Luddites, WarGames, and the Lost Battle for Autonomyby@jamesbore
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Luddites, WarGames, and the Lost Battle for Autonomy

by James BoreApril 8th, 2024
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Highlights the connection between the historical Luddites, the fictional supercomputer Joshua from the film "Wargames," and modern tech startups advocating for decentralization, highlighting their common resistance to centralization and pursuit of autonomy. It critiques the superficial support for decentralization by some startups, driven by profit rather than genuine autonomy, and reflects on the Luddites' failed yet morally resonant fight against the dehumanizing effects of capitalist mechanization. The piece encourages seeking meaningful work in organizations prioritizing values over profit, echoing the Luddites' ideals in the contemporary digital landscape, while distancing from endorsing their destructive tactics.
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Q: What do a revolutionary from the 1800s, a supercomputer from the 1980s, and a tech start-up which supports decentralisation have in common?

A: They’re all fictional.

🤣 Hilarious, right?

Introducing the Luddites

Let’s tie these things together. First of all, the revolutionary above refers to the folkloric figure of Ned Ludd, also known variously as General, Captain, and King Ludd. Whether there was ever a real Ned Ludd is very much up for debate. Sadly, since the Luddites were pretty much wiped out a couple of centuries ago by the combination of sending the military after them and executing them when captured (they threatened the almighty profit margin after all), we’re not likely to get an answer any time soon.

What’s important for this article is that Ned Ludd was an idea. He was a mythical figurehead of a decentralised movement working to protect the livelihood of the individual worker, safeguarding their autonomy in the face of capitalist mechanical automation which worked to reduce them (or rather their cheaper, unskilled replacements) to cogs in a commercial machine.

The Luddites are far from the first decentralised movement, and definitely not the last. They were unique, to my knowledge, in being the first to assemble a decentralised movement to oppose centralisation and concentration of power in the hands of a few. Those few being the capitalists who purchased the machines with the aim of exploiting their workforce by removing the need for expensive expertise.

The Luddites were presented then, and are again now, as straightforward anti-progress revolutionaries. Even now the name is used as an insult, suggesting someone obstructs progress for the sake of obstruction. Ironically, those at the cutting edge of technologies designed to protect individual autonomy and identity have more in common with the Luddites than they do with most of the high-tech start-ups who claim to be fighting their corners.

And the Supercomputer?

In 1983 a film came out which became a cornerstone of hacker culture. No, not Hackers, I’m talking about the rightly-famous Wargames. Aside from being an innovative film, Wargames provides a brilliant illustration both of the danger of centralising power and authority, and of placing too much trust in technological infallibility.

At the centre of the film is a supercomputer, Joshua (or more formally the WOPR), which controls the entire US nuclear arsenal and defensive systems. Even if you haven’t seen it, you can probably predict the rest of the film just from that. The centralisation piece is particularly striking when you know three names which deserve to go down in history (and likely others we don’t know): Stanislav Petrov, Vasily Arkhipov, and Sir David Ormsby-Gore.

Their stories are worth looking up, but for this article what’s important to know is that it was their individual decision-making, their exercise of their autonomy, that means we’re not living in a nuclear hellscape today.

For those too young to know, you need to watch the 1983 film Wargames.

As Joshua famously writes in Wargames, when there is only mutually assured destruction the only winning move is not to play.

Obviously this lesson cannot be ascribed to our modern world, where we are completely dependent on massive interconnected systems designed to squeeze all the joy and freedom out of life and turn them into profitable numbers while having us make ‘the right’ decisions (i.e. buying the things advertised to us).

Tech Start-Ups Are Fine Though, Right?

And that brings us to the modern tech start-up, especially those that preach decentralisation and autonomy. Some, I’m sure, are sincere - it’s a statistical impossibility that all of them are presenting a smokescreen, but it’s definitely a minority.

There’s a whole rainbow of -washings (green, pink, etc.) that companies use to publicly show off their credentials, whether social, environmental, diversity, or otherwise, while carrying on as normal behind the scenes, but I’m unsure what colour would apply to autonomy.

VC-backed start-ups are funded by investment. Investors are looking for a return on their investment - usually by selling the company to bigger investors later on. Even if the first investors strongly believe in the ideals of the company rather than just the opportunity for profit, success and a sale dilutes everything further and further from those initial aims.

Driving and supporting autonomy and decentralisation of power inevitably builds systems where it is harder for a single entity to extract value in the form of profit for themselves. Decentralised systems are resilient, not robust. They’re sustainable, not efficient. They tend towards value-sharing, not profit-making. This is a problem if the key incentives that drive an organisation are monetary returns on investments.

What’s the Answer?

Is there anything that can be done?

Well, to a degree. The system is clearly built in such a way that gathering the resources to change it requires a level of investment which makes it hard to then change it without causing yourself damage. Taking part in these larger systems constrains our choices and autonomy, while opting out of them leaves us with ideological movements. Movements which are often unable to take effective actions, and easy for coordinated efforts to subvert for their own ends.

At some point there may be enough smaller entities which aren’t profit-driven pulling in the same direction to make a difference, but until then all we can do is just not play the game. Instead of pursuing the big pay cheques of major tech companies, look to smaller organisations with different motivations.

A question I was always told to ask when going to interviews was “why are you in business?”

If the answer was “to make money”, it was not a sustainable place to work. For an organisation money should be a means to an end. Treating it as an end in itself is just chasing after a high score that means nothing outside the arcade (80s reference just to tie back to Wargames there).

Take a lesson from the Luddites.

Yes, they failed.

Yes, they were utterly crushed by a system that turned people into nothing more than components in a money-making machine with no autonomy, no power, and no identity beyond ‘worker’.

Failure doesn’t mean they were wrong.

This article should not be taken as an incentive to or an endorsement of taking direct destructive action against datacentres, infrastructure, technology companies or similar. The author fully endorses the ideals of the Luddites, not their methods, or at least not the methods that will lead to similar reactions to those they faced.