This week in digital trust » Episode 97

#97 The rise of the Neo Luddites

21 February 2024

In the face of tech and AI hype, there’s an emerging march away from technology taking place around the globe. We explore recent developments fitting this trend, including a proposed law in Australia that give will employees a “right to disconnect” from work, and another that seeks to improve conditions for gig workers.

We also take a deep dive into the resurgence of the Luddite movement – a cohort of workers, critics, academics, organisers and writers who claim they are pushing back on technologies that exploit the vulnerable and extract the rewards of society for the benefit of a narrow elite.

Listen now


This is an automatically generated transcript. We make our best efforts to check that it is an accurate reflection of the episode, but it may contain some errors and unedited content.

Welcome to this week in Digital Trust, elevenM’s regular conversation about all things tech policy, privacy, AI and cybersecurity. I’m Arj joining you today from Awabakal country.

And I’m Jordan joining you from Wirandjuri country in Melbourne.
And Arj, have you ever been called a Luddite? Someone called me a Luddite the other day as an insult. As an insult?

Well, no.
I don’t think I’ve ever been called a Luddite, but I have definitely called myself a Luddite.
You know when you have those moments where you’re on a Teams or a Zoom call and you just can’t work out how to share this thing, the document, share the screen the way you want to and you’re fumbling about and you announce to everyone, I’m sorry, I’m such a Luddite. I’ve done that. But I don’t think anyone has ever called me a Luddite. Why are you a Luddite? Were you happy being called a Luddite?

I am generally, you know, we’re reclaiming the phrase as we as we’ll get to. But yeah, I think I’ve mostly used it in that sense as well. I was in a Zoom conference with like 400 people doing a presentation and I couldn’t, I’m so used to Teams, I couldn’t figure out how to share my screen in Zoom. It was very embarrassing. So that’s the common use of that term, right, as an insult. But what we’re talking about today is kind of a bit of that reclaiming of that term, right, that this idea of just pushing back on technology incursions in our lives.
And so the reason I’m like actually pretty okay with that term more and more is that actually I am pushing back a lot on technology in my life and I am kind of more and more skeptical or more and more protective of things in my life from technologies.
So my example of that is phone apps. I try to really stringently control how much time I spend scrolling dumb social media on my phone to the point where I’ve put like parental controls in there so that it stops me and I physically, I don’t have my partner has the password, I don’t have the password. So I can’t approve additional time on Twitter. I have to go, so it forces me, it’s a control I’ve put in to force me to disconnect to step away.

To step away. Yeah. It’s so funny to say that. Like the last two or three years over that kind of Christmas new year period, I’m kind of problem solving and trying to come up with ways to push tech away. And the one I came up with last year was, um, yeah, similar to you, like going into the iPhone settings around kind of adult content restrictions and adding websites like YouTube and like Twitter into there and then turning kind of, you know, adult content restrictions on so that I couldn’t access them. It’s just so funny. I mean, yeah, taking a hammer to your phone seems a lot easier in some ways.

Yeah. Right. And it’s part of this global conversation. You know, people talk about the tech lash. People are talking more and more about like reclaiming the term Luddite as a kind of social movement. But the core theme of both of those things is reconsidering tech, not as just not assuming that it’s good, right? Not assuming that technology and new things are automatically going to be a great addition to our life, but like critically looking at those things and how they affect us, our society, our work relationships, our power relationships, our intimate relationships, our friends, you know, social relationships.
And making a conscious decision about whether we want that, you know, is it in our interest? Who is it advantaging? Who is it disadvantaging? And we’ve got two really good examples of that in recent Australian law reform that, you know, you might not think of immediately, but there are these laws that Australian governments passed quite recently around the right to disconnect and around conditions for gig workers. Both of those, I think, are responses to the impact of new technology.

It’s yeah, yeah. Like it’s, it’s perhaps not as obviously connected for some people because it often, you know, gets described in that kind of workplace relations context. But yeah, like at the core of it is this idea that, you know, you go home and the tech follows you and brings work with it. And there’s this sort of, you know, underlying sense of like, what can be done to push, push that push back on that.
And so what we saw in recent weeks was, Labour’s introduced what’s been called a sort of closing loopholes bill, and the Greens introduced this amendment, this right to disconnect amendment. And basically what it is is a right that prevents employees from being punished if they refuse to take an unreasonable work call or answer an email in their unpaid, kind of off the clock personal time.
There’s some evaluations on what actually is unreasonableness, essentially, it’s that idea that there’s this kind of, there’s this creep into our lives of work and work through technology in particular, I guess, through emails and phone calls and things like that.
There’s some research from the Australian Institute Center of Future Work that 71% of Australian workers report having done work outside of their scheduled working hours and of those almost half reported doing it often.
So there’s some familiar themes, I think, when we talk about tech around kind of power imbalance around sort of the pervasiveness of tech. So even though, again, this is a sort of industrial relations type conversation, a lot of the seeds that are kind of in sowed in the ground here are those kind of tech oppression themes that we talk about.

Yeah. And it’s like you say, it’s been driven by, you know, at least in part, the like the return to work after Covid. I mean, I for one, I’m in that 71% of people who’ve done work outside of work hours. And it was particularly, I remember back in COVID days, I had nothing else to do as well. You know, may as well do some work. It’s like, why not? I’m not going anywhere in these, you know, the very extended Victorian lockdowns. So, you know, and you can see that shift in culture, but it’s something that is enabled by the technology, right?
The first job I had, I physically couldn’t, the first office job I had, I physically couldn’t work from home. Yeah, right. I didn’t have a laptop. There was a workstation in a building that I could do work at and that’s it. But these days, it’s so much more possible, so much more flexible. So these right to disconnect laws are really that kind of conscious response to a change in conditions, a change in what’s possible that technology has driven.

And it really brings together nicely the fact that you can’t separate the technology and what the way it’s designed and how addictive it might be, you know, that lures you back to check from the social expectations we place around technology and how it should be used. And that comes together really well in this kind of work stuff. And then you layer on power imbalance and, you know, it’s a bit of a, yeah, it’s a bit of a, you know, a hot meeting of trends.

Yeah, yeah, no, it is. And it’s, it’s really the core of tech policy generally is this fact that technology enables stuff that was not previously possible. You know, whether it’s like manipulation of genes in crops or, you know, new manufacturing techniques that change the relationship between capital and labor or new communications technologies or even facial recognition as a way of tracking attendance or whatever it is. It enables companies, it enables individuals to do stuff that they could never do before. And then we as a society need to make a decision about whether or not we’re cool with that, whether we want to be identified everywhere.
I mean, you saw this with the internet and Facebook and the kind of surveillance economy in kind of that funds them on the internet. There was Mark Zuckerberg and the big internet giants made a very strong case that privacy is dead. That was the claim, right? New technology, new things, you can be surveilled all the time. You know, and so the claim is, well, therefore we don’t need privacy anymore. And there’s been just a conscious pushback on that, right? To say, well, no, actually, like Yes, you can surveil us all the time, but actually we don’t want that. That’s not good for us. We need to put laws in place to prevent that.
And so that, yeah, that’s the role of privacy is one of the things that got me into privacy in the first place, actually a long time ago, but that need for like conscious policy choices around those, those changes that come from new technology.

Yeah. That comment around conscious choices and around kind of having a debate about what our expectations are is interesting to see play out. I think it’s going to play out. I mean, we’ve already had some pushback and some reaction from, you know, the business lobby about like this was the, I want an Andrew Bolt. I probably shouldn’t give him much airtime talked about it, you know, like it’s a sign of Australia’s decline or something. And, and, you know, but the business lobby is worried about productivity and yeah, it’s just, it’ll be interesting to see, you know, like the, the function of the law, whether it’s practical or not for, you know, people you know, to actually make these complaints, we’ll see.
But as a marker of social expectations around where the boundaries are between work, home and like what technology facilitates in the crossing of those boundaries, I think it’s an interesting thing.

Yeah, no, for sure. And particularly these laws, I mean, it’s worth noting that they don’t rule out a boss ever contacting you. Like the requirement is that you negotiate. Yeah. You know, you can put it in contracts that a person’s available. You can pay them to be available at particular times.
The prohibition is on specifying work hours and then unreasonably requiring work outside of those specified work hours. So it’s not like people can’t be on call anymore or anything.

Yeah, and if I think about the context in which I’m sort of working after hours, it’s very rarely because I’ve received a contact, I’ve received a call. It’s either because there’s a sense of there’s a lot of work you know, on my plate that I couldn’t get done in the work hours. And so I think that’s one of the things to stare into with this stuff is like a lot of people don’t need to be contacted in order to do that work. It’s, you know, so there’s that.
And then there’s the second thing, which is on me, which just comes back to our early thing about like putting restrictions on our phones is that these apps that we use now in a work context, like Microsoft teams or whatever, they’re all like, like social media platforms. They’re addictive. I go and look at my inbox. I go and look at these apps willingly, voluntarily, because they’re designed to pull me back in. And so I can’t disconnect. You give me the right to disconnect. Fine. I need the ability to disconnect.

Yeah, you do. So I’m going to pivot off that from us in our work environments where we have a whole lot of control and a whole lot of flexibility in the way we work. And we still end up working out of hours to the other end of that spectrum, gig workers where they might have some control over exactly which hours they work, but they have very little control over very much else and they’re not paid a lot.
The other part of that reform bill that’s just recently been passed by the Australian government is to just insert some protections for gig workers under Australian laws. So they’ve been historically called independent contractors in distinction from employees.
Employees have a whole bunch of, you know, protections, leave entitlements, uh, workplace laws, protecting employees and independent contractors don’t have any of that, so you don’t have to pay them superannuation, you don’t have to give them leave, you can, you know, you don’t have to worry so much about any of that stuff, so these gig worker protections are really focused on digital platform workers who have less bargaining power or less authority to, um determine their work or their rates of pay.
It really just gives the Fair Work Commission a power to set minimum standards for that category of worker. It kind of inserts a new category of worker that the Fair Work Commission can set minimum standards for between an independent contractor who’s not really protected at all and an employee who has a lot of protections. So, which again, I mean, why am I talking about this?
Again, it’s this connection between the apps, mobile phones have really enabled this new category of work, which wasn’t really practical before 10, 15 years ago, and which has led to a whole bunch of businesses springing up that are largely, in many cases, exploiting these kind of vulnerable workers on poor pay. It’s really unsafe working in transport and all this stuff.
Um, and so again, you know, new technology, new way of deploying it in the economy. We have to make a decision about how we feel about that, whether it’s like, it’s not banded out, right. It’s, you know, set up a new category, a new way of thinking about it.

That phrase that we have to make a decision about how we feel about it. I think to me that’s the crux of it because this bill and this conversation just spotlights something we, I think many of us know, which is that
you know, workers who work in the gig economy, particularly kind of the lower paid end, like, you know, Uber drivers or Uber Eats kind of, you know, that kind of precarious gig work, it’s uncomfortable, you know, it’s uncomfortable to know about, but we know that the conditions are poor, the pay rates are poor, there’s this lack of stability to it, and there’s, you know, there’s sort of oppressed by the platform and the algorithm to chase jobs. And if they don’t respond, it’s just, it’s, it’s, it’s not pleasant.
And we, we hear the stories about, you know, we might pay 60 bucks for an Uber ride, and then we see you kind of the, you know, the receipts that sometimes Uber drives or post online saying they got like a handful of dollars for that. And the rest of it went to Uber. This kind of is, this puts a spotlight on that.
And, and so for me, it’s like, you know, just makes me kind of again, reconcile the fact that it’s like, how comfortable am I using it? And like in the context of a conversation like this, you know, I’ll wax lyrical about this is, you know, this is quite unfair. And we’ve created, we’re creating this underclass. But you know, come Friday night, we, you know, we haven’t got food in the fridge and it’s been a long week and we’re tired and it’s like, let’s fire up Uber Eats. And so this is, you know, almost about kind of focusing as like on that conversations like How far do we want this to go?
If we, you know, we, we need to focus on the fact that there are conditions that need to be improved because without that focus with this tech is pervasive. It just takes over, it becomes a ubiquitous. So you start by using it for the odd meal, then you’re using it for more meals, then using it for your groceries. Then you’re using it for anything and everything. And there’s this permanent underclass, you know, working, uh, you know, at very low rates, you know, for, for more privileged kind of elite.
And that’s the conversation I think this brings up.

Yeah, for sure. And that, that like labor relationship is what this is directed at, right? Is that like, you know, it doesn’t magically solve the whole set of ethical or practical concerns about, you know, these gig working apps or like Uber Eats, for example, you know, that it hopefully will go some way to addressing the that the working conditions piece.
And, you know, hopefully, you know, I hope to get, it’ll get us to the point where I can, you know, happily order my Uber Eats and, you know, maybe pay it will almost definitely pay a little bit more for that. Right. Because the person doing the delivery is getting paid a living wage, which I think is fair. You know, I’m happy to pay the real cost of providing me dinner, but the, the bit that it doesn’t address honestly is the You know, the extraction of 30% like most of these apps take like ballpark 30% of the entire order in phase.
So, you know, you’re sucking that out of the Australian economy off to some US startup, which, you know, I’m not sure that’s great.

Which again, like you have 30% and then you start with the transport industry and then you’re moving over to, you know, hospitality and then like, and like the uberfication of everything. So it’s, it’s a legitimate point. Yeah.

The gig worker labor stuff is, I think, definitely in that category for me of pushback against policy, pushback against this effect that the new technology has. Right. It’s enabled a new way of working. We all want that to exist. You know, as long as they’re safe and reasonably paid, they can be good jobs. Right. That was just a fine job for anyone to have as long as it’s like safe and well paid. And so like, let’s make that safe and well, well paid.
Let’s, um, you know, close that loophole so that the cost to the user is the real cost of doing the thing. So, you know, it makes a lot of sense. Again, it’s that considered response to, you know, how does the technology affect us, who does it advantage, who does it disadvantage, how do we respond to that? Right.

I want to get to why you’re a Luddite. Beyond your confessions earlier about the Zoom call. We wanted to talk about Luddism and Luddites because there’s actually been this kind of resurgence in people self-proclaiming themselves as Luddites. Not ironically, not self-deprecatingly, but like owning the term because of this kind of context of, I guess, particularly around in the last year or so, AI, generative AI, displacement of workers in so many different categories.
And there was this piece in the Atlantic in recent weeks, which I think was particularly caught our attention by an author called Brian Merchant, who’s also written a book on this topic. But this kind of resurgence of the new Luddites has also been covered in the New Yorker, the Scientific American and Wired and others over the last year or so.
And if I just quickly quote from the Atlantic, I think that sums up kind of what we’re talking about, but with nearly half of Americans worried about how AI will affect jobs, Luddism has blossomed. The new Luddites, which was a growing contingent of workers, critics, academics, organisers and writers, say too much power has been concentrated in the hands of tech titans, and tech is too often used to help corporations slash pay and squeeze workers and certain technologies must not merely be criticized but resisted outright.
So you can kind of see already the connection to some of those conversations we’ve been having today about gig workers and about kind of the creeping of tech into out of hours work.

Yeah, another label for that is like the tech lash. People describe that kind of increasing skepticism about big tech giants and increasing appetite for governments in response to that to regulate. You know, you see that in the US, they’re all, they get dragged in front of Congress and yelled at every, you know, every few months kind of thing. And there’s a lot more willingness to pass these kinds of laws in Australia and elsewhere. The term Luddite, I think is a really fun one. Like it’s worth digging into some of the history of that because the term comes from this like labor movement in the early 1800s, this kind of radical set of like working class textile workers in England who would smash the machines in textile factories of manufacturers that they didn’t like. It’s become this like insult almost, or definitely, that, you know, meaning primitive or backwards or ignorant or fearful of modern technology.
But the historical Luddites, the labor movement Luddites, were actually not really anti-technology. It’s not quite the right way of framing them. They weren’t against innovation. The machines they were smashing weren’t really new inventions. They were smashing machines that were being used by manufacturers to disempower laborers or displace workers.
It’s a really like industrial relations kind of activist thing that they were doing rather than just a like, oh, scary technology.
And similarly, they weren’t indiscriminate. They would target manufacturers who were known to pay low wages, disregard workers’ safety, or trying to push faster work in an unsafe way. And they were tactical, right? And strategic, like it was as a tool as part of a broader labor movement, not just a fear or ignorance kind of thing.

Yeah, I mean, some of the sort of, you know, more accurate retelling of the history talks about the fact that many of these Luddites are actually quite technically savvy themselves, like they actually were technicians. And also that they were like, if they were just anti-tech generally, they would, you know, that kind of flies in the face of the fact that they would, even within a factory, only smash certain machines, which were bein put two ends that were, you know, unfair and exploitative and other technology was, you know, untouched. So it wasn’t just, oh, let’s just smash everything that’s, that’s tech, which, which again is like that.
Yeah. It’s that historical kind of, I was taught about Luddism and Luddites at school. And it was just that, you know, it was almost like that. It was a pr- you know, primitive, like
I fear whatever this technology is, and I’m just gonna smash anything that looks technical. And I mean, I remember being taught that, and that’s what I always thought.
And I even looked up the Wikipedia definition just before we chatted today, and it talks about the term is, you used to refer to those opposed to industrialization, automation, computerization, all new technologies in general. And it’s just this broad brush stroke of, anti-tech, which is not what it is.

Yeah, and so in reference to that, I don’t know, truer historical telling, it’s being reclaimed increasingly as a, you know, neo-Luddite movement or a movement that is more focused on kind of critical consideration of technology rather than just blind opposition. There’s a quote that I quite liked from a guy called Jathan Sadowski who’s in Victoria and academic at Monash University. And he says, I think it just encapsulates what it is and really well, which is like Luddism was a working class movement opposed to the political consequences of industrial capitalism. You know, not technology, right? Industrial capitalism. The Luddites wanted technology to be deployed in ways that made work more humane and gave workers more autonomy. The bosses, on the other hand, wanted to drive down costs and increase productivity.
See, like the connection back to those industrial relations reforms, you know, is direct, right? Like those teams make technology deployed in ways to make work more humane, give workers more autonomy. That’s the gig working thing. That’s the, um, right to disconnect thing. That’s, that’s exactly what they’re directed at. Right. Technology should serve human ends. Yeah.

And so, I mean, Jathan Sadowski You know, from a personal perspective, it was the first time I heard about this kind of, you know, New Luddite movement was he’s got a podcast called this machine kills, which I came across maybe a year ago, and it was the first time I heard that. And so really interesting to see him quoted, particularly in that Atlantic piece the other day.
And there’s another quote from something else, history Murray says, we don’t reject all technology. We reject the technology that’s foisted on us. And so it’s, again, it’s this idea that it’s not just being anti-technology for the sake of it. It’s about you know, our ability to say, you know, to have some control over the technology being in the interests of all or at least most of us and not a select few and not be foisted on, you know, foisted on us in a way that’s, you know, unfair.
And that’s a very different picture to, you know, the way we have conceived of Luddism in the past.

And it’s more or less what we do every week here, right? Like is talk about like…
What are the impacts? A critical view, critical lens on new technology, a viewer analysis of what government should do, who does this interest, who does this harm? It’s what we’re doing now day-to-day jobs a lot of the time as well. Certainly in privacy, we do privacy impact assessments. We look at who is harmed, who is not, who’s benefited, who’s not. Same thing in algorithmic impact assessments or AI ethics.
Um, in that field as well that, you know, so I, I, that Luddism, first of all, it’s a like fun story about, you know, the historical labor movement. Um, but it really, I think captures what, um, what tech criticism and what kind of tech regulation is targeted at these days. Yeah.

And it’s amazing how strong some of the themes carry over to today as well. Like even, even that kind of cloth making cloth manufacturing context in which Luddism sort of was born. You know, the issues that we’re talking about were things like the fact that they were displacing kind of skilled people in order to have these machines that churned out a lot of low quality stuff at high volumes. And if you think about what generative AI is doing in terms of content and chat GPT, and then the kind of fear for anyone who’s a writer or a skilled, you know, script writer or whatever.
It was the idea of, you know, lower skilled workers being exploited. So they, in, you know, in that kind of Luddism context in factories, it was like, because we’ve got these machines now we can get kids to operate them. We don’t need adults who are skilled. So you had kids in factories. We’re now seeing kind of AI being, you know, these kind of, you know, vulnerable workers doing content moderation and so forth, and then just a general deterioration of conditions like, like these machines led to factories, you know, artisan clothmakers used to work at home and.

And it’s a direct connection to the gig worker stuff as well, right? You’re using the technology to directly to degrade working conditions, to make it a lower skilled job, to isolate people and affect the power relationship between the employer and the employee. So yeah, no, it’s right on. It’s the time to resurrect that that label, I think, because it connects to so much of the things that we’re concerned about today.

Nice one. Well, because you’re a Luddite, I’ll hit the end record button on this one, Jordan.

Yeah, great. Great. Well, I don’t know how to stop this. So yeah, I’m stuck.

All right. Well, I’ll fire us back up for next week. See you then.

Talk then.