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#5. I’m Ned Ludd

There’s something liberating about knowing you’re going to catch hell for a book (or a blog); it saves you from the small lies of diplomacy and cowardice.

I’ve danced around this subject for twenty years, filled up notebooks with ideas, talked about it with family and friends. The more I thought about it, the more intimidated I became, overwhelmed by the sheer size and complexity of the subject.

It’s time.

I have a problem with the rapid technologizing of our world. A big problem. I believe we’re outsourcing our humanity at a heartbreaking rate, that this outsourcing deprives us of many of the things that give life pleasure and meaning, and that this deprivation is bad for us in ways we haven’t even begun to understand.

I believe we’ve been conned into believing that anything with the letter ‘e’ or ‘i’ in front of it is ‘progress,’ and that we ‘can’t stand in the way of progress.’ I believe that screen-based technologies rewire our neural pathways in ways that are clearly addictive, and that selling ‘product’ to addicts is a great way for some people to make a whole lot of money. I believe not just our privacy, but our moments apart from the wired world (the time we spend inside our own heads) are being encroached on, byte by byte, and that this encroachment has personal, social and political implications – that it constitutes a kind of market-driven tyranny.

I believe we’re being colonized by our machines – with our enthusiastic help, of course - and I believe I can prove it.

Am I going too fast?

I’m going to take my time unpeeling this onion. It’s a big onion.

Let me start by clarifying – and running a bit of interference. Am I against progress? Whose progress? I want to ask.

In truth, ‘progress’ is just one of those words the techno-evangelists use to shut down debate. Raise a question (Is there a connection between screen technologies and the rise of ADD? Are baby-proof touch-screens for infants’ cribs really a good idea?) and you’re ‘against progress.’ But who decided, exactly, that substituting robots for human nurses in providing care for the elderly is progress? Could it be – wait for it – the people who stand to make fortunes on it? Say it ain’t so!

‘Inevitable’ is another useful word, as in ‘the future is inevitable.’ Basically, nothing is inevitable until we make it so. If enough people decide they prefer an old paperback to the latest model e-book (as they’re apparently doing), the ‘inevitable’ e-book is no longer inevitable.

Coming to terms with what is inevitable is good and necessary, the better part of wisdom; adjusting to what others have defined as inevitable, either because they really believe it, or, more likely, because they want to sell us something, is very different.

Of course, some will argue that the invisible hand of the market will sort the wheat from the chaff. That people will buy what’s good for them and reject what isn’t. Like fast food, maybe? Or nicotine?

Anyone who still believes the free market is actually free, that certain paths aren’t lubricated by capital, smoothed by propaganda - excuse me, advertising – is indulging in magical thinking. Look at it this way: Fortunes are spent every year promoting the idea that certain technologies make us happy, sexy, loved, and so on. Here’s grandma, happily scrolling away on her iPhone. Here’s that group of ultra-cool (and very sexy) millennials, tapping, scrolling, cheering, laughing ... It never stops.

When it comes to the ‘free’ market, whatever doesn’t make money is basically invisible – you have to look for it.

Is it hypocritical of me to use a laptop to write a blog on the dangers of technological encroachment? Not at all. All technologies have their advantages – in this case, a blog allows me to move quickly, free of editorial interference. Just because I have certain questions about where we’re headed as a culture doesn’t mean I want to hunt with a stick.

I’m a humanist – not the Unabomber; I’m not interested in getting rid of our technologies (an absurd idea in any case), only in looking at the ways that certain technologies are bad for us. I’m after sanity, not primitivism, and if that means barbequing a few sacred cows along the way, oh, well.

Here’s a fun fact to think about. In a recent experiment described in Science (we’re talking serious science here), subjects were asked to let their minds wander for six to fifteen minutes a day. That’s it – nothing more. When this proved too difficult for them, they were given the option of distracting themselves with light electric shocks. Amazingly, when faced with the prospect of spending fifteen minutes in their own heads, two-thirds chose pain over the company of their own thoughts.

My sense is that our alienation from our inner life has been so gradual, so steady, that we’ve hardly noticed. Think of us as the proverbial frog in the slowly warming pot of water. Our eyes may bulge a little, but, hey, where’s the big deal?

I’m guessing this is the point where some may call me a Luddite and close the tab. Let’s talk about that.

I’ve noticed that calling someone a ‘Luddite’ is a handy way of dismissing them as a knee-jerk anti-technologist, the kind of person who ‘hates progress’ and doesn’t understand that ‘the future’ is ‘inevitable.’ Only last week, on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, Jonathan Franzen and Tim Parks both used the word ‘Luddite,’ Parks (in summarizing Sven Birkerts’ new book) pointing out that “anyone questioning the value of the new technologies is immediately deemed a Luddite if not a dinosaur,” and Franzen characterizing Sherry Turkle (more on Ms. Turkle in the ‘inevitable’ future), as “a humanist, not a Luddite: a grown-up.”

“A humanist, not a Luddite.” Irony doesn’t get much richer.

So who, exactly, were the Luddites? The Luddites were textile workers in early 19th century England who, in the name of the mythical Ned Ludd, destroyed the knitting machines that were putting them out of work. A bad thing, right? Well, context is everything.

For most people, Georgian England - Victorian England was only marginally better - was an extraordinarily cruel time to be alive, a time featuring a level of poverty equivalent to anything in the Third World today. As Robert Hughes explains in his meticulously researched epic of Australia’s founding, The Fatal Shore, tenements stood next to slaughterhouses and tanneries; sewers ran into open drains; armies of rats emerged from the tenement cellars to forage in the daylight. Until the 1790’s, “large open pits filled with the rotting cadavers of paupers whose friends could get them no better burial,” were a London commonplace. This wasn’t the BBC’s England.

Work was everything – in a word, survival. Until it killed you, that is: “Sawyers went blind young, their conjunctival membranes destroyed,” metal founders “died paralyzed with lead poisoning,” “glassblowers lungs collapsed from silicosis,” and so on. In this world, children went to work after their sixth birthday, while doctors - siding with the factory owners - argued that “coal dust and phosphorus were harmless” and that “ten-year-olds could work a full night shift without risk of harm.”

It gets worse. Much worse. In this world, “nearly all [the laws] were drafted to protect property, rather than human life.” And protect property they did – zealously. Children as well as adults were routinely hung for crimes against stuff, basically. This was the world in which the Luddites lived – a world in which you were grateful for the job that would kill you, in which jamming the gears of a machine would earn you the death penalty.

Into this world came mechanization: efficient, lucrative (for the factory owners), disastrous as cholera: a single threshing machine could put a hundred men out of work. There was no recourse, no argument. No re-training program. No safety-net. No nothing. If your skill was no longer wanted, you had no work. No work meant no money. No money meant no food. No food? Good luck.

And so, yes, the Luddites and others like them took crowbars to the machines that spelled the destruction of their families. As I would have. As you would have. For which they were summarily executed. In the name of ‘property.’

In the name of the machine.

How interesting that history has taken the side of the executioners while turning the word “Luddite” into an epithet?

What does it say about our times, and our values?

The next time someone calls you a Luddite, consider thanking them.

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