The perils of being a Luddite
Aaron Traister at Salon has a moving piece today about the dangers of being a Luddite, where he bravely admits that his refusal to adapt to changing technology was a baseless pose adopted to make him look “cool”, and now he’s regretting it. Decades of refusing to learn how to operate new technologies lets the “new technology” part of your brain wither, it appears, making it really hard to approach what seems easy for others to use—such as an iPod—seem impossibly difficult. This makes a lot of sense, actually. From the research I’ve read, it really does seem brains are like muscles; if you don’t use certain tasks they can do, your ability to do that will wither over time. I applaud Traister for being brave in writing a piece about his regret. It might not seem brave, because he’s being humorous about it, but honestly, I think admitting that Ludditism is a self-defeating behavior is a brave thing for a Luddite to do.
With all that underway, I want to point out that Traister is still operating under the unfortunate fallacy that gives birth to the Luddite in the first place: that there’s a meaningful, time-based distinction between “technology” and “not technology”.
Technology wasn’t a big part of my family life growing up. In the ’90s, my friends would rip on me because the only movie machine we owned was a Betamax, and because I called it a “movie machine.” There were no video games in my house. I watched the evolution from Atari to PlayStation from the living rooms and dens of friends, and while those friends were comfortable transitioning from “Mario” and “Street Fighter” to “Call of Duty” and “Grand Theft Auto,” I silently struggled to make the shapes move in “Tetris.” As a defense mechanism, I decided video games were just another waste of time, and the upgrades in graphics and complexity were a hustle to get people’s money.
This is a great paragraph, but I have to point out that I’m highly skeptical that technology wasn’t a big part of Traister’s life growing up. I highly doubt his family lived naked outside, subsisting off food pulled directly off plants or killed with their bare hands. That he’s literate suggests that they certainly embraced the technologies used for reading and writing. Anyway, he directly mentions technologies his family had in this piece: a Betamax, which suggests a television, and Tetris, which suggests some kind of video game system. But the larger point is this: Everything is technology. Pens and paper are technology. The stove is technology. Buildings are technology, as are windows and doors. And think of books! The invention of the printing press is one of the great technological achievements of history. A lot of Luddites have a great deal of affection for books as part of their self-image as musty old rebels against the modern world, but in fact, books are the direct result of one of those great technological shifts that strike fear and consternation into the heart of the Luddite.
Which brings me to my point: Being a Luddite isn’t about rejecting or being hostile to technology. It’s about being hostile to new technology, for no other reason than it happened to be invented after you were born and/or became a Luddite. That makes it a completely illogical position, since it’s based on the premise that the existence of you on the planet is a great historical event that represents the divide between old-fashioned, useful technology and the era when technology supposedly seemed to mean nothing but decay and despair. The fear of technology is almost always a fear of technology that’s developed in your lifetime. I pretty much never hear Luddites gripe about having to use the stove, for instance, leading into rants into how all this indoor cooking is making us soft and weak, because we’ve abandoned the good, old-fashioned art of buliding a fire in order to cook our food.
Which isn’t to say all technology is good, anymore than technology is automatically suspect because it was invented in your lifetime and not before it. Lots of technologies ended up being a bad idea, or more frequently, had good effects and bad ones. But what’s ironic about this is that Luddites I hear almost always save their biggest gripes for technologies that are the likeliest to be seen, when looking back at our era, to be the ones who had mostly good effects. I don’t see a lot of Luddites complain about technological advances like guns that can fire endless rounds without taking much pause for reloading, an innovation that turns out to mostly be a bad one. I do see a lot of complaining about the digital revolution. Nothing sets off rounds of hand-wringing like our newly minted abilities to carry around extensive music collections in teeny boxes, or to make new friends online, to obtain information you need right when you need it with your digital devices, or to keep up with far-flung friends and relatives through social networking. I was even listening to “WTF with Marc Maron” the other day, because Carrie Brownstein was his guest, and they went off on a long digression about how they miss being lost, something that really has faded away in the era of smartphones. No, I’m not kidding. The illogic-spouse of Ludditism is misplaced nostalgia. If being lost is so much fun, you are free to put your phone away and wander around for hours, trying to figure out where you’re going. It’s a nice reminder that actually, being lost really sucks, which is why the great technological minds of our generation put uncountable numbers of hours into preventing that needless irritation.
I think history shows that we should have a little faith in humanity’s ability to interact intelligently with technology. Yes, we some times use it to express our worst impulses, but again, that’s not the result of sheeplike behavior in the face of new technologies, but just another example of people adapting technology to their own ends. The fear throughout history has been that this is the shiny new technology that will take away our autonomy and intelligence, and that the technology will lead us and not us it. So far, that’s been a pretty baseless fear. One of the cool things about technology is that users tend to adapt it to their needs. In the digital era, that process has sped up considerably, as the creators of a technology get much more rapid feedback about how it’s being used, and they can adapt it to better suit people’s desires even faster.