As I See It: Luddites
October 30, 2023 Victor Rozek
Having enjoyed a life of relative plenty, it’s easy to give myself more credit for the abundance I take for granted than I actually deserve. I habitually forget that almost everything I own, eat, drive, and wear was produced by someone else, often at great cost.
I had that thought recently as I looked at my iPhone, a miracle of technology, designed domestically, but assembled in foreign mega-factories by people whose range of choices is infinitely more limited than mine. I recalled something horrific that happened over a decade ago in a Chinese Apple assembly plant run by a Taiwanese company called Foxconn: Workers began committing suicide.
Employees were housed in towering dorms and in consummate acts of desperation they threw themselves from the tops of buildings. In just one year there were 18 reported suicide attempts and 14 confirmed deaths. Dozens of others were talked down by friends or Foxconn staff. At one point 150 workers gathered on a rooftop and threatened to jump.
The horror of the mass suicides was matched only by Foxconn’s self-serving response. Instead of immediately stopping production and addressing appalling working conditions, then CEO, Terry Gou, ordered netting to be installed on the outside of the buildings to catch falling bodies.
Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, there has long been a traumatic tension between emerging technologies and the factory system that produces them. One of the earliest examples occurred in 18th century England where cloth workers, who were skilled craftsmen, objected to factory-based mechanization. The introduction of power looms and wide frames produced cloth more cheaply and more quickly, but speed and efficiency were not the issues. Quality was. The factory cloth was inferior, thus the factories not only robbed the workers of their autonomy, but also of their artistry.
Workers initially sought to raise their concerns with factory owners in order to achieve a workable compromise, but to no avail. That was when a young apprentice took a hammer to the apparatus sparking what would become a nation-wide revolt. His name was Ned Ludd, and his followers called themselves Luddites.
Though the term survives to this day to describe people who are opposed to technology or new ways of working, Brian Merchant argues that was never the Luddites’ intention. Merchant is a technology columnist at the Los Angeles Times, and the author of Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech. In a recent piece for The Washington Post, he describes why he considers himself a Luddite and why our perception of Luddites is incorrect. “The original Luddites did not hate technology,” says Merchant. “Most were skilled machine operators. In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, what they objected to were the specific ways that tech was being used to undermine their status, upend their communities and destroy their livelihoods. So they took sledgehammers to the mechanized looms used to exploit them.”
Move the clock forward 200 years and, as far as we know, workers aren’t throwing themselves off the roofs of Amazon warehouses, but some are collapsing from heat stroke.
Beyond the relentless pace of work and ruthless quota requirements, some facilities endured temperatures over 100 degrees during the summer. On multiple occasions paramedics had to be called and employees were wheeled out on stretchers.
But rather than installing adequate air conditioning, reducing working hours, or cutting quotas, Amazon initially applied its own version of Foxconn’s self-serving net solution. As reported by Spencer Soper of the Los Angeles Times: “During summer heat waves, Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat workers.” (A compassionate gesture to make the Dalai Lama proud.)
These days optics matter more than reality and tech companies are skilled at self promotion and claims of ethical behavior.
Tesla, for example, pledges in its annual report that it will “not knowingly accept products or services from suppliers that include forced labor or human trafficking in any form.” Laudable, but the weasel word is “knowingly.” Sometimes, in the pursuit of profit, it’s best not to know. Or at least pretend not to. In Tesla’s case, the company apparently tracks working conditions in much of its global supply chain, but tends not to look too closely at China where it builds hundreds of thousands of cars. Specifically in Xinjiang, where the Chinese have systematically brutalized, repressed, and enslaved the Uyghur population in an attempt to assimilate them. Tesla has been criticized for opening a showroom in the capital of Xinjiang (one of 211 in China), knowing that the US has enacted a range of sanctions against China over its continuing human rights abuses there, including restrictions on US business dealings with local companies and suppliers.
As reported by The Guardian, the director of national communications for The Council on American-Islamic Relations said: “No American corporation should be doing business in a region that is the focal point of a campaign of genocide targeting a religious and ethnic minority.” But reportedly, Elon Musk negotiates directly with Chinese government officials effectively conducting his own foreign policy.
The technology in factories changes over time but, then as now, new unregulated technologies offer opportunities to circumvent or ignore existing laws and employee safety restrictions. And global manufacturing and international supply chains render operations largely or entirely invisible.
Today, AI is the latest technology that invites exploitation. As Brian Merchant explains: “In the 1800s, entrepreneurs used technology to justify imposing a new mode of work: the factory system. In the 2000s, CEOs used technology to justify imposing a new mode of work: algorithmically organized gig labor, in which pay is lower and protections scarce. In the 1800s, hosiers and factory owners used automation less to overtly replace workers than to deskill them and drive down their wages. Digital media bosses, call center operators, and studio executives are using AI in much the same way.”
By some accounts it is estimated that AI will impact nearly half the American workforce. Not all will be impacted equally or fairly. As legislators consider if and how to regulate a largely untamable technology, it will be useful to consider not only its wider economic impacts, but also the people asked to produce the multitude of products it spawns.
When the Luddites staged their protests, the military was brought in to quell the unrest, many were arrested and 17 men were hung. More recently, actors and writers pushed back against AI with peaceful protest. But I have little doubt that if violent acts (becoming more normalized by the day) against the strikers were tolerated here, they would have occurred much as they do abroad.
So, as I thoughtlessly grab my cell phone, perhaps it would serve me to pause and reflect on how it is that workers assembling one of the world’s most profitable products could be so distressed by working conditions that their only option was to commit suicide.
And then to ask myself, what part do I play in their continued abuse?