Lessons from the Luddites

In which the spectre of the Luddite software engineer is raised, in an AI-driven future where programming languages become commercially redundant, and therefore take on new cultural significance.

In 1812, Lord Byron dedicated his first speech in the House of Lords to the defence of the machine breakers, whose violent acts against the machines replacing their jobs prefigured large scale trade unionism. We know these machine breakers as Luddites, a movement lead by the mysterious, fictional character of General Ludd, although curiously, Byron doesn’t refer to them as such in his speech. With the topic of post-work in the air at the moment, the Luddite movements are instructive; The movement was comprised of workers finding themselves replaced by machines, left not in a post-work Utopia, but in a state of destitution and starvation. According to Hobsbawm (1952), if Luddites broke machines, it was not through a hatred of technology, but through self-preservation. Indeed, when political economist David Ricardo (1921) raised “the machinery question” he did so signalling a change in his own mind, from a Utopian vision where the landlord, capitalist, and labourer all benefit from mechanisation, to one where reduction in gross revenue hits the labourer alone. Against the backdrop of present-day ‘disruptive technology’, the machinery question is as relevant as ever.

The Leader of the Luddites
The Leader of the Luddites

A few years after his speech, Byron went on to father Ada Lovelace, the much celebrated prototypical software engineer. Famously, Ada Lovelace cooperated with Charles Babbage on his Analytical Engine; Lovelace exploring abstract notions of computation at a time when Luddites were fighting against their own replacement by machines. This gives us a helpful narrative link between mill workers of the industrial revolution, and software engineers of the information revolution. That said, Byron’s wayward behaviour took him away from his family, and he deserves no credit for Ada’s upbringing. Ada was instead influenced by her mother Annabella Byron, the anti-slavery and women’s rights campaigner, who encouraged Ada into mathematics.

Today, general purpose computing is becoming as ubiquitous as woven fabric, and is maintained and developed by a global industry of software engineers. While the textile industry developed out of worldwide practices over millennia, deeply embedded in culture, the software industry has developed over a single lifetime, the practice of software engineering literally constructed as a military operation. Nonetheless, the similarity between millworkers and programmers is stark if we consider weaving itself as a technology. Here I am not talking about inventions of the industrial age, but the fundamental, structural crossing of warp and weft, with its extremely complex, generative properties to which we have become largely blind since replacing human weavers with powerlooms and Jacquard devices. As Ellen Harlizius-Klück argues, weaving has been a digital art from the very beginning.

Software engineers are now threatened under strikingly similar circumstances, thanks to breakthroughs in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and “Deep Learning” methods, taking advantage of the processing power of industrial-scale server farms. Jen-Hsun Hu, chief executive of NVIDIA who make some of the chips used in these servers is quoted as saying that now, “Instead of people writing software, we have data writing software”. Too often we think of Luddites as those who are against technology, but this is a profound misunderstanding. Luddites were skilled craftspeople working with technology advanced over thousands of years, who only objected once they were replaced by technology. Deep learning may well not be able to do everything that human software engineers can do, or to the same degree of quality, but this was precisely the situation in the industrial revolution. Machines cannot make the same woven structures as hands, to the same quality, or even at the same speed at first, but the Jacquard mechanism replaced human drawboys anyway.

As a thought experiment then, let’s imagine a future where entire industries of computer programmers are replaced by AI. These programmers would either have to upskill to work in Deep Learning, find something else to do, or form a Luddite movement to disrupt Deep Learning algorithms. The latter case might even seem plausible when we recognise the similarities between the Luddite movement and Anonymous, both outwardly disruptive, lacking central organisation, and lead by an avatar: General Ludd in the case of the Luddites, and Guy Fawkes in the case of Anonymous.

Let’s not dwell on Anonymous though. Instead try to imagine a Utopia in which current experiments in Universal Basic Income are proved effective, and software engineers are able to find gainful activity without the threat of destitution. The question we are left with then is not what to do with all the software engineers, but what to do with all the software? With the arrival of machine weaving and knitting, many craftspeople continued hand weaving and handknitting in their homes and in social clubs for pleasure rather than out of necessity. This was hardly a surprise, as people have always made fabric, and indeed in many parts of the world handweaving has remained the dominant form of fabric making. Through much of the history of general purpose computing however, any cultural context for computer programming has been a distant second to its industrial and military contexts. There has of course been a hackerly counter-culture from the beginning of modern-day computing, but consider that the celebrated early hackers in MIT were funded by the military while Vietnam flared, and the renowned early Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition of electronic art included presentations by General Motors and Boeing, showing no evidence of an undercurrent of political dissent. Nonetheless, I think a Utopian view of the future is possible, but only once Deep Learning renders the craft of programming languages useless for such military and corporate interests.

Looking forward, I see great possibilities. All the young people now learning how to write code for industry may find that the industry has disappeared by the time they graduate, and that their programming skills give no insight into the workings of Deep Learning networks. So, it seems that the scene is set for programming to be untethered from necessity. The activity of programming, free from a military-industrial imperative, may become dedicated almost entirely to cultural activities such as music-making and sculpture, augmenting human abilities to bring understanding to our own data, breathing computational pattern into our lives. Programming languages could slowly become closer to natural languages, simply by developing through use while embedded in culture. Perhaps the growing practice of Live Coding, where software artists have been developing computer languages for creative coding, live interaction and music-making over the past two decades, are a precursor to this. My hope is that we will begin to think of code and data in the same way as we do of knitting patterns and weaving block designs, because from my perspective, they are one and the same, all formal languages, with their structures intricately and literally woven into our everyday lives.

Joanne Armitage Live Coding
Joanne live coding at access space

So in order for human cultures to fully embrace the networks and data of the information revolution, perhaps we should take lessons from the Luddites. Because they were not just agents of disruption, but also agents against disruption, not campaigning against technology, but for technology as a positive cultural force.

This article was written by Alex while sound artist in residence in the Open Data Institute, London, as part of the Sound and Music embedded programme.


Tweets in Space: An interview with Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern

“Tweets in Space beams Twitter discussions from participants worldwide towards GJ667Cc – an exoplanet 22 light years away that might support extraterrestrial life. By engaging the millions of voices in the Twitterverse and dispatching them into the larger Universe, Tweets in Space activates a potent conversation about communication and life that traverses beyond our borders or understanding.”

Marc Garrett: Could you explain to our readers what ‘Tweets In Space’ is?

Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern: Tweets in Space is an art project — a networked performance event — which beams your Twitter messages to a nearby exoplanet that might support human-like, biological life. Anyone with an Internet connection can Tweet with the hashtag #tweetsinspace during the performance time, and their messages will be included in our shotgun blast to the stars. The performance is on September 21st, 20:30 – 21:00 Mountain Time (3:30 AM BST / London time).

MG: What was the motivation behind your current collaboration?

SK and NS: We found inspiration from various sources. First, in NASA’s Kepler mission, whose purpose is to discover planets in the “habitable” or “Goldilocks” zone. The project has found over 2000 exoplanets thus far, all of which are “not too hot, not too cold, but just right” for life as we know it. Scientists now estimate that there are at least 500 million planets like this in the Milky Way alone. Our conclusion: extraterrestrial life is almost certainly out there.

The newly discovered planet is depicted in this artist’s conception, showing the host star as part of a triple-star system. Image credit: Carnegie Institution / UCSC. [1]

“The latest discovery is at least 4.5 times bigger in size than Earth. Reportedly, the planet exists 22 lightyears away from Earth and it orbits its star every 28 days. The planet is known to lie, in what is being referred to as the star’s habitable zone. A habitable zone is a place where the existing conditions are just perfect for life sustenance. Astronomers, according to this report also suspect that the GJ667Cc may have been made out of earth-like rock, instead of gas.” [ibid]

Another source of great inspiration is how we use social media here on Earth. This is our second, large-scale, Internet-initiated collaboration. In 2009, we amplified the power structures and personalities on Wikipedia, and questioned how knowledge is formed on the world’s most-often used encyclopedia – and thus the web and world at large. Now, we are turning to the zeitgeist of information and ideas, feelings and facts, news and tidbits, on Twitter. The project focuses on and magnifies the supposed shallowness of 140-character messages, alongside the potential depth of all of them – what we say in online conversation, as a people.

We are directing our gaze, or rather tweets, via a high-powered radio telescope, towards GJ667Cc – one of the top candidates for alien life. It is part of a triple-star system, has a mass that is about 4 times that of Earth, and orbits a dwarf star at close range. GJ667Cc most certainly has liquid water, an essential component for the kind of life found on our own planet.

MG: Right from its early years when Jagadish Chandra Bose [2], pioneered the investigation of radio and microwave optics – science, technology and art have had strong crossovers. And it might be worth mentioning here that Bose was not only well versed as a physicist, biologist, botanist and archaeologist, he was also an early writer of science fiction. [3] Which, brings us back to ‘Tweets In Space’, wherein lies themes relating to science fiction, radio broadcasting (commercial, independent and pirate), wireless technology of the everyday via our computers, and ‘of course’ the Internet.

J.C. Bose at the Royal Institution, London, 1897.[3]

But, what I want to pin down here is, where do you feel you fit in historically and artistically with other past and contemporary artists, whose creative art works also involved explorations through electromagnetic waves?

Scot Kildall: The work of JC Bose is incredible and what strikes me is that he eschewed the single-inventor capitalist lifestyle in favor of his own experiments. Isn’t this the narrative that artists (often) take and linked back in many ways to the open-source/sharing movement, rather than the litigious patent-based corporation? And it mirrors in many ways the reception of electromagnetic radiation as well. You can’t really “own” the airwaves. Anyone who is listening can pick up the signal. This comes back, as you point out, to the internet. Twitter is now, one of the vehicles, and, ironically entirely owned by a benevolent* corporation.

Nathaniel Stern: (Agreeing with Scott) and we can’t forget of course Nam June Paik, who played with naturally occurring and non-signal based electromagnetic fields to interfere with analogical signals (as well as the actual hardware) of tube televisions, and more. And of course, there have been other transmission artists, explored in depth by free103point9, among others. I think, like them and others, we are messing with the media, amplifying (figuratively and metaphorically) and intervening, pushing the boundaries of DIY and cultural ethico-aesthetic questions…

1963, Nam June Paik réalise Zen devant la tv.

MG: What is especially interesting is that all the tweets submitted by the public are unfiltered. How important is it to you that people’s own messages are not censored when going into space?

SK and NS: Absolutely. Tweets in Space is by no means the first project to transmit cosmic messages with METI technologies (Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence). Our fellow earthlings have sent songs by the Beatles, photos of ourselves shopping at supermarkets, images of national flags, and even a gold record inscribed with human forms – controversially, where the man has genitals and the woman doesn’t. These slices of hand-picked content exhibit what a select few believe to be important, but ignore, or willfully exclude, our varied and collective modes of thinking and being.

Tweets in Space is “one small step” with alien communications, in that it is open to anyone with an Internet connection. It thus represents millions of voices rather than a self-selected few. More than that, our project is a dialog. There have been, very recently, a small number of projects that similarly “democratize the universe” but none are like ours: uncurated, unmediated thoughts and responses from a cooperative public. We can speak, rebut, and conclude, and nothing is left out. Our transmission will contain the good, the bad, and the provocative, the proclamations, the responses, and the commentary, together, a “giant leap” for all of humankind – as well as our soon-to-be friends.

Part of the radio-wave transmission prototype delivery system devised by engineering students for the Tweets In Space project. (Photo by Nathaniel Stern)


Furthermore, by limiting the event to a small window of only 30 minutes, we are encouraging all our participants to speak then respond, conversing with one another in real-time, through networked space. We are not just sending lone tweets, but beaming a part of the entire dialogical Twitterverse, as it creates and amplifies meaning. Tweets in Space is more than a “public performance” – it “performs a public.”

MG: Now, you will be transmitting real-time tweets toward the exoplanet GJ667Cc, which is 22 light-years away. How long will it all take to get there?

SK and NS: Well, first off, we’re collecting all of the tweets in real time, but only sending them out later in October. The main reason for this is that we have to wait for the planets to align – literally. We want line of sight with GJ667Cc from where our dish is. The added bonus of time, however, is that this will allow us to really flesh out how we send the messages in a bundle. We want to include a kind of Rosetta Stone, where we will not only send binary ASCII codes of text in our signal, but also analog images of the text itself. We additionally intend to choose the most frequently used nouns in all the tweets from our database, then give a kind of “key” for each. If “dog” is common, for example, we can transmit: 1. an analog image of a dog, like a composite signal from a VCR; 2. a text image of the word “dog” in the same format; and 3. the binary ASCII code for the word dog.

In terms of time/distance, when speaking in light years, these are the same thing. A light year is the distance light can travel in one year of Earth time (about 9.4605284 × 10 to the 15 meters). Since radio travels at the speed of light, a big dish on GJ667Cc will pick up the signal in 22 years. We should start listening for a response in 44 – though it may take them a while to get back to us…

MG: Will the code used for the project be open source, and if so, when and where can people expect to use it?

SK and NS: Yes it is! The most useful part of our code is the #collector, which saves real-time tweets to a database, that can then be used for live projections or web sites, or accessed and sorted later via all kinds of info. The problem is that it’s not really user friendly or out of the box – folks need a suped up server (VPN), and to plug into a few other open source wares. The main portion of the backend we used is actually already available at 140dev.com, and then we plugged that into Drupal, among other things. For now, we’re telling interested parties to contact our coder, Chris Butzen, if they want to use our implementation. And we hope to do public distribution on tweetsinspace.org if we are able to package it in a more usable format in the next 6 months.

MG: Are there any messages collected so far, grabbing your attention?

We’ve had thousands of tweets so far – even while just testing the ware in preparation for the performance. We’re anticipating a lot of participation! The tweets we’ve seen have ranged from variations on “hello [other] world” and “don’t eat us,” to political activism and negative commentary, to a whole surreal narrative of about 30 tweets per day over the last 3 months.

Furtherfield’s first Tweet in Space.

go to tweet aliens to add your own words…

Some of our favorite tweets have been those that question how to make our own world better. These speak to both the hope of space age-ike technology, as well as the hope in collective dialog – both of which our project tries to amplify. Such tweeters ask about the alien planet’s renewable energy sources, tax structures, education, art, and more.

We imagine the 30-minute performance will see a much more potent discussion about such things, and hope your readers will participate. The final transmission will be archived permanently on our site once we’ve prepared it for launch.

Notes & References:

How to Take Part.

As part of the International Symposium on Electronic Art in New Mexico (ISEA2012). We will collect your tweets and transmit them into deep space via a high-powered radio messaging system. Our soon-to-be alien friends might receive unmediated thoughts and responses about politics, philosophy, pop culture, dinner, dancing cats and everything in between. By engaging the millions of voices in the Twitterverse and dispatching them into the larger Universe, Tweets in Space activates a potent conversation about communication and life that traverses beyond our borders or understanding. http://tweetsinspace.org/

Watch the stream LIVE here – http://tweetaliens.org/tweets/tweets.php

[1] New super-Earth detected within the habitable zone of a nearby star. Tim Stephens. University of Santa Cruz. February 02, 2012. http://news.ucsc.edu/2012/02/habitable-planet.html

[2] Jagadish Chandra Bose: The Real Inventor of Marconi’s Wireless Receiver Varun Aggarwal, Div. Of Electronics and Comm. Engg. NSIT, Delhi, India. PDF. http://tinyurl.com/8bhjbup

[3] Jagadish Chandra Bose http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jagadish_Chandra_Bose