that’s little consolation for millions of workers whose skills and experience are obsolete. Michael J. Coren, “Luddites have been getting a bad rap for 200 years. But, turns out, they were right” at Quartz
The bottom line is, as Coren says, that the Luddites are misunderstood today: “Really it was a political fight over who was going to use the spoils of profits from machinery,” and that question remains.
It tends to be assumed that automation destroys unskilled jobs while creating fewer skilled jobs. It is true that technology allows unskilled workers to do jobs that previously required skilled workers. Today, for example, anyone can create YouTube videos and share them with the world, no need for the highly skilled staff that previous generations would have required to produce a television show. Anyone can also make and sell products via various online marketplaces.
In fact, technology tends to replace skilled workers with unskilled workers. Why? Because skilled workers are expensive. Replacing an unskilled worker with a skilled worker is a losing proposition unless the skilled worker can do the work of many unskilled workers. In contrast, using technology to replace a skilled worker with an unskilled worker is an easy win.
Let us not forget the Luddites. They had a legitimate grievance as the investments they made in developing their skills became unexpectedly useless. The same may well happen to many reading this post. The skills you have acquired or are acquiring may well become useless. This is something you should be prepared for.
At the same time, let us not forget the unnamed workers who were replacing the Luddites. These were unskilled workers who, thanks to technology, were suddenly able to produce work equal to those skilled workers. Also, let us not forget the unnamed consumers who benefited from cheaper costs.
In the end, we are better off for the automation of the industrial revolution as it allowed unskilled workers to be more productive. The same is true of modern technology, relatively unskilled workers are enabled to produce work that only a team of skilled workers could have produced in past generations. This does not mean that there are not painful adjustments for those whose skills become obsolete. We should look to helping those who must make adjustments without losing the benefits of automation in terms of higher standards of living and more opportunities for everyone.
Dr. Winston Ewert is a software engineer living in the Vancouver, BC area. He obtained a PhD studying electrical and computer engineering at Baylor University. His work on specified complexity, swarm intelligence, evolutionary simulation, and genome analysis has appeared in conference, journals, and books. He is a Senior Researcher of the Evolutionary Informatics Lab, a Senior Research Scientist at Biologic Institute, and a Senior Fellow of the Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.
Also by Winston Ewert: Will the Free Market Help or Hurt Us in an AI-Empowered World? We may need new institutions, such as insurance against job obsolescence
Is technology neutral? Or does it change our world whether we like it or not?