I’m a Luddite. This isn’t a hesitant confession, but a proud proclamation. I’m also a social scientist who studies how recent technologies affect politics, economics and society. For me, Luddism isn’t a naive feeling, but a considered position.

And once what Luddism actually stands for, I’m willing to bet you might be one too — or not less than rather more sympathetic to the Luddite cause than you think that.

Today the term is usually lobbed as an insult. Take this instance from a recent report by global consulting firm Accenture on why the health-care industry should enthusiastically embrace artificial intelligence:

Excessive caution might be detrimental, making a luddite culture of following the herd as an alternative of forging forward.

To be a Luddite is seen as synonymous with being primitive — backwards in your outlook, unaware of innovation’s wonders, and terrified of modern society. This all-or-nothing approach to debates about technology and society is predicated on severe misconceptions of the true history and politics of the unique Luddites: English textile staff within the early nineteenth century who, under the quilt of night, destroyed weaving machines in protest to changes of their working conditions.

Our circumstances today are more just like theirs than it might sound, as recent technologies are getting used to rework our own working and social conditions — think increases in worker surveillance during lockdowns, or exploitation by gig labour platforms. It’s time we reconsider the teachings of Luddism.

A transient — and accurate — history of Luddism

Even amongst other social scientists who study these sorts of critical questions on technology, the label of “Luddite” continues to be largely an ironic one. It’s the type of self-effacing thing you say when fumbling with screen-sharing on Zoom during a presentation: “Sorry, I’m such a Luddite!”

It wasn’t until I learned the true origins of Luddism that I started sincerely to treat myself as one in all them.

The Luddites were a secret organisation of staff who smashed machines within the textile factories of England within the early 1800s, a period of accelerating industrialisation, economic hardship as a consequence of expensive conflicts with France and the United States, and widespread unrest among the many working class. They took their name from the apocryphal tale of Ned Ludd, a weaver’s apprentice who supposedly smashed two knitting machines in a fit of rage.

The contemporary usage of Luddite has the machine-smashing part correct — but that’s about all it gets right.

First, the Luddites weren’t indiscriminate. They were intentional and purposeful about which machines they smashed. They targeted those owned by manufacturers who were known to pay low wages, disregard staff’ safety, and/or speed up the pace of labor. Even inside a single factory — which might contain machines owned by different capitalists — some machines were destroyed and others pardoned depending on the business practices of their owners.

Second, the Luddites weren’t ignorant. Smashing machines was not a kneejerk response to recent technology, but a tactical response by staff based on their understanding of how owners were using those machines to make labour conditions more exploitative. As historian David Noble puts it, they understood “technology in the current tense”, by analysing its immediate, material impacts and acting accordingly.

Luddism was a working-class movement against the political consequences of business capitalism. The Luddites wanted technology to be deployed in ways in which made work more humane and gave staff more autonomy. The bosses, alternatively, desired to drive down costs and increase productivity.

Third, the Luddites weren’t against innovation. Many of the technologies they destroyed weren’t even recent inventions. As historian Adrian Randall points out, one machine they targeted, the gig mill, had been used for greater than a century in textile manufacturing. Similarly, the facility loom had been used for a long time before the Luddite uprisings.

It wasn’t the invention of those machines that provoked the Luddites to motion. They only banded together once factory owners began using these machines to displace and disempower staff.

The factory owners won ultimately: they succeeded in convincing the state to make “frame breaking” a treasonous crime punishable by hanging. The army was sent in to interrupt up and search out the Luddites.

The Luddite revolt lasted from 1811 to 1816, and today (as Randall puts it), it has grow to be “a cautionary moral tale”. The story is told to discourage staff from resisting the march of capitalist progress, lest they too find yourself just like the Luddites.


Today, recent technologies are getting used to change our lives, societies and dealing conditions no less profoundly than mechanical looms were used to rework those of the unique Luddites. The excesses of massive tech corporations – Amazon’s inhumane exploitation of staff in warehouses driven by automation and machine vision, Uber’s gig-economy lobbying and disrespect for labour law, Facebook’s unchecked extraction of unprecedented amounts of user data – are driving a public backlash that will contain the seeds of a neo-Luddite movement.

As Gavin Mueller writes in his recent book on Luddism, our goal in taking over the Luddite banner ought to be “to check and learn from the history of past struggles, to get better the voices from past movements in order that they may inform current ones”.

What would Luddism appear like today? It won’t necessarily (or only) be a movement that takes up hammers against smart fridges, data servers and e-commerce warehouses. Instead, it might treat technology as a political and economic phenomenon that deserves to be critically scrutinised and democratically governed, fairly than a grab bag of neat apps and gadgets.

In a recent article in Nature, my colleagues and I argued that data should be reclaimed from corporate gatekeepers and managed as a collective good by public institutions. This type of argument is deeply informed by the Luddite ethos, calling for the hammer of antitrust to interrupt up the tech oligopoly that currently controls how data is created, accessed, and used.

A neo-Luddite movement would understand no technology is sacred in itself, but is just worthwhile insofar because it advantages society. It would confront the harms done by digital capitalism and seek to deal with them by giving people more power over the technological systems that structure their lives.

This is what it means to be a Luddite today. Two centuries ago, Luddism was a rallying call utilized by the working class to construct solidarity within the battle for his or her livelihoods and autonomy.

And so too should neo-Luddism be a banner that brings staff together in today’s fight for those self same rights. Join me in reclaiming the name of Ludd!

This article was originally published at theconversation.com