Blood in the Machine by Brian Merchant

November 23, 2023

Luddites were pro humanity, not anti technology.

I think I first encountered the idea of “social cost” in an interesting book about people and vehicles.

In the U.S., we often don’t pay for the impact we have on those around us: exhaust emissions, noise, burden on infrastructure, etc. Buy more things and a bigger house to put them in! Innovate and disrupt industries! Coal roll that socialist jerk in the electric car—this is America!

Conscientiousness is not part of the social fabric.

This book was a gripping exploration of technological innovation and social cost starting with the weavers that were screwed at the dawn of the industrial revolution.

Luddism started as a tactical strike against the technologies of control, but had exploded into a greater expression of the rage against a system where the privileged few with access to the right levers could lift themselves up at the expense of the many.

If you work in tech, don’t know this story, or don’t experience any discomfort with Marc Andreessen’s “techno optimism,” this is could be a very important book to spend time with.

It corrects the malicious characterization of Luddites being against technology and progress by following the grim story of how that came to be.

It was these two prejudiced elements—this depiction of barbaric mobs of unthinking poor who hated machinery they did not understand—that combined to forge the derogatory epithet “Luddite” that persists to this day.

Luddites understood exactly what they were doing, and they were motivated by concern for their fellow neighbors and workers. Their stories demonstrate highs and lows of humanity and what innovation can do to the balance of power and wellbeing of entire societies.

If you’re imagining a dull history, you’d be mistaken. It’s some real Game of Thrones type shit and not a light read. It gets into art, politics, racism, and classism across characters and scenes with the drama and suspense you might expect from historical fiction.

Part of what gives the book such a charge is that the historic narrative is a window into our modern lives, particularly with gig labor and crypto/AI fanatacism and broader political machines.

Nothing in it is new, exactly—it reminded me of a college modern art course that focused on the rich body of artwork reacting to the industrial revolution—but it’s a story so detailed and well told that I’m enraged and hopeful and curious in new ways. After twenty or so years, Rage Against the Machine lyrics are burbling up in my mind. I want to read Frankenstein again, watch Rogue One again. It’s a story that’s playing out all over the place, and has been for a long time.

I have things I need to change and better understand after reading it.

If you’re not going to read this, and for some reason you’re still reading my reaction to it, I would urge you to pick your favorite technology and consider who advocates for it, who stands to benefit from it, and what sort of effect it might have on people inside and outside your normal circles. Luddism isn’t bothered by you profiting from that technology, it just asks what impact it will have on everyone else around you.

I hope that matters to you, too.

“Remember,” wrote the man who had led an uprising against those who used machines to exploit people, and died for it: “A soul is of more value than work or gold.”