BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Ann Helen-Petersen and Charlie Warzel showed how the tech that was supposed to liberate office workers has trapped them instead into an endless cycle of performative tasks. But that's just a piece of that picture. Gavin Mueller, who teaches media studies at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, says tech has changed the relationship between workers and work in countless ways and rarely with the worker in mind. But we don't always remember it that way. The rebellious weavers of 19th century England took on the name of the mythical King Ludd as a badge of honor. Now it's an insult.
NEWS CLIP You're like a Luddite. You're like the guy who doesn't like technology anymore...
NEWS CLIP Can I just say to all the Luddites in the room who didn't need to see new technology...
NEWS CLIP That's a Luddite idea. That is going backward in time. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE In his book Breaking Things at Work, the Luddites are right about why you hate your job. Muller makes the case that the Luddite workers weren't technophobe, but rather tech savvy pioneers.
GAVIN MUELLER These are skilled craftspeople, so they're very good at using technology, in fact and very perceptive about what the effects of technology will be on their trade. And they immediately perceive that these new factory technologies create textiles of lower quality, that lower wages and undermine entire communities of families, towns, regions. And in fact, that is ultimately what happened to these places. To see the Luddites as somehow irrational. We can only do that from the vantage point of 200 years later, thinking that what happened to them was sort of inevitable and they should have just given up. I think if you were in their position, you would probably do something similar to what they did.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And what exactly did they do and how did they manage to organize themselves to do it?
GAVIN MUELLER They would go on these kind of midnight raids and smash up gig mills and stocking frames, but they actually engaged in a lot of other practices. You know, they would have protests, they would have strikes. But one thing that I think is really valuable to think about was how these practices of machine breaking required a deep community solidarity that really shifted the balance of power.
BROOKE GLADSTONE For a while at least, you said it worked. The factory owners were terrified and wages went up. But then they sent in the troops
GAVIN MUELLER More troops than they had fighting Napoleon on the continent, and they were able to crack down effectively on the rebellion. But this kind of militant opposition to technology doesn't stop, even if the Luddites themselves lost the battle. In fact, you had similar kinds of rebellions in France. They actually were so successful that factories closed for another 20 years, and they didn't even try to use those machines until the next generation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It is interesting the international element of this. A hundred years after the Luddites took action, the industrial workers of the world, which was a massive organization of transient workers and unemployed people in the U.S., published pamphlets on the power of sabotage.
GAVIN MUELLER There was this flourishing of interest in the Wobblies, which was a kind of interesting, vibrant milieu of these grassroots activists and militants and workers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The Wobblies were members of the industrial workers of the world.
GAVIN MUELLER Exactly. And something that these wobbly writers shared with the Luddites is, they said, well, sabotage can be something that workers do, but this is a kind of parallel response to what they called capitalist sabotage, which is when rotten food was put out for sale or products were adulterated. Right. This is the same time that Upton Sinclair's writing The Jungle. You have really poor quality, in some cases dangerous and deadly products being sold. And so they said, well, if they can sabotage people in the name of profit, we can conduct sabotage in the name of attacking their profits.
BROOKE GLADSTONE During the depression. You write that the international workers of the world initially held up some hope for 'technocracy,' but eventually the group tired of these visions, you wrote. They do not have a program for accomplishing things, wrote the IWW. And they completely exclude the class struggle. So there's nothing left to discuss there.
GAVIN MUELLER Yeah. So by the 1930s, the IWW wasn't what it used to be. Membership had dropped off quite a bit, and there is this weird 'out there' intellectual movement speculation about we’ll have a fully automated society. Technology will solve all of our problems. This movement called the technocracy movement, interestingly, still kind of around, at least they have a website. But ultimately, the people behind that movement didn't really have a kind of politics. They held out a lot of visions of technology will erase work. People will be out of work. What should we do? They had ideas around, you know, state support, transition to a new mode of production, things that people are writing books about today. But for the Wobblies, they said, our politics are the politics of class struggle because fundamentally you're in capitalism, which means there's an antagonism between bosses and workers and all politics has to flow from that. And I think that is also something we need to think about in our current moment, right? It'd be really nice to say, Oh yeah, we have the technology, it could give abundance to everyone, but it's not going to come to us purely out of the development of technology. It's only going to come from some kind of political struggle.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You see the tactics of sabotage, today. Specifically, I'm thinking of the American farmers who broke their John Deere tractors, or at least the software in those tractors.
GAVIN MUELLER Yeah, it's such a wonderful story. The new version of John Deere tractors are loaded with software just like anyone's automobile is right. You've got these computers and all these things. The problem was you were unable to access and repair the tractor unless you had a licensed USB drive. So you had to go to a particular John Deere licensed repairer, and that meant you couldn't repair your tractor yourself, even if you knew how you couldn't go to someone else unless they were licensed by John Deere. And of course, John Deere is going to, you know, charge premium prices for that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Right, Deere Charge 230 dollars plus 130 dollars an hour for the technician to drive out and plug in the connector.
GAVIN MUELLER You know you're getting a raw deal here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Infuriating.
GAVIN MUELLER So they went online and they said, 'look, is there any way we can get around this software?' And they ended up finding pirated software. I think it was Estonian hackers that created it, installed that and used it to essentially jailbreak their tractors the way that you might jailbreak your iPhone to put on an app or something that's not on the Apple Store. And now you have members of Congress saying, Wow, this is actually really not fair at all. Maybe we should regulate what's going on in these industries. So I think that shows the power of this Luddite perspective on technology.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah, it started the right-to-repair movement
GAVIN MUELLER the right to repair movement, right –yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But you identify somewhat more dubious protests as Luddite sabotage too. On Reddit, for example, there's a wave of users who give each other tips on how best to shoplift in order to get back at retailers for forcing them to use self-checkout. They're essentially enabling each other to steal. How do you see this as luddism?
GAVIN MUELLER Reddit took the forum off, but what was really interesting to me is not just the sharing of tips and tricks. 'You know, scan your organic stuff as regular' and get a little discount for yourself. But the way that people justified it, they said, Look, these self-checkouts got installed in my grocery store, I didn't agree to it. And all of a sudden, instead of someone else scanning my staff, bagging my stuff, I've got to do it myself. I'm essentially working for the company. Someone had that job. They don't have it anymore. And now I'm doing the work. If they're going to get me to do free labor for them, then I'm justified in getting a little discount on my bananas or getting a free steak here in there. We have to take matters into our own hands and form some kind of wider challenge. Maybe it would be enough to get the cashiers to come back. Again, this stuff is not inevitable. That happens sometimes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now you see the free software movement as the great example of Luddism succeeding in the here and now, right?
GAVIN MUELLER So the free software movement was born in the early days of software programming. If you were into computers, you were part of this niche subculture. And to learn how to operate your PC that you built from a kit, you had to talk to other people who were making software. You had to borrow their programs, look at their code, change their code. And that was how people learned how to program right. And so when personal computing starts to grow, some people are saying, well, software can be a market, something that we sell, rather than something that people have to kind of make themselves. Bill Gates wrote an infamous letter to this computer hobbyist club saying, 'you're stealing my stuff.' Ironically enough. Bill Gates himself stole quite a lot of what became Windows from other places, but we don't need to go there now. The US Supreme Court decided it was copyright that would govern software, so these practices that this first generation of hackers and programmers were used to would have been gone – illegal. And so what these people did, led by this eccentric figure, Richard Stallman, is they said, 'Well, what if we had our own intellectual property licenses that we would paste on top of copyright' because copyright is automatic and these licenses actually relinquish my exclusive right to this software? Anyone else is allowed to borrow my code, change it, customize it with one provision. They also have to abide by those rules for whatever they produce. So that means that free software would beget more free software and you would develop an entire ecosystem and that would preserve these grassroots craft traditions within computer programming.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And did it work?
GAVIN MUELLER The biggest success, and one that maybe some of the listeners out there recognize is the Linux operating system started by a teenager sending a message out and saying, Hey, does anyone want to do an open source operating system? And hundreds and thousands of people said, Yes, we want to help out, let's make it. But even if you're out there and you're like, I don't know anything about free software, I just use the programs that are already on my computer. Free and open source software, in many cases, had higher quality, customizable products at the end of the process. Your modem or your router has probably got some free and open source software running on it right now. One reason why programmers still have a great deal of autonomy. I don't have to have a degree, if I'm good enough. I can live in Berlin for 6 months if I want, and make a lot of money. The reason why programmers have that ability is precisely because they were able to carve out this space of autonomy. They didn't let Microsoft control that profession, but I do think it's one really recent example of a kind of Luddite perspective.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And your book wasn't at least initially just a response to how Luddites have been miscast and misremembered. It was inspired by all the renewed discussion about automation in the workforce.
GAVIN MUELLER Yeah, so there was a lot of discussion. 7 or 8 years ago, from economists, from people working in industry, wow, we're going to automate a lot of different jobs and those people that work in those positions, they're going to be out of luck. So what is going to happen? But you also have this kind of interesting moment in leftist and progressive politics of people saying, Well, maybe that's not so bad. Sure. In our current world, it's really bad not to have work because we need wages to live. But what if this was a kind of leverage to enter a new society where we don't have to work to live? And that automation, creating greater wealth, could actually be a vehicle for a post capitalist politics?
BROOKE GLADSTONE I don't understand that logic. You don't get leverage if you don't have something to hold over the heads of the people who are making all the money. Automation in the 50s caused a huge wave of unemployment in the black community. Automation had a huge impact on housewives. I mean, historically, washing machines were a huge deal, but they did actually increase the workload overall of the homemaker.
GAVIN MUELLER I agree 100 percent with you, Brooke. The way that automation works is not simply it gets rid of work, it redistributes work, and it changes the approach to work in a variety of different ways. Sometimes, yes, jobs are eliminated. In other cases, jobs are deskilled and degraded. In the case of the housewives, new technologies, rather than saving them work, expectations rose. So they were still doing just as much work as before. In fact, the only thing that's gotten women to spend less time on chores is burden sharing with their partners. So it's actually feminism that saved women, not technology.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And yet the people that you are talking about seem to be echoing. John Maynard Keynes, who predicted his grandchildren would work only 15 hours a week due to technological advance. That technology is not only inevitable, but it's inherently good for workers, even if it's carried forward by the likes of tech billionaires.
GAVIN MUELLER Right. If you think that the technology itself is neutral and it's like, well, sure, when it's Bill Gates in charge, that's bad. But maybe, you know, if it's Bernie Sanders in charge, it could be different. These technologies have a politics already, and a better approach to take is to understand the impact from the perspective of the people who are being affected by it. I think what we have to do is take seriously how to make work dignified, safe to allow people to be creative and fulfilled, to listen to the complaints that people have to the struggles they're facing and think about reshaping work along those lines rather than just assuming technology's just going to solve the question for us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Tech is a form of power that can actually disempower workers. You wrote that one of my goals in writing this book is to turn Marxists into Luddites. My argument boils down to this: to be a good Marxist is to also be a Luddite. And while I want to make Marxists into Luddites, I also have another goal. I want to turn people critical of technology into Marxists.
GAVIN MUELLER Technology is developed under capitalism, right? There's a lot of dissatisfaction with technology out there. People hate Facebook. People are concerned about climate change. But the response to that can vary quite a lot. I want people to see that the problems of technology are part of the problems of the economic system in which that technology is being developed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, isn't it generally good if it isn't used to disempower workers? I mean – vaccines.
GAVIN MUELLER Well, I'm not opposed to vaccines. I'm not opposed to all technologies. But I think you have some examples. For instance, the Soviet Union, right? Oh, we're for the workers, but you know, we also need to make stuff, so we'll just use existing technologies. And what happened was, well, the workers were disempowered. Workers were unhappy at work. Workers engaged in sabotage at work. There's a lot of problems with that production process because they had a brief debate, but ultimately decided that what they needed to do is develop the productive forces. You see something similar in China. I mean, it's playing out in a different way, and they've done some impressive things there, but people work incredibly hard doing really degrading jobs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How do you determine when a technology is good? There's an endless history of unintended consequences.
GAVIN MUELLER Of course, someone who I think is really interesting Marxist thinker on work in technology is Harry Braverman, who was himself a factory worker and goes on to become a socialist and a writer. And he wrote a book about technology at work. It comes out in 1974. What he says is, you know, why is technology always about management? It's all about scientific management? What if we took a bottom up perspective? What if we took seriously the way that workers experience their jobs and incorporated their values, their desires, their needs into the technology? Because that's not what happens now. Even when it gets branded that way, the way technology is developed is in the interest of accumulation in the interests of controlling workers. And so he offers it's a brief moment in this long, but very much worth reading book. This is how you have science and technology without saying we just need to go back to nature. We need to, you know, leave industrial society. I don't think that's a very good solution. I like vaccines, OK? Something that I truly believe is if you want to understand how things are made and how to make it better. Talk to the people who are involved in that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So if you'd incorporated the weavers in the creation of those industrial frames..
GAVIN MUELLER You could imagine a world right where certain kinds of textile production remained in control of these weaving communities, and they could adopt new technologies, and they did adopt new technologies. What if they had been as successful as the free and open source software hackers? Maybe my jeans would last a little longer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Gavin, thank you very much.
GAVIN MUELLER Well, thank you for having me on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Gavin Mueller teaches media studies at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and he's the author of Breaking Things at Work: The Luddites Are Right About Why You Hate Your Job.
And that's the show! On the Media is produced by Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Rebecca Clark-Callender and Max Walton. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.