Skip to main content

The Lesson of Ludd

Two hundred years ago, in 1812, there was a strike at the Rawfolds Mill in Yorkshire. Today, we know know it as the first defeat of the machine-breaking Luddite Movement, a contemporary reaction to the first wave of disruptive technology that marked the start of the Industrial Revolution and a period of history which may hold lessons for us today, in a period of great economic uncertainty, where productivity is increasingly automated and removed from human labour.

Simply taking a moribund Europe and a struggling United States economy, as examples, every statistic of the last decade warns of trouble ahead, as the rapidly climbing curve of automation and intelligent computing overtakes the millions of individual that make-up the traditional workforce.

Some fundamental jobs requiring manual labour and human skills remain irreplaceable in a service economy but huge swathes of knowledge-based careers are rapidly disappearing into cyberspace or to the digital sweat-shops of the Far East, leaving an army of unemployed young University graduates without real prospects for the future.

Europe, in particular, floats on generous, entitlement-based, socialist economies with a disproportionately large public sector and a rapidly shrinking number of workers that pay the taxes to support it. As the poorly educated migrant-driven populations continue to grow in countries such as France, the potential for opportunity and unemployment-driven unrest in the largest cities grows with it because the jobs required no longer exist in the volumes needed.

Once upon a time, Governments would introduce huge public sector projects, such as the Pyramid of Giza or the Great Wall of China or canals and railways to employ Karl Marx's growing proletariat but today the finances no longer exist, Governments are facing chronic debt challenges or are simply bankrupt, like Greece and the intellectuals are as vulnerable to the advancing machine age as the uneducated,

What I also observe around me today is ageism in the workplace. Outside of the more senior positions in business, how many people over the age of 50 are actually employed any more? Most recently and here in the UK, you'll see the public sector 'streamlining-out' the over-fifties with generous redundancy packages, as their pensions can no longer be supported. In the private sector and particularly among technology businesses 50+ is as old as Methuselah.

Transition periods in human history never pass without pain and I can't quite subscribe to the rosy optimism in Andrew McAfee's 'Ted Talk' shown below. Luddism failed because ultimately new types of work appeared to replace the old and which delivered the mass-employment that led to the the industrial revolution. However, digital technology is rapidly displacing the widest spectrum of human skills and continues to grow at a geometric rate. If you follow the progress of Moore's Law and concede that 75% of human skills and intelligence can be automated out of the workplace, making companies more profitable as a consequence, then the outlook for the workforce and for employment looks increasingly bleak.

So where do we go in this expanding transition economy where large numbers of human workers are no longer needed? 'Economies run on ideas' but no politician or economist can answer this riddle without using 'Hope' somewhere in the answer.

Popular posts from this blog

Mainframe to Mobile

Not one of us has a clue what the world will look like in five years’ time, yet we are all preparing for that future – As  computing power has become embedded in everything from our cars and our telephones to our financial markets, technological complexity has eclipsed our ability to comprehend it’s bigger picture impact on the shape of tomorrow.

Our intuition has been formed by a set of experiences and ideas about how things worked during a time when changes were incremental and somewhat predictable. In March 1953. there were only 53 kilobytes of high-speed RAM on the entire planet.

Today, more than 80 per cent of the value of FTSE 500* firms is ‘now dark matter’: the intangible secret recipe of success; the physical stuff companies own and their wages bill accounts for less than 20 per cent: a reversal of the pattern that once prevailed in the 1970s. Very soon, Everything at scale in this world will be managed by algorithms and data and there’s a need for effective platforms for ma…
The Mandate of Heaven

eGov Monitor Version

“Parliament”, said my distinguished friend “has always leaked like a sieve”.

I’m researching the thorny issue of ‘Confidence in Public Sector Computing’ and we were discussing the dangers presented by the Internet. In his opinion, information security is an oxymoron, which has no place being discussed in a Parliament built upon the uninterrupted flow of information of every kind, from the politically sensitive to the most salacious and mundane.

With the threat of war hanging over us, I asked if MPs should be more aware of the risks that surround this new communications medium? More importantly, shouldn’t the same policies and precautions that any business might use to protect itself and its staff, be available to MPs?

What concerns me is that my well-respected friend mostly considers security in terms of guns, gates and guards. He now uses the Internet almost as much as he uses the telephone and the Fax machine and yet the growing collective t…

Civilisational Data Mining

It’s a new expression I haven’t heard before. ‘Civilisational data mining.’

Let me start by putting it in some context. Every character, you or I have typed into the Google search engine or Facebook over the last decade, means something, to someone or perhaps ‘something,’ if it’s an algorithm.


In May 2014, journalists revealed that the United States National Security Agency, the NSA, was recording and archiving every single cell-phone conversation that took place in the Bahamas. In the process they managed to transform a significant proportion of a society’s day to day interactions into unstructured data; valuable information which can of course be analysed, correlated and transformed for whatever purpose the intelligence agency deems fit.

And today, I read that a GOP-hired data company in the United States has ‘leaked’ personal information, preferences and voting intentions on… wait for it… 198 million US citizens.

Within another decade or so, the cost of sequencing the human genome …