Raging against the invisible machine

Raging against the invisible machine

Today we use the word Luddite to describe someone who is nonplussed by technology. Someone who just doesn’t like it, understand it, or engage with it. This is not an accurate description of the real luddites though – as a historian friend once pointed out to me. They had no abstract objection to technology, they just didn’t like it taking their jobs.

The Luddites could see and touch the machines that they opposed. They could take hammers and break the frames. Not so for any true modern luddite, raging against the cognitive automation that might strip them of work. Today the greatest threats to human work are remote algorithms, spun up on a distant server, perhaps on the other side of the world, to perform a single task. They may only exist for a fraction of a second before they disappear again, back into the giant pools of data and computing power.

I raised this at Barclays recent Charities Day to highlight the challenge that automation presents to all of us, but particularly to the third sector. Charities have the challenge of employing automation to maximise their own performance, when they might consider their role as employers and venues for volunteering as a very important secondary goal to their primary mission. But they also have the threat to their fundraising activities. Payroll giving has been a growing component of their income in recent years. What happens when fewer and fewer of us are on a regular payroll?

Ephemeral robots aren’t likely to be so generous.


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Tom Cheesewright