Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech by Brian Merchant

Published in September 2023

What if we resisted? What would happen if nonprofit universities drew a “no-profit” zone around student learning? If we drew the line in involving ed-tech companies for anything directly related to learning and teaching?

Blood in the Machine traces the modern resistance to the algorithm-enabled gig economy (think Uber drivers) to the 19th-century Luddite movement. Los Angeles Times tech columnist Brian Merchant sees a direct connection between the fight for humane working conditions and a livable wage among Amazon warehouse workers and Luddites smashing machines to protect the jobs of skilled textile craftsmen.

Merchant aims to rehabilitate the Luddites as rational, reasonable and justified resistors of work-destroying technological change.

In narrating the story of the origins and activities of the early-19th-century English Luddites, Merchant emphasizes that the movement’s leaders were not antitechnology. Instead, the Luddites sought to collaborate with factory owners to discover methods by which workers and machines might work cooperatively to improve productivity while preserving employment.

Only when the factory owners decided to replace skilled craftspeople with machines, treating the workers as disposable, did the Luddites destroy knitting frames and steam-powered looms.

A common lament within the digital and online learning community is that change is impeded by “faculty resistance.” The framework often cited is E. M. Rogers’s Diffusion of Innovation theory (1962).

According to this perspective, academic change agents looking to advance their institutions through the adoption of new technologies and methods will always face a range of faculty response, ranging from innovators (2.5 percent) and early adopters (13.5 percent) to laggards (16 percent).

The laggards will never be convinced to adopt the new technology and methods, so the smart university technology leader should focus their change-management efforts on the early (34 percent) and late (34 percent) majority. The laggards, after all, are the campus Luddites.

Reading Blood in the Machine, one wonders if campus Luddites deserve another look. Merchant asks us to entertain the thought experiment of what would have happened if early industrializing societies had aimed to ensure the well-being of the broad swath of workers rather than the accumulation of wealth among a narrow set of industrialists.

Suppose the point of technological advances is to improve everyone’s quality of life in society rather than only benefit the owners of the machines. In that case, the Luddites’ smashing of looms and frames when these machines only served as instruments of immiseration starts to make more sense.

In higher education, what is the relationship between the adjunctification of the faculty and the growing dependence of universities on for-profit companies for core educational operations? Might the skepticism of many educators about the growth of the ed-tech sector be a rational response to the absence of job security and autonomy among the ever-enlarging population of contingent faculty?

Are you a faculty Luddite? Maybe, just maybe, you are on to something.

What are you reading?

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