Friday, January 1, 2010

Techno-Savvy Luddite

I think I may be neurotic. There’s a part of me that loves technology. I’m a classic early adopter, rushing out to buy the latest new electronic gadget as soon as it’s available—whether I need it or not. Cell phones have always been one of my weaknesses—though I did wait for the price drop before I bought an iPhone. Internet, directions, email, photos, weather, text messaging, calendar, and stock quotes on a phone that is also an iPod. It’s a great time to be alive!

But there’s another part of me that worries about the extent to which technology is taking over our lives. Take email for example. It’s a remarkable, time-saving communication tool, but increasingly it takes the place of face-to-face contact—like when I email the co-worker in the office next door rather than just getting up and taking a few steps. Taken too far, this pattern can eventually erode and depersonalize our relationships with others. Email lacks the heart and soul of real voices, gestures, seeing and hearing. And what is true of email is doubly true of texting—trebly of Twitter.

I have to pause for a moment here to answer two obvious and easily raised objections. Yes, I wrote this post on my Sony VAIO notebook computer (light years beyond my first computer—a “Trash 80” I bought in 1984) and uploaded it using my wireless router and broadband internet account. And yes, the whole concept of a blog is meaningless apart from the countless technological advances that make the modern web possible. So, I’m not a very good Luddite—inconsistent, selective, and self-indulgent. But my shortcomings don't automatically invalidate the questions I am raising.

And just so you'll know, I am certainly no Anarcho-primitivist. Even in my most naively nostalgic fantasies about eras I never experienced, I have no desire to part with modern creature comforts. Without modern medicine, I probably wouldn’t still be alive. And even if I were, without corrective eyewear, I would be so myopic as to be little more than a helpless burden on my tribe. Besides, no sane person who has ever benefitted from central air conditioning would want to give it up.

It isn’t technology per se that concerns me, but rather our uncritical adoption of technology in all its forms. Guided by the motto “If we can do it, then we must do it,” we seem hell-bent on selling our souls to technology without once looking back—without ever pausing to reflect on the consequences.

The original Luddites were English textile workers in the early nineteenth century. Following the example of their legendary leader, Captain Ludd, they smashed the framing machines that threatened their jobs. They were unable to halt the flood of mechanization in their time, most of which we now take for granted. Today, the “machines” are more pervasive, the flood of digitalization and virtualization is even more relentless, and the stakes are higher than ever before.

What if we are unknowingly losing something vital to our humanity by sitting for hours each day staring at screens and pecking at keys? Willingly giving it away as the price of admission into a fascinating, seductive, endless, but unreal world? If this is even a remote possibility, since we were created to be "human," I think Jesus would give a rat's ass about this.