Friday, March 18, 2011

Return of the Luddites

Last night while surfing I came across a Paris Review article that referenced a Thomas Pynchon article about the Luddites. It triggered the recollection of a Wired magazine issue with large letter emblazoned across the cover, RETURN OF THE LUDDITES.

Now if you asked me what issue that was, I would have guessed 2002. But if you said 2005 I would have believed you because it's just strange how memory works and we so easily lose all sense of proportionality.

Well, I looked it up and discovered the Jon Katz article was published in 1995. Here's the opening.

Is technology a good witch or a bad witch?

In this country, where faith in technology is the closest thing we have to a national religion, and in the new media culture, where belief in technology is a religion, it's a riveting question. Few significant political or cultural entities - major papers, political parties, academic institutions, religious groups - have ever been openly antitechnology. Americans believe, after all, that machines can do anything; they can remove tumors, win wars, fly to the moon. Yet ferocious resistance - and bitter resentment - greets much of what technology produces: Beavis and Butthead, rap music, auto emissions, videogames, breast implants, noise pollution, intrusive hackers, TV tabloids, and sexually explicit newsgroups.

1995. Dawn of the Internet age. And it's the age old question, good witch or bad witch. Same question has been bandied about in the Web 2.0 era of social media.

Here's more from Katz...

The Luddites were fighting for their way of life in the most literal sense. For centuries, they had lived in small villages in ancient valleys, using simple machines that could be operated by individuals or families.

Big mills and factories meant an end to social custom and community, to personal status and individual freedom. Having worked independently on their own farms, they would be forced to use complex and dangerous machines in noisy, smelly factories for long hours, seven days a week, for slave wages. Their harvest and agricultural rituals, practiced for centuries, would perish. Fathers could no longer be with their wives and children. This new kind of labor changed notions of time and introduced concepts like work schedules and hourly wages. It despoiled whole regions, including Sherwood Forest.

What's interesting is the different ways people responded to the cultural shifts taking place. I just finished reading Marx's General, a biography of Friedrich Engels who funded Karl Marx's writing and agitation career through revenues earned by running a mill much like the ones the Luddites assaulted. As an executive at the mill he saw up close and personal the impact of the Industrial Age lifestyle on common people. Dickens wrote about it in Hard Times.

What's apparent is that we've come a long way, baby.

Pynchon's article was written in the mid-eighties when personal computers were beginning to make an appearance. I don't know if he was one of these, but a lot of writers chafed at the notion of having to give up their clackety-click typewriters.

The common denominators: people fear change, resist change, and feel powerless to do anything about it. Except some did do something. They wrote about it, and through their writings some wrought changes themselves.

If you have something to say, say it. Seize the day!


Pedro H. Albuquerque said...

What are luddites made of? Some hints here:

ENNYMAN said...

A very insightful link. Dylan got his share of boos and hisses when he went electric, too.
And actually, your comment shows that you picked up my point by having the rock band photo go with this article. Some thought the Beatles were a deliberate, carefully crafted attempt by Soviet Commies to undermine America from within.