Saboteurs, Luddites and Automation

Automation, a buzzword one often comes across, is not new. Indeed, automation has been replacing jobs in industry for hundreds of years; a romanticised etymology of “saboteur” has it that workers who were displaced by mechanical looms would retaliate in anger by throwing a wooden shoe, or “sabot”, into the machinery, thereby “sabotaging” the factory’s output and showing management the error of their ways.

It was the automation and mechanization taking place in the textile industry in 19th century England that gave birth to the Luddite movement. Groups of workers who were put out of a job or under threat from machines, would burn and break machinery used by textile mills. Their actions and subsequent clashes with the British Army grew so intense that at one stage, there were more British soldiers fighting Luddites than there were fighting Napoleon’s armies in the Peninsular War! The British Parliament, in an attempt to stop the riots and clashes, eventually made it possible to be put to death for sabotaging these machines by signing into law the Frame Breaking Act of 1812. Modern-day references to “Luddism” typically mean something quite different - a general aversion to, and mistrust of, technology.

In the 21st century, with the advent of powerful computers, algorithms and industrial robots, the future of employment for many is itself at risk. This paper suggests that up to 47% of U.S jobs are in a high-risk category of being automated in “perhaps a decade or two”. Furthermore, unlike the manual labour tasks of yesteryear replaced with robotic arms, this phase of automation is hitting white-collar “knowledge workers” too. Machine learning and the rise of computing power has made it possible for machines to replace humans in more skilled jobs like radiology, paralegal services and journalism too.

Looking at it from another perspective, economists have a term for the (supposedly) mistaken fear of job loss from technological change – the Luddite fallacy. The argument basically boils down to the idea that the automation of jobs lowers the cost of production, which provides a benefit to the economy as a whole.

Such fears over the loss of jobs, it could be argued, led to the successful rise of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. His view, however, is different in that he blames losses of manufacturing jobs, at least in part, on China. What his analysis doesn’t mention, is the benefits derived from lower-cost goods which U.S consumers could import from China. However this is not to say that the government couldn’t have done better; retraining displaced workers and giving them the skills to work in other areas of the economy may have been a sound policy.

The fact of the matter is, modern day automation is happening and will likely continue inexorably (at least in the absence of government intervention). It also comes at a time when there is clearly growing economic discontent; the Brexit vote and the rise of Trump are all economic on some level and reflect anger in society bubbling to the surface. In light of these two conflicting forces, it is perhaps only a matter of time before a violent neo-Luddite (in the proper sense of the word) movement begins, shutting down and sabotaging modern-day, digital incarnations of the original mechanical looms which first disrupted the world of work. History sometimes has a funny way of repeating itself.