History is bunk, Henry Ford famously quipped. Though no one can claim to know precisely what he intended by the phrase—Ford was notoriously slippery in his rhetoric—one can approximate his meaning. Why would a brutal capitalist and ingenious technologist find much value in the baggage of the past when the machine-fueled future promised such glory and treasure?
The kind of creeping techno-fascism now emerging from the cracks of our social foundation thrives on such Fordian forgetfulness. The dramatic scale in which algorithm-driven platforms have come to dominate our social engagements and consumer behaviors are quite likely to be surpassed by the brutal speed at which artificial intelligence will suffuse every aspect of society. Such shifts have both known and as-yet-unknown implications on the health of our democracies, the psychologies of our children, and the fabric of our communities. Thus, the knowledge of how previous epochs dealt with technologically induced upheavals, and their accompanying progress and despair, is not merely educational; it’s an essential tactic for survival. In his new book Blood in the Machine, Brian Merchant aims to recover our memories, and by doing so sharpen our mental acuity for the battles that are to come.
He awakens us with a narrative jolt—placing us in the heat of violent rebellion, among the ranks of self-trained soldiers fighting neither for notion nor nation but for the fundamental dignities of human life in a system that measures it against the pull of progress and finds it wanting. We are in north England, where with cleverness and brutality, textile workers calling themselves Luddites have decided to make their stand against industrialization’s steady, callous march. For a time, they manage the near-impossible, creating a counterweight to the power of the capitalists and the will of a king.
Merchant’s pages are proxies for screens: He writes cinematically, with the texture and detail of David Grann and the prose flourishes of Doris Kearns Goodwin. His predilection for intimacy stitches the long book together through individual narratives that carry us into bedrooms, backrooms, and barrooms. We overhear and overlook. We are witnesses to heroism, barbarism, desperation, despotism. By the time we are 400+ pages into the saga, we are rung out by outrage—at the level of the body and the collective.
And only then does Merchant click his heels and take us home. We carry our outrage with us. Scraping off the syrupy mythologies of Silicon Valley, Merchant masterfully connects the dots, bringing the social tensions and capitalist infrastructure of 1810s to bear on the gig economy, robotics industry, artificial intelligence, and the labor battles that are messily—if not yet violently—wrestling once more with the threat to human dignity and thriving.
The Luddite’s war, of course, was lost. Throwing, in Mario Savio’s rebellious words, “their bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus” only slowed what now seems the inevitable victory of the machines. Yet what one takes from the Merchant narrative is not the first tragedy of Luddite imprisonment and destruction but the second tragedy of forgetfulness. Nowadays, the Luddites are reduced to metaphor, a symbol of simpleton resistance, a backward and uneducated stance toward the high virtues of technological advancements. We’ve all been living in Yoko Ogawa’s novel The Memory Police, and the Luddite’s have been erased—relegated to the realm of the pathetic when they should have been elevated as prophets.
And in this lies Merchant’s echoing warning: The most potent effect of transformative technology is not in what it creates, but it what it disappears. Every breakthrough technology seals the fate of previous practices of work, play, and connection. Perhaps the benefits of said technology—the economic value it enables, the efficiencies it unleashes, the creativity it prompts—outweigh the costs to human experience, communal engagement, and environmental thriving. Perhaps not. Or perhaps, worst of all, no one measures the losses or the gains. “The greater the wonders of a technology,” Neil Postman claimed, “the greater will be its negative consequences.” And yet the wonder mesmerizes so effectively, the ledger grows dusty. Attention elsewhere, no one sees how far we’ve drifted toward the red.
This story is part of a quarterly column, called Mixed Media, that appears in the print issue of Worth Magazine. In it, Jason Allen Ashlock explores and reviews topical books, podcasts, TV shows, and movies that share a common theme and reveal trending ideas in their various forms.