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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?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
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.

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.

Originally posted to achronon on Mon Mar 11, 2013 at 07:11 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (12+ / 0-)

    None are so hopelessly enslaved as those who falsely believe they are free. -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

    by achronon on Mon Mar 11, 2013 at 07:11:08 AM PDT

  •  You have (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    achronon, Kevskos, RiveroftheWest

    provoked me into navel gazing the remainder of this Monday. On the "internets" of course!
    I've been told that my smart phone has GPS and such - perhaps it does, I'm afraid to look into it. It may self destruct or some shit

    •  Great! Then I've accomplished (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RiveroftheWest

      something. My smart phone does have GPS, but I never turn it on. If I don't know where I am, who cares if my phone does?

      What amazed me most about my exploration of my smart phone is general was just how much stuff I could turn OFF. I was one happy camper.

      None are so hopelessly enslaved as those who falsely believe they are free. -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

      by achronon on Mon Mar 11, 2013 at 10:30:05 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  If people are intimidated by technology (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    achronon, mattakar

    and/or inclined to ascribe infallibility to it ... surely the solution is for those people to learn more about it?  I have yet to ever encounter anyone who understands computers and considers them infallible.

    •  Couldn't agree with you more. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RiveroftheWest

      My experience has also been that most fear or false appraisal of anything comes from simple ignorance.

      When I used to do tech support for a company I worked for, I always had reluctant users pounding on keyboards, opening cases, or my very favorite: having them describe to me what they were most "afraid" to do and then do that.

      It's like overcoming just about any phobia, but you have to first acknowledge you have it before you allow someone to help you overcome it.

      None are so hopelessly enslaved as those who falsely believe they are free. -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

      by achronon on Mon Mar 11, 2013 at 12:09:42 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  But knowledge about a technology (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      achronon

      does not immunize one against the effects of it.

      •  Eg. learning how to drive did not (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        RiveroftheWest, achronon

        keep the horseman from getting knocked off his horse.

        •  True, but the knowledge and experience (0+ / 0-)

          made him more aware of what was going on, in part, in the heads of those who perhaps weren't handling the technology as well as they could have.

          We can't be immunized, and even if we could, I'm not sure it would help. But we can be aware, and we can adjust our actions based on that awareness.

          None are so hopelessly enslaved as those who falsely believe they are free. -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

          by achronon on Tue Mar 12, 2013 at 02:57:18 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  Depends what effects you mean. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        achronon

        And I'm a little uncertain how you mean "immunize".

        •  I mean by that the ability (0+ / 0-)

          to resist being hypnotized by technology, and overwhelmed by it. People who decline to watch TV are a good example of this.

          People who do watch TV, and are yet aware of the manipulative power of its commercials, are to a certain extent immunized. But many are not.

          Most people think that a phone call, or a text message is the same thing as face-to-face. They have not been immunized, they are under a technological spell.

          •  You do realize (0+ / 0-)

            that commercials aren't technology, right?

            And I challenge you to find me one single person who thinks that a phone call or a text message is the same thing as talking to someone face-to-face.  Or hell, even someone who thinks that a live video chat is the same thing as being in the same room.

  •  You do Luddites disservice (6+ / 0-)

    While their opponents characterized them as being opposed to "Progress" (itself a myth), the Luddites themselves were primarily opposed to technological innovations being used to supplant, replace, and dehumanize human workers.  It was far more about jobs, and specifically worker control of working conditions and methods, than it was about technology per se.  Technology was merely being used at the time (as it still is) to reduce wages, employment, and status of workers.

    Myself, I will proudly label myself a Luddite even as I feverishly type on my internet-connected laptop.  (Although I don't have a smartphone.  Or an overpriced pad with a lousy little keyboard.)

    •  Yes, exactly. n/t (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      achronon
      •  Well, my starting point here (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        cynndara

        was whether "ludditeity" was the answer, and your responses were "no". I couldn't agree more.

        Even though I have both a laptop, notebook, and smartphone, I describe myself not as one who would destroy the technology. Rather, I want to put it in its proper place, as one tool among many which, if used properly, might lend a hand in making things in the world better for more than a few.

        None are so hopelessly enslaved as those who falsely believe they are free. -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

        by achronon on Tue Mar 12, 2013 at 03:00:33 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  When I get in my car and drive (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest, achronon

    to the store, I am not driving to the store. My car is driving to the store. All I'm doing is sitting in a car.

    When I send an email to a friend, I'm not staying in touch with a friend. I am typing on a keyboard.

    When I go to the movies, I am not watching actors perform in a drama. I am watching flickering images displayed on a screen.

    In a highly mediated society like ours, it's awfully easy to lose touch with the physical reality of what we're doing. There's a tendency to confuse our own actions with the actions of the tools we have invented. They are not the same.

    •  Yes, and no. (0+ / 0-)

      The car is driving; that is, locomoting through traffic, but I certainly would hope that you are doing more than just sitting.

      You may be typing but if the email is to a friend I would hope that you are thinking of him/her and what you are causing to come out through the keyboard.

      You may be watching flickering images displayed on a screen, but you are also integrating these flickerings into a meaningful whole.

      Yes, we live in a mediated society, and therefore I believe we need to be more aware than ever of how it all fits together. We would do well to know where our part of the engagement ends, what role the tool plays and thereby show the proper respect for each part; that is, the respect that each part is due.

      You are correct, we lose sight of this too often, some appear to have lost it permanently.

      None are so hopelessly enslaved as those who falsely believe they are free. -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

      by achronon on Tue Mar 12, 2013 at 03:05:50 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  I think it's a dangerous fallacy (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      achronon, native

      to suggest that only the things we do with our own bodies are things that we ourselves are doing.

      When you send an email to a friend, you are staying in touch with a friend, using your keyboard to do it.  When you watch a movie, you are watching actors perform in a drama, using images projected onto a screen to do it.

      If you drive your car into a pedestrian, you are not just sitting there while your car hits somebody.  You have hit somebody with your car.

      Our tools do not act on their own.  Even the ones that appear to be acting on their own are performing actions programmed by their makers or their users.  I don't see how "the actions of the tools we have invented" is a meaningful phrase at all.

      •  That is an excellent response, thank you. (0+ / 0-)

        It is exactly the kind of dialogue I intended to provoke.

        It is indeed my fault, if I drive my car to strike a pedestrian, and not the fault of the car itself. Much the same as it is not the fault of a pistol that kills people, but rather the fault of the person who pulls its trigger.

        What you apparently fail to realize is that the medium is the message. A gun is a gun, and it will do what guns do - entirely independent of human will --namely kill people indiscriminately. It doesn't matter a whit whether gun owners are ethical or not.

        My point being that the physical entity of the human body -- arms, legs, fingers and toes, liver and spleen, in relation to the physical environment around it, is the ultimate arbiter of "reality". No matter what technology we might devise, our essence will always be actual, not virtual. That is to say, not mediated.

  •  A tool is right where it is. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest, achronon

    I grew up with computers. I saw myself as a youngster being a computer programmer as my profession. I even went to college for it for about two semesters. It was my obsession, my talent... that I grew to hate and I still do.

    I still love technology, but only for what it does for me, how it makes my life better or more enjoyable or simpler or complex (as in depth not difficulty). I have an e-reader and a tablet and a smart phone and a gaming laptop and a Wii... but where years ago I'd take those things apart to see how they work, I'm more than happy enough to just assume they'll do the job I want them to do. I'm not jailbreaking things and writing apps to do stuff beyond their intended capability. It was really liberating to go from a techophile to a just another user.

    Then there is the technology I can use to save people's lives. The LifePak is the tool of my trade, and honestly it is my best friend. I love being able to curl up in the front seat and read a new book I just bought over 4G wireless on my tablet, but that tablet isn't going to diagnose a STEMI, defibrillate a cardiac arrest, cardiovert a VTach or externally pace anyone. It is the most benign piece of technology in my life. That might seem a bit weird, but really, its SO important, SO useful, but so incredibly unobtrusive. It is the perfect tool, like low tech tools such as a screwdriver: as long as you don't need it, it doesn't get in your way, but as soon as you do need it, you are so incredibly grateful that it is there. It is no simple tool, but it has a specific purpose it is designed to fulfill and it just does it.

    We can appreciate our tools without obsessing over how they work. We can use our technology to work for us, or can choose to become slaves to its workings and allure. We can make it the center of our life or just a sometimes useful peripheral.

    As for the rest, I'll go with this:
    Data is useless without the knowledge to interpret it
    Information is useless without the wisdom to use it

    Granting that all that has intrinsic value in simply existing. I mean on an individual, personal level of utility.

  •  Relax. (4+ / 0-)

    You're just having a VCR programming moment. Remember when you where a tech head because you could hook up a stereo system or program the clock on VCR?  Timed recording was REAL hard.

    Today's kids view the net the same way we regard television and automatic sliding doors.  

    Beloit college posts an annual list of ancient history for the incoming freshmen class.

    Here's the link to this year.

    http://www.beloit.edu/...
    Personally, I favor the theory of Spec-fi author Spider Robinson: "We're all trying to get telepathic together." With the web, we're almost there.  

    Our kids will view mega corporations like we do the Gilded Age.  Destructive and selfish.  And old history.

    Leonard Schlain's "Alphabet versus the Goddess"  points out that or the first time since writing dominated information, we have to use both hands, and therefore, both sides of our brain - the linear and the web.
    Great read....

    Jesus died to save you from Yahweh.

    by nolagrl on Mon Mar 11, 2013 at 07:54:40 PM PDT

    •  Actually, I've never been more (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      native

      relaxed. Since I gave up hope, I feel much, much better.

      Seriously, though, there is both hope and despair in what young folks do. The phenomenon that Anders describes and I'm exploring has, like anything else in the universe a light and a dark side. And we, as humans, have constant history of letting the toast in the toaster too long.

      Yes, we have wonderful things these days, and we in the West have luxuries our forebears couldn't even dream of, and for every one of these I am thankful, but I also believe that some of these luxuries have cost us too much and that it would do us a whole lot of good to simply think about what we have and what effects it's having in toto.

      The one thing we apparently haven't gotten better at in all these millennia is getting along better with one another. There are some who maintain that is our nature and it cannot change. I know that everything can and does change, and I would like to think that in addition to all the "benefits" we're apparently gleaning, why we're not doing more for those around us.

      A little less technology-happy and a little more people-happy would go a long way.

      BTW, thanks for the pointers to Robinson, and particularly, Schlain. I'll check both out.

      None are so hopelessly enslaved as those who falsely believe they are free. -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

      by achronon on Tue Mar 12, 2013 at 03:18:35 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I'm a Luddite (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest, achronon, native

    Yes, I use the internet, but I don't own anything prefixed with an "i".  In the long run, technology makes us incompetent in dealing with our everyday lives, and solving concrete problems.  The only true "progress" is and always will be moral progress; there is no substitute.

    •  Why do you use the internet, then? (0+ / 0-)

      Or any computer at all?

      •  The internet is not reality. (0+ / 0-)

        It is a "virtual" or imaginary reality -- an electronic copy as it were, of actuality. A kind of analysis. It is a way for our imaginations to interact, independently of actual fact.

        This is a very good and useful chimera, but it does not actually exist. It is rather a highly abstract concept, made visible.

        The internet does not bleed. It does not get thirsty or hungry and it does not fall in love. It is not human any more than a car or a gun or a book is human.

        The internet conveys reality no better than a photographic image portrays the fullness of an actual moment. IT IS NOT REAL. It is merely a depiction, a technological description of what actually is.

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