Luddite Luxuries

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.

Sven Birkerts, THE GUTENBERG ELEGIES (Faber and Faber, $22.95).

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