What We Forget
James Poniewozik | The New Luddites | Schrödinger's Account | Factoids | Reading
Quote of the Moment
Half of what makes our bygone happy days happy is what we remember of them. The other half is what we forget.
| James Poniewozik, ‘Happy Days’ Got Us Unstuck in Time
The New Luddites
Brian Merchant does a masterful job capturing the rise of what he and others are calling the ‘New Luddites’:
The first Luddites were artisans and cloth workers in England who, at the onset of the Industrial Revolution, protested the way factory owners used machinery to undercut their status and wages.
The Luddites were not anti-technology. They were anti-exploitation, and they rose up to contest the displacement of their skilled work by new machinery that was designed to produce inferior quality fabrics by unskilled laborers (often children) in hellish factories.
Today’s ‘diabolical machine’ is AI, and the new industrialists are the giant tech firms who are rolling it out:
The new Luddites—a growing contingent of workers, critics, academics, organizers, and writers—say that too much power has been concentrated in the hands of the tech titans, that tech is too often used to help corporations slash pay and squeeze workers, and that certain technologies must not merely be criticized but resisted outright.
These technologies today include ChatGPT and its cousins, driverless vehicles, and other efforts directed toward doing the work that people otherwise would.
One of the key principles of the New Luddites is this distillation by Merchant:
We must consider whether a technology is “hurtful to commonality”—whether it causes many to suffer for the benefit of a few—and oppose it when necessary.
I like the twist there: ‘commonality’ is, I believe, a nod to Elinor Ostrum’s idea of the Commons as a shared public good that must be protected from exploitation by unfettered market forces. One commons that needs to be protected is work.
And yes, it is necessary to stand up to those tech titans who simply hoovered up all the writing in the world and fed it to their large language models without asking permission, and without crediting their sources. And without negotiating with the authors.
Merchant rightly points to and details the struggles in Hollywood and across the collapsing world of journalism to slow the relentless encroachments of AI:
The battle in Hollywood by SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America (WGA) against the studios that wanted to use AI is the clearest win by the the new luddites, so far.
Both SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America (WGA) took issue with studio executives pushing to use AI to produce creative work; they rejected the use of a technology that they believed would degrade their working conditions. They wanted contract language that stipulated that management could not use AI to generate scripts and that would require informed, written consent prior to the use of synthetic replicas of actors.
By drawing a red line against letting studios control AI, the WGA essentially waged the first proxy battle between human workers and AI.
But it will not be the last.
Today’s new Luddites grasp the chief concern of the original movement: opposing machinery that advantages few while harming many—not machinery, period. And their causes are popular too.
The first Luddites wanted a seat at the table, a say in how technologies were used to facilitate activities foundational to the human experience, such as work. If they had shared in the gains instead of being left to starve, if they had been given agency over their technological destinies, they would not have taken up their hammers.
The New Luddite movement will turn out to be one of the major pillars in what I have called the Human Spring, a global movement to counter the polycrisis. We will have to slow, at the very least, the diffusion of AI, so that a that potentially massive disruption of the world economy does not go off like ten thousand neutron bombs all at once. Better if we slow the invasion.
The other pillars of the Huma Spring include countering climate change (and its many related issues, like rising migration, and the green energy transition), economic inequality (and the many related problems, like housing, education, work, and health care), and growing polarization (left versus right, up versus down), on national and international levels.
I was struck by a comment made by Veena Dubal, recounted by Merchant, which underscores the relatedness of the pillars of the polycrisis:
“We need to be critical and thoughtful about how we use machines to forge futures,” Veena Dubal, a law professor at UC Irvine who’s spent the past decade studying the gig economy and its impact on drivers, told me.
“I very much identify as a Luddite,” Dubal said. “This doesn’t mean I am against technology. It means I am against dispossession.”
I, too, stand against dispossession.
Where’s my hammer, again?
I thoroughly enjoyed Jamie Barlett’s Techno-admin will ruin your life, which includes this:
How much of your workday is taken up with tasks like the following: filling in a lengthy online form, which crashes just as the finish line draws near; spending hours trying to cancel an online subscription; coming face-to-face with the dreaded “Schrödinger’s account”: you try to sign into an it using your email address, only to be told there is no such account; you try to create a new account with the same email address, and you are told one already exists.
That same scenario happened to me just last week, and I had to send at least three emails and attempt logins a dozen times or more to get it straightened out.
[The Barbie] marketing campaign cost an estimated $150 million, more than its $145 million production budget. | Natasha Degen
She goes on to quote Whizy Kim:
“Just as perfection only exists as an ideal never quite made flesh,” Whizy Kim wrote of “Barbie” for Vox, “Greta Gerwig’s desperately anticipated film based on the blonde plastic doll will necessarily disappoint some when the fantasy of its stunning promotion gives way to the reality of seeing the actual movie.”
The ‘movement’ is larger than the movie.
U.S. employers added 353,000 jobs in January, far exceeding forecasts, and revised figures showed last year was even stronger than previously reported. | Lydia DePillis
After two nights of earth-shaking dancing at Swift’s Seattle “Eras” tour concert at Lumen Field, enthusiastic Swifties caused seismic activity equivalent of a 2.3 magnitude earthquake. | CNN
In Why Foreign Carmakers Set Up Shop in the US South, Luis Feliz Leon provides a state-by-state and auto-company-by-auto-company recitation of union activity and the car companies’ efforts (and mostly successes) in blocking unions. This through a summarization of America’s Other Automakers by Timothy J. Minchin.
The typical playbook: foreign auto manufacturer buys land in a rural, non-union, mostly white region of a southern state, builds a huge factory, hires white locals with little or no union background, and then conscripts local politicians to enact anti-union legislation and union harassment. The UAW has a poor history of fighting these tactics.
What most surprised me was this:
Between the 1980s and 2000s the foreign-owned plants became powerful exporters. The luxury vehicles Mercedes builds in Alabama are sent to 135 countries, while 70 percent of BMWs built in South Carolina are shipped overseas.
Another example of Dubal’s dispossession, as foreign car manufacturers moved to the US, sidestepping US unions, and countering labor issues in their home countries.
In All Parasites Have Value, Tara McMullin calls for us to admit the prejudice baked into the maker-taker metaphor of individual worth:
The amount of work someone does (paid or unpaid) doesn’t determine the amount of respect, comfort, or belonging they are worthy of. Existing is enough to be worthy of respect, comfort, and belonging.
And yet, we often don’t give ourselves the same grace. We judge our own productivity, our hustle, and even our ambition as if they indicate our value to society. We try to keep making at all costs for fear that we might be mistaken for taking. As a result, for all the talk about doing less or prioritizing rest, we often still feel guilty about not going a little harder, a little longer.
As Buckminster Fuller said,
We have a hard time getting out of the way of something we can’t see coming.
Many people can’t see themselves coming, or maybe just aren’t looking.