Now everyone is a luddite

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The Luddites arrived on the streets of San Francisco as they did in English factories two centuries ago: under cover of darkness and with iconic weapons in hand. In this case, traffic cones. An enterprising activist had observed (or perhaps received an inside tip) that placing an object on the hood of a self-driving car blocks the sensors it uses to see the road. The car freezes. Many objects would do, but the cones were useful, harmless, and transformed Cruise’s robotaxis into four-wheeled unicorns. Unless you have a sympathetic passenger, the simple remedy of removing the cone is not available to the car. For weeks this summer, before a state regulator’s decision decision to extend his reignthe city’s AV fleet suffered merry night attacks.

The pranksters were initially branded “Luddites” by online critics. Ignorant vandals, they meant. Technophobic tantrums that attacked the very notion of progress. Somehow, activists had missed the memo about how electric robotaxis would reduce carbon emissions and vastly improve road safety.

The rebels accepted the label. In a response posted on social media, they offered a quick history lesson, explaining that the original Luddites, the rural workers of the early 19th century who brought hammers to mechanized looms and weaving frames, didn’t actually hate technology. They were simply citizens who rejected a system of exploitation (in their case, mass production) that threatened to swallow them whole. Cone-wielding activists saw their own ambushes of the machines as a strike for a better society, cured of the “car brain” and more invested in bike lanes and public transportation. Luddites indeed, with pride.

They are not the only ones who recently swore allegiance to King Ludd. After an abbreviated glory in the 1810s, the Luddite brand has been revived in podcasts, TikToks, books, and picket slogans. It has required rescuing, the new Luddites say, from what is evil in popular discourse and thought. For the capitalists who crushed the original machine breakers, and their successors in the upper echelons of today’s Silicon Valley, Luddite became the perfect complement and eponymous epithet because it did not exist to defend itself, explains Brian Merchant in blood in the machine, a history of the movement published last month. The Luddites’ apparent extremism—crushing technology whose only crime was being productive—turned the name into a “pejorative figment of the corporate imagination,” Merchant writes, hurled at anyone who stood in their technocratic path.

This label is as relevant now as ever, he maintains. Like the Luddites who attacked machine-woven fabrics and factory life, today’s workers are rising up against automated warehouses, gig work, and AI-generated content. Behind them are the same old progress merchants: people like Marc Andreessen, co-founder of the venture capital firm a16z, who earlier this week published a “techno-optimistic manifesto” labeling anyone and everyone who questions the progress as “liars.”

Merchant, technology columnist at Los Angeles Times WHO Previously reviewed iPhones, joins others in arguing that Luddism is not just for loom destroyers, but for those uncomfortable with such blind faith. If you’ve ever wondered whether the new technology arriving at your door isn’t really designed for the common benefit, then perhaps you too carry Ned Ludd’s flame.

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