My latest column for Locus Magazine is "SF is a Luddite Literature," and it's my contribution to the burgeoning movement to rehabilitate the reputation of the Luddite uprisings, overturning the libel that Luddites were motivated by a fear of technology:

The Luddites were a 19th century guerrilla movement that smashed textile machines, burned factories and threatened their owners. But they were not motivated by a fear of technology, and they were not irrational.



Rather, the Luddites - who took their name from the mythological General Ned Ludd, whose legend included the smashing of weaving-frames - were engaged in the most science-fictional exercise imaginable - asking not *what* a technology does, but who it does it *to* and who it does it *for*.

The Luddites, you see, were skilled weavers, whose intense physical labor produced the textiles that clothed the nation.


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The difficulty of their trade - both in terms of esoteric knowledge and physical prowess - allowed them to command high wages and good working conditions.

All that was threatened by the advent of textile machines, which produced more fabric in less time, and required less skill. The owners of textile factories bought these machines with profits derived from the weavers' labor, and then used those machines to grind down the weavers.


Their hours got longer, their pay got shorter, and many of them were maimed or killed by the new machines.

Here's where the science fiction part comes in. If you were a Martian looking through a telescope at Earth, it would not be obvious to you that these new weaving machines should benefit factory owners, rather than workers. There's nothing inevitable about that arrangement.


The machines could just as easily have shortened weavers' working hours, increased their hourly pay, and made more fabric available at lower prices to the public.

One of my favorite stfnal aphorisms is that "all laws are local." The genre can be a toolkit for revealing the contingency of our innate assumptions, forcing us to confront our deeply ingrained biases and admit that they are choices, not laws of nature.


The great science fiction editor Gardner Dozois once said that the job of an sf writer isn't merely to consider the car and the movie and invent the drive-in, but also to predict the sexual revolution that took place in the back seats of those cars at those drive-ins.

The Industrial Revolution's new weaving machines didn't just increase the supply of textiles, nor did it merely upend the balance of power between textile workers and their bosses.


It also created unprecedented demand for wool, resulting in the enclosure of the commons and the eviction of farmers who'd worked the land for centuries, turning them into wandering internal refugees. It also drove demand for cotton and vastly increased the profitability of the slave trade.

Weaving engines are ingenious and delightful machines. The Luddites had no beef with the machines - their cause was the *social relations* that governed those machines.


By painting Luddites as mere technophobes, we strip ourselves of the ability to learn from history. The lesson of the Industrial Revolution is that merely asking what a machine *does* and not who it does it *for* and *to* can lead to literal genocide.

Thankfully, the Luddites are enjoying a renaissance today, as the techno-critical left takes up their cause and demands that we apply Gardner Dozois's science fictional thinking to our contemporary technological fights.


I first encountered this on the excellent This Machine Kills podcast, and discussed the subject with the hosts when I recorded an episode with them:

More recently, I learned that Brian Merchant - who edited my book HOW TO DESTROY SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM and came up with the title - is about to release a book on the Luddites and their application to the current tech landscape called BLOOD IN THE MACHINE.


Luddism is the frame we need today: not a technophobic rejection of new machines, but a demand to examine who they serve and who serves them.


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