Making conversation about technology, particularly AI, is challenging.

Over the past year, I’ve engaged with a diverse range of individuals on the topic of AI across various settings—from book clubs and startup events to cocktail parties. Coming from a background in the philosophy of technology, I have always been fascinated by the interplay between technology, people, and society. However, the breakthroughs in generative AI that we’ve witnessed this past year have been a true turning point, as I observed how people’s attitudes toward this technology were shifting in intriguing ways. Challenging times demand quick adaptation. We have all been seeking explanations. And it was through these conversations that it truly hit home for the first time: my views on technology are in the minority.

One particular event stands out in my memory. It was about 6 months ago when I was asked to present on current issues in AI ethics to a group mainly composed of product managers and developers working in the tech industry. Inspired by Kate Crawford’s Atlas of AI, I passionately discussed gender bias and the environmental costs associated with AI technologies. Then one of the participants, a data engineer, posed this question to me:

“Why would you be interested in anything like this (i.e., AI ethics)?” 

Baffled and at a loss for words, I listened as he continued, “The algorithm is built on data we randomly collected. The fact that the algorithm is biased simply reflects the bias inherent in our world. So why would you want to manually intervene to fix it when it’s simply a reflection of reality?”

I had never considered this perspective on AI ethics before. Okay, a different viewpoint. I get it. But what really baffled me was when he went on to suggest that ideas like mine were “slowing things down and ultimately hindering innovation.” As this entire exchange happened in Korean, there’s one English word that definitely crossed my mind—essentially, he was suggesting that I’m a Luddite.

The Original Luddites

In today’s English, a Luddite means “a person who is opposed to new technology or working methods.” For people like myself who are often out there seeking meaningful conversations about technology, it’s like a magic word – sort of a conversation ender. The moment someone utters the L-word, I’m automatically branded as anti-technology or even anti-progress, leaving little room to continue a constructive dialogue. It’s frustrating. 

Truthfully, I do not want to halt progress or reject technology itself. Nor do I think that’s a realistic idea. I simply believe it’s important to determine if a technology is harmful to the common good, and to challenge it when necessary. It’s more about thoughtful progress, not about opposing technological advancement outright.

In fact, this might be how the original Luddites saw themselves, according to historians like E.P. Thompson or, more recently, Brian Merchant, who wrote Blood in the Machine. The story dates back to December 15, 1811. Twenty thousand British textile workers in Nottingham had been made redundant because factory owners introduced machines called lace frames that automated their labor. The now-unemployed workers stormed into factories to smash the machines, and in response, the government deployed six regiments of soldiers to restore civil order. The aftermath was grim, with dozens of workers either hanged or killed on the spot. The factory workers came to be known as Luddites, a name inspired by Ned Ludd, an alleged apprentice in knitting-frame work near Leicester, who reportedly protested against his employer by destroying a knitting frame with a hammer.

Nedd Ludd, drawn here in 1812, was the fictitious leader of numerous real protests.

It’s interesting that the original Luddites were skilled textile artisans who, contrary to popular image of them as technophobes, actually had a sophisticated understanding of technology.  Storming the factory and breaking the machines were not simple resistance to technological advancement but a form of protest against the use of specific forms of technology that were going to lower wages, degrade working conditions, and force them into factory labor. 

The Luddites were ultimately defeated, so it’s not hard to see how the term evolved to mean something backward-looking and regressive. The victors of that historical battle—namely the industrialists— had the opportunity to shape the narrative. This allowed them to impress upon history the idea that Luddism is regressive, effectively running what amounts to a propaganda campaign. 

The Neo-Luddites

Some 200 years after the original Luddite movement, we are now witnessing the emergence of individuals who casually identify as “Neo-Luddites.” These modern dissenters share many similarities with their 19th-century counterparts. For a start, many of them are insiders in the tech industry, akin to the skilled textile workers of the 19th century. What’s more, their discussions often begin with the telling declaration “I’m not against technology per se.” Against the backdrop of Silicon Valley’s uncontrollable growth, with AI technologies growing increasingly pervasive, Neo-Luddites do not shy away from voicing their discomfort with the way technology is being implemented in certain contexts, calling for a more equitable and democratic development of technology.

It’s fair to say they’ve done more than just talk. Consider, for example, the “coning” campaign that went viral last year. A group from the Bay Area known as Safe Street Rebel discovered that placing a traffic cone on top of a self-driving car caused it to stop operating. They used this method to protest against the increasing number of self-driving vehicles in San Francisco, which they deemed too dangerous for public deployment. Not long after, the Writers Guild of America held a 146-day strike in what some outlets called “the first workplace battle between humans and AI.” The spirit of the protest was captured in an op-ed written by Alex Winter, concluding with the remark, “If you want to know how to fix the problems we face from AI and other technology, become a Luddite.” Meanwhile, lay citizens are engaging in various forms of Luddism too, as seen in the trend among Luddite teens who are intentionally building alternative lives away from omnipresent technology like smartphones. 

A robotaxi being ‘coned’ (Source: BBC)

Winner’s Wisdom

The coning campaign and the Luddite teens share a common thread: an acknowledgment of the two-way relationship between technology and ourselves. In this view, we see technology not just as a tool to maximize utility, but as something that is genuinely capable of shaping our lives—a perspective that can empower us to be proactive, to be in the driver’s seat rather than being passively dragged along by technology. 

From this perspective, Luddism isn’t that far removed from our everyday lives. For instance, the array of digital detox tools and retreats can also be seen as modern Luddite practices, providing time to think and distance oneself from technology. It serves as a powerful means for individuals to reevaluate their relationships with digital tech. In many ways you could say this mindset inherits the original Luddites’ spirit, though much has changed with the role of technology in our lives having dramatically expanded since the 19th century.

The original Luddites lost their battle, but their cause resonates with the ideas of Langdon Winner, who in his 1978 book Autonomous Technologies: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought, highlighted the need for adopting “epistemological Luddism.” This concept is part of a broader intellectual movement, emphasizing the critical examination of technology’s role in society. Winner argued that “in certain instances it may be useful to dismantle or unplug a technological system to create space and opportunity for learning.” Doing so enables us to more carefully evaluate how a technology and its social context condition our behavior—a necessary step to decide whether a technology is appropriate for its time and place. Essentially, epistemological Luddism helps us maintain our autonomy in the face of autonomous technologies.

This brings us to the truly modern form of Luddism that we should reinterpret and inherit. The beauty of Luddism lies in its ability to enable critical reflection and evaluation of the world we have built and are continuing to build. Sometimes, this means breaking away and even deconstructing the systems we find ourselves embedded in. Author Cory Doctorow relates this process to science fiction:  to challenge not merely what the technology does, but who it does it for and who it does it to.

“What were they fighting about? The social relations governing the use of the new machines. (…) The Luddites did what every science fiction writer does: they took a technology and imagined all the different ways it could be used – who it could be used for and whom it could be used against. They demanded the creation of a parallel universe in which the left fork was taken, rather than the right.”

Revisiting the old Luddites

We’re living in a time when technology often feels many steps ahead of us, and each morning we wake bewildered by its advancements. At the same time, much of today’s mass media space is occupied by opinion leaders from two extremes: tech utopians envisioning a golden future and doomsayers forecasting dire outcomes. More must be done to establish a middle ground between outright optimism and pessimism about technology — a space for nuanced discussions that acknowledge the potential benefits of technology while critically assessing its broader implications. Regardless of where you stand regarding the future of technology and the meaning of true progress, it’s clear that opposition to new ideas, inventions, and innovations is essential for progress—not just in technology and technology, but across all areas of life. Technologies like AI undoubtedly possess the potential to benefit the world, but it’s worth remembering that historically, the distribution of those benefits has never been automatic; as Daron Acemoglu argues in his book Power and Progress, it was always through the actions of those who felt unease by the status quo. Perhaps it’s time we revisited the original Luddites and reconsider what they might represent in our current times.

Joseph Park is the Content Lead at DAL (

Illustration:  Asuka Zoe Hayashi
Edits:  Janine Liberty