On Being a Luddite

Carriage HouseIf you say anything publicly critical of the Internet, there’s a good chance some technobrat on Twitter will call you a Luddite.  The simple irony is that the word Luddite in this case is being misused, which is something the would-be accuser might discover for himself were he to look it up on the Internet.  In this excellent article on Smithsonian’s website, for example, Richard Conniff confirms that we critics of Web utopianism are indeed following in the tradition of the original Luddites, who were highly proficient users of the machines they destroyed but critical of how those machines could be used to ill purpose by powerful interests.  If anything, the Luddite protest in 1811 by English textile-workers has more kinship with the spirit of Occupy Wall Street (coincidentally of 2011) than with technophobia.

Of course, it is in the nature of the English language for word meanings to change with use, so there’s nothing linguistically wrong with calling someone a Luddite who you believe to be anti-technology.  But the revisionist history inherent in this particular semantic shift is relevant because there is a great deal wrong with both the intent and the implications of this over-used and unexamined pejorative.

To scrutinize technologies from a broad perspective, including matters of law and policy, is anything but an endeavor toward an anti-progress agenda. To the contrary, policy sometimes promotes technological advancement to the scorn of one set of interests or constrains it to the frustration of another.  One need look no further than the brewing battle over gun regulation to see this in action right now. A high-capacity magazine is certainly a technological upgrade;  but to some Americans, it is a useless improvement except in the hands of professional soldiers or mass murderers, while to other Americans, access to this technology is a matter of civil liberty.  We see this all the time:  one man’s freedom is another’s industry run amok.  Either way, it’s a safe bet that no matter what policy emerges, neither position will be wholly satisfied.  Welcome to democracy.

A glance at the mundane technologies around us reveals that the advancement and adoption of progress almost always requires a balance among free enterprise, civil liberty, and regulatory policy.  Even something as innocuous as the CF lightbulb has raised libertarian hackles to near incandescence (yes, I went there) over the right to use whatever bulbs they want; but it’s a given that the vacuum filament variety will soon be phased out as a matter of both personal habit and public policy.  When color television was ready for mass consumption, the federal government instituted the standard we know as NTSC, which required the color signal transmit in a manner that owners of black and white TVs could receive it.  This was never the best quality the technology could have delivered — some engineers call it Never Twice Same Color — but it is an example of public policy constraining technology in order to avoid disenfranchising citizens from news and information based solely on their financial means. In case you’re just tuning in, that’s the government protecting free speech and access to it by keeping the technologists in check.

I was thinking about this balancing act while working on an old carriage house that sits on the property where I live.  As far as records show, this house belonged primarily to village doctors beginning in the early 19th century and up to at least the late 1960s, so  the presence of the carriage house is explained by the fact that its early, physician owners made house calls by horse and buggy.

Taking care of historic structures is an exercise in both the practical and the abstract. One must simultaneously consider past, present, and future in a way that is neither simple nor purely academic and sentimental. Fortunately for me, my best friend Craig is a professional conservator who works on historic buildings for the National Park Service; so unfortunately for him, this means I get his help wrangling with my old structures in exchange for beer.

Historic building conservators deal with philosophical questions as much as with the technical means of preservation; and the perennial question seems to be one of value (i.e. why something is preserved in the first place).  “Preserving old buildings for the sake of sentiment alone,” Craig says, “is like advocating technological progress solely for the sake of making something new.”  An apropos simile in this context.  What we preserve of the past implies the question of what we protect from the future. There is nothing inherently anti-progress about this question unless progress must exclusively mean to leap without looking.

Lining the ceiling of the ground floor of the carriage house are a number of ceramic knobs that were used in a wiring system known as Knob & Tube, outdated by the turn of the 20th century but still found in active use in some historic homes, much to the frustration of new buyers. It occurs to me that building code makes a pretty good example of public policy working hand-in-glove with technological advancement. K&T WiringWhile it isn’t a perfect system, the principle applies that soon after a more efficient, safer, better way to do something emerges, it becomes mandated by law. At the same time, we continue to learn by not entirely erasing the systems and structures that tell the stories of the past.

The last time I was personally called a Luddite was in reaction to my recent post about my kids and online piracy.  This is fairly typical of the techno-utopian response to those of us who believe systems like copyright remain something more than outdated ideas waiting to die like K&T wiring.  The more complex irony in this familiar ad hominem is that, just like puzzling the maintenance of a 150-year-old barn, we contemporary “Luddites” are actually taking a much more expansive view of the future than our detractors.  Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that, like our namesakes of 1811, we filmmakers, musicians, photographers, authors, designers, etc. are expert users of the technologies we’re not afraid to criticize.

Workspace of a Technophobe
Workspace of a Technophobe

© 2013, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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