The Luddites came on the streets of San Francisco, just as they did in the English factories two centuries ago: under cover of darkness and with iconic weapons in hand. In this case, traffic cones. An enterprising activist had observed (or perhaps gotten an insider tip) that placing an object on the hood of a self-driving car blocks the sensors that it uses to detect the road. The car freezes. Many objects would suffice, but cones were handy, harmless, and accidentally turned Cruise’s robotaxis into four-wheeled unicorns. Unless you’re a friendly passenger, the simple solution of removing the cone isn’t available for the car. For weeks this summer, before a state regulator decided to extend its reign, the city’s AV fleet was plagued by merry nighttime raids.
The pranksters were initially branded “Luddites” by online critics. They meant ignorant vandals. Angry technophobes who attacked the very idea of progress. Somehow the activists had missed the memo about how electric robotaxis would reduce carbon emissions and significantly improve road safety.
The rebels accepted the label. In a response posted on social media, they offered a quick history lesson, explaining that the original Luddites, the early 19th-century homeworkers who brought hammers to mechanized looms and knitting frames, weren’t really technophobes. They were merely citizens resisting an exploitative system—in their case, mass production—that threatened to swallow them whole. The cone-wielding activists viewed their own attacks on the machines as a strike in favor of a better society, freed from “car brain” and investing more in bike paths and public transportation. Luddites indeed, proud.
They aren’t the only ones who have recently sworn allegiance to King Ludd. After a brief period of fame in the 1810s, the Luddite brand has been revived in podcasts, TikToks, books and picket slogans. It had to be saved, say the new Luddites, from malicious use in popular speech. For the capitalists who destroyed the original machine destroyers and their successors in the executive ranks of today’s Silicon Valley, the Luddite became the perfect counterpart and eponymous epithet because he did not exist to defend himself, explains Brian Merchant in Blood in the machine, a history of the movement published last month. The Luddites’ apparent extremism—the crushing of technology whose only crime was being productive—made the name a “pejorative product of the entrepreneurial imagination,” Merchant writes, directed at anyone who stands in the way of your technocratic path presented.
This label is as relevant today as ever, he argues. Like the Luddites who struck against machine-spun fabrics and factory operations, workers today are rising up against automated warehouses, gig work, and AI-generated content. Behind them are the same old champions of progress: people like Marc Andreessen, co-founder of the venture capital firm a16z, who earlier this week published a “technically optimistic manifesto” in which he called all questioners of progress “liars.”
Merchant, a tech columnist at The Los Angeles Times WHO previously tested iPhonesHe argues, along with others, that Luddism is not just for loom-smashers, but for those who are uncomfortable with such blind faith. If you’ve ever wondered whether the new technology that’s showing up on your doorstep isn’t actually designed to benefit the public, then perhaps you, too, carry the flame of Ned Ludd.