The Luddites arrived on the streets of San Francisco much as they did in the English factories two centuries ago: under cover of darkness and with iconic weapons in hand. In this case, traffic cones. An enterprising activist had observed (or perhaps gotten an insider tip) that placing an object on the hood of a self-driving car blocks the sensors it uses to see the road. The car freezes. Many objects would do, but cones were handy, undamaging, and happened to transform Cruise’s robotaxis into four-wheeled unicorns. Unless it happens to be carrying a sympathetic passenger, the simple remedy of removing the cone is unavailable to the car. For weeks this summer, ahead of a state regulator’s decision to expand their reign, the city’s AV fleet was stricken by merry nocturnal raids.
The pranksters were first branded as “Luddites” by online critics. Ignorant vandals, they meant. Tantruming technophobes who were attacking the very notion of progress. Somehow the activists had missed the memo about how electric robotaxis would cut carbon emissions and vastly improve road safety.
The rebels embraced the label. In a response posted on social media, they offered up a quick history lesson, explaining that the original Luddites, the cottage workers of the early 19th century who took hammers to mechanized looms and knitting frames, weren’t actually tech haters. They were simply citizens pushing back on an exploitative system—in their case, mass production—that threatened to swallow them whole. The cone-toting activists saw their own ambushes of the machines as a strike in favor of a better society, cured of “car brain” and more invested in bike lanes and mass transit. Luddites indeed, proudly.
They’re not the only ones to recently swear fealty to King Ludd. After abbreviated glory in the 1810s, the Luddite brand has been revived in podcasts, TikToks, books, and picket line slogans. It has required rescue, the new Luddites say, from malign usage in popular speech. For the capitalists who crushed the original machine-breakers, and their successors in Silicon Valley C-suites of today, the Luddite became the perfect foil and eponymous epithet because he did not exist to defend himself, explains Brian Merchant in Blood in the Machine, a history of the movement published last month. The Luddites’ apparent extremism—smashing technology whose only crime was being productive—made the name a “pejorative figment of the entrepreneurial imagination,” Merchant writes, lobbed at anyone who stood in your technocratic path.
This label is as relevant now as ever, he argues. Like the Luddites who struck against machine-spun fabric and factory life, workers today are rising up against automated warehouses and gig work and AI-generated content. Behind them stand the same old merchants of progress: the likes of Marc Andreessen, cofounder of the a16z venture capital firm, who earlier this week published a “techno-optimist manifesto” labeling any and all questioners of progress as “liars.”
Merchant, a tech columnist at The Los Angeles Times who previously reviewed iPhones, joins others in arguing that Luddism is not just for loom-smashers, but for those uncomfortable with such blind faith. If you have ever wondered if the new technology arriving on your doorstep is not actually designed for the common benefit, then perhaps you too are carrying Ned Ludd’s flame.