Monday, August 3, 2009

Is it OK not to be a Luddite?

[I wrote this back in 2006, and some readers may recognize it from its previous life on another blog. I’ve changed very little.]

About 6 years ago I became an enthusiast of Wendell Berry. He is a farmer living in Kentucky who is also a novelist, a poet, and an essayist. It was primarily his essays that inspired me to become interested in the state of American farming, to pay attention to what I eat and how I use natural resources. More than that, I began to adopt his critical way of thinking about technology and “progress” to the point where I could have been labeled by some as a Luddite, just as Mr. Berry has been labeled.

Tonight I am living in downtown Indianapolis, writing this essay on a laptop, enrolled in an urban university and more than satiated from the fast food I ate for dinner. We can hardly consider me to be a Luddite of the Berry persuasion. And yet there are vestiges of my former idealism that survive. I just sold my car because I ride a bike everywhere, I refuse to carry a cell phone, and I buy from the farmers market when I can. It is hard to say if these are just habits that I will eventually discard once I have completely outgrown some Wendell Berry phase, or if this is something that I will never outgrow. It has now been over twenty years since Thomas Pynchon asked Is it ok to be a Luddite? Lately, the question on my mind has been, is it ok not to be a Luddite?

It seems to me there are at least three kinds of people who might oppose any particular technology. The first are, for lack of a better term, the Lazy. These are people who resist any kind of change because they are comfortable with where they are, with how things have been. I’m not sure anyone would call this kind of person a Luddite, but if they did it wouldn’t be a compliment.

The second kind are the Fearful. This would include the historical Luddite movement. In the early 19th century, a group of discontents in England began sabotaging the textile machinery that was putting local skilled workers out of the job. The group claimed the leadership of Ned Ludd, a local mythical hero of the previous century who was said to have demolished two large stocking frames “in a fit of insane rage.” Aside from the damage done to machines, the Luddites were a non-violent group who were violently suppressed by British troops and harsh legal penalties. This is not to paint them as entirely innocent citizens who were unjustly dealt with, but to point out that those who were involved in this movement did so at great personal risk.

This is the Luddism of Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang and organizations that use sabotage tactics to protect the environment. The fear of ecological catastrophe is what drives individuals to do such things, though it is a fear many of us share without participating in vandalism. We can all sympathize with wanting what Pynchon calls the “Badass” to show up and save us from the terrors that seem too big and too powerful.

And the third kind are the Thinkers. These are people who have not bought into the idea that technological progress is an inevitable consequence of innocuous origins. They like to think, and while doing so they consider all areas of thie life fair game for thinkin’ about. This seems noble enough, and will gain lip service from most people who claim to be intellectuals. However, if someone spends their thinkin’ time on the advantages and disadvantages of the latest popular gadget, they are simply considered a nuisance. If they actually come down on the side of refusing this gadget, they are often treated with suspicion. And, if they do this consistently, they are labeled a Luddite, which is in this case the expletive of choice for those who condemn by category without considering the rationale behind the choice.

Mr. Berry is one of these Thinkers. Consider this passage, taken from his essay “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine”:

…[T]he question of the desirability of adopting any technological innovation is a question with two possible answers—not one as has been commonly assumed. If one’s motives are money, ease, and haste to arrive at a technologically determined future, then the answer is foregone, and there is, in fact, no question, and no thought. If one’s motive is the love of family, community, country, and God, then one will have to think, and one may have to decide that the proposed innovation is undesirable.

Our motivations may not directly coincide with Mr. Berry’s, or if they do, we may not come to the same conclusions. But we can appreciate the process of evaluation and the mistrust of dogmatism. Nothing is off limits for critical evaluation, and nothing should be.

Those who would brandish the term Luddite as an accusation are, I’m assuming, under the impression that technology is value free and that this somehow makes it wrong to oppose any kind of technology. In other words, technology has no value, but opposing it has a value, and it’s bad. It’s hard to imagine how something without value can draw such vehement valuations, but let me make the observation that there is nothing in my life, nothing that comes into my sphere of existence, that is value free. I am constantly conferring value every time I make a decision. I do this instead of that. I buy this instead of that. I think this instead of that. It is impossible for any technology to be value free because it necessarily requires the exclusion of something else, as all decisions do. We are under a time limit and the clock is ticking.

It might be argued that there is a difference between moral values and values I determine by my personal choices. One might wonder about the value of making such a distinction.

So, is it ok not to be a Luddite? Of course, this question can’t be answered as it is stated. What kind of Luddism are we talking about? Is it ok to be Lazy, or Fearful, or a Thinker? I will not comment on the Lazy or the Fearful. However, I will say that I not only admire the Thinker, but also I wonder at times whether or not we have an obligation to be such a person. I’m not confident enough to say with certainty what is ok and what isn’t ok about many things. I’m not so sure it is ok to be a human being. But I am quite certain that it’s ok to be a Thinker. And I fear the consequences of a 6 billion plus global population, the majority of which might feel it is ok not to be a Thinker.