04 March 2012
Confessions of a quasi-Luddite
Recently I surprised a blogger at the KunstlerCast forums when I mentioned my minimalism regarding cellphones. I currently don't have one and rarely miss it: when I did own one, I kept it turned off until the late evening after my day of activity was over. My friends and I didn't need phones to keep up with one another, so I used mine to keep in touch with family. It doubled as an alarm clock. Unlike most of my generation, I never took to the cellphone. Early on I despised the way people answered them in the company of others, even at the dining table, and regarded the practice of talking while driving madness. I endeavor to keep the phone in its place -- turned off, and hidden deep in my pockets.
I suppose it is a little unusual that someone as young as I would have such a hostile attitude toward technology. I did grow up in a generation where being tech-savvy was the norm. Not a year went by without producing some new toy -- new game machines, watches with more features, CD players, mp3 players, etc. I used to keep up with it; I subscribed to appropriate magazines and spent long hours in the Electronics section of superstores, looking at all the wonderful stuff I might someday have. And yet, as I grew older, the allure faded. The constant stream of novelty began to bore me, as experienced prompted me to realize that no matter how excited people grew about one object or another, in a matter of months it would be broken and forgotten if not rendered obsolete by yet another gadget. By this time I'd entered the workforce and started to learn the value of money -- and for me, gadgets simply weren't worth my time and labor.
Beyond the factory, I've grown less starry-eyed about the advance of technology in general. I don't think our lives are actually improved by bigger televisions, smartphones, and monstrous vehicles with built-in TV players. History informs me that there are no actions without consequences, and the way people eagerly embrace changes without considering where they might lead concerns me. Take, for instance, cellular phones. I'm indebted to Neil Postman for giving me the vocabulary to articulate why the things bother me so: the ability to be connected constantly seems to have convinced people that we ought to be connected constantly, and moreover that there's something WRONG with not being connected. I for one like my privacy. I value solitude and quiet, and I truly despise the racket of a television and the obnoxious electronic whine of a phone. Every time one rings at home, I contemplate smacking it with a hammer. This ability of people to constantly demand one another's attention strikes me as entirely uncivilized: it is a medium of communication that demands virtually no consideration on our part, and the way people use them bears this out. They pull them them out everywhere, answer them everywhere, and let the world go by while their faces are drawn evermore frequently to a glowing blue screen, creating or reading some grotesque abortion of a sentence in English. Such is the practice of 'texting'.
Another example is that of automation. The term Luddite derives historically from a community of people who were angered that automation was rendering their work irrelevant. Their livelihood had been destroyed by machines, and rightfully they struck out against them. While I acknowledge that automation has made goods cheaper, I am also ever mindful of the human cost, and I cannot support its expansion unless some accommodation is made. I'm thinking of the other costs of automation, though: energy and the consequences of human inactivity. Although the US is in a prolonged energy crisis and over a third of Americans are obese (and susceptible to attendant health issues, like diabetes, hypertension, and cardiac woes), we insist on making life easier for people. We have constructed a society where most people MUST drive to get anywhere, by creating places unsafe to walk and bike, and spreading destinations across so wide an area that walking isn't remotely practical. Our homes are filled with 'energy-saving' appliances that force complete reliance on electricity, even when they're not in use. Considering that we are still relying on fossil fuels -- of which, in accordance with the laws of the universe there must be only a finite supply -- to power all this, the system is patently unsustainable. This is folly. We have made our lives so easy that we have to schedule time for 'exercise', whereas once we actually had to participate in life. I've come to believe that effort gives life meaning.
And so, for the last year or so, I've been phasing out dependence on some forms of technology when I can. I do this in part because I place so much value on sustainable -- reasonable -- living. I do this also because it makes my life simpler, quieter, and imminently more pleasurable. There are fewer distractions to badger me, and fewer drains on my resources. I'm evermore free to focus on the things which matter to me; the joy of living.
It's not that I'm a technophobe or an Amish convert. I'm enthusiastic about scientific advance and technological progress, but I don't confuse the latter with human progress. I simply believe we should be more mindful of our relationship with technology, considering its consequences. It's no more sensible to embrace novelty for its own sake than it is to cling to tradition for the sake of tradition. We should embrace or reject ideas based on their impact they have on our ability to enjoy happy, meaningful lives. A humanist in all things, I believe our actions and habits should be examined in the light of what they do for us -- or to us. We should be the masters of our tools, not the other way around, just as tradition and culture should serve us and not be our masters. So the next time the phone rings during your dinner, or while you are in the shower or reading a book, exercise your dominance over the phone. Don't answer it. Don't worry about it. And if keeps ringing, smack it with a hammer.
(Works for me.)
"TV and Me"