Ever worried that robots were coming to take your job?
Economists talk about the 'Luddite Fallacy' as the belief that job market disruption owing to technological changes is a unique and contemporary challenge, that will threaten the established order, and maybe even plunge us into a dystopian, Orwellian future.
While both of these assumptions are questionable, 21st century Luddites have plenty of evidence at their disposal, as AI becomes ever more prevalent in the workplace. Self-driving cars challenge cabbies, supermarket staff fear being surplus to requirements at self-checkouts and perhaps even medical professionals have cause to fear as AI. As legal tech continues to develop, the profession is also being forced to adapt.
Who were the Luddites?
The Luddites were textiles croppers in Nottingham, who protested when their bosses brought in new, 'wide' stocking frames that could let weavers produce stocking six times faster than before. In 1811, after negotiations broke down, the workers destroyed these frames with sledgehammers. 24 protesters were hanged by 1813, and even more were made examples of in order to deter others from joining their cause. The machines continued to be widely used, and job loss in the textile industry was significant.
It was only in later decades that new jobs emerged, and as the service sector and office jobs started to open up, technology transformed the economy and job market. The unemployed are naturally unlikely to appreciate the 'cold comfort' that in the long run, average wages have been increasing for the past two centuries.
Rising tides of technoscepticism today
Today, Luddites are proverbially resentful of technology or are incompetent at using it. This isn't strictly true of Luddites of years gone by. The original Luddites were not a priori opposed to any machinery, but they demanded that workers continue to be paid decent wages, and for machine supervising workers to have gone through adequate training, often fuelled by legitimate health and safety concerns. The Luddites have been recast as philistines, when in fact they were actually attempting to challenge the erosion of workers' rights in the industrial revolution. In short, they were technosceptic, not technophobic.
Modern day pundits applaud a certain degree of technoscepticism. It's now commonplace to restrict the impact of technology on our lives by enjoying a 'switch off Sunday' or embracing a 'slow living' philosophy. In the words of one commenter, "a little Luddism in our lives won't hurt."
Suffering under the 'luddite fallacy' may make you perceive a threat to your profession and livelihood. However, as generations before us found out, technology requires workforces to adapt quickly and nimbly, and in the long run it creates more jobs, and more interesting jobs too.
The experience of the Luddites gives us a very valuable lesson about how to respond to periods of innovation – wrecking the machines and doing things the same way tends not to end well.