Brian Merchant’s “Blood In the Machine”

Reclaiming the Luddites from the victors’ history.

Cory Doctorow


The Little, Brown cover for Brian Merchant’s ‘Blood In the Machine.’

Tomorrow (September 27), I’ll be at Chevalier’s Books in Los Angeles with Brian Merchant for a joint launch for my new book The Internet Con and his new book, Blood in the Machine. On October 2, I’ll be in Boise to host an event with VE Schwab.

In Blood In the Machine, Brian Merchant delivers the definitive history of the Luddites, and the clearest analysis of the automator’s playbook, where “entrepreneurs’” lawless extraction from workers is called “innovation” and “inevitable”:

History is written by the winners, and so you probably think of the Luddites as brainless, terrified, thick-fingered vandals who smashed machines and burned factories because they didn’t understand them. Today, “Luddite” is a slur that means “technophobe” — but that’s neither fair, nor accurate.

Luddism has been steadily creeping into pro-labor technological criticism, as workers and technology critics reclaim the term and its history, which is a rich and powerful tale of greed versus solidarity, slavery versus freedom.

The true tale of the Luddites starts with workers demanding that the laws be upheld. When factory owners began to buy automation systems for textile production, they did so in violation of laws that required collaboration with existing craft guilds — laws designed to ensure that automation was phased in gradually, with accommodations for displaced workers. These laws also protected the public, with the guilds evaluating the quality of cloth produced on the machine, acting as a proxy for buyers who might otherwise be tricked into buying inferior goods.

Factory owners flouted these laws. Though the machines made cloth that was less durable and of inferior weave, they sold it to consumers as though it were as good as the guild-made textiles. Factory owners made quiet deals with orphanages to send them very young children who were enslaved to work in their factories, where they were routinely maimed and killed by the new machines. Children who balked at the long hours or attempted escape were viciously beaten (the memoir of one former child slave…