Tags: Why I hate our freedoms, built environmentalism, hail King Ludd.
So. What was the point of the dystopic little reverie in my last post? Do I hate the idea of history appliances? Do I hate technology? Am I a Luddite?
Answers: No. No. No. And/or yes. I certainly don’t hate technology, and I actually love the idea of history appliances: of smart objects that know their own history, of historians thinking beyond the production of texts and into the physical realm, of media devices that allow ordinary people access to the riches of the past, from the Bayeux Tapestry to “Cowboy George.”
The question of Luddism is a little more complicated. The “self-proclaimed Luddites” Bill describes annoy me too. It’s a self-deprecating label that really isn’t; it reminds me of people who are too pleased to tell you they don’t own a TV. But the original Luddites weren’t people who don’t like Blackberrys or only watch Nova at a friend’s house. They were artisans and laborers threatened with extinction by the automation of the British textile industry. In Making of the English Working Class, E.P. Thompson shows how 19th-century Luddites smashed the knitting frames and steam-powered looms of factory owners and cloth merchants who were using automation to slash wages but spared those owners who observed more traditional customs and practices in setting rates. Real Luddism was never a fight against technology per se. It was a fight against the shift in power caused by a specific implementation of a specific technique. The Luddites’ targets were human choices, not machines.
If the word Luddism has come to represent a free-floating hostility to “technology in general” (a perverse and probably meaningless stance for a member of species homo sapiens), that’s symptomatic of a larger amnesia afflicting our society. We seem determined not to remember that all technology is political and politically constructed. We pontificate about the “natural” progression of technology, ponder the “inevitable” impacts of technological change, wonder if information “wants” to be free. We persist in forgetting what the original Luddites knew in their bones: technology is the sum product of human choice.
We could use more of that kind of Luddism today. Technological change demands our attention and our input. We have to have conversations and make real decisions about the kind of technological environment we want to live in and bequeath to our children, or those decisions will be made for us. And the people most eager to make those decisions do not have our best interests at heart.
When I say we need more Luddism, I don’t mean simply grousing about gadgetry. The pessimistic expectation that new technologies are inevitably going to be pointless, annoying, and overpriced is no more helpful than the uncritical embrace of every shiny new gizmo the megacorps roll out for us. And if my rant the other day came across as a peevish complaint about the number of remote controls on my couch, I didn’t do it right. I tried to seed that post with reminders that design choices are indeed choices, and that ordinary people are not being consulted on the ways these choices affect all of our lives. The inconveniences of inconsiderate design–proliferating gadgetry, feature creep, overzealous DRM–do not seem as serious as the oppression of the British working class in the industrial revolution. But they add up. And the more ubiquitous gadgetry gets, the more imperative humane design becomes.
Bill’s post touches on Heidegger’s categories of present-at-hand and ready-to-hand. Grumpy neo-Luddites complain about objects that are present-at-hand, that impinge upon their consciousness and must be dealt with. Gee-whiz technophiles skip ahead in their imagination to the day when new technologies are ready-to-hand, when everything works right. But between those states is a window, a moment of interpretative flexibility where choices about technology can and must be made. Like Bill says, technology is most dangerous when you stop seeing it. When something becomes pervasive and invisible, that political moment is probably gone.
Do we need a “built environmentalism” to shepherd the built environment just as environmentalists seek to protect the natural world? If “smart appliances” are going to be everywhere in our future, let us pray–better, let us take responsibility for making certain–they really are smart.