Blood in the Machine: the real story of the Luddites

Originally published at:


Timely given the rise of “AI”. Technology should serve humans, and not just the ultra-wealthy ones.


He was on Adam Conover’s podcast not too long ago…


…grew up thinking that the word “sabotage” was from a Luddite sort of response by way of someone throwing their shoe, their ‘sabot’, into the machinery. Unfortunately (?) that’s apparently a fanciful etymology, and it’s likely about making noise in the place of work by stomping about on your wooden shoes.

sabotage (n.)
1907 (from 1903 as a French word in English), “malicious damaging or destruction of an employer’s property by workmen,” from French sabotage, from saboter “to sabotage, bungle,” literally “walk noisily,” from sabot “wooden shoe” (see sabaton).

In English, “malicious mischief” would appear to be the nearest explicit definition of “sabotage,” which is so much more expressive as to be likely of adoption into all languages spoken by nations suffering from this new force in industry and morals. Sabotage has a flavor which is unmistakable even to persons knowing little slang and no French … [Century Magazine, November 1910]

In French, and at first in English, the sense of “deliberately and maliciously destroying property” was in reference to labor disputes, but the oft-repeated story (as old as the record of the word in English) that the modern meaning derives from strikers’ supposed tactic of throwing shoes into machinery is not supported by the etymology. Likely it was not meant as a literal image; the word was used in French in a variety of “bungling” senses, such as “to play a piece of music badly.”


An awful lot of humans have jobs being servants, from chefs and soldiers to teachers and civil government. They could mostly be replaced by AI and technology and we’re arguably past the fail-safe point into the transition. Is this the “serve humans” you’re thinking of?

Technology does away with jobs by serving humans, as it did/does then and now. It sounds to me like we might have to redefine the place of ‘jobs’ in our human social context.

I don’t think we can safely move any further forward without discussing a guaranteed income. Those machines we’re giving up our livelihoods for: surely they’re making a profit–but for whom?

And then there will be all that free time. Can we hope the trend is for liberated souls to do good?

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Every time I see someone use “Luddite” as a pejorative, I think, “But the Luddites were right!” Their jobs were being destroyed by technology, and their whole lives and communities were being destroyed as a result. The amount of suffering being caused by adoption of the technology was immense.

Whenever someone claims that new technology doesn’t destroy jobs, only replaces them with new, better ones (especially when it’s “free market” types making the claims), I want to pull my hair out. One only needs to look at the huge job losses during the industrial revolution, which were replaced by much poorer paying jobs (and led to the creation of a kind of urban poverty the likes Europe hadn’t seen before) to know better. Sure, eventually those jobs were replaced by better ones that relied on automation - but it took literal generations, whole new government spending programs in education and unemployment insurance etc. (not to mention events like the forced, colonial de-industrialization of India, specifically the destruction of India’s cloth-making industry to turn it into a captive consumer for European cloth) for that to happen. It was hardly a natural, much less inevitable, outcome.

The traditional view (and for most of the 20th century) trend was that automation was eliminating arduous physical labor, leaving (future) workers to engage in more intellectual pursuits, and in utopian visions, with an abundance of free time to pursue things like the arts. The new reality is that “AI” is eliminating those white collar jobs, including creative work, but failing to automate menial jobs like cleaning toilets, flipping burgers, making clothing in sweatshops and doing farm labor, either because it’s currently technologically impossible or too expensive to be economically feasible. So no, those servants can’t be replaced by AI. Those are the jobs we’re left with, working more hours for less pay.


Haha. No, not really. Do you even know what a teacher does, or what makes for an effective chef? These are not the BS jobs described by Graeber.

Technology can and does augment and serve people in these roles, but the idea that any of them can be replaced by “AI” is a ridiculous Libertarian techbro pipe dream and will be for decades to come (if ever).

As I said technology should serve humans, rather than vice-versa. Cory Doctorow’s discussion of centaurs vs. reverse-centaurs in the AI world goes into this in greater detail.

Which did not make the Luddites anti-technology. They wanted to preserve human skills and wanted the new technologies to enhance and serve them rather than replace them with machines that existed to serve only the profits of the mill bosses (and turn lower-skilled humans – including children – into chickenised reverse centaurs).

Assuming the techbro billionaires get their way, they may indeed put in place a guaranteed income when all the people who are stuck doing BS jobs are put out of a living. It just won’t be the fully-automated luxury communism with all that free time you might be envisioning, though. The kind Musk and Zuckerberg and their ilk will be more like this:


You can (I hope) listen to it here


The Luddites were proto-socialists, who argued the profits from the new technology should be shared with the people whose jobs were displaced, they were not anti-tech per se. The British government actually had more troops suppressing them than fighting Napoleon, which goes to show how much of a mortal threat to the power structure they were seen to be. The government also passed the Frame Acts that made breaking a mechanical loom a capital offense.

Keep in mind the UK is still very much a feudal state pretending to be a democracy, when most of the prime land in London is still owned by the same aristocratic parasites descended from thugs, with most people not owning the land under their homes but renting it under a system called leasehold originally designed to bin serfs to the land. Technofeudalism would actually be an improvement.


“Inspired the birth of science fiction?” I assume that’s going to be Mary Shelley & Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus given her family background in radical politics.


Wow, you have not done a good job noticing what AI is actually able to do well. It is not subtle human-facing tasks at all. I’m pretty sure it will be able to replace managers before any of those things, save only soldiers, and those only in their “blow up things that move” role.


It also won’t eliminate skilled trades like plumber, electrician, barber, etc. As you say, the labour market will just get flooded with people formerly employed in white-collar jobs that were automated out of existence wanting (but not necessarily able) to do those jobs, driving down wages. We’ve seen a preview of that in small-town economies after the local factory was closed and replaced by one overseas (basically a meat-based version of automated labour).


G: Haha. No, not really. Do you even know what a teacher does, or what makes for an effective chef?

Yes, I’ve been both, proudly. More and more chefwork is being outsourced by a machine that can effectively reproduce art on a grand scale, from candy bars to banquets, and largely, effectively farm-to-table, so to speak–and this has taken place over the last 100 years. I used “chef” to represent food preparation; I should not have.

Online coursework is increasingly prevalent from gradeschool through graduate work. An online university was rare 30 years ago (excepting correspondence classes/degrees) but is a casual A or B choice now. The teacher’s assistant’s job who helped grade papers has also been eliminated–not that they were ever paid (much); the bricks-n-mortar builders/maintenance are out of a job for the teachers’ eventual werehouse/server farm, not to mention the satellite culture that trad universities gave their communities. Even the purpose of higher education is being questioned as thousands of newly developed “how-do-I-do-that” tutorials are now possible through YT from rebuilding a car to rebuilding a career–that vocational counselor’s job eliminated by an online presence and maybe the transmission guy around the corner, too. That one person doing the tutorial now–through tech–has a reach to millions, eliminating the need for his brethren to bother making the same tutorial.

Cory’s article appears to strengthen workers’ bargaining techniques with what is possible in current technology and law but the forces at work here have been growing over the last century. People want services; businesses want to automate them and increasingly can through R & D. The Amazon drivers he describes hanging their phones from trees is poignant but the deliveries they are making are part of the little that’s left of the human commitment to making the merchandise.

G: Assuming the techbro billionaires get their way, they may indeed put in place a guaranteed income when all the people who are stuck doing BS jobs are put out of a living. It just won’t be the fully-automated luxury communism with all that free time you might be envisioning, though.

I understand it still takes a road crew to fix pot holes and some skills to keep society running. But I have no expectation that it will be empowering for anyone but ‘already haves’ with basic subsistance being (almost) the norm with a bit of contempt thrown in from the media. Chaos, illiteracy and envy are well-cultivated tools to subvert most progressive initiatives to the point that most victories can be undone by just one clown dictator.

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All the actual jobs that matter, in other words. We can easily do away with the CEOs and “thoughtleaders” and the rest of the “elite” jobs and we’d be fine. Replace THOSE fuckers with AI and things will likely improve, because we can ignore them.

Nope. It’s currently only filling the pockets of a few who will happily deprive us all of livings to make themselves a few more cents.

Captain America Lol GIF by mtv


Paul Krugman had an interesting series of op eds recently where he talked about the economic plight of small town/rural America (and the absurdity of people there supporting Republicans who not only did nothing for them, but mostly worked against their interests). Part of it was talking about the rhetoric of “bringing back” those lost factory jobs, but he ran the numbers and pointed out that it wouldn’t actually help much, because those industries employed so many fewer people now anywhere. So automation has gotten rid of many of those jobs, either directly or indirectly (by more generally reshaping industries and their organization).

Yeah exactly - technology serves capital, not “humans,” which is a very different thing.


Replace THOSE fuckers with AI and things will likely improve, because we can ignore them.

Luckily all those people will just disappear into the background without a fight /s. If they can’t manipulate the law into holding power, they will manipulate the voter to keep it.

[Laughing man] You outsourced that for free and saved a thousand words, didn’t you? We’re watching the experiment roll out in real time as AI manipulated art, culture-jamming and fakes are dropped/leaked/pumped into the public discourse, not terribly different from c1500. In a broad sense we’re contemplating taking up Martin Luther’s mantle of “let us have the keys, too”.

But all keys are two-edged swords.

At one time books and literacy were the guise of the AI component. If you believed in the system and had the opportunity, you were invited into the system, its universities and power structures. I don’t see how any of that will change in the unifying hopes of AI. That horrid man behind the curtain isn’t going to say, Sure, okay, I’m going home now.

There are still people who think a fair, working civilization is a bad idea–we just had one for a president. Making technology stronger and egalitarian is one thing–and arguably better for society in a rational sense–but more often it’s the general population that’s manipulated for the welfare of those who have the access to those levers–and AI makes a great lever in anyone’s hands. In a sense, the Catholic Church played this role for centuries–until the 1500 AI took them down a peg, temporarily.

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Terminology and semantics are very important when talking about LLMs and “AI”. That’s why buying into the techbro description of them as “replacements” for human workers is problematic.

An example of a replacement would be a laundry machine. No reasonable person objects to the idea of a labour-saving device that delivers the same or better results as a tedious manual effort.

What’s on offer here, in contrast, is a cost-saving substitute, and a poor one at that, designed and promoted by people who see interaction with other humans that doesn’t result in profit or adulation as a nuisance. That’s what the Luddites were against – ersatz substitutes for the genuine article.

That’s not really what’s being questioned. The purpose of higher education remains the same as always, which is why the vast majority of these tech moguls fight tooth-and-nail to get their own children into college even as they wax rhapsodic of remote AI-enabled higher education for the masses.

What’s being questioned, from the neoliberal capitalist POV, is the cost-benefit value of a college credential. From that stunted perspective, it’s a legitimate question given the financial cost – especially if the degree is issued by a non-name-brand university. But again, we don’t have to accept the neoliberal default.

Reach, yes, but not connection. And connection is a requirement to fulfilling the purpose of higher education. Gradgrindian facts-facts-facts only take one so far.



Literally what I just said dude… LITERALLY MY EXACT WORDS… :woman_shrugging:

Never fucking said that shit.

How about we fight that shit rather than spending our time sneering at others?


Dude, you are projecting ALL sorts of shit into what I said. How about don’t do that?

Also, AI is literally NOTHING like the printing press, other than it involves large scale, mass communication… Just… no. It’s hyped up shit, a solution searching for a problem.


There are too many pitfalls with this approach - most already exposed by people who use those videos to do home and car repairs. In the end, a significant percentage of folks getting free advice online wind up going right back where they should’ve started - with an experienced professional. Worse, they might have to pay a pro more to fix additional problems they caused by following the YT approach. Sure, there are pros who create videos, but not every tutorial is going to fit the scenarios faced by the viewers. All those years of training and experience enables professionals to make difficult tasks look easy when they are not.

Unfortunately, like in the case below, that gap in knowledge can lead to injury and death:

Adena the kind of place where “uncredentialed” doctors can get hired to do specialized cardiac surgery. Other doctors there were observed watching YouTube videos on medical procedures they were “unfamiliar with,” according to the Scioto Valley Guardian, and the local coroner doing the “autopsies” is also an Adena employee.

Relying on graduates who use or need YT for help to do anything of value means taking a big risk. Personally, I’ll fight like hell to make sure that’s not the only choice available to the masses in the future.