Automation and the Swing Riots

Throughout history, the rise in automation has also given way to a rise in worker unrest – from private fears of technological unemployment through to full-scale public rebellions.

You’ve probably heard of the Luddites and their riots. More recently, you might remember protests against automated checkout stations, or self-driving trucks. Wherever and whenever you look, our relationship with automation is littered with conflict.

And these conflicts can – and should – be studied to understand how we can harmonise human labour with the realities of automation disruption. Here, we explore the notorious Swing Riots and their lessons.

What were the Swing Riots?

The Swing Riots refer to a widespread uprising that started in August 1830. During the riots, protesters destroyed agricultural threshing machines — which were fast displacing human workers at the time. Protestors also committed arson and targeted workhouses and tithe barns.

The riots took place across Southern England and East Anglia and went on until 1832. Their name — ‘Swing Riots’ — comes from the fictional character Captain Swing. Captain Swing acted as a figurehead of the riots. His was the fake name often signed at the bottom of protestors’ threats. Importantly, ‘swing’ was also a reference to the swinging stick traditionally used by agricultural workers as they threshed fields by hand.

No single factor caused the Swing Riots. For example, poverty, poor harvest, and the ‘Poor Law’ (essentially an unsuitable welfare system) all had a role to play.

But the introduction of threshing machines is one of the more notable causes. Greater rioting and violence took place where threshing machines were installed. (Particularly, that is, where job alternatives were scarce.)

The Swing Riots and contemporary automation

So, we know that mechanisation – i.e., machines displacing tasks previously performed by humans – was a key cause the Swing Riots.

And unrest intensified wherever machines were taking over threshing. But as AI and office automation increasingly encroach on both blue- and white-collar work, this kind of backlash could be brewing afresh. (If history is anything to go by.)

Already, the term ‘automation’ has become linked to the fears of robots taking over, of mass job loss and technological unemployment. Today, 37% of workers are worried about losing their jobs due to automation. And the drive to replace humans with machinery has only been accelerated by COVID-19.

Like the machines in the 1830s, current automation – both office and industrial — offers enormous productivity gains. And it does so on a scale far bigger than the threshing machines. So, the question is, could automation cause unrest akin to that seen in the Swing Riots?

Is this a reason to fear automation?

Boiling the Swing Riots down to their core, some might be tempted to say that we need to fear automation and so stifle its introduction. Automation, after all, stands to remove some jobs. If history repeats itself, then theoretically, we’re in for renewed violence, unrest, and rioting.

But that’s not the whole story. And there are many reasons we shouldn’t be so hasty to fear automation.

For a start, there were many other contributing factors to the Swing Riots, not just mechanisation. Rather, a rise of poverty due to lower wages, abusive welfare guardians, and the tithe system all combined to create a backdrop of civil disorder.

Additionally, new machines did not always lead to protests. The industrial revolution created millions of new jobs in towns and cities. Farms that introduced the controversial threshing machine, but that were close to these towns rich in job opportunities saw much less violence. So, mechanisation in and of itself does not spark unrest. It’s only when connected to the loss of jobs — and so the loss of income and food — that trouble ensues.

And the flipside of the historical coin is that, Swings Riots and the like aside, we typically enjoy long-term gains from automation. Technological progress is the engine of growth. And automation does stand to increase productivity across many industries.

To stifle automation, then, is to miss out on the positives it has to offer. For instance, an improved work/life balance, and better, more fulfilling jobs as machines take on mundane tasks.

The lesson to learn from the Swing Riots

The Swing Riots don’t necessarily indicate that we should fear or hide from automation and the mechanisation of work. Rather, we need to ensure that we deploy automation with social considerations in mind. We must be aware of the impact it will have on workers.

So, for a start, it’s important that when deploying automation we also ensure the creation or availability of new jobs for displaced workers. This includes extra training. It includes upskilling opportunities. And it includes creating accessible entry points into the new roles that automation technology creates.

Another measure is to ensure a safety net during the period of adjustment. That is, when displaced workers are in limbo between old jobs and new ones. This might look like a robust welfare system and other financial support options, so that workers never feel left out in the cold.

A final example of the social considerations around automation deployment concerns mental health. For many, change is scary or hard to deal with. And automation brings changes both big and small. So, there need to be change agents and mental health specialists ready to support workers affected by the tide of change.

Automation and the Swing Riots

The Swing Riots show the danger of not considering the social impact of new technology. They demonstrate the negative impact of mass job loss and poverty — not the negative impact of automation itself.

We can’t be afraid of change, only prepared for it. We need a measured, prepared approach to automation deployment. Having one will help us avoid the unrest and issues akin to those which plagued the farmlands of the 1830s.

Useful links

Robots taking our jobs: the four ‘D’s to factor in

Deep work and automation

Is automation ethical?