Luddite Luxuries

Can a computer-hater love an answering machine?

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The recent rash of neo-Luddite manifestos, articles and books, including Clifford Stoll's Silicon Snake Oil and Sven Birkerts' The Gutenberg Elegies has already accomplished the most realistic goal of the anti-technology 'movement': bringing into question the inevitability of technological progress. Earlier this year at a forum sponsored by Utne Reader in New York City, neo-Luddite leader Kirkpatrick Sale, author of Rebels Against the Future and a frequent contributor to The Nation, took a sledgehammer to a computer before a crowd of urban professionals.

But even Sale has to admit that short of retreating into the woods with flint, stone and Birkenstocks, there's no escaping the encroaching presence of technology in our lives. Indeed, in an interview with Sale in New York (July 24, 1995), Bob Ickes points to several examples of Sale's own techno-capitulation asking the author 'why someone who believes that the personal computer and the information superhighway are moral catastrophes -- someone who calls the Brooklyn Bridge a needless technology -- would choose to own a telephone answering machine.' Apparently, the observation didn't go over too well. Other wrong observations include Sale's air conditioner and car, complete with automatic windows.

Perhaps nothing could be more distasteful to a group of confirmed neo-Luddites than having their name whispered in the devil'sear -- the Internet. The editors of Plain, a bi-monthly magazine that promotes Amish and Quaker principles of simple living, were confronted with a curious conundrum: how to stop people on the Internet from discovering their publication. A potential subscriber who heard about the magazine on alt.sustainable.agriculture received an unconsciously ironic response from editor Scott Savage. The Savage message asked PLAIN subscribers with Internet access to post a statement appealing to Internauts not to refer to PLAIN or use it as a topic on any of the interactive data networks. 'We don't expect everyone to agree with our intent, which is to keep the discussion of our approach to living out of the daily diet of information-consuming elites,' read the statement as quoted in Harper's (August 1995). 'We merely ask that our little corner of reality be left alone.'

In a world where people who can't afford computers would gladly relieve Sale of the ones he so sanctimoniously smashes, it's obvious that the privilege of rejecting technology resides only with those who already have access to it. This is a strange position for people who call themselves neo-Luddites to hold to -- especially if you consider that the original Luddites were fighting for their jobs, not for a lost ideal of a world that never was.

Bob Ickes, 'Die, Computer, Die,' NEW YORK (July 24, 1995). Subscriptions: $42/yr. (50 issues) available from Box 54661, Boulder, CO 80322-4661.

Kirkpatrick Sale, 'Techno-Rebels,' THE NATION (June 5, 1994) Subscriptions: $48/yr. (47 issues) available from Box 10763, Des Moines, IA 50340-0763.

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