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Sunday, August 19, 2012

So You Want to Be a Luddite?

“God isn’t interested in technology. He knows nothing
of the potential of the microchip or the silicon revolution.”
– Michael Palin & Terry Gilliam, Time Bandits
From the Vault Dept.: Reflections from a dozen years ago, when I teetered on the edge of living some manner of the rebellion limned below. Such a life may still await me, but not before my subscription to Amazon Prime runs out.


ONE BY ONE, the people around you succumb to the lure of computers and soon evangelize, tirelessly, tiresomely, about the thrill – no, the necessity – of the Internet. Isn’t this the way the pod people in Invasion of the Bodysnatchers took over?

You have the unpopular feeling that you can live without a computer. Yet you’ve been warned by those evangelists that you’ll be missing out. On what?

It’s a good news/bad news scenario, but how well the yin-yang of it balances for you depends upon how eagerly you’re prepared to substitute warm, character-building stuff for the quick-fix kick of technology.

Let’s start with communications. Computers begat e-mail, allowing spur-of-the-moment messages to be exchanged as quickly as you can type them. Best viewed as a hybrid of phone call and letter, e-mail (and its absurd cousin, the online chat) reminds us how poorly people write and spell, electronic spell- and grammar-checkers notwithstanding. There’s no question that e-mail is a terrific improvement over faxes, allowing data files (like the story you’re reading) to be transmitted in an editable form. But it’s not going to replace either the phone or the postal service during our lifetime. As a slower correspondent, you have the advantage of revision, avoiding e-mail’s most insidious pitfall: the impulsive reply.

Forget about online romance! Not for you those hours in an America Online chat room, hoping against hope that the 22-year-old sweetheart you’re typing at isn’t a 300-pound Gorgon. There’s a whole new breed of infatuation born of the anonymity computers provide, creating disappointments and destroying marriages.

But what about the serious stuff? Nothing packs the persuasive punch of the threat of a detriment to your children. They won’t be able to research topics for school reports. Worse: they won’t be able to keep up at all in a fully wired school.

It’s difficult to believe in the context of such blandishment, but you may be doing yourself and your kids a favor. Despite the delusions of Trivial Pursuit champs, intelligence isn’t a collection of information – it’s ability to make creative associations among those bits of info. And it thrives on what’s inadvertently collected, like the picture on the facing page of the encyclopedia article you’re reading, a picture that leads you into a realm of information you otherwise wouldn’t have pursued.

The Internet is a great dumping ground of miscellaneous info, and my butt has been saved on many a late-night, deadline-beating writing session when I’ve found an answer not (available in) revealed by my own library. But you’re on your own when it comes to accuracy. Unlike the articles in professional magazines, nothing that hits the Internet needs a scholarly review.

While a rugged nucleus of Internet enthusiasts still believe in the freedom of that realm, they’re fooling themselves. Commercialism has moved in with target-marketing glee, and it will only get worse as Those with Things to Sell buy more space on home pages and search engines. And commercialism invariably taints information.

As for the fate of your computerless kids, the Internet won’t teach them how to build a campfire, bake bread, sing a Stephen Foster song, change the oil or spot Jupiter in the sky. If school isn’t teaching those things, well, there’s something wrong with the school, and it has nothing to do with electronics.

Online banking probably will be one of the two biggest areas of plugged-in growth in the coming year as transactions become easier to track online. Checking accounts and credit card info already are accessible through some banks, and this will mean the end of more and more branch offices. I don’t see many alternatives here. Living without credit cards certainly is healthy, but checks are difficult to do without. If past behavior is any indicator, selected banks will continue to offer old-fashioned checking; they’ll just charge more for it.

Internet-based shopping will spur that other growth area. Last month saw a considerable boom in online holiday gift buying; with credit-card convenience and competitive pricing, this could once and for all (more violent verb: extinguish) put under those little retailers who struggle to survive the Wal-Mart attack. Luddites should be delighted by what also will signal a return to the old rural shopping center: the catalogue. Many online merchants let you order by phone and by mail. Your challenge will be to computerlessly find those merchants.

Being a Luddite these days is a matter of degree. Do you eschew computers but keep the phone? Life in the coming years without a computer means giving up a lot of convenience, but, as is true with any technological change, it’s convenience with a price tag. The greatest cost probably is isolation.

Once upon a time, we gathered and shopped in a “downtown” area that allowed the community to socialize, trade information, even protest when necessary. Within recent decades, we’ve been shifted to the enclosed shopping mall, which is private property – don’t try to protest there. Perhaps, as the Internet takes over, we won’t need shopping as the focus of community gatherings, and we can regain those downtown spaces as places in which to explore a social life once again.

Living without a computer isn’t an altogether wacky choice, and you’ll find reassurance in the following books: Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America, Technopoly by Neil Postman and Jerry Mander’s In the Absence of the Sacred.

Metroland Magazine, Jan. 6, 2000

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