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NEXT: The Return of the Luddites

David Staley David Staley NEXT: The Return of the Luddites
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It has been a while since we’ve seen any real Luddites.

I know we often use the term a lot today, but I don’t think we use it properly. Anyone who professes not to like technology, or who doesn’t seem to have the latest upgrade, or who is an old timer and pines for the good old days before technology is called a Luddite. But these descriptions do not even come close to describing the first, real Luddites.

The original Luddites were followers of a mythical figure named Ned Ludd. They were weavers and other craftsmen from the textile industry in England in the early 19th century who smashed up mechanical looms and other devices that they saw (correctly, as it turned out) as taking away their jobs. Luddites, in other words, did more than just lament and complain about technology: they actually did something about it.

If we had Luddites in our society today, we’d see a lot more bank tellers and grocery store clerks physically wrecking or otherwise sabotaging ATMs and self-checkout kiosks, these threats to their jobs. The last group of Luddites that I can remember were the United Auto Workers in 1981, smashing up a Toyota Corolla, a Japanese import that represented a threat to their livelihoods. Since then, and although technology has displaced workers, we’ve seen no organized violent movement against labor-replacing machines.

Over the next decade or so, I predict we will see a resurgence of a Luddite movement. Mind you, I am in no way advocating violence. But given that algorithms, robots and other forms of synthetic intelligence threatening to automate a whole host of jobs, I anticipate that we will witness some form of organized resistance.

Those who are protesting for a higher minimum wage might be in the first cohort of such a movement. If anyone is unclear that synthetic intelligence and robotics directly equates to the permanent loss of jobs need only heed the words of Andy Puzder, the CEO of Carl’s Jr. who has said that if the cost of labor is rising but the cost of automation is declining, then companies won’t hesitate to automate.

“We could have a restaurant that’s focused on all-natural products and is much like an Eatsa, where you order on a kiosk, you pay with a credit or debit card, your order pops up, and you never see a person,” Puzder has said.

I predict that the same people protesting for a higher minimum wage will soon resort to sabotage, disabling those burger-emitting kiosks that are replacing jobs.

Many economists, technologists and other thoughtful people have been seriously contemplating a future without employment. The transition to such a world will be painful and will impact such a wide portion of the population that some sort of resistance will be very likely. And not just minimum wage laborers will be impacted. Turbo Tax and Legal Zoom have already threatened the livelihoods of accountants and lawyers. Beyond smashing up machines, we might we see a sophisticated form of Luddism that involves hacking software and disrupting algorithms that threaten the jobs of white collar workers.

The Occupy movement and Anonymous both come close to a modern Luddite movement, although neither are directly attacking technology as a way to preserve jobs. But something like Anonymous might form the basis of the modern Luddite movement, hacking technologies as a protest against technological unemployment.

David Staley is president of Columbus Futurists and a professor of history and design at The Ohio State University.  

The next Columbus Futurists monthly forum will be Thursday May 19 at 6:30 PM at the Panera Bread community room (875 Bethel Rd.)  The topic will be “The Future of Virtual Reality.”

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