AI, Automation, and the Case for Luddism
Do the digital tools we use to up our productivity and efficiency actually give us more control over our work or free time for leisure?
I fell in love with the “online world” around 1992. I was 10 years old.
We had the “family computer” set up on a desk in the corner of the den. The constant flow of AOL and Prodigy disks kept our family online, even when our budget didn’t really allow for it. I attended computer camp as a pre-teen. In college, I hauled my giant monitor and tower up multiple flights of stairs to my dorm room. And in 2003, toward the end of college, I started my very first blog.
In retrospect, I loved being online, and I loved computers, but I wasn’t the digital prodigy that I could have been. I often hear people my age talk about their early memories of the internet and feel regret that I didn’t push my interest further. I don’t have any stories of hand-coding my first website at the age of 14 or participating in niche internet subcultures and pretending to be ten years older than I was. In my staid and conservative Pennsylvania suburb, I didn’t even know that was possible—and I was too much of a rule-follower to find out.
All that to say, I am on board when it comes to technological progress.
I look forward to updating my devices (although I don’t do it as frequently as I used to). New apps and features excite me. I’m pretty quick to adopt change.
I am not a Luddite.
Or so I thought.
“The word Luddite still means an old-fashioned type who is anti-progress,” writes Jeanette Winterson in her book 12 Bytes. “But the Luddites of the early 19th century were not against progress; they were against exploitation.” I’m pretty sure my anarcho-democratic husband had tried to explain this to me before, but reading these lines was the first time what the Luddite movement actually stood for really sank in. Where I had once seen atavism and fear, I now saw labor politics I could get behind.
When I picked up Gavin Mueller’s Breaking Things at Work: The Luddites Were Right About Why You Hate Your Job, I did so to learn more about the radical roots of Luddism and how the movement could inform my own thinking on the future of work.
I have a lot of complicated thoughts about AI.
On one hand, I still feel some latent techno-optimism. I am predisposed to giving new technology the benefit of the doubt. There were ways that ChatGPT could be used to make certain forms of work more accessible. But on the other hand, I worry, with many of my peers, about a near future in which our feeds are even more full of complete trash written in the spirit of quantity rather than quality. I also worry about the inevitable disruption of work that would leave many people either earning less or unemployed.
In reading Breaking Things At Work, I expected to learn things but remain fairly ambivalent about the role of technology in work. But Mueller can count me one convert to Luddism.
“Luddism rejects production for production’s sake: it is critical of “efficiency” as an end goal, as there are other values at stake in work.”
— Gavin Muller, Breaking Things at Work
Mueller’s project examines the connection between technology and capitalism, specifically “how technology developed by capitalism furthers its goals: it compels us to work more, limits our autonomy, and outmaneuvers and divides us when we organize to fight back.” Further, Mueller seeks to show how technology at work can be a site of class struggle today. His argument isn’t a call for a slower way of life. It’s not an entreaty to a more “humane” or “ethical” form of labor. Mueller’s argument is a political one—the spirit of Luddism is one in which workers reassert their power and agency.
Luddism is a Political Struggle, Not a Technological Struggle
Today, the word “Luddite” means someone who fears or rejects technology or technological progress. Growing up in central Pennsylvania, I always associated the Luddites with the Amish—people who believe in a simpler way of life.
In truth, the first Luddites were professional weavers who noticed how new machines were undermining their craft, their wages, and their power. Mueller explains:
“In the second decade of the nineteenth century, the British Crown faced a problem. Discontented weavers, croppers, and other textile workers had begun a protracted insurgency against property and the state. At issue were new types of machines—the stocking frame, the gig mill, and the shearing frame—that could produce and finish cloth using a fraction of the labor time previously required, transforming a skilled profession into low-grade piecework. Wages plummeted and hunger began to set in.”
It’s no coincidence that these leaps forward in the technology of manufacturing corresponded with new understandings of the machinery of capitalism. Factory owners realized that faster, machine-aided production would generate inventory to dramatically increase sales. They also realized that they no longer needed highly skilled workers to maintain production, thereby increasing surplus value by lowering wages. For the first time in history, they considered the opportunity of mass production and the profits it could generate.
The result was a phenomenon we’ve seen repeatedly over the last 200 years.
The political and economically powerful readily accept the ways technology disrupts livelihoods in order for wealth accumulation to go unimpeded. Workers try to keep pace with technological development and, increasingly, don’t have time to notice the ways in which their power is eroded. Busyness, after all, serves economic and political functions.
The Luddites—and all worker movements since—struggled against the ways the rich and powerful controlled their lives and meted out meager compensation. As Winterson says, the fight wasn’t against technology or progress. The fight was against economic, political, and social exploitation.
Today, we still face economic, political, and social exploitation through technology.
What’s changed is our perception of that technology and our relationship with work. Unlike factory workers in the early 19th century, modern workers identify more with owners and entrepreneurs than they do with their fellow workers. We lack durable associations with institutions that once provided a locus for organizing. Instead, entrepreneurial individualism becomes the only filter we have through which to understand how we fit into society. As Byung-Chul Han argues, “Twenty-first-century society is no longer a disciplinary society, but rather an achievement society [Leistungsgesellschaft]. Also, its inhabitants are no longer ‘obedience-subjects’ but ‘achievement-subjects.’ They are entrepreneurs of themselves.” (emphasis added)
Entrepreneurship—whether in spirit or actual fact—becomes the chief way we relate to technology at work. This, in turn, opens the door to self-exploitation.
Work Faster and Work More
ClickUp is a project management app that claims to save users one full day of work per week. At the same time, it boasts the ability to get more done. One can resolve this seeming contradiction by realizing that “saving” a day of work means having an extra day to get more done. Full disclosure: our podcast production agency runs on ClickUp.
Project management apps represent one style of digital Taylorism. Digital Taylorism is an extension of the manufacturing management practices that originate with Frederick W. Taylor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Taylor, believing that the workers he supervised were not working as hard or as fast as they could, used a stopwatch and finely-tuned divisions of labor to maximize the productivity and efficiency of his shop.
Here’s how Mueller described Taylor in an interview:
“[Frederick W. Taylor] came from a wealthier background. Some people work a blue-collar job, and they develop a kind of blue-collar sensibility. Not Frederick Taylor. He worked in the factories but he did not like his coworkers. He thought they were lazy. He thought they were dumb. He thought he was better than they were.”
Sounds like a cool dude, right?
Taylorism, or scientific management, quickly spread throughout the United States and became the blueprint for managing all kinds of work.
Taylorism is ostensibly about improving productivity to increase profits. And that is the result. But behind the result is a philosophical shift in how owners relate to workers. Mueller explains:
“His major philosophical breakthrough was if workers know how things are made, and management doesn't, workers have the power. If management knows how things are made, and workers don't because maybe you said, ‘okay, worker, you're only going to do one tiny little task. We're just going to keep you focused on one thing at a time, and we're going to make sure you get faster and faster work harder and harder. And we're going to take care of how things are made. We're going to plan everything out,’ then, management has all the power.
We can see the progression of this change in the rise of outsourcing, the use of independent contractors, and, of course, the technology we use to do our jobs—whether self-employed or traditionally employed.
ClickUp and similar apps not only make it possible to easily track the status of work and collaborate with other team members, but they provide time-tracking and reporting tools that allow managers to monitor the productivity of the people on their teams.
With this kind of surveillance, workers lose control of the intensity and pace of their work.
What’s more, the Tayloristic tools embedded in these apps create a managerial panopticon—the worker could be observed at any time so the worker adopts the manager's perspective and controls themselves.
This is a political transformation. In pre-capitalist work, the worker often controlled their labor and received the benefits of its product directly or indirectly. In 19th- and 20th-century capitalism, the worker submitted to the control of the boss in exchange for a wage, while the product of the work benefitted the owner or shareholders. Today, in 21st-century capitalism, the worker is controlled by an internalized manager engaged in self-surveillance, while the product of the work still benefits owners and shareholders. In the course of this transformation, today’s workers share the experience of weavers and machinists in the 19th century. Mueller writes:
“Scientific management was, then, less a science of efficiency and more a political program for reshaping the worker as a pliant subject—what Taylor himself called ‘a complete mental revolution on the part of the workingmen … toward their work, toward their fellow men, and toward their employers.’”
On the surface, the individual worker’s motivation to be more productive may seem like an exercise of autonomy.
But just below that is the logic of capitalism and the self-surveillance that comes from the “complete mental revolution” Taylor prescribed.
Any new technology that compels us to work more also has the effect of deskilling the work.
To illustrate, let’s move away from ClickUp and the project management apps to a different breed of app: the social media scheduler. In 2021, I opened my TEDx talk with my disdain for social media scheduling apps. Little did I know then that I was making a Luddistic argument.
A social media scheduling app allows influencers, marketers, and creators to batch-create posts and then schedule them to release one by one over time. One might produce 20 Instagram posts, duplicate those to Facebook and LinkedIn, and schedule them to post every other day. Boom! That’s 40 days of social media content across 3 platforms. My issue with social media scheduling apps then, as it is now, is that creating content in that way prioritizes quantity over quality. While it’s not impossible to generate a month or even a week’s worth of quality content at a time, these apps and the platforms they post on nurture the opposite motivation.
As a result, our feeds are clogged with homogenous, mediocre content in vast quantities.
Even when someone creates something original or rigorous, others quickly parrot it, and its form loses all meaning. In the process, the highest rewards often accrue to the early copies rather than the original work.
The overall effect on creators is “deskilling.”
With the priority on mass reproduction and hyper-efficiency, creators become content machines and often talk about being on the “hamster wheel” of content creation. It becomes much less about the skill or creative potential of the work and much more about meeting a semi-self-imposed quota. Studies show that creators who experience burnout overwhelmingly attribute it to this relentless push for more and more content.
No one but social media platform shareholders benefit from all of this production. Users are increasingly dissatisfied by what they find on social media platforms. Creators are frustrated by what they have to do to get their work noticed. Again, we can observe this same pattern in all forms of value production aided by technological progress.
Mueller explains that the way we go about work—its “practices and technologies”—are driven by what decreases expenses and increases prices. This occurs regardless of whether those same practices and technologies also increase the effectiveness or usefulness of what’s produced. Further, work practices are developed without regard for whether they make workers’ lives better. Instead, the worker is merely an extension of the technology itself.
Creators are indeed “a mere means of production” for social media platforms.
Platforms worry less about what is being created and more about how much is being created. More content generates more ad inventory. More ad inventory means more ad sales. More ad sales mean more profit.
But today, it’s not only in relation to platforms or employers that workers suffer under practices built for profit rather than human progress. Today, it’s often how we treat ourselves—we’re both boss and worker.
We consider changes in our schedules, our routines, or our software based on whether those changes will drive productivity and efficiency rather than whether they’re compatible with what we want for our lives. We allow and even encourage Tayloristic self-surveillance through the technology we use. We accept deskilling and the compulsion to do more because we’ve fully integrated the managerial mindset that workers have historically struggled against.
Control the Work
Having been a very-online-person for the better part of 20 years and a frequent user of social media, I am quite familiar with the collective sigh of relief that happens every so often when the internet stops working. By “the internet,” I mean those times with Amazon Web Services (AWS) has a hiccup and multiple websites go down. Or when Gmail mysteriously stops updating for a few hours. Or when Facebook goes down and takes Instagram with it. And who among social media’s early adopters can forget the beloved Fail Whale that would appear when Twitter went down?
It’s at those times that we realize—for a brief moment—the extent to which all autonomy has been bled out of our work. We realize we can train our attention on something else. We can set aside our anxiety that we’re not posting, emailing, or “connecting” enough.
The Luddites were known for deliberately sabotaging the machinery they were required to use on the job. They smashed, burned, and dismantled what they saw as a direct threat to their livelihoods. What started in the early 19th century became a long legacy of manipulating the means of production to control the pace of work.
To this day, workers figuratively or literally throw a wrench in the works to create a slowdown.
Knowledge workers today rarely have the same tools available to them. Instead, we get a brief taste of the spirit of Luddism when a hacker’s DDOS attack makes it temporarily impossible to use an app or website. Of course, people unfamiliar with the grind of knowledge or creative work say that we could always quit social media or unplug for the weekend. Heck, plenty of us work from home now—we can take a break whenever we want.
But this response ignores the reality on the ground today. Pushed into precarious work relations and lacking any meaningful social safety net, today’s knowledge workers and creatives have lost control. As Anne Helen Petersen observes, many workers engage in “LARPing” (live-action roleplaying) their jobs early in the morning and late at night in order to appear more plugged into the needs of the business. It might be perfunctory and useless—but it’s still mental bandwidth devoted to work. People don’t answer emails from bed because they like to or even want to. They’re expected to.
One way that today’s knowledge workers attempt to assert some autonomy is through automation.
By employing tools like the project management and social media scheduling apps I discussed in the previous sections, in addition to no-code integration tools like Zapier and IFTTT, they offload parts of their work onto software. But far from having the effect of increasing autonomy or freeing up time, these tools tend to constrain the creative and social nuance in contemporary work. Sure, these technologies make certain tasks faster, but they also force us to work within their parameters (i.e., their feature set). And they eliminate the creative and social engagements in work that often lead to serendipitous discoveries. Further, they reinforce our work silos. I have my set of apps, you have yours.
While so-called “no-code” apps do open the door to really cool stuff like auto-updating personal archives and eliminating the back-and-forth of trying to schedule a meeting, they don’t offer a true path to liberation from exploitation.
In fact, automation reinscribes the logic of capitalism.
“Redemption from capitalism and its violence,” writes Mueller, “will not come from a simple appropriation of its devices.” Using ChatGPT to draft social media posts or quickly research an assigned project may very well make it possible for someone to earn a more comfortable living or attain work they wouldn’t have otherwise had access to. But that comfort will always be short-lived because the quotas, self-imposed or otherwise, will always go higher. And the temporary comfort that one person creates will inevitably create a more durable discomfort for others.
Struggling to Keep Up
The most compelling case for unchecked technological progress is the potential for it to allow us to spend less time working and more time on leisure. Or at least, that was the case I always found the most compelling. But, I’m sad to say buying that argument requires a completely ahistorical perspective on the future.
We’ve had unchecked technological progress since at least the time of the Luddites.
Although, as an aside, I learned that the stocking frame was first invented in the late 16th century by William Lee. And when he presented it to Queen Elizabeth I for a patent, she denied him over concern for the livelihoods of English craftsmen. This check on technological progress was devastating for Lee, who died well before the stocking frame was widely adopted. It wasn’t for another 150 years or so that the stocking frame made the impact on textile workers that inspired the Luddite resistance.
As I’ve cited probably all too often, John Maynard Keynes believed that productivity in rich capitalist countries would increase at such a pace as to allow for a 15-hour workweek by, well, now. He was right about the productivity—wrong about the workweek. All of our productivity creates an ever-growing supply of goods and services. And that supply of goods and services only serves to increase our demand for them—and more beyond.
This is called ‘induced demand,’ what Packy McCormick at Not Boring calls “one of the funniest concepts in economics.” When we talk about supply and demand, it’s pretty commonsensical to say that when demand increases, the market responds with additional supply. But induced demand describes the opposite force: when the market generates additional supply, consumer demand increases. McCormick relates this to efficiency using the Jevons Paradox—an economic concept that shows that as something becomes more efficient, people consume more of it.
These two concepts are a good way to think about how Keynes’s prediction went so wrong. Technology has made work more productive and efficient, and so there is more work time available and more demand for that time. As productivity and efficiency continue to increase, the demands on our time only become greater as more of our lives are brought under the influence of markets.
The result is that our attention focuses on keeping up with demand.
We struggle to keep up. Yes, with work—but also with parenting, health, friends, politics… We know that our time and attention are overtaxed, but we lack the bandwidth to recognize why or how we enact change. We lack the bandwidth to recognize how many people are in the exact same situation—and how much power we could have if we banded together.
Right now, multiple states are rolling back restrictions on child labor. Unemployment remains at historic lows even as businesses continue to claim that “nobody wants to work anymore.” We become more productive and more efficient but simply can’t keep up with the increasing demand for our labor. Without meaningful political struggle, the demand for our labor will only increase as technology continues to progress. Whether we’re in traditional labor relations, self-employed, creating for platforms, or doing gig work, the call to do more won’t let up just because ChatGPT can write a shitty blog post or handle a customer service query.
We’re so used to blaming our busyness on our own inability to say “no” or hold a boundary. We assume that “retail therapy” and keeping up with the Jones’s fuels our drive to work more and earn more. And I don’t think we get a free pass as consumers.
But, what if those habits are also a direct effect of induced demand for our labor? In other words, what if we’re so busy precisely because technology increases our capacity to work?
Not About a Lifestyle
What Mueller proposes is not a slower lifestyle. He doesn’t see Luddism as a call for mindfulness or even ethical living. It’s not even anti-technology. It is, echoing Winterson, anti-exploitation. It’s anti-production for production’s sake. It’s against “work as an end and meaning in itself,” as David Graeber put it.
Luddism today can be a line in the sand.
It’s an opportunity to notice how technology changes how we work—as individuals and as a society—and refuse to allow that change to produce more work. Refuse to allow that change to limit our self-direction and autonomy at work. Refuse to allow that change to colonize our non-working time.
Luddite action today might be refusing to push the same social media update to 5 platforms. It might be checking your email once a day. Luddism could be managing your own to-do list manually instead of letting an app do it. It could be taking 1:1 meetings on the phone instead of over Zoom or even having “coffee dates” in actual coffee shops.
To be clear, there is no moral benefit to doing things manually.
You don’t get extra points for eschewing automation. What you do get is an opportunity to observe yourself doing a task or creating your work. You also gain appreciation for the work others do—with or without the latest technology. You remember that there is something more to work than getting it done as fast as possible—and that’s a powerful political position.
Not everyone has the means or privilege to throw a wrench in the works. For those of us who do, we might consider how instigating a work slowdown could help liberate others.
Have a friend or colleague who would appreciate a different take on technology at work? Share this post with them!