IS LUDDITEITY THE ANSWER?
We have given up our sovereignty as thinking, reasoning human beings and have subordinated ourselves to our technology. Nowhere is that more evident than in the case of smartphones and computers; that is in the case of digital technology. Most people I know are intimidated by both. Most people I know are hesitant to simply press a key for fear of doing something wrong. How could a device that intelligent ever be wrong? I don't know ... if they were alive, perhaps we could ask Truman or MacArthur. Is it just me, or is there something wrong in calling someone a Luddite just because s/he is not obsessed with technology? Who decided that it is our be-all and end-all? As I have endeavored to demonstrate: technology may not be all that it is cracked up to be and we may be endangering ourselves as a species to boot.
Recently I read an article lamenting that we were risking our children's futures because we were not teaching them to program. If they didn't learn that, they would be doomed to become unfit for the world of tomorrow, we would be cheating them of the most promising opportunities. Today, three-quarters of the population of Germany, for example, has a driver's license, but how many of these almost 60 million people can fix a car? Moreover, 100 years ago when we were just getting rolling in the automobile society, how many of anybody, let alone educators, were claiming we would be robbing our children of their futures if they didn't learn automotive mechanics? What makes digital technology so different?
Cars, in a sense, are a kind of tool, one that helps us get from point A to point B. They were clunky, temperamental, difficult to operate at first, but over time, they got easier and more comfortable to use. What is more, they are becoming so reliable that some are speculating when we will be able to produce cars that won't need maintenance at all anymore (the perfect car?). Relatively speaking, we have come a long way in the 125 years since Herr Benz registered his patent.
Computers are also a kind of tool, one that helps us do other things. They were clunky, temperamental, difficult to operate at first, but over time, they got easier and more comfortable to use. What is more, they are becoming so reliable and so compact that some are speculating when we'll be able to produce computers that are always on and always connected ... for everyone. As things move much faster in the computer world, we have come relatively far relatively faster than we did with cars, but the developments resemble each other in important ways.
What we failed to ask ourselves then (with cars) and we are failing to ask ourselves now (with computers) is what this technology – or any technology, for that matter – is really good for? It never really made a difference. Urban sprawl, environmental pollution, junkyards, the Rust Belt, resource depletion, and many, many more issues were simply not part of the equation. Side effects didn't/don't count. The technology was going to do it for us ... now the technology is doing it to us.
A Luddite was one who opposed technological progress not technological obsession. We don't really have a technology problem today, we have an obsession problem. Of course there are jobs and incomes and revenues and stock prices that are intimately connected to the technology, but just because we have linked them now doesn't mean we have to keep them linked forever. No matter what we decide to do with our world, jobs and incomes and revenues and stock prices will be intimately connected to it. Obsession, however, is a serious signal that something is not right, that there is something unhealthy afoot. If we really want to do something for our children, I think it would be wiser to teach them how to remain healthy.
If you have never read Theodore Roszak's The Cult of Information, you don't know what you're missing. It should actually be mandatory reading for anyone who thinks they have something to say about technology or the so-called information age. Of course, to get anything out of it, you would have to approach it with an open mind, so if you are unwary of technology or downright obsessed with it, it would be better you just let it go. I don't contend that everything the man says is right, but I would argue that what he has to say is worth thinking about. William James once remarked that what most people call thinking is simply a rearranging of their prejudices, and I can't say much has changed since he said it. But, if you are willing to earnestly consider a clearly stated position on a well-defined subject, I would say the time spent with the book would be more than worth the effort.
There was a time – and not all that long ago – when a distinction was made between some very similar things. For example, data was just whatever it was, a date, a color, a statement, a fact. Information was something "more": it was data that was used to make a decision, or at least contributed to the making of a decision. Knowledge was something "more" than information; it was something one knew, what could be used to act in an informed way, to exercise a skill or provide an argument. Finally, at the top, we had wisdom ... well, who even knows that that is any more? This is not a new phenomenon, I'm afraid. In 1934, the poet T.S. Eliot wrote (in The Rock):
Where is the Life we have lost in living?He knew where we were headed ... and what do you know? We are finally there. We no longer talk about data at all, and everything else ... and I mean everything else ... has been simply turned into information. If the motto of the 80s was "whoever dies with the most toys wins", the motto today is "whoever dies with the most information wins". Though I would say that whoever dies, dies. It doesn't really matter what they have when they do.
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
Let's face it, we love information: from baseball statistics to football scores, to monthly rainfall measurements, to the mileage we get with our cars, to stock-market prices and indices, to interest rates, to the most common boy's name of 1913, to the number of jobs not created since the latest tax cuts. It doesn't matter what it is about, as long as it is what we think is information, we love it.
In this regard, the title of Roszak's book is not all that far off. We have made information and the acquisition of information a kind of cult. And as is the case with every cult, it needs it priests, and there is no shortage of them either. We call them "experts" these days.