Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Juliet's a bit of a Luddite

When I was a young teenager, I dialed my best friend’s number one day (dialed, get that? On a rotary phone, no less)… and a machine answered.

A machine.

I hung up.

I tried again. Stammered, blushed, and hung up.

Then I got peeved. I declared to any and all that would listen: “Machines shouldn’t answer phones! What’s this world coming to?”

My father (fiddling with his newfangled eight-track tape deck) called me a Luddite. Since I had no idea what he meant – though I knew it was some sort of insult-- I looked the word up in the dictionary (which used to consist of reams of paper bound together, like an old fashioned book.) And then I checked out the encyclopedia (NOT Wiki-anything-- an actual set of books that sat on the small bookshelf in our front hall).

The Luddites were British textile artisans in the nineteenth century who fought against the kinds of mechanized changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution. Some of them went so far as to smash weaving machines, an anti-progress crime considered so threatening it was made a capital crime by the Frame Breaking Act. In recent years, the terms Luddism and Luddite have become synonymous with anyone who opposes the advance of technology due to the cultural and socioeconomic changes that are associated with it. This isn’t the same thing as being phobic: A technophobe is afraid of technology per se, whereas a Luddite fears the changes it wreaks.

Yes, it’s true: I am a Luddite. I’m very thankful for some technological advances –antibiotics spring to mind—but in general, machines make me nervous. Computers annoy me. (For example: I don’t understand why things on the computer need to be upgraded just when a person figures out the last round of updates.) I don’t watch television, can’t figure out the neighbor’s TiVo to save my life, and I still don’t have an Ipod. (I liked LPs and turntables – you could pick up the needle and change things up. And as a bonus, your Barbies could go for a funhouse ride.)

More importantly, it worries me that so much of what we do these days, so much technological innovation, takes us away from one another. Rather than converse, we fixate on machines and computers. Rather than create and invent, we passively watch other people’s ideas of what is entertaining. Rather than question, we accept.

I have a teenage son at home who will argue until he is blue in the face that technology is a good thing, that “progress” is inevitable and positive. And I do hope he’s right. But it doesn’t escape my notice that much of climate change and species extinction and social alienation can be laid at the feet of advancing, blind technology.

On the other hand…I sit here composing at my home computer, blithely enjoying the benefits of technology. And though a part of me thinks that renaissance Europe was just about advanced enough for the likes of me, I LOVE indoor plumbing. And living longer, healthier lives. And email – though there again, I am nostalgic for yellowing stacks of handwritten letters, tied together with old silk ribbons, stained with tears and kisses.

But I did finally learn how to talk to answering machines. So I suppose even this old Luddite can learn new tricks.


Rachael Herron said...

You know, I've always had a soft spot for those Luddites, because warping a loom is SO labor intensive that to see a huge machine just do it and then weave on it must have been so alarming and threatening... And I used to be like you -- I was one of the last kids on the block to break down and get a cell phone. I've only had one for about five years. But now... Oh, I love everything technological. Bring it ON. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm a half-Luddite, half-techie (a Lechie? a technite?) where I enjoy the technology I do have, but more than that makes me nervous. However that new iPad has me ready to convert and convert now!

Juliet Blackwell said...

I like it: a Lechie!

Sophie Littlefield said...

I think it must be "technite" pamela - and what a wonderful term!

I think it's a loss that many household processes have been "improved," an idea that is taking hold in a lot of places. It makes me crazy that no one my age can bake a cake any more, or a loaf of bread from scratch, or sew a proper hem. These are, all my usual blathering notwithstanding, not really "housewife" skills, they are life skills. The more we give up the ability to care for ourselves and our homes, the more distant we become from them (as you suggest J) - we are residents and nothing more.

Of course I'm a hypocrite again; i can't do any car maintenance at all, and that's at least as worthy. said...

I had one of the first cell phones, as big as a bread box and heavier, and one of the first websites (in the nineties) among regular people as opposed to DARPA.

Maybe it's from studying all that physics, where yesterday's theories aren't worth the price of a laser pointer.

Am I missing something because I buy things on line instead of from a friendly old clerk in nun shoes? I don't think so.

Unknown said...

Despite the hubris-ridden, arrogant protestations of software CEOs the world over, they're just tools. I love a gorgeously balanced, well-cared for hammer, the intermitten sprocket in a movie projector, the miracle of the internal combustion engine. But honestly, they are just tools and to worship them for being tools seems whacked out folly.

and we are all searching for the answer to the question -- if customers loathe upgrades, why do CEOs seem to want them every month? Because they are hungry for *new* customers. that's my best guess.

I hope you and my husband and all the other instinctive Luddites hang tough, never change. Who else is going to call foul on a generation that embraces torture porn? That knows so much virtually, but has experienced so little directly? My life would have little color or meaning without the *fabulous* mistakes I made because I didn't know any better!!!! said...

I teach a philosophy of science and technology class at GGU (San Francisco) and find that most of my students rail against technology because they "need" it and feel guilty about it. I say, go Amish or stop whining!

Well, I say that in much more sophisticated lessons!

Juliet Blackwell said...

"Go Amish or Stop Whining"
I think I've got my new bumper sticker ;-) said...

Make up a set and I'll buy one!

Sophie Littlefield said...

Sign me up for one!!

Supriya said...

Great post. I think I'll be taping this part to my computer when I don't feel like writing anymore: "it worries me that so much of what we do these days, so much technological innovation, takes us away from one another. Rather than converse, we fixate on machines and computers. Rather than create and invent, we passively watch other people’s ideas of what is entertaining. Rather than question, we accept."