What neo-Luddites are right — and wrong — about Big Tech

Say what you will of Lord Byron, he knew how to turn a sentence. Here he is, speaking in the House of Lords in 1812. His subject is the madness of the Luddites who invade the factories and smash the machines: the arts so beneficial to humanity are designed to be sacrificed to the improvement of machinery.

The term “Luddite” is an insult today, a label you’d attach to a boomer who didn’t understand how podcasts work. But it would have been obvious to Byron’s contemporaries that his words were dripping with sarcasm. Byron supported the Luddites. They had indeed been sacrificed on the altar of productivity gains. Nothing ignored their violent resistance.

Alongside the ‘Luddite’ label is the ‘Luddite fallacy’, which refers to the belief that technological progress causes mass unemployment. We call it a fallacy because two centuries of experience have contradicted it; there have always been new jobs and, over time and on average, these new jobs have been more productive and better paid than the old ones.

But Luddism, it seems, is back. A forthcoming book, blood in the machine, argues that “the origins of the rebellion against Big Tech” are in the Luddite uprising. And for at least a decade, experts have worried about the prospect of mass unemployment.

First there was the notorious “Future of Work” study by Oxford academics Carl Frey and Michael Osborne in 2013, the title of which revealed that 47% of jobs were susceptible to automation. Then it’s all the taxi and truck drivers whose jobs would be swallowed up by self-driving vehicles. Now it’s “generative” artificial intelligence that strikes terror into the hearts of creatives everywhere: Dall-E and Midjourney will destroy jobs for illustrators, ChatGPT and Bard will come for journalists and technical writers.

Will our jobs really be destroyed this time? Or should we sit back and look forward to two more centuries of productivity-driven prosperity? I think neither view is satisfactory.

Instead, what of the view that technology does not create mass unemployment, but is nonetheless quite capable of destroying livelihoods, creating unintended consequences and concentrating the power in the hands of a few? (I once suggested “neo-Luddite” as a label for this view, but alas, true technophobes appropriated that label long ago.)

Consider the ATM: it didn’t make bank tellers redundant. Instead, it freed them up to cross-sell subprime mortgages. Or the digital spreadsheet, which freed humble accounting clerks from the need to do rows and columns of arithmetic, and allowed accounting to become (ahem) a more creative profession. These technologies have not destroyed jobs, but have recreated them. Some have become more fulfilling and enjoyable, others more sinister and overwhelming.

In their new book power and progresseconomists Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson argue that while technological progress can produce large-scale prosperity, there is no guarantee it will happen quickly – and in some cases, no guarantee it will happen at all.

“The textile mills of the early days of Britain’s Industrial Revolution generated great wealth for a few but failed to raise the incomes of workers for nearly a hundred years,” they write. Too late for textile workers who have lost good jobs. There are more striking examples, such as the ocean-going ships that enabled the transatlantic slave trade. There are also more subtle ones. The barcode allowed us to shorten checkout lines and lower prices, but it also changed the balance of power between retailers and suppliers, between convenience stores and large retailers, and ultimately between traditional retailers and their online competitors.

Neo-Luddites can take inspiration from John Booth, a 19-year-old apprentice who joined a Luddite attack on a textile factory in April 1812. He was wounded, detained, and died after allegedly being tortured to give the identity of his fellow Luddites. . Booth’s last words became legend: “Can you keep a secret? he whispered to the local priest, who attested that he could. The dying Booth replied, “Me too.” But it’s Booth’s previous words that deserve our attention. The new machinery, he argued, “could be man’s chief blessing instead of his curse if society were constituted differently”.

In other words, whether a new technology helps ordinary citizens depends not only on the nature of the technology, but also on the nature of the society in which that technology is developed and deployed. Acemoglu and Johnson argue that large-scale flourishing eludes us now, just as it eluded the workers of the first industrial revolution.

What’s needed? Better policies, of course: taxes and subsidies to foster the right kind of technology; smart regulations to protect workers’ rights; antitrust action to break up monopolies; all of this, of course, done skillfully and with a minimum of red tape and distortion. To state the task clearly is to see how difficult it is likely to be.

And as Acemoglu and Johnson explain, such policies will fall on rocky ground unchecked by sources of political power capable of standing up to monopolies and billionaires.

In the absence of such conditions, Luddism resorted to what one historian called “rioting collective bargaining”, arson, and even murder. The state fought back and, in the words of another historian, “Luddism ended on the scaffold.” It was a disgraceful undertaking, and a wasted opportunity to reform society and deliver “man’s chief blessing,” as Booth had hoped.

If the latest technologies are truly transformative, we will have such an opportunity again. Will we do better this time?

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