A Luddite is someone who is opposed to new technologies and technological change.

Admit it. You thought of someone just now, didn’t you?

While many people resist change, this is a blog that explores business issues and ideas, so let’s talk about our coworkers, our colleagues, and our network of professional connections. Think about what some of those people say when their familiar piece of software or favourite equipment is replaced by something new.

“If it’s not broke, why fix it? I don’t want to learn the ‘new way’ of doing things. There was nothing wrong with the way they were. I’m going to see if I can’t just keep doing things my way.”

Before we fixate on technology as the issue, we should point out that is not actually what Luddites dislike. Even focusing on the change that technology brings would be missing the mark. The root cause of Luddites’ resistance to technological change is the fear that on the far side of the change they will not be as valued as they were before.

This is a very old fear coming from an honest place, and it is not going away any time soon.

The Executive Platforms team often speaks with industry leaders about the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Industry 4.0, the Industrial Internet of Things, Digital Transformation, Big Data, Machine Learning, AI, and all the other wonders that are transforming the way organizations function in the 21st Century. In all of those conversations we have about all of these interconnected topics, at some point we must talk about how workers respond to this sea change in their daily tasks and long-term career arcs.

More often than not, what we are really circling around is people are afraid, “Will automation cost me my job?”

Before we make sweeping declarations, let’s step back for a moment: Where does the term ‘Luddite’ come from?

Most people who think they know the answer are wrong. The story goes that in 1779 a weaver’s apprentice named Ned Ludd smashed two mechanical knitting machines in a fit of passion, and his name became synonymous with a working man destroying the machine designed to replace him, but there is no evidence that he ever really existed. He was more of a Robin Hood figure from the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, but his fame spread so pervasively among the cotton mills of Britain that secret oath-based organizations calling themselves Luddites were formed and caused havoc in the textile industry from 1811 to 1816. The movement was eventually crushed by both military and legal force, but for a time a Luddite was the villain of capitalists and the hero of the working man —or the one-time working man whose job no longer existed.

As long as we are doing etymology, the word sabotage and saboteur also developed their modern meaning around this time. A sabot is an inexpensive wooden shoe that was common in northern France, Belgium, and The Netherlands before and during the Industrial Revolution. Prior to the rise of the automated textile mill, the word ‘sabotage’ only referred to wooden shoemaking. Of course that changed once the Continental equivalent of Britain’s Luddites started feeding their sabots into the spinning machinery. These ‘saboteurs’ committed ‘sabotage,’ and the English and French languages pivoted to make wooden shoes an almost forgotten afterthought when using those words.

The Industrial Revolution did cost traditional weavers their jobs. Automated manufacturing creates the same product a weaver working from home makes faster, cheaper, more consistently, and quite often to a superior quality of all but the most gifted artisans. An entire way of life was destroyed, and many of those workers and their families were forced from their homes, often emigrating in the search for new opportunities elsewhere. It was disruptive, life-changing, and thoroughly unpleasant.

One can understand why there was resistance. One can also understand that resistance was never going to stand in the way of progress.

The cost to buy cloth today in real terms is infinitesimal compared to its price before the Industrial Revolution. Without going into the nitty-gritty of actual currency exchange and inflation, perhaps that point can best be illustrated that only the very rich could indulge in an extensive wardrobe. The vast majority of people only owned one or two everyday outfits with perhaps one more for formal occasions —what many referred to as their, ‘Sunday Best.’ Average people could not afford more. The cost of making fabric was just too high until the work could be done by machines at far greater volume with only a few workers required to run the factories and mills. Once that happened, though, no one was interested in paying an exorbitant premium for handmade cloth. An enormous global artisanal industry almost as old as civilization itself suddenly found itself redundant, and everyone employed in it had to find another way to make a living.

Who, reading that, cannot imagine their current working life somehow being made obsolete by some future technological innovation?

So, let’s ask it again, “Will automation cost me my job?”

There is no categorical answer to that question. Without knowing specifics, how can anyone answer yes or no or even the wobbly maybe?

Possibly the best single response was given at the 2021 edition of the North American Supply Chain Executive Summit that ran in Chicago. Simon Ellis of IDC Manufacturing Insights said, “Technology doesn’t replace people. It replaces tasks.”

Technology doesn’t replace people. It replaces tasks.

If your job is doing something that can be automated, that something will probably sooner or later be automated. Business forces will always move towards faster, less expensive, higher quality results, and what person doing the same job the same way for their entire career can hope to compete with technological innovation designed specifically to do what they do better?

That is not the end of the conversation, though. Your automatable task may be automated, but there are lots of things a human being can do that cannot be automated. The things you currently do that you fear might be automated, is that the best use of your finite time and limitless potential as a human being? Rather than thinking in terms of losing something, what about what you stand to gain? What can technology free you to do by taking things off your plate that in the grand scheme of things a machine can do better than you anyway? Think instead about what technology enables you to do once it is responsible for your old responsibilities? How can you stand on the shoulders of technology to reach higher and grasp more than you ever could before?

It is true those 18th and 19th Century weavers lost their livelihoods to textile mills and factories, but they were also freed from working spinning wheels and looms by hand from cradle to grave. Technology broke the cycle. Where they were themselves almost certainly the children and grandchildren of weavers, their children and grandchildren were not tied to a lifetime of piecework income based on manual labor. The task was taken over by machines, but the people remained, and many more of them found prosperity doing something else while wearing inexpensive machine-made clothes on their backs than they would have doing the same work they and their families had always done. The change was not of their choosing, but when it came, the people moved on to other, better tasks.

Meanwhile, let us remember that today’s workforce is not in the position those artisanal weavers were in where their once highly valued skills were suddenly rendered obsolete. Today’s Fourth Industrial Revolution is not going to hollow out a way of life like the first Industrial Revolution did. The great age of assembly lines that created the Middle Class in much of the world has already seen multiple waves of automation inspire several generations to embrace education and continuing professional development as the way to build careers in an increasingly digital economy. The Industrial Internet of Things is not meant to render today’s workforce superfluous. It is far more likely to give them the ability to troubleshoot and continuously improve processes with clear visibility on what is happening in real-time, which makes every employee only more valuable to their employer.

So, one more time, “Will automation cost me my job?”

There is no one right answer to that question, but if your job is made up of automatable tasks, sooner or later those tasks will not be yours to do anymore. You cannot stop that change from coming any more than a man throwing a wooden shoe into a spinning jenny can hold back the forces of history. With that said, not having to do those tasks should not be the end of your value to your organization or your profession. The technology that can do your existing job better than you can should also motivate you, free you, and empower you to do more than any machine can ever offer.

Technology doesn’t replace people. It replaces tasks.

Think about it. The tasks you may no longer be asked to do are not what make you valuable. You did not get into your current line of work to do something a machine can do better than you can.

So what should you be doing instead? There are a lot of answers to that question, but none of them should come from a place where technology or change is something to fear.

The technology and the change is coming. The best thing you can do is get ready for it, and get ready to take advantage of it.

Geoff Micks
Head of Content & Research
Executive Platforms

Geoff joined the industry events business as a conference producer in 2010 after four years working in print media. He has researched, planned, organized, run, and contributed to more than a hundred events across North America and Europe for senior leaders, with special emphasis on the energy, mining, manufacturing, maintenance, supply chain, human resources, pharmaceutical, food and beverage, finance, and sustainability sectors. As part of his role as Head of Content & Research, Geoff hosts Executive Platforms’ bluEPrint Podcast series as well as a weekly blog focusing on issues relevant to Executive Platforms’ network of business leaders.

Geoff is the author of five works of historical fiction: Inca, Zulu, Beginning, Middle, and End. The New York Times and National Public Radio have interviewed him about his writing, and he wrote and narrated an animated short for Vice Media that appeared on HBO. He has a BA Honours with High Distinction from the University of Toronto specializing in Journalism with a Double Minor in History and Classical Studies, as well as Diploma in Journalism from Centennial College.