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Yesterday Ferrebeekeeper described the Luddite movement, an anti-technology workers’ revolt which occurred near the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The revolt centered on the idea that labor-saving machines destroy jobs, a concept which economists decry as the “Luddite fallacy.” Most Neoclassical economists believe that, even if machines cause job losses in certain industries, such losses are more than offset by the attendant fall in prices for consumers. The history of the world since the beginning of the industrial revolution has borne this idea out, as more and more goods have become available to wider and wider markets. The history of first world nations reflects a sort of anti-Luddite narrative: farmers are not needed to plough the lands because of greater agricultural productivity so they go to work in factories. Factories then become more productive thanks to machines and cheap competition so the factory workers become tertiary sector employees. The tertiary sector consists of service jobs where employees do not necessarily make or produce anything tangible but instead offer support, experience, or knowledge—for example nurses, lawyers, waste-disposal professionals, casino employees, courtesans, financiers and such like (some economists posit that there is a quaternary sector of scientists, professors, computer geniuses, artists, and bloggers—the creative sector—but we needn’t get into that here).
Since the dawn of the Industrial era, this progression has worked admirably for creating economic progress. And, during that time, machines have been constantly improving. Whereas the horseless carriage once put horses, hostlers, and livery stables out of work but provided automakers with jobs, then robot arms and mechanized welding units came along to supplant those auto-workers. The displaced autoworkers all had to go out and become radiologists, actuaries, sex-workers, and restaurateurs. Now, however, machines are becoming sophisticated enough to invade the tertiary sector. Subtle computer programs are proving superior to trained (overworked) radiologists at finding the tiniest nascent tumors. Accountants are being replaced by Turbo-tax and Quickbooks. Weird Japanese scientists have built robots which…um make sushi and pour drinks. It seems like this trend is going to gobble up a great many service jobs in the near future from all strata of society.
A world where machines are able to replace white-collar workers would mean the hollowing out of the middle class. The international corporations and plutocrats making software, robots, and automated factories would become extravagantly rich while the rest of would have to struggle to find niches the machines haven’t taken over. A huge economic slump would grip the developed world–as average consumers became unable to buy the goods turned out by those factories. Hmm, that seems awfully familiar.
So are the Luddites finally correct? Should we go out and smash our computers and Roombas? Well… it isn’t like we can stop what we are doing. To move forward in science and manufacturing we are going to need better thinking machines. At some point these machines will be better at thinking then we are…and they will also be better than us at making machines. That point will be the technological singularity and it seems that we are on that path, unable to turn back. Perhaps we will end up with a race of omniscient omnipotent servants (yay!). Perhaps we will combine with machines and become mighty cyborgs. Perhaps we will end up as housepets or as a mountain of skulls the robots walk on and laugh at. I don’t know. Nobody does. Yikes! How did this essay about a nineteenth century protest movement take us to this destination?
In the mean time, it would be useful if people would talk more about what we want from our technology and how we can get there. The fact that having better machines is currently splitting society into some dysfunctional Edwardian plutocracy is disquieting. It means we are not thinking hard enough or using our imaginations. We should start doing so now…while we are still allowed to!
Ned Ludd was a person with severe developmental problems back in the 18th century, when society lacked effective ways of assisting people with disabilities. In the cruel parlance of the time he was a “half-wit”. Supposedly, Ned worked as a weaver in Anstey (an English village which was the gateway to the ancient Charnwood forest). In 1779, something went wrong—either Ned misunderstood a confusing directive, or he was whipped for inefficiency, or the taunts of the villagers drove him to rage. He picked up a hammer and smashed two brand new stocking frames (a sort of mechanical knitting machine used to quickly weave textiles). Then he fled off into the wilderness where he lived as a freeman. Some say that in the primal forests he learned to become a king.
Ned is important not because of his life (indeed it seems likely that he was not real—or, at best, he was just barely real) but because he was mythicized into a larger-than-life figure around whom the Luddite movement coalesced. This diffuse social rebellion had some roots in the austere and straightened times of the Napoleonic war but it was mostly a direct response to the first sweeping changes wrought by the Industrial revolution. Skilled weavers and textile artisans were aggrieved that machines operated by unskilled workpeople could easily produce much more fabric than trained artisans using traditional methods. The unskilled workpeople were angry at being underpaid and mistreated in the harsh dangerous early factories. This anger was combined with widespread popular discontent about the privations of war and the rapacity of the elite. Free companies of rebels met and drilled at night in Sherwood Forest or on vacant moorland. Anonymous malefactors smashed the new machines. Mills burnt down and factory owners were threatened. It was whispered that it was all the work of “King Ludd” whose rough signatures appeared on broadsheets and threatening letters.
The first wave of Luddite Rebellion broke out in 1811 centered in Nottingham and the surrounding areas. It is interesting that the same region which came up with Robin Hood, the hero-thief of folklore, also was responsible for remaking Ned Ludd from a lumpen outsider into a bellicose king of anti-technology. Disgruntled (male) artisans marched in women’s clothes and called themselves “Ned Ludd’s wives”. Circulars were addressed from the “king’s” office deep in Sherwood forest.
The original teasing tone quickly vanished as Luddite uprisings broke out across Northern England in the subsequent months and years until British regulars were sent in to quash them. For a brief period, there were more redcoats putting down Luddite insurrections in England than there were fighting Napoleon on the Iberian Peninsula. Professional soldiers made short work of the rebels and Parliament hastily enacted a series of laws which made “machine-breaking” a capital crime. A number of Luddites were executed and others were transported to Australia.
Ned Ludd escaped these reprisals by being from a different era (and fictional). “Luddite” has now become a preferred label for all people who eschew technology. The half-wit King Ned still lives on in the imagination of people who have lost their jobs to the march of progress and in the nightmares of technophiles and economists. Indeed one of the great constructs/truisms of economics is the Luddite fallacy—which holds that labor saving devices increase unemployment. Neoclassical economists (who named the concept) assert that it is a fallacy because labor saving devices decrease the cost of goods—allowing more consumers to obtain them. However there are some who believe this has only been the case so far because the machines have not become sophisticated enough. Once a certain threshold of technology is passed thinking machines might replace many skilled positions as well as unskilled ones. This simultaneously awesome and horrifying concept will be our theme tomorrow.