Gig Work Is the Opposite of Steampunk

They turned the cottage into a factory.

Cory Doctorow
6 min readMar 12


A woodcut of a weaver’s loft, where a woman works at a hand-loom. Out of the window opposite her looms the glowing, menacing red eye of HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ On the wall behind her is the poster from Magpie Killjoy’s ‘Steampunk Magazine’ that reads, ‘Love the machine, hate the factory.’
Cryteria/CC BY 3.0 (modified)

Despite what you may have heard, the Luddites weren’t technophobes. They were skilled workers, expert high tech machine operators who supplied the world with fine textiles. Thanks to a high degree of labor organization through craft guilds, the workers received a fair share of the profit from their labors. They worked hard, but they earned enough through their labors to enjoy lives of dignity and comfort.

Nineteenth century textile workers enjoyed a high degree of personal autonomy. Their machines were in their homes and they worked surrounded by family and friends, away from the oversight of the rich merchants who brought their goods to market. This was the original “cottage industry.”

The factory owners who built their “dark, Satanic mills” weren’t interested in making life easier for textile workers by automating their labor. They wanted to make workers’ lives harder.

Textile machines were valued because they were easier to operate than the hand-looms that preceded them, and that meant that workers who wanted a fair wage for a fair day’s work could be fired and replaced with new workers, without the logistical hassle of the multi-year apprenticeship demanded by the hand-loom and its brethren.

As Brian Merchant documents in Blood in the Machine, his stunning, forthcoming history of the Luddites, the factory owners of the industrial revolution wanted machines so simple that children could work them, because that would let them pick over England’s orphanages, tricking young kids to come work in their factories for ten and twelve hour days.

These children were indentured for a period of ten years, starved and mercilessly beaten when they missed quota. The machines routinely maimed or killed them. One of these children, Robert Blincoe, survived to write a bestselling memoir detailing the horrifying life of the factory owners’ child slaves, inspiring Dickens to write Oliver Twist.

The Luddites’ cause wasn’t the destruction of machines —they fought for the preservation of workers’ power over their bosses. They understood perfectly well what the machines did (indeed, much of their criticism of textile machinery was technical in nature, decrying the…



Cory Doctorow

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