While whiling away the hours reading angry comments from strangers on the Internet, you may have come across the term "Luddite". Usually thrown at people expressing even the slightest desire to pump the brakes on artificial intelligence (AI) before it takes all our jobs, the term is used to imply they are technophobes opposed to the wonders of new technologies.
In fact, Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, and Bill Gates were given the Luddite Award for warning about the potential dangers of AI.
“It is deeply unfortunate that luminaries such as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have contributed to feverish hand-wringing about a looming artificial intelligence apocalypse,” organizer of the awards Robert D. Atkinson said at the time. “Do we think either of them personally are Luddites? No, of course not. They are pioneers of science and technology. But they and others have done a disservice to the public – and have unquestionably given aid and comfort to an increasingly pervasive neo-Luddite impulse in society today – by demonizing AI in the popular imagination.”
But where does the term come from? The old phrase has its origins in the early 1800s in England. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, skilled textile workers created cloth garments largely with their own machines and specialist tools. Then, as the popular story goes, new mass-production technology and practices came along that they couldn't compete with, and a movement grew to disrupt the industry and smash the new machinery.
While partly true, the Luddites were responding to upheavals in the way that they worked, rather than just new technology. They did repeatedly attack a knitting machine known as the stocking frame, as well as other machinery. However they were mainly concerned with labor practices around the machines.
“They just wanted machines that made high-quality goods,” Kevin Binfield, who edited a book of writings by Luddites and Luddite sympathizers, told Smithsonian Magazine, “and they wanted these machines to be run by workers who had gone through an apprenticeship and got paid decent wages. Those were their only concerns.”
The Luddites gained their name from "Ned Ludd", a figure who supposedly wrecked a textile factory in 1779, but likely did not really exist.
"Some say a young man, perhaps with a cognitive disability, named Ned Ludd once misunderstood an order and accidentally smashed his framing machine. Others contend it was done purposely in a fit of anger," researcher David Linton wrote in a 2007 paper. "Whatever the impetus, it seems that it became a joke line that whenever a machine got smashed, for any reason, one might say something like, 'Ludd must have been here.' From this construction it's a short step to ironically applying the name of Ludd to vandalism for political purposes."
Between 1811 and 1816, the fairly disorganized group protested by destroying machinery and setting factories on fire. Mill owners responded, shooting Luddite protesters. At least four were killed in Huddersfield in April 1812, after which Luddites murdered a mill owner, William Horsfall, who claimed he wanted to "ride up to the saddle girths in Luddite blood". They shot him as he rode his horse.
The government responded to uprisings by dispatching thousands of soldiers to stop the protests, while also making machine-breaking punishable by death and penal transportation. Soon afterwards the movement ended, though the phrase – which doesn't really do a service to the purpose and aims of the Luddites – lived on.