Review by George Yatchisin
Walter Isaacson’s Elon Musk biography sold nearly 230K copies in its first eight weeks in stores and is currently at #47 in Books at Amazon. Brian Merchant’s Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion against Big Tech sits at #17,280 in Books. That’s just one way to say our fascination with the mighty always trumps (verb chosen advisedly) our interest in history’s “losers.” The Luddites have been pummeled so badly by history we don’t even use the term accurately. So it’s fortunate Merchant has written this engaging corrective that leans into rightfully earned polemic in its final chapters.
Merchant, a Los Angeles Times technology columnist and author of The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone, sets himself to a difficult task, for the Luddites have been misrepresented and slandered since they first took hammer to power looms in England in the 1810s. Even today, as he points out, a Google search will tell you a Luddite is “small-minded” and “resists progress.”
Merchant, of course, doesn’t miss the opportunity to underline that it’s one of our current Big Tech overlords that suggests this definition. He is rigorous in drawing direct lines between the original workers’ fight at the beginning of the Industrial Age to our present day world of gig work and algorithm dominated jobs, at least the ones left after AI has its way.
But the bulk of the book is a compelling, well-researched, person-driven account of the Luddites’ fight and plight during the early 19th century. Forget the romantic entanglements and ostentatiousness of Bridgerton—for most the Regency Era in England was a life or death struggle of competing economic forces. Merchant points out that from 1750 to 1820, the English population made a stark shift, from 15% living in its cities to 15% living in rural areas.
Here’s one way Merchant sets the scene:
The sight of looming factories enraged some onlookers and mystified others. The violent clangs of metal, the hiss of steam—to many the unearthly soundscapes of industrialization inspired an aesthetic revulsion that dovetailed with their concerns about humans being replaced by machines. Capitalism itself was not yet fully established, much less accepted or celebrated. Whether automation was to be embraced or resisted, extolled or regulated, was hotly debated.
As Merchant reminds us, people worked at home until the late 18th century. Factories and offices didn’t exist. So Blood in the Machine is a constant rebuke to inevitability, and a hymn to collective action and hope. Alas, as Merchant makes most clear when he turns to a slave narrative in the United States, there’s always literal blood in the machine, especially when the mechanical ability to make more cloth in England increased the demand for cotton. And U.S. Southern slave owners were more than happy to oblige.
The parallel in England were indentured workers, many mere children, often starting at age seven (that’s your second grader in an unimaginable hell). The book is built around quickish chapters focused on a particular person, from Prince George himself to Lord Byron, from mill owner William Cartwright to George Mellor, cloth dresser and movement leader (and the book’s tragic hero). But no sections hit more powerfully than those about orphan Robert Blincoe, who suffered a decade of forced labor in the mills and had the mangled hands and beating welts to prove it.
Not to give too much away, but one of the reasons Merchant can tell Blincoe’s story is that Blincoe himself got to tell it: a journalist named John Brown wrote his memoir for him and as Merchant notes, “Historians believe that it inspired the tale of the most famous orphan of all, Oliver Twist… [and] the book helped finally drive reforms through Parliament that did have a least some teeth.”
For the power of owning a mill is almost matched by that of owning the narrative. Indeed at the start of their uprising, the weavers developed the myth of Ned Ludd as their mythic leader, a call back to Nottingham’s Robin Hood of yore. As he deftly does throughout his book, Merchant makes the connection to Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter when he discusses the savvy of a decentralized movement: “By exploiting the media technologies of the day—printing handbills and declarations, writing threatening letters, adopting a meme for a figurehead—the Luddites were able to make their uprising seem limitless.”
And while their precise original focus was on physical instruments, frustration with the ever-increasing growth of mechanization—set against an inflationary period and a war with Napoleon—finally led to actual casualties and murder. Merchant’s storytelling skills make clear how the tensions in northern England ratchet up, particularly to the point where more troops are billeted in the region than are off in Europe fighting against France (this is a time before local police forces). You can feel the pressure build like it’s a Jenji Kohan series—just like Weeds and Orange Is the New Black, the Luddites’ tale is going to go mighty dark. Plus—spoiler alert—we have now all been dragged along on capitalism’s victory lap for far too long.
The question becomes what lessons we can learn from both the success and ultimate failure of the Luddites. Crucial to that answer is never forgetting technology is itself neutral, for as Merchant argues, “Pretending otherwise, that robots are inevitable, is technological determinism and leads to a dearth in critical thinking about how and when automation is best implemented.” Blood in the Machine is essential reading if we want to sustain the honesty of our labor in a not necessarily inevitable Amazon-Uber-InstaCart world.