Saturday, April 12, 2008

Ned Ludd's Bad Rap

Back when I was seriously formulating a dissertation, before I got tired (finally, at about 45 years of age) of being a graduate student, I was trying very hard to be a philosopher of technology. This, to me, provided a focus that made sense of the enormous variety of courses I'd taken (in both the social and natural sciences, as well as in the humanities) over some (then) 25 years of higher education.

It made sense to me that if one of the things that helped us define ourselves was our use of tools (for everything from hunting and preparing our food to expressing ourselves in art and music), then we ought to be able to examine critically the uses we make of these tools, and to assess their impact not only on ourselves, but on our fellow beings--animal, vegetable, and even mineral. When I first started looking around at the developing fields of technology assessment, environmental ethics (now more broadly characterized as environmental philosophy), and other branches of philosophy (mostly pragmatism and the Continental tradition), I wondered why there wasn't a more coordinated effort to study questions that seemed to be on everyone's minds: what are we doing to ourselves?

Some folks were, in fact, writing about this very question, and I discovered them when I started thinking seriously about what human beings were up to. Continental philosophy had, in fact, produced one of the most enduring critiques in 1954, when Martin Heidegger published his essay "The Question Concerning Technology." Even earlier, Karl Marx, John Dewey, Lewis Mumford, and William Morris (among many others) had written about technology in philosophical terms. The idea of questioning technology, I discovered, had been around since the Greeks. I wasn't exactly on to something new.

Nonetheless, pursuing the subject led me deeply into Morris and his work on the technologies of art and design, and on the social and political aspects of active critique. Some folks, it seemed, hadn't just written about this stuff--they went out and tried to whack people on the side of the head to try to get them to think about where all these new machines (steam engines, power looms) were leading us. Hence the notion of sabotage (and the rather odd choice of image to illustrate this post), perhaps related to the development of the Luddite movement during the Industrial Revolution.

Of course, terms like "sabotage" and "Luddite" carry primarily negative connotations these days, but their origins lay in the act of criticizing technologies--not in terrorism or the refusal to immediately adopt every damned toy that comes on the market. My question is this: How much different might the world be today if we actually stopped to think about new tools, and took a bit of time to imagine where they might lead?

I'm absolutely convinced that the manifold problems associated with the internet, for example, would not have arisen if we hadn't all jumped higgeldy piggeldy onto the bandwagon, brandishing our cherished American gospel of individualism and waving our technical superiority, trying to convince the rest of the world that if it wants to join the future, it had better become like us. Only it's not just us--it's the entire West (trying to be like us--or perhaps trying to convince themselves that they were like us before we were). The impact of computer technology alone, from manufacture to use, on the rest of the world has created such rapid and rampant change that nobody has a choice about it any more. Traditional tribal peoples all over the globe are (thanks to Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child initiative) being introduced to the internet, and their children are being seduced by technology in the name of "progress" and "modernity" and the inevitability of globalization. The real crime here is that nobody asked them if they wanted it. We in the West are all for freedom of choice (walk down the supermarket cereal aisle to see where that's led us), but only when it comes to "choosing" which brand of computer to buy--not choosing whether or not to buy them in the first place.

The irony of the market, of course, is that choice exists only in the beginning. The "winning" technology eventually takes over (VHS beats out Betamax; DVDs beat out VHS; Blue Ray beats out HD DVD), and then those of us who bought into the "wrong" technology are left with stacks of obsolete, expensive crap that the conscientious person has to agonize over what to do with, and those who don't give a damn simply dump into the landfill.

I held out on using a cellular telephone for much longer than most (although I did own one briefly, about ten years ago, while my mother was still alive and under my care). It was only my daughter's emergency surgery a couple of months ago, and the ensuing difficulty of trying to contact me, that I finally acquiesced. And I didn't just buy a little pay-as-you-go model as I had originally planned. I bought an iPhone, because this way I could convince myself that I wasn't buying a phone--I was buying a little tiny laptop. In fact, most of what I use it for is checking e-mail, so it doesn't seem quite so much like selling out.

But of course I have sold out. I became a techno-whore when I bought that Commodore 64 back in the eighties and stopped writing my essays out by hand and then typing them on an electric typewriter. I was convinced, like Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelly, and the rest of the Whole Earth crowd on The Well (which I never did join, however) that the internet was going to bind people together and make the world a better place. Our optimism was a bit over-frought, as Lee Siegel has rather succinctly pointed out in his new book, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. If only we had thought it through a bit more carefully.

Now, I have to admit that there are things about the internet that I love. I truly enjoy writing this blog, and doing so actually forces me to think more carefully about the world and what's going on in it. It allowed me to publish my book without having to sell myself or pander to the whims of the book trade. I've also made some good friends that I'd never have even come in contact with without the rapid development of internet communication devices and programs. Best of all, I enjoyed a long and lively correspondence with my father in the years before he died, which would certainly never have happened otherwise because I'm so lousy with the phone and so bad at getting around to writing letters.

But this is only one technology, really, as all-encompassing and pervasive as it is. We don't tend to think seriously about the consequences of anything we do: cloning, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, nuclear power (well, that does cause some contemplation, thanks to Chernobyl). Unless we endure some whacking great disaster related to one or all of the above, we're not even likely to discuss potential problems before they're already out of our hands entirely. Anyone who does ask questions is an alarmist, or worse: a Luddite.

In her sort-of utopian novel, Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Leguin describes technology as "morally dangerous." The computers are all located somewhere in a city, most people live in low-impact rural enclaves, and even solar-powered electricity is looked upon with suspicion. As she explains in an appendix on practices, the "arts of the uses of the energies of sun, wind, water, electricity, and the combinations of things to make other things are all practices of exchange. They want vigilance and clarity of mind, a bright imagination, modesty, attention to detail and to implication, strength, and courage" (479). Imagine how different the world would be if we became equally mindful about the technologies we now so thoughtlessly pursue, oblivious as we are to the varieties of potential--not just the prophesied advantages.

Thanks to the wonders of technology, I'm still alive and able to wallow in my low-fi Luddism. I'm fully aware that were I to move to the valley in my own utopia, I'd last a couple of years at best, because I'm so dependent on the drugs that mitigate my unfortunate combination of genes (and my sedentary way of life, pounding away at a computer keyboard rather than charging around the garden as I should be doing). But that doesn't mean that it's a useless exercise, and it doesn't mean we shouldn't be doing much more thinking about technological consequences, much more frequently.

To some extent, we are. The back-to-the-land movement that came out of the sixties has become more sophisticated and has begun to focus on permaculture and sustainability. "Green" blogs and websites abound (some are noted in my sidebar entries). People are more interested in the quality of their food, and the market is responding, at least on a small scale. But I did discover, while conducting a bit of background research for this blog, one ominous sign. The U. S. Government office of technology assessment has closed. I'm not sure whether it ever accomplished anything anyway, but if we're officially closing up shop in this regard, it makes one wonder whether Our Guys in Washington have permanently given up thinking about consequences, or whether it's just a temporary blip. It'll be interesting to see what happens after November.

We should not, however, need a government agency to do our thinking for us. We really need to be asking questions ourselves, every time we make a purchase, especially of the latest high-tech gadget. What went into its making? Did any being or environment suffer or die as a result of its manufacture? Will this object (or complex of objects) truly enhance my life? How will it affect my relationships with my family and friends? My ecological footprint? How long will it last? Does it have the potential to cause social or environmental harm? Do I really need it? It wouldn't hurt to treat any technology we adopt as if it were potentially dangerous not only to our physical selves, but to our moral being.

Heidegger himself put it best, at the end of "The Question Concerning Technology": "The closer we come to the danger, the more brightly do the ways into the saving power begin to shine and the more questioning we become. For questioning is the piety of thought."

Photo: Panthouse's own clogs (modified), from Wikimedia Commons.
Citation: Ursula K. Leguin, Always Coming Home. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.


krimzon11 said...

The rising gas costs are really starting to irritate me, since I haven't received a cost of living raise form my employer to counter those costs. I've been thinking of buying a bike and taking dart rail for my business purposes (i.e. work & school), but I want a compact bike that folds to reduce the amount space that I take up on the train. I'm all for alternative fuels, and I wish TXU would take a more active approach so that their costs will go down too. (My electricity is submetered so I don't have a choice on what company supplies my electric.) I've taken a step to counter TXU though, and replaces all the incandescent bulbs in my house to CFL's hopefully the difference will show in the bill.

I'm considering these choices to find a way to keep more money in my pocket, and hopefully others will catch on. So here's to hoping we've learned our lesson, and our country is going to head down the path of wisdom, to clean up this mess we made.

Owlfarmer said...

It's usually the case that conservation saves money--just ask our frugal ancestors, the ones who made it through the Depression, or lived before the Age of Largesse. But sometimes high prices do us a favor. For example, expensive gas in Europe (until recently) helped keep England and the Continent from becoming as paved-over as we've become in the US. It fostered the use of public transportation. We, on the other hand, wallowed in our cheap gas, and even after the crisis in the 70s, we didn't learn much of a lesson--more highways built, bigger and bigger cars, more and more traffic.

I'm hoping that the price of gas will finally convince people around here that having DART up here, or a connecting link from another system, is a good idea. I would SO love to be able to walk to a train station to get to work, as I did for the two years I lived in Chicago.