When the Luddites Fought Back

Radical new technologies led to social upheaval in the 19th century. Can we avoid the same response this time around?

Almost every day, we hear new predictions about the massive number of jobs robots are going to eliminate. In a widely cited 2013 paper titled “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerization?”, researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne of Oxford University wrote that in the next two decades as many as 47% of jobs in the United States could be at risk. Among those on the endangered list: insurance underwriters, tax preparers, and truck drivers. Many studies have shown that job prospects are particularly dire for low-skilled workers.

Public anxiety about the destabilizing role of technology is, of course, nothing new. But as we prepare for the next wave of automation, it’s instructive to review what happened in an earlier era.

In an article in Smithsonian Magazine, writer Clive Thompson describes events of the early 1800s, when new weaving and cutting technologies were introduced in the British textile industry. Textile workers were alarmed by the arrival of labor-saving machinery, which could produce hosiery many times faster than human weavers. Some workers fought back, launching raids against the mill owners and even destroying machines with sledgehammers and burning homes. The attackers called themselves “the Luddites” (possibly named for a worker named Ned Ludd, who, as the story goes, had smashed some of his employer’s machines in a fit of rage). Eventually, the factory owners organized a counteroffensive. In one confrontation in 1812, a mill owner shot and killed four Luddites.

Contrary to popular belief, Thompson writes, “the fight was not really about technology.” Textile workers were more upset, he says, about the degree to which the productivity gains were captured by the factory owners without sharing them with laborers or providing any wage protection. The violence escalated in 1812 — one mill owner was assassinated — before the government cracked down on the Luddites. A new law made destruction of mill equipment punishable by the death penalty.

Thompson quotes MIT Sloan School of Management professor Erik Brynjolfsson, coauthor with Andrew McAfee of The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, on comparisons between what Luddites faced in 19th-century Great Britain and circumstances today. In his view, concerns about how the economic gains are divided are as great now as they were then. Although there’s no question that automation destroys jobs, Brynjolfsson notes that it has shown an ability to create entirely new categories of jobs. How quickly the new jobs will develop and what they will pay remains to be seen.