In Praise of Luddites: Toward Humanist Technology
By Joseph Grosso
“We’re beyond good and evil here, the technology, it’s neutral, eh.”
—Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge
In a surreal interview last year, Marc Andreessen, cofounder of Netscape and the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and overall Silicon Valley legend, also a Meta (formerly Facebook) board member, put forward the idea of what he called “Reality Privilege.” Explaining the rationale for the coming online Metaverse that Big Tech is investing countless billions in creating, Andreessen states:
A small percentage live in a real-world environment that is rich, even overflowing, with glorious substance, beautiful settings, plentiful stimulation, and many fascinating people to talk with … Everyone else, the vast majority of humanity, lacks Reality Privilege—their online world is, or will be, immeasurably richer and more fulfilling than most of the physical and social environment around them in the quote-unquote real world.
The Reality Privileged, of course, call this conclusion dystopian, and demand that we prioritize improvements in reality over improvements in virtuality. To which I say: reality has had 5000 years to get good, and is clearly still woefully lacking for most people; I don’t think we should wait another 5000 years to see if it eventually closes the gap. We should build—and we are building—online worlds that make life and work and love for everyone …1
At first glance, it appears impossible to take such a plainly reactionary sentiment seriously. After all, the Metaverse concept itself goes back to Neal Stepheson’s 1992 dystopian sci-fi novel Snow Crash where it is a virtual refuge from a Thunderdome world run by the Mafia. So while hardly a new concept, passively accepting such a world and celebrating cheap escapism nobody is asking for as humanity’s grandest hope is certainly new. Still, perhaps Andreessen’s vision of actual reality should not be completely dismissed as implausible. In fact, such a world appears to be the reality that Silicon Valley is intent on creating. While Big Tech endlessly proclaims its creations to be engines of liberation, the reality is the opposite.
Back in 2012, Amazon purchased the robotics company Kiva for $775 million.2 The reason for the acquisition was that Kiva just pioneered a robot that could move shelves around a warehouse by lifting them. In a grim foreboding of the future, injuries are higher at the warehouses where the robots have been deployed than those where they have not been (54 percent higher in 2019 according to OSHA data).3 The Kiva robots (along with Pegasus, an item-categorizing system) may save workers some of the trouble of running around the warehouse since the robots follow markers on the floor and route shelves to workers to pick the correct items, but they also drive greater production speed and allow management to have greater surveillance power. If a lag between an exhausted worker performing repetitive tasks at high speed is too long, the time is logged as “time off task.” Such time is tracked by computers and too much of it can result in a worker being disciplined or even fired. Of course, robots don’t get fatigued. According to data from the International Federation of Robotics, worldwide unit sale of “professional service robots” increased 41 percent during 2020, while the money spent increased by only 12 percent—meaning the technology is getting cheaper.4
A report from the Center for Investigative Reporting shows the effect of the machines:
The robots were too efficient. They could bring items so quickly that the productivity expectations for workers more than doubled, according to a former senior operations manager who saw the transformation. And they kept climbing. At the most common kind of warehouse, workers called pickers—who previously had to grab and scan about 100 items an hour—were expected to hit rates of up to 400 an hour at robotic fulfillment centers.5
Take the case of food delivery apps. The market cap for DoorDash sits at just over $37 billion.6 Much like their fellow workers throughout the gig economy, food delivery workers contend with fluctuating pay, no health benefits, and no official employment status. The job comes with costs; expensive bikes, maintenance, garage space to shelter in between deliveries. Workers even pay for their own app-branded cooler bags.7 A 2021 study of app-based workers, conducted by the Cornell Worker Institute and the Worker’s Justice Project, shows delivery workers have an average base pay of $7.87—not counting time spent between deliveries.8 Companies have been caught manipulating the apps to take workers’ tips.
Until delivery apps emerged, food delivery was the domain of local pizza shops and Chinese restaurants. While such delivery jobs were often shabby, the delivery radius was usually within a mile and the restaurant provided shelter between deliveries (perhaps with some free food and camaraderie). Why didn’t most other restaurants provide delivery service with a longer radius? It isn’t profitable. Such a model is wasteful and inefficient, especially for small orders which make up the majority of sales. Before the apps, sites like Grubhub and Seamless simply listed restaurants that delivered.
How did the apps get around the profitability problem? With software, a mountain of venture capital, on the one side, and an army of low-paid delivery workers, on the other. While none of the most popular apps (Uber Eats, DoorDash, Seamless) are consistently profitable, as much of the gig economy in general, investor funding covers the liquidity over as long as the investors stay content, hoping the startups they’re funding turn into the next Facebook or Alphabet. In this way, investors create new ways to exploit workers without needing to make an overall profit, through vain promises of future profits. In 2021, there were 340 venture-backed start-ups that became unicorns, reaching a valuation of over $1 billion, more than the previous five years combined.9 Uber has a market cap of nearly $50 billion and still has not become profitable.10 Its drivers are low paid “independent contractors” ineligible for employee sponsored health plans. Workers get paid only when they accept and complete a delivery. As for delivery, distance has seemingly been conquered. A September 2021 story in New York Magazine told of a delivery worker who biked from the Upper East Side all the way to Roosevelt Island (a trip that includes two bridges) to deliver a single piece of cake for no tip.11
One can go on in this vein for a while. There are micro-work sites for companies like Playment and Clickworker that use contracted workers to gather data to train AI systems. According to Phil Jones’s Work without the Worker, these digital sweatshops pay piece rates and employ around twenty million people worldwide, mostly in the Global South.12 The AI systems increase surveillance, limit consumer choice, and reinforce racial and gender bias. Self-driving trucks promise to mitigate what is known as “last mile delivery” or the “last mile problem,” usually meaning the final delivery of commodities to customers at home.13 Around 53 percent of shipping costs occur in this final stage since it is time-intensive involving multiple stops with low drop sizes. As is often the case, “problem” can simply be industry-speak for “unions,” and in last mile delivery there are unionized workers at USPS and UPS (the largest private sector unionized employer in the United States). The gig economy would bulldoze these “problems.” It marches onward.
Talk of this kind is bound to get one accused of being a Luddite. Such is the inevitable fate for those questioning the uses of technology. The actual Luddites burst on the scene in northern England in 1811. It was quite a harsh time to be a stockinger (textile worker) or a worker in general—no minimum wage, inability to own their frames (machines), common child labor, Napoleon’s boycott of English trade, the criminalization of unions (through the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800), the War of 1812 with the United States, poor harvests in Britain between 1809–1812, wages less than rising food prices—a grim picture.
Their problem was not with technology per se, but with how it was applied—the way it was used to create unemployment, cheapen jobs, impoverish skilled workers, increase production without improving wages.
In March 1811, in Nottingham, British troops busted up a workers’ protest demanding more jobs and higher wages. Later that night angry workers took sledgehammers to textile machinery in a nearby village. It wasn’t long after waves of attacks were occurring over a seventy-mile span as Luddites around northern England rallied around the fictitious figure of King Ludd, who, as legend had it, smashed two stocking frames in 1779 after being whipped for idleness. They wrote ballads, occasionally cross-dressed, sent threatening letters to factory owners, continued their attacks on machines that spread to include more skilled cloth finishers, and appeared to have a good deal of local support. The British government responded by making machine-breaking a capital offense and positioned soldiers to protect factories.14
Despite lingering conservative rhetoric and prideful boasting by technophobes, the mythology surrounding the Luddites is inaccurate. If the contemporary idea of a Luddite is someone slamming their head in frustration into their new gadget’s screen or proudly grinding their coffee beans by hand while jamming to a vinyl record player, the original Luddites should not be understood as an anti-technology but as a social protest rooted in early nineteenth century England. The stocking frame was not a new piece of technology by the time the Luddites came around; it had existed for more than two centuries. In fact, Luddites can’t even claim originality as machine breaking had a long history in English protests (and was also used by others after them). In his famous essay “The Machine Breakers,” British historian Eric Hobsbawm calls the machine smashing of British workers “collective bargaining by riot … in none of these cases—and others might be mentioned—was there any question of hostility to machines as such. Wrecking was simply a technique of trade unionism in the period before, and during the early phases of, the industrial revolution.”15
Their problem was not with technology per se, but with how it was applied—the way it was used to create unemployment, cheapen jobs, impoverish skilled workers, increase production without improving wages. While it took no German philosopher to bring that reality home—it was all the class warfare that Marx and Engels would describe in their manifesto a few decades later.
As it was in the nineteenth century, it is a question of organization and social relations. Being simply “anti-tech” is a dead end, as is any reactionary desire for a pre-modern Eden. The point is to develop and apply technology in a manner that is democratic and egalitarian. Technological development can be liberated from capital. Knowledge can be socially pooled instead of locked up by patents. Publicly owned investment funds, limited perhaps to nonprofit ventures, can be set up. Innovations would be judged on social value and practicality instead of market potential.
There was the tantalizing possibility of this with the COVID-19 pandemic. As told by Alexander Zaitchik in his book Owning the Sun: A People’s History of Monopoly Medicine from Aspirin to COVID-19 Vaccines,
a global consortium of research institutions that included the world’s handful of particle accelerators that were capable of producing atomic scale maps of the virus’s proteins and enzymes. At sites in North America, Europe, and China, teams pooled their findings to produce, in record time, a detailed picture of the virus and how it attacked cells and reproduces.16
Once the pandemic began, the speed at which vaccines were developed, around nine months instead of some years, was a marvel of science and planning. Yet it can hardly be said to be a product of Randian heroism. Years of basic research conducted by the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, and publically funded labs was instrumental. “This is the people’s vaccine,” Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines program, told Scientific American, “Federal scientists helped invent it and taxpayers are funding its development. … It should belong to humanity.”17
It was not to be as vaccine patents have been protected and most of the world’s poorest people still have not been vaccinated against COVID-19. This dynamic of public funding and private profits goes well beyond vaccines. The internet itself has its roots in public funding. The first workable prototype came in the late 1960 with ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) funded by the US Department of Defense. GPS got its start the same way a few years later. Google’s search algorithm was funded by the National Science Foundation. The Iphone is often attributed to the genius of Steve Jobs but its most compelling components, including touch-screen displays and Siri, were products of state-funded research.18 Most Iphones are assembled in factories in China owned by Foxconn. At one point, a spate of worker suicides forced the company to install nets around the worker dormitories.19
As we face planetary problems, from the crisis of antibiotic-resistant bacteria to climate change, solutions will have to be international. This will require global planning and cooperation and an increasing decoupling of technology from market forces and keeping it in the public domain. Such a solution will not only free the world’s working class, but may well save all humans in the long run. It is past time for a true Luddite resurgence. After all, reality should indeed be privileged for all.
Joseph Grosso is a public librarian and a writer based in New York City. He is the author of Emerald City: How Capital Transformed New York (Zer0 Books, 2020) as well as various articles in Counterpunch, Jacobin, Free Inquiry, and Library Journal.
- Niccolo Soldo, “The Dubrovnik Interviews: Marc Andreessen – Interviewed by a Retard,” Fisted by Foucault (blog), May 31, 2021, https://niccolo.substack.com/p/the-dubrovnik-interviews-marc-andreessen?s=r.
- Bizclik Editor, “Amazon Buys Futuristic Warehouse Robot Company,” Business Chief, May 19, 2020, https://businesschief.com/technology-and-ai/amazon-buys-futuristic-warehouse-robot-company.
- Will Evans, “How Amazon Hid Its Safety Crisis”, Reveal News, September 29, 2020, https://revealnews.org/article/how-amazon-hid-its-safety-crisis/.
- “World Robotics 2021 – Service Robots Report released,” International Federation of Robotics, accessed June 9, 2022, https://ifr.org/ifr-press-releases/news/service-robots-hit-double-digit-growth-worldwide.
- Evans, “How Amazon Hid Its Safety Crisis.”
- As of April 2022; see “DoorDash Inc (DASH),” Ychart, accessed May 30, 2022, https://ycharts.com/companies/DASH/market_cap.
- See Lisa Held, “Delivery Workers Are the Next Frontier of Labor Organizing,” Civil Eats, May 4, 2022, https://civileats.com/2022/05/04/the-next-frontier-of-labor-organizing-food-delivery-workers/.
- Maria Figueroa et al., “Essential but Unprotected: App-based Food Couriers in New York City,” Workers’ Justice Project (New York, 2021), https://losdeliveristasunidos.org/ldu-report.
- Russ Zalatimo, “Venture Capital: How the World Reached 1000 Unicorns,” Forbes, May 19, 2022, https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesfinancecouncil/2022/05/19/venture-capital-how-the-world-reached-1000-unicorns/?sh=46cf5c5b46c5.
- Annie Palmer, “Uber and Lyft Close at Record Lows as Investor Skepticism Grows Around Recent IPOs,” CNBC, October 1, 2019, https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/01/uber-closes-at-record-low-worth-less-than-50-billion.html.
- Josh Dziera, “Revolt of the Delivery Workers”, New York Magazine, September 13, 2021, https://www.curbed.com/article/nyc-delivery-workers.html.
- Phil Jones, Work Without the Worker: Labour in the Age of Platform Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2021).
- Jake Alimahomed-Wilson and Ellen Reese, eds., The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy (London: Pluto Press, 2020), 77–82.
- David F. Noble, Progress Without People: In Defense of Luddism (Chicago: Charles H Kerr, 1993).
- Eric J. Hobsbawm, “The Machine-Breakers”, Past & Present 1, no. 1 (February 1952): 57–70, https://doi.org/10.1093/past/1.1.57.
- Alexander Zaitchik, Owning the Sun: A People’s History of Monopoly Medicine from Aspirin to COVID-19 (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 2022).
- Arthur Allen, “For Billion-Dollar COVID Vaccines, Basic Government-Funded Science Laid the Groundwork,” Scientific American, November 18, 2020, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/for-billion-dollar-covid-vaccines-basic-government-funded-science-laid-the-groundwork/.
- Mariana Mazzucato, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs Private Sector Myths (New York: Public Affairs, 2015), 100–109.
- Jerry Chan, Mark Shelden, Pun Ngai, Dying for an Iphone: Apple, Foxconn, and the Lives of Chinese Workers (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2020).