Introducing Blood in the Machine
Documenting and explaining the rebellions against AI + big tech
Over the last few decades, the Silicon Valley elite have concentrated vast stores of wealth and power. The services and systems they’ve unleashed — from generative AI to gig app algorithms to employee surveillance software — have been used to control, subordinate, and squeeze working people. Most politicians and pundits have been content to let it happen.
Yet in this age of Uber, Amazon, and OpenAI, more and more working people are pushing back. Warehouse pickers, screenwriters, delivery drivers, artists, content moderators, illustrators, quality assurance testers, cabbies, coders, journalists, and so many others are joining a struggle that took root over 200 years ago, when early entrepreneurs deployed automation against workers — and the first uprising against the big tech began.
This is the story I tell in my forthcoming book, Blood of the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech, which is out in September from Little, Brown.
Chances are, you’ve got the Luddites all wrong.
The book traces the rise of the Luddites, who, contrary to common belief, were not anti-technology morons, but skilled cloth workers, artisans, and technologists. When entrepreneurs and bosses began using machinery to erode wages and working conditions, and moved to shift work from the home and into the factory, the Luddites organized a fierce, sprawling, and popular resistance. They hunted down and smashed the machinery used to exploit them with a hammer.
Today, as the tech columnist for the LA Times, I cover so many stories that seem to be echoes — or even reenactments — of the same phenomenon. Uber using its algorithms to take market share from taxis and slash its own drivers’ wages, until drivers are forced to revolt. Executives who justify firing droves of human staffers with a new investment in generative AI. Startups promising that software automation will let businesses replace their workforces, on the cheap.
This has all happened before, beat by beat by beat.
In the book, I tell the story of the Luddites as a narrative — we follow the early Industrial Revolution-era workers and organizers as they struggle, protest, contemplate alternatives, get beaten back, and take up arms against the machinery of industrial capitalism. I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice to say, I hope things turn out better today.
So, this newsletter: Much of my work entails keeping tabs on how Silicon Valley’s technology is deployed against workers and ordinary people, and how those workers resist. Since Twitter is imploding, and social media appears to be fragmenting, if not ending altogether, I’m hoping this newsletter will be a good way to share my work, and to build a community of folks interested in tech, power, and the future of labor. I’ll share my columns, with some additional context, as well as other thoughts and errata. I’ll include links to the week’s big stories in AI, automation, big tech and worker resistance, as well as updates and book news like tour stops and events.
And with that, I hope you’ll preorder the book — preorders mean a great deal these days, as you’ve likely heard, and can shape the fortune of a book, determining the volume of early printing, the amount of resources the publisher allocates to promoting it, bestseller list placement, and so on. Because I am proud and perhaps even a little vain, I’ve included some generous things much better writers than I have said about the book below.
Subscribe to Blood in the Machine: the Newsletter.
I should add that this newsletter will be 100% free. If you’d like to support my work beyond preordering — which, again, thank you — then I’d ask that you consider subscribing to the LA Times, which publishes a surfeit of critical world class journalism and commentary every day.
And if you’ve got a story about how you or your peers are being ground under the gears of modern technological capitalism, or how you’re pushing back, in ways large or small, then my inbox is open anytime: Brian[dot]merchant[at]latimes[dot]com.
Thanks for reading. Time to break out the hammers.
“This is an absolutely indispensable, shocking, and fascinating tale by one of today’s most important technology writers. This riveting book is as much a work of history as it is an urgent examination of our ability to resist the overwhelming changes technology is wreaking on our lives. The Luddites knew that automation, job loss and the consolidation of wealth aren’t inevitable. We can shape these forces if we’re willing to break a loom or two.”―Christopher Leonard, New York Times bestselling author of Kochland and The Lords of Easy Money
"A thrilling history and a stirring manifesto for seizing the means of production, or smashing it, when necessary. Automation has always been about turning people into machines: brainless and disposable. To be a Luddite is to demand a say in the future. It's not enough to ask what a machine does - we have to ask who it does it for and who it does it to."―Cory Doctorow, New York Times bestselling author of Little Brother and The Internet Con
“A rich and gripping account of a chronically misunderstood historical chapter, one with urgent relevance to our own time, as we once again pit humans against machines.”―Naomi Klein, New York Times Bestselling author of This Changes Everything
“Forget everything you know about the Luddites. After Blood in the Machine you’ll never look at your computer screen – or a hammer – the same way again.”―Malcolm Harris, bestselling author of Palo Alto
“Brian Merchant has pulled off a kind of temporal magic trick: He's told a two-century-old story with such resonant themes about technology, labor and human exploitation—and done it with such gripping, visceral detail and empathy—that it feels like it's about our future.”―Andy Greenberg, author of Sandworm and Tracers in the Dark
“A riveting look into the past, and a cautionary tale for our rapidly approaching future…. Fast paced, engagingly written, and exhaustively researched, this work of history could not feel more relevant to the current moment. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.” ―Kim Kelly, author of Fight Like Hell: The Untold Story of American Labor
“I’ve thrown around the word ‘Luddite’ often in my work, mainly as a cheap insult, so Brian Merchant’s rich and absorbing history of the movement was, for me, both a revelation and an embarrassment. The embarrassment is at how little I’d known about them, and how the lessons I’d taken from their effort were based on a silly caricature. The revelation, in Brian’s deft telling, is that technology never has to be inevitable, that we humans have agency over how we live with the machines, and that perhaps the best way to figure out what to do about the future is to look to the past.” ―Farhad Manjoo, New York Times Opinion columnist
"An immersive, propulsive tale...an eye-opening history delivering powerful lessons for our high-tech present."―Margaret O'Mara, author of The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America