Who is Ludd?
Meet the Disruptor of the Disruptors
Good morning! I hope you're having a wonderful life.
I want to talk about a book I’m reading. I’m not even done reading it, but it’s making me think so much about history, the way stories are told and how quickly we forget.
In my less compassionate days as a bright-eyed, optimistic youth, I would regularly use the word “Luddite.” I have always been interested in technology - computers, video games, gadgets, electronics, software - and over time I learned this word that, as I understood it, meant “someone who’s old and stubborn and rejects technology because they’re stupid or afraid of it.” That’s how I used it, and that’s how most people these days use it. I’ll spare you the dictionary quotation - I think you probably know what I mean.
Blood in the Machine is a book about the Luddites. It's, in a way, the story of where that word came from. It explores who the Luddites were and how society got to the point where a worker-led movement was being commanded by a fictional hero – General Ned Ludd – who appeared across England, leading cloth makers in an organized rebellion, destroying the machines designed to replace them and their work.
The book is really eye-opening. It revealed to me the power and inspiration of the Luddites. They were doing something incredibly important for their time - pushing back on a form of technological "progress" that threatened their very way of life. It makes me worried for us now. Corporations routinely make decisions that cost people their lives, and it’s common knowledge that they lobby our governments to perpetuate systems that poison our planet. Yet, we're often told that the ways people choose to protest are "too much" or "not the right way" to speak up. When the Luddites were active, they would often show great restraint, destroying only the machines they took issue with while sparing the others. At other times they were violent, and many people died during their movement. It was a mess, but can you blame people entering the wrong end of the industrial revolution for pushing back?
We often see the idea parroted that, if you don't embrace a new technology, you'll just be left behind. This comes up with “AI” technologies. People - mostly people who sell “AI” services or are extremely bought-in on it - say that the only thing you'll accomplish by not integrating “AI” into your work is making yourself irrelevant. It's inevitable technology, they say, and to reject it is to embrace your own obsolescence. It feels like a very 20th- and 21st-century mentality. We said the same thing about the computer, the internet, and the electric car. I remember how it felt to think the same thing when I heard people talking about not wanting a smartphone, or thinking their business didn't need a website.
Turns out, this was a 19th century mindset, too. Here’s a quote from the book, on this same idea.
Incidentally, it is what set later industrial revolutions turning, too. As David Noble, a historian of 20th century automation wrote:
“Managers feel they must automate because ‘everyone’s doing it.’ Out of fear that they will be undone by more up-to-date competitors — a paranoia encouraged by equipment vendors. There is this vague belief that the drive to automate is inevitable, unavoidable, and this belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Blood in the Machine is a fascinating book. It compares the frame-breaker movement of the 1800s to the “AI revolution” we’re living through today. But more than anything, it makes me think about how, when we stop telling stories, we let the meaning of things change, and how that has a real effect on the ways in which we think. Until I read this book, I didn't know where the word "luddite" came from. I knew what it meant, though. When I'd say it, I'd picture a caveman or a deluded fool - the Luddites must have been some crazy cult from the enlightenment who rejected medicine or something equally insane.
By forgetting the story of the Luddites, we let the very people who fought against them - the factory owners, government and manufacturers - poison the very name of their movement, using it against them. They created something powerful - a self-reinforcing idea that benefited them at a cultural level. It became an insult to call someone a Luddite, because to reject a new technology isn't an act of self-preservation, advocacy or social justice - it's a rejection of the values of our society and the dogma we all believe:
All innovation is good. All new technology is the future. We embrace the next new thing handed to us from the leaders of industry or we are left behind. These are the laws of our universe. To reject them is to be a Luddite.
And now I'm thinking maybe I want to be a Luddite.
Creating a piece of art inspired by this book.
The illustration at the top of this post was inspired by the idea of General Ludd. This figure - often compared to a Robin Hood-esque myth (much of the movement was literally based in Nottingham) that represents the working class enforcing fair treatment and a just system under capitalist rule. Ludd feels like a great character to inspire a new kind of superhero (though, given who currently markets superheroes, I doubt we'll have Ludd teaming up with Captain America any time soon). The amazing thing about the myth of Ludd is that they could be anyone.
I wanted to create an image that felt powerful and a bit pulpy. Something to evoke the feeling of justice - or to counteract the feeling of powerlessness so many of us express feeling these days. I think now, as then, we could use a figure who represents the ability to fight back. Maybe not by breaking automated looms, but in our own ways.
It took a few tries to resolve this drawing and the finished product is much darker than I had initially imagined. I like the idea of this figure who is a hero to the working class but a menace to the elite. They should be kind of scary. Like Batman, if Batman wasn’t a millionaire who beats up petty criminals and instead was a an underpaid employee who beats up Mark Zuckerberg and smashes servers or something.
I highly recommend reading Blood in the Machine. I plan on finishing it, of course, but I couldn't keep my mouth shut until then.
You can order it from Bookshop.org to support an independent bookstore, or just go to a local shop to pick up a copy.
I'm listening to the audiobook, which is really nicely narrated. Check it out on Libro.fm - again, supporting an independent book shop of your choice.
Or, if you don't feel like paying for it, grab it from your local library!
Finally, the author of the book, Brian Merchant, was on 99% Invisible. So if you aren’t in for a whole book you should at least listen to that - it was a good one!
Lots of love,