Book Review: ‘Blood in the Machine’ by Brian Merchant

Exploring the Luddite Legacy: Past Struggles, Present Parallels in 'Blood in the Machine'.

Book Title: Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech
Author: Brian Merchant
Publisher: Little, Brown US
Number of Pages: 496
ISBN: 978-0316487740
Date Published: Oct. 12, 2023
Price: INR 1,103

Blood in the Machine by Brian Merchant Book Cover

Book Review

Brian Merchant’s “Blood in the Machine” delves into the labor struggles of the Industrial Revolution, drawing intriguing parallels with today’s gig economy. The book meticulously explores the historical context of the Luddite movement, a group of textile workers in 19th-century England who vehemently resisted obsolescence brought about by new machines. Merchant, a tech columnist at The Los Angeles Times, combines extensive archival materials with journalistic flair, offering a fresh perspective on the Luddites’ travails and connecting them to contemporary conflicts and indignities.

The narrative unfolds around individuals whose lives were upended by technological change during this pivotal time. From the decadent Prince Regent to the infamous Lord Byron and the orphan Robert Blincoe, Merchant weaves a compelling tale. Central to the story is George Mellor, a charismatic leader of Luddite cadres whose daring actions culminate in the vengeful assassination of a cruel mill owner, marking the unraveling of the movement.

While situating the Luddite story within its historical context, Merchant skilfully uses the past as a lens to examine present-day challenges. The book’s political stakes become evident as Merchant portrays the early 19th century in contemporary language, drawing parallels between factory owners and modern tech titans disrupting industries. The term “psychic factory” vividly describes platforms like Amazon, Uber, and Instacart, which cyborgize workers for maximum productivity.

Merchant reframes the Luddites as proto-unionist reformers rather than violent revolutionaries, emphasizing their focus on regulation and fair treatment. He interviews contemporary labor figures like Chris Smalls, likening them to George Mellor in our era. The book’s concluding section shifts to a journalistic register, offering insights from labor lawyers, analysts, and workers battling abuses in the gig economy.

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However, some readers find the book’s framing to be a bit messy. It attempts to bridge the historical Luddite rebellion with contemporary job-killing technologies, creating a two-part narrative. While the recounting of the Luddite rebellion is brilliant and informative, the latter part, focusing on speculation about modern technologies, may be less compelling for some readers.

Despite the framing challenges, “Blood in the Machine” remains a captivating exploration of the Luddites, correcting misconceptions and shedding light on their active resistance against technological threats. Brian Merchant’s engaging writing style and comprehensive research make the book an essential read for those interested in the intersection of history, technology, and labor struggles.

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